S3 unveils OmniChrome graphics card

Today S3 is taking the wraps off OmniChrome, an answer to ATI’s All-in-Wonder and NVIDIA’s Personal Cinema. Based on a DeltaChrome S4 Nitro graphics card, OmniChrome adds a TV tuner and video decoder chip to enable video capture and PVR applications. Given DeltaChrome’s native HDTV output support and less-than-stellar gaming performance, the PVR/home theater PC market seems like a natural market for S3 to pursue. However, after spending a few hours with an OmniChrome evaluation sample, I’m afraid it’s far from a natural.

The S3 OmniChrome

On the surface, OmniChrome looks promising. The card sports all the necessary ports and dongles for component or S-Video input and output, cable or antenna TV input, and DVI or VGA output. OmniChrome uses an Innotek TAPE-H701F TV tuner to handle TV signals and a Techwell TW9905 decoder chip for video capture. The video decoder won’t capture in high definition, but it can handle component input. S3 smartly uses an internal audio cable to patch OmniChrome into a system’s sound card, eliminating the need for an external audio cable.

Even with the internal cable, OmniChrome audio needs some work. The card can’t do stereo audio with a cable or antenna input, leaving us with one-channel mono audio for live TV. Considering the competition, that’s unacceptable. A PVR card capable of HDTV video output that’s incapable of displaying live TV with stereo audio is almost laughable. The lack of stereo audio support for live TV also holds OmniChrome back from being compatible with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. S3’s fix for the issue is an upcoming product dubbed OmniGammaChrome, which I can only assume is some sort of fraternity-inspired successor to OmniChrome.

While competent capture and tuner hardware is a must for PVR or home theater PCs, software is extremely important as well. Rather than mimic ATI and NVIDIA, who develop PVR software in-house, S3 bundles OmniChrome with InterVideo’s Home Theater 2 media center software. Home Theater 2 covers DVD playback, live TV and scheduled recording, music and video playback, and even picture slideshows. InterVideo wraps everything up in a nifty 10-foot GUI that’s easily read from the couch, and includes a handy IR remote that makes navigation a joy.

That joy can be short-lived, though. For starters, the Home Theater 2 GUI doesn’t actually show program schedules. Instead, you’re forced to use Titan TV, which displays listings in a browser window that’s definitely not easy to read from the couch. TitanTV only provides US listings, leaving this Canadian out in the, er, cold.

Since neither ATI nor NVIDIA integrate a program guide into their PVR software’s GUI, I can’t complain too much about TitanTV. However, I also experienced a disturbing number of problems just trying to get OmniChrome to cooperate with Home Theater 2. Time shifting caused Home Theater 2 to hang, live TV channel tuning was inconsistent to the point where cold reboots were necessary just to get a picture, and recorded shows wouldn’t play back properly. My channel tuning problems were even evident in VirtualDub, suggesting that InterVideo’s software isn’t completely to blame. Frustrated, I finally gave up.

If S3 wants to be taken seriously in the PVR and home theater market, they have a lot of work to do. A bug-free OmniChrome setup would be a good start, especially since InterVideo’s Home Theater 2 software shows promise. However, even a bug-free OmniChrome implementation will be stuck with mono audio for live TV. In a market already teeming with refined All-in-Wonder and Personal Cinema products, mono takes OmniChrome out of the running before its feet even hit the ground. Given how little impact DeltaChrome had on the North American market, I wouldn’t expect to see too many OmniChromes on U.S. soil, anyway.

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