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PC-TV Home Theater

Keeping Big Brother Out of Your Living Room

Francis Vale

 

Arlington, VA, 5/6/02 -- The following statement was issued today by Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) President and CEO Gary Shapiro in response to a federal court order forcing consumer electronics manufacturer SonicBlue to develop and install new software in consumers' personal video recorders (PVRs) that would collect all information about what shows the users watch, record or send to a select and limited group. SonicBlue would then be forced to provide the information to the studios suing the company for allegedly contributing to copyright infringement:

"George Orwell must be spinning in his grave. Indeed, movie studios would be wise to remember that Big Brother may work as a 'reality-based' television program - but not as a rule of law. The court's order is highly troubling. It forces SonicBlue to violate the trust of its customers and commit an incredible invasion of privacy. By court order, SonicBlue would be forced to spy on consumers and record every 'click' of their remote control, noting how they watch and record television shows. The data collection would include monitoring if the user chooses to skip commercials, watch the same program more than once or delete a program. While the order mandates the data be collected on an 'anonymous' basis, it does require SonicBlue to track individual users. Furthermore, it does not allow for users to 'opt out' of the data collection. We also are concerned with the concept that a court can impose an order forcing consumer electronics manufacturers' to conduct surveillance activities on consumers. If the order stands, it will have a chilling effect on technological innovation and consumers' buying habits. Through lawsuits, proposed legislation, and the power of their influence, the studios' agenda remains clear: to curtail home recording and fair use rights in the name of preserving intellectual property." -- 5/6/02, www.epulse.org


Watching TV versus TV watching you has become the consumer electronics version of celebrity deathmatch wrestling. The market is big, it’s bad, and it’s filled with cheap legal shots to the consumer jugular. In one corner of this tawdry three-ring media circus are the Intellectual Property Neanderthals, AKA the studios, whose idea of convergence extends as far as a PVR or Digital TV with a snoop-enabled interactive hookup. This incredibly intrusive setup will allow the studio moguls to spy on consumer viewing habits and then to sell that data at a premium to people wanting to sell you even more useless stuff, all done under the phony facade of enforcing copyright protection.

In another triangulated corner of this increasingly rowdy ring are the good reason to be paranoid computer geeks who think it’s cool to watch recorded TV shows on a cramped 15" PC monitor or do a Honey-I-just-shrunk-the-big-screen-DVD-to-a-postage-stamp thing. But hey, at least they are keeping the invading studio watchdogs at bay, even if the price the geeks are forced to pay is watching a 4 inch tall Tom Cruise.

Then there are the wanton consumers in the viewing audience who blood lust for personal video recorders like Tivo and SonicBlue’s Replay TV, but see this new Federal Court order that mandates consumer snooping and collectively shudder and howl in market rejection. Any pretense of consumer privacy is being greedily tossed out of the post-Enron ring right into the cheap seats.

So, what do you do if you have a broadband connection in the home, a big screen TV or projector, and an extra PC lying about? And suppose you want to make all this stuff work together as a PVR/home theater rig without giving up your personal identity info to some electronic program guide huckster?

If that situation describes you then you must read this big screen PC-TV home theater how-to. And how not to freely fork over your personal life to the smarmy studio suits; or at least not until something like the foul "Fritz" Hollings Bill or something like it should successfully pass in the U.S. Congress. This type of proposed copy protection legislation, also being pushed by the big studios, would eventually do to your new PC and PVR software exactly what was done to SonicBlue: Castrate it, and your civil liberties.

[Note: In the beginning of June 2002, U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper overturned a Magistrate Judge's previous ruling in which SonicBlue Inc. was ordered to collect data on consumers' viewing habits and subsequently violate its own privacy policy. But who is to say that this is the end of it, especially given the tenacity of the studios?]

Meanwhile, let’s roll….

THE HARDWARE

ATI All-In-Wonder Radeon 7500

At center stage in this PC-TV battle of the consumer vs. studio titans is ATI’s series of Radeon All in Wonder cards, two versions of which were reviewed here, the All-In-Wonder Radeon 8500DV and the All-In-Wonder Radeon 7500 (AIW-7500). The latter uses the less 3-D powerful Radeon 7500 chip set with a 260 MHz clock rate, has 64 MB of DDR memory and an analog stereo TV tuner. The AIW-7500 has a street price of about $160-$170.

In various published 3-D benchmarks (e.g., MadOnion 3DMark2001), the AIW-7500 blows well past the original, and slower, Radeon graphics-only card, and at 32-bit, 1280 x 1024 resolution the AIW-7500 is about 25% faster than the GeForce2 Pro. On a 1.4 GHz P4 rig or a thereabouts AMD setup, you can expect a 3DMark2001 of roughly 3850-4200 (your 3-D mark mileage will vary depending on system CPU). All of which is to say that while the AIW-7500's 3-D graphics performance is quite acceptable, it is nowhere near current state of the art (in May 2002) 3-D graphics boards. E.g., the muy expensivo 128 MB GeForce4 TI 4600, which will benchmark up to two and one half times faster overall than the AIW-7500. But you aren’t buying the AIW-7500 for getting a zillion fps while Quaking down the house; you are buying it to put together a PC-TV home theater rig.

The AIW-7500 has a separate breakout box that attaches to the ATI card via a proprietary interface. On the box are four external source inputs (from a camcorder, VCR, etc.) for S-Video, Composite Video, L Audio, and R Audio. A separate cable harness is used instead of a box that connects the AIW-7500 video output to external devices via Composite Video and S-Video. It also has audio-in connectors that link the audio from the AIW-7500 to your PC sound card. A S/PDIF connector is also part of the AIW-7500 wiring harness.

ATI All-In-Wonder Radeon 8500DV

In performance contrast, the ATI All-In-Wonder Radeon 8500DV uses the latest Radeon graphics chip set, and unlike the AIW-7500 gets a digital stereo TV tuner. The regular Radeon 8500 graphics card runs at a 275 MHz core while the AIW-8500DV runs on a 230 MHz core. Further unlike the AIW-7500, the AIW-8500DV has a Firewire (IEEE1394) port directly on the card. The AIW-8500DV has street prices that range from $237 to $339, so shop around for the best deal.

As for graphics performance, the AIW-8500DV came in about 12% slower than the ATI 8500 64MB card I also had on hand. The best 3DMark2001 I could coax out of an untweaked AIW-8500DV was 6625, while I could get 7525 with the regular Radeon 8500, with various ATI driver revs making the biggest benchmark difference. (By the way, tests done on an AMD 1.3 GHz box consistently produced better 3-D benchmarks than a 1.4 GHz Intel P4 system). Based on other published 3DMark2001 numbers on similar systems, the AIW-8500DV compares quite favorably to Nvidia's GeForce3 Ti 200 card.

Both the Radeon 8500 and AIW-8500DV cards make game graphics look really good, probably superior to most other competing cards. The ATI TruForm technology renders more lifelike characters and landscapes and facial expressions are smoother and more natural. TruForm requires that the game support this ATI feature, e.g., Return to Castle Wolfenstein. Antialiasing on the Radeon 8500 offers user-defined graphics optimization modes for performance and quality; each of which can be set to two to six sample modes. Fortunately, you take only a nominal performance hit with two-sample antialiasing. But because the Radeon 8500 uses supersampling antialiasing, higher-quality modes with four or more samples will exact a major performance hit and effectively limits the utility of 4+ samples in most games. Still, at two samples the Radeon 8500 image quality kicks ass--and probably Nvidia’s well-polished image butt as well.

Like the AIW-7500, the AIW-8500DV has a proprietary ATI I/O jack for connection to an external I/O unit. One side of this small, poorly labeled, purple plastic I/O brick contains input jacks, with output jacks on the opposite side of the brick.

Input jacks:

  • Right/Left Channel Input (Audio)
  • Composite Video (RCA) Input
  • S-VIDEO Input
  • Firewire DV (IEEE-1394) Input (One on the brick, one on the card, total of two)

Output jacks:

  • Right/Left Channel Out
  • Composite Video (RCA) Out
  • S-VIDEO Out
  • S/PDIF Out

 

There is also hardware support for component video output via a DVI to YPrPb dongle.

Between the external brick's I/O flexibility, the ATI-supplied extra hookup cabling and the AIW-8500DV’s broad array of A/V functionality, almost any editing task from external sources like a VCR or camcorder can be done simply and powerfully on your PC.

Making the Connection

Both the AIW-7500 and AIW-8500DV cards have a coax connector for hooking up to cable or satellite TV (NTSC and European PAN). The stereo TV tuners can handle 125 channels. Radeon cards are also capable of decoding all of the HDTV formats with reduced CPU utilization and of directly driving both analog and digital high definition displays. The Radeon achieves its decode capability through motion compensation and iDCT and without the need for any external hardware. When a Radeon card is used with the appropriate DTV tuner and DTV demodulator software, the user will be able to view HDTV on their monitor or DTV.

Both ATI cards will record video data from their TV tuners in either MPEG-1 or 2 formats. The two Radeon DV cards also support the DV and WMF formats (two formats that Nvidia currently does not support). For video editing, both Radeon packages include Ulead Studio's Video Studio 5 Video Editing software. This suite is easy to use and provides the basic tools for most digital video editing tasks. You can capture still images and digital video at up to 720x480 30 frames-per-second and usually with no perceived loss of quality.

As for computer monitor outputs, both of these ATI cards offer a DVI digital signal connector, and the two respective Radeon product sets include DVI to VGA connectors. Both cards also feature ATI’s "HydraVision" dual-display capabilities. HydraVision allows you to connect a DVI digital flat panel, a VGA monitor, both, or two VGA monitors. With HydraVision, you can stretch out your PC desktop across two monitors. But as the card only has one VGA/DVI output, the second monitor must necessarily be hooked up via either S-video or composite video. Essentially, that means the second monitor will most probably be a TV set, which is limited to 800x600 resolution by HydraVision. Moreover, video overlays are limited to one monitor at a time. None of these limitations or the full capabilities of HydraVision are adequately explained in the supplied ATI docs. It should be noted though that without HydraVision employed you can drive an NTSC TV set up to 1024x768, although you had better have 20/10 vision or an eyesight death wish to make out print on the desktop screen from more than eight feet away. I used 800x600 on my 34" Mitsubishi TV set with consistently good readability results.

DVD

What is a home theater without DVD? Both Radeon cards do DVD playback with AC-3 Digital Audio output to enable Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. However, the RADEON DV products do not do AC-3 decoding, but the cards will drive any home theater AC-3 decoder. I got excellent results with my Sunfire Theater Grand Processor II using the S/PDIF connectors on the Radeon DV cards.

ATI’s VIDEO IMMERSION™ technology allows for adaptive de-interlacing for improving motion video and text. By performing hardware motion compensation and iDCT, Video Immersion saves on CPU overhead and is also supposed to increase DVD playback quality. ATI’s Adaptive De-Interlacing feature allows the Radeon 7500/8500 to decide on a per-pixel basis whether to use bob or weave de-interlacing.

The Radeon Remote

Both the AIW-7500 and AIW-8500DV come standard with a radio frequency remote control. The slick looking unit is feature rich and simple to use. The remote has long range (up to 40 feet) because it uses RF and not IR to communicate with a small receiver unit that plugs into a PC’s USB port. RF also means you can dispense with IR line of sight issues. The remote can control a wide variety of multimedia functions and even the PC desktop. Users can control the mouse pointer via the onboard D-pad and has clearly labeled buttons to do right-and-left clicks. ATI thoughtfully ships the remote with batteries.

Overall, the feature set of the Radeon DV series, especially the AIW-8500DV, clearly trounce any other competitive offerings, and in particular, the Nvidia line of Personal Theater cards. (A Radeon DV vs. Nvidia Personal Theater feature comparo can be found at http://www.ati.com/products/pc/aiwradeonAIW-8500DV/comparison.html)

Installation, The Storm and The Fury

Installation of the Radeon AIW-8500DV was a very different story, unfortunately. When I installed the AIW-8500DV into an IBM IntelliStation M Pro with Windows XP Professional the process quickly degenerated into hours of teeth gnashing frustration. This IBM system has two SCSI hard drives that run off a SCSI controller from Adaptec. The system uses an Intel D850GB motherboard and had the latest BIOS updates. (The IBM IntelliStation is also very quiet in operation, a major plus for a PC-TV home theater.)

This IBM system just would not boot with the Radeon AIW-8500DV installed. I tried everything I could think of, but no joy. I wasted almost half a day trying to figure out what the hell was going on. I subsequently found this Adaptec advisory on the Net:

Intel D850GB and an ATI ALL-IN-WONDER RADEON AIW-8500DV prevent booting with SCSI

    • When you install a SCSI card into an Intel D850GB motherboard that has a Radeon board installed, the system might not boot to the OS.

More searching on the Net discovered other users who had also encountered hardware incompatibility problems when trying to install the AIW-8500DV card. Likewise, their systems would not boot. The culprit, it turns out, is the IEEE-1394 controller on-board the ATI Radeon AIW-8500DV card. A small dipswitch on the AIW-8500DV enables or disables the 1394 controller. To get the AIW-8500DV going in the IBM rig I had to disable the 1394 port, which meant, of course, this nifty feature was no longer available. It is noted in the fine print on the ATI AIW-8500DV product spec web page that, "The IEEE 1394/DV port functionality of this product requires computer and motherboard BIOS support for a PCI bus bridge chip." So, what is the likelihood of almost any user having that kind of detailed system information? Duh.

Technical information and advice on this 1394 subject can be found at the ATI web site, at this URL: http://www.ati.com/support/connectors/aiwradeonAIW-8500DV/connectorsaiwradeonAIW-8500DVfirewiredisable.html

A Big Upset

Another major surprise was in store when I later installed the AIW-7500 card. But my astonishment was not in the IBM IntelliStation installation, which, unlike the AIW-8500DV, went quite smoothly. The shock was in how much better the AIW-7500 video output was on my big screen Mitsubishi analog TV. I fully expected the AIW-8500DV and its extra smart digital TV tuner would make chump change of its cheaper AIW-7500 sibling with its analog tuner. Not so! The AIW-8500DV added a distinctive ‘ringing’ or noise to the TV set’s picture while the AIW-7500 video images displayed on the Mitsubishi were smooth as silk. The AIW-8500DV TV output was not bad mind you; in fact, it was quite acceptable. But in a straight up AIW-7500/AIW-8500DV TV comparo, it was no contest.

In each card/TV setup I used the available S-Video connection (via Nordost S-Video cables, which are clearly worth the extra loot, www.nordost.com). This AIW-8500DV picture criticism only applies to analog TV set viewing, but the practical reality is most everyone out there in TV land has yet to install a DTV or large screen monitor in their living room. Between the IEEE 1394 problems and the obviously superior TV set picture, plus its lower price, the AIW-7500 therefore scores a big upset win over the AIW-8500DV for PC-TV home theater installations.

THE SOFTWARE

ATI Multimedia Center

Both the AIW-7500 and AIW-8500DV packages come with a complete A/V suite of ATI software:

  • ATI DVD Player - DVD playback
  • ATI Video CD Player - Video CD playback
  • ATI CD Audio Player - Audio CD playback
  • ATI TV Player - Television Viewing, Still Capture and Motion Video Capture
  • ATI File Player - AVI, MPEG-1, and MPEG-2 playback

In addition, the ATI software package features a no monthly cost Internet subscription to an EPG, Gemstar’s GUIDE Plus, Just click on a Gemstar TV program listing and the Radeon card is all set to time shift a recording. The Program Guide can also be searched by category, actor and date. The ATI cards also support Hot Words that does real-time notification when selected words are detected in programming. In addition, you can zoom in on the action on-screen and choose your own close-ups and also pan around. It’s a very comprehensive package. Apart from time-shifted recordings ATI also touts its Tivo-style TV-On-Demand feature that is supposed to let you pause live TV or record live broadcasts and watch them after you come back with your beer, as well as get instant replays of bungled plays. The various features of the ATI software suite are quite comprehensive and deserve an hour or so of user manual reading to get the most out of them.

Video On Demand, Not Today

Unfortunately, the TV pause and play features of the ATI software (Video On Demand) are brain dead. Half the time, the TV picture would go completely out of whack when viewing was resumed, rendering a scrambled picture of Easter egg colors. And when it worked OK, the resumed video was of perceptibly lower image quality than the live TV feed, including some minor motion stuttering. This important part of the ATI software package is definitely not sorted out yet and needs a major upgrade.

Record Without Being Watched

Time shifted and while you watch recording worked well, however, with quite good picture playback quality–and better yet, with no studio snooping over your shoulder. Video playback quality is obviously dependent on which level of compression you use. Most of the time I just maxed out the ATI Digital VCR settings by using the DVD quality mode with pushed to the limit custom settings. Disc space is abundant and cheap, amigo, so why suffer and squint with lowest quality encoding?

MPEG-1 recording is supported by ATI but playback is done via the Microsoft MPEG-1 decoder. In contrast, MPEG-2 decoding is done via the Radeon chip that according to ATI provides a higher resolution picture. It also takes a load off the system CPU. (ATI MPEG-2 encoding is still all done in software, however.) DVD playback, which makes use of the Radeon chip, was quite good on the TV set, although not as good as a standalone, high quality DVD player.

Finally, a quick switch back and forth between a straight in cable box signal and the TV out signal from either Radeon card using the ATI TV Player software produced a mixed score. In some cases, the live straight-in cable signal was better; in others the live from Radeon PC-TV picture was better.

If you could live without TV show pause and play, then you would live quite happily with the Radeon AIW-7500 card and its ATI bundled software as the centerpiece of a PC-TV home theater rig and get half (the time shifting half) of what a Tivo system has to offer. However, with a PC-TV you also get much, much more than a Tivo or Replay TV box because of all the video editing and other features supported by the Radeon DV series, plus the innate flexibility of having a computer as the host of your home entertainment system. E.g., games (some look surprisingly good on a TV), MP3 recording and playback, and cruising the Net, which with a broadband PC-TV hookup and 300 KB/s video streams will get you 50%-65% of big screen TV broadcast quality.

Net Utopia or Disaster

In fact, it becomes quite clear while using a broadband PC-TV that if 600+ KB/s video streams become widely available on the Net, and ditto broadband availability in the home, TV broadcasters of all stripes are basically screwed. Say what you will about convergence and the Net; the fact is that even with all the dot com busts, broadband Net TV entertainment could clearly be the path to the media future. The big questions are if the industry-hammerlocked broadband spigot will finally open, and/or if the studios ultimately succeed in doing a complete media lock down of the Internet. So maybe this incredible Net TV vision of the future is ultimately all wrong, which really sucks.

Only the Best Will Do

But if you want the best PC-TV home theater in town, you are going to have to spend a few more bucks for extra software to replace the ATI-supplied goodies. As part of this review, I had a look at CyberLink’s PowerVCR II 3.0 (www.gocyberlink.com), PVR software that works with most TV tuner cards. Unfortunately, the Radeon 7500/AIW-8500DV cards are not among of them when it comes to TV recording and replay. I was told by Cyberlink that the ATI Multimedia Center apps make use of the Radeon VideoPort overlay feature (via ATI’s VP surface allocator filter), which CyberLink can't use. CyberLink said, "They seem to want to protect their own App (MultiMedia Center), or some other considerations, because their old combo products have no such problem… That's why we end up with poorer performance on replay…."

CyberLink supplied me with a beta build of PowerVCR II that tried to address these Radeon compatibility issues. TV recording/playback with the beta PowerVCR II software was superior in comparison with its Radeon counterpart. However, when recording and watching a TV program at the same time with PowerVCR II, the TV picture stuttered. This stuttering while viewing/recording did not occur with the Radeon software. Also, the quality of the live TV out picture via the Radeon DV cards was not as good with PowerVCR II. The ATI TV Player was better in all live viewing respects. And sadly, like the ATI TV Player, the delayed video on demand feature in PowerVCR II was basically unusable. Moreover, you could not use the CyberEPG Web services (CyberLink's version of an Internet EPG) to program time shifted programs with this beta version of PowerVCR II. But if CyberLink finally sorts these Radeon kinks out, PowerVCR II could emerge as a strong contender to replace the ATI TV Player.

PowerDVD XP

I also reviewed CyberLink’s PowerDVD XP 4.0 player and here it was no contest. PowerDVD XP totally trounced the ATI DVD Player. The DVD picture was exceptional in all respects on a big screen TV; it’s right up there with some of the best standalone DVD players around. This exceptional image quality is most obvious when using PowerDVD XP with a large screen projector hung off a PC, a setup I also used with terrific results.

What was even more remarkable about this Oscar winning DVD performance was that PowerDVD XP was not able to use the Radeon AIW-8500DV’s special chip features for enhanced DVD playback. It was all done via software and the PC’s CPU. If I checked off "Enable Hardware Acceleration" in the PowerDVD XP 4.0 configuration panel the Radeon AIW-8500DV-driven picture would disappear, leaving only the audio tracks. However, PowerDVD XP 4.0/Radeon hardware acceleration did work, with a noticeable improvement in picture quality, on both the regular ATI 64 MB graphics card and the Radeon AIW-7500 card. My sense is that this AIW-8500DV/PowerDVD graphics acceleration issue is a driver problem of some sort. As drivers revs are continually changing (ATI is especially driver prolific), my advice is to first try the Radeon graphics acceleration enable feature in PowerDVD XP 4.0 using the latest drivers/patches, and if that doesn't work, uncheck that particular Power DVD configuration box.

PowerDVD XP audio performance presented no such quirks or problems, and was exemplary. Power DVD XP supports a very comprehensive list, including Dolby Digital AC-3, DTS Digital Surround (not supported by ATI DVD software), SRS TruSurround XT, Dolby Pro Logic II, and several other formats.

I also discovered that recording with the ATI VCR feature and playing back the TV show back via PowerDVD XP produced a very good-looking picture. I preferred this video playback setup to the ATI File Player. You can download a trial copy of PowerDVD XP 4.0 off c/net and elsewhere. The e-software price of PowerDVD XP is typically $49.95 and it’s worth every penny.

Showshifter

Finally, we come to Showshifter from Home Media Networks (www.showshifter.com), which is out of the United Kingdom. This is a dark horse PVR contender from across the pond that seeks to dethrone not only the ATI TV player, but also all other PC PVR software out there. As with the ATI multimedia center, with Showshifter you can watch, pause and record TV, plus play video files, DVDs, MP3s, WMA, RealAudio files, etc. However, Showshifter does not include its own DVD player and relies on 3rd party products to do the movie work. DVD players known to work with Showshifter include Ravisent’s Cinemaster 99 (ATI DVD, Matrox, Elsa etc.), InterVideo WinDVD 2.2 or later, and PowerDVD 3.0. Showshifter does not work with PowerDVD XP 4.0, though.

Showshifter also works with 3rd party IR remotes like PC-Commander from Concept-Devices and IRMan from Evation. IR training software is part of the Showshifter package, which is a plus. But as a minus, being from a UK-based developer, the current Showshifter 1.50 release that I reviewed does not work with any North American EPG’s for programming time shifted TV programs. However, the upcoming 1.7 release of Showshifter will provide TitanTV EPG integration for North America. 1.7 will also have several other new features, among them are a jukebox module, multi-segment AVI support with audio synchronization correction to allow full DIVX support, and enhanced PVR status information.

Showshifter also sports a nifty conversion and recompression utility that will recompress disc gobbling video files in the background using either Windows Media audio and video, MPEG4 and DivX, or any other Windows compatible VCM codec. You can also transcode file formats - AVI, ASF/WMV- and automatically queue prerecorded video for recompression. Showshifter works with a variety of Matrox, Hauppauge, and ATI video capture cards. Thankfully, it also works extremely well with the ATI 7500/AIW-8500DV cards. Somehow, Showshifter has successfully solved the Radeon problems that so plagued CyberLink's PowerVCR II 3.0 product.

The Right User Experience

The Showshifter user experience is quite different from both the ATI and PowerVCR II software. It is obvious that Showshifter was designed from the outset to be viewed and used on a TV set located six or more feet from you, and not, like other software packages, on a monitor a foot or two away from your nose. By default, the Showshifter GUI fills the whole screen, although it can be reduced in size to show the desktop. Its navigation menus are clear, large, legible, and colorful and its interface is optimal at 800x600 resolution on a TV.

Showshifter almost seems simplistic at first glance, but then you quickly realize the system has great power and flexibility. Its many features are just very cleverly arranged for simple navigation. For consumer PC-TV home theater use, the Showshifter interface clearly outdistances the rest of the software PVR pack. Even your technophobic grandmother would love it.

Clearly Superior

More importantly, the PVR performance of Showshifter is outstanding and in all respects totally outclasses the ATI TV player and PowerVCR II 3.0. When switching back and forth between a straight in cable box signal and the TV out signal from either the AIW-7500/AIW-8500DV, live TV picture clarity was consistently better than the ATI TV Player, which was already quite good. Playback of time-shifted programs on Showshifter was exemplary and moving image quality was as good as with the ATI VCR/PowerDVD XP record/playback combo.

I mostly used "High Video Quality" (the best setting) for all TV show recording with Showshifter, and one hour of recording at this setting typically took up about 8.5 GB. In other PVR products, like Replay TV, the maximum high quality setting will cost you about 3 GB per each recoded hour. The medium level quality setting on Showshifter consumed about 3 GB to 3.5GB per hour of disc space and its image quality was still very good with regular TV fare. But for live action sports, as with all other PVRs, you may want to opt for maximum high quality settings. The more disc space parsimonious will probably want to try lower quality levels with Showshifter, for example, the 2 MB/sec .wmv format that consumes only about 1 GB per hour of recording time and offers quite acceptable playback. But still, why bother unless you are going away for a month and have ton of soaps you desperately follow.

According to Home Media Networks, Showshifter records in its own 'ssf' format for better efficiency. But you can use other codecs for compression, like MPEG4. Showshifter comes with PicVideo's MJPEG codec that it uses as the default compressor. When you buy ($49.95 in the US) your downloaded trial copy and register Showshifter you can play ssf files in other software such as Windows Media Player. As a registered user you can also convert and recompress ssf files into .wmv (Windows Media Video) and .avi files. If your capture card is using WDM drivers, you can also record straight to avi or asf format.

Stop the Show

But the real showstopper was Showshifter’s pause and play video performance. It was stellar. After pausing and then resuming viewing with Showshifter, I was hard pressed to discern any noticeable difference between the live cable feed and the video on demand delayed playback. If Tivo and Replay TV aren’t looking over their shoulders at Showshifter, they soon will be. All that’s currently missing to make Showshifter totally competitive with these other standalone PVRs is the ability to automatically kill commercials on playback, a feature already found in the SonicBlue ReplayTV 4000 product (which, BTW, also brought down the legal wrath of the broadcasters, et al).

The only gotcha encountered during my prolonged use of Showshifter was that on three separate occasions timed video recordings did not work properly. In one case, the last 15 minutes of an hour long show was lost due to a file corruption problem, or so Showshifter reported it. On two other occasions, a time shifted show was not recorded, even though it appeared on the PC-TV via Showshifter at the right time (you can record and view at the same time). Other than that, Showshifter has been in daily use for more than a month with excellent performance. In sum, like PowerDVD XP 4.0, the Showshifter PVR software is a must have for your Radeon PC-TV home theater.

Windows XP, Pro and Con

This Radeon DV PC-TV home theater rig was put together under Windows XP Professional. And if you are thinking about saving a few bucks by buying the $99 Windows XP Home Edition instead of the $199 XP Professional, don’t. Pay the extra money and go with XP Professional. The primary reason being that XP Home Edition is a hacked down version offering miserable networking capabilities in comparison to XP Professional. If you want to network the PCs in your home so you can easily share A/V files, XP Pro is the only way to go.

And if you are using Windows 98 or less, absolutely do not pass go, do not collect $200, and upgrade immediately to Win XP Pro. The system stability and multimedia performance of Win XP are leagues better than Win 9.x. But comparing anything to Win 9.x is not exactly much of an OS comparison, because in comparison to Linux and MacOS, both Unix-based systems, Win XP is still a bloatware kludge.

Like all past Microsoft operating systems, Win XP is very much a Redmond work in progress. There seem to be almost daily XP OS patches and security fixes, some of which actually seem to conflict with one another. As for stability, that’s a relative term. If you mean that XP does not crash and will miraculously recover despite its almost constant messages saying "The system just encountered a serious error, would you like to report this problem to Microsoft?" then I suppose that can be construed as real progress by Win 9.x users. But for MacOS X and Linux users, myself being one of them, who enjoy almost unfettered system stability, these nearly constant XP shenanigans are downright laughable. Come the day that ATI or whomever comes up with a comparable 7500/AIW-8500DV card for Linux or MacOS X, plus Linux or MacOS X software as good as Windows PowerDVD XP and Showshifter, those prescient vendors will fund a huge and hungry market, with me being first among them.

Disc Drives for PC-TV Home Theater

Disc space is cheap and abundant, and for PC-TV PVR/home theater, you can never have too much. I used two external disc drive peripherals from Maxtor in this review. One was the 3000LE, an external 40GB drive that uses the new 480 Mbit/sec USB 2.0 bus, and the other drive unit was the 3000DV with 60GB and an IEEE 1394 bus. Both Maxtor units operated flawlessly and as important, very quietly. I was curious to see what, if any, performance differences there would be between the 1394 Maxtor drive and the newer USB 2.0 drive for time-shifted video playback. So far as I could discern, there were none. I was also keen to see if the highly touted A/V SCSI advantages would show up between the IBM system’s internal SCSI hard drives and either of these two types of external hard drives from Maxtor. Sorry, SCSI lovers, there was no video playback difference between the SCSI drives, the 1394 drive, and the USB 2.0 drive. So the moral of the tale is to forget about the respective technology hype and shop for the best disc drive deals.

Audio, The Stereo Link Connection

You have come this far to get the video right in your new PC-TV home theater, so now is no time to skimp on a few extra bucks to get high quality audio to go along with that great looking TV picture. So immediately trot on down to www.stereo-link.com and buy their $149 ($159 with "deluxe" cabinet) external USB DAC. The innards of a PC are electrical hell for almost any component, but are especially so for an audio card. This electrical mayhem shows up as audible noise and distortion during CD, DVD, MP3 or any other kind of audio playback. Removing the audio processing functions from inside a PC is therefore a very good idea for a high quality PC-TV rig, and Stereo Link’s SL1200 product fills the bill beautifully.

The Model 1200 is a USB Digital to Analog Converter box that makes music sing, in fact any PC audio sounds good with this wonderful device. Plug and play via a USB (1.1) port is simple and easy and the SL1200 works with any USB-supported version of MS Windows (Windows 98/ME/2000/XP), as well as with Macs (MacOS 9.0.4 and OS X) and Linux (kernel 2.4.x or higher with USB Audio).

A high-end audio system is at the core of my PC-TV theater (German made MBL 101D speakers, Nordost Nirvana wires, Sunfire electronics, etc.) and I am therefore more than a little picky about what I hear coming out of these big, bad German "Radialstrahler" (360 degree) drivers. But the 20 bit DAC in the SL 1200 and its 5 to 55 kHz sampling made a PC-source believer out of me. Name it; bass, treble, air, soundstage; all of it was done better through the SL1200 than via the PC’s sound card.

The SL1200 is not going to replace a Mark Levinson DAC, but from a high-end audio perspective, $149 doesn’t even buy you a feather duster to clean your big rig. So, this very sizeable improvement in PC sound quality for your home entertainment system ranks as a steal. For regular (as in normal) consumers, the SL1200's modest dollar outlay is more than made up for by the dramatic improvement in PC audio quality, even through sub-$200 speaker systems or via headphones (the SL1200 has a front panel miniplug headphone jack).

The Bottom Line

So, what’s the total going price these days for privacy, flexibility, and power? A SonicBlue ReplayTV RTV 4040, with 40 GB drive and its new legally mandated user snooping software retails for $699. And if you buy a less expensive Tivo, you get socked anyway with a monthly service fee. On the other hand, a complete no-snoop, no fee PVR/PC-TV home theater rig will only cost you several hundred dollars more than an entry level ReplayTV 4040 unit. All you need is an All-In-Wonder Radeon 7500 card, PowerDVD XP 4.0 and Showshifter software, SL1200 USB DAC, and a 1.6 GHz Intel P4 or its AMD PC counterpart that currently cost about $700-$800 and prices are still falling. Internal 80 GB hard drives are available for about $120 and prices keep dropping while capacity keeps going up. For a grand total of $1100 to $1200 or so you get to keep big brother out of your living room a little while longer, plus you get an amazingly good, powerful, feature rich PC-TV home theater system. Sounds like a bargain to me.

May 2002

Copyright 2002 Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

21st, The VXM Network, http://www.vxm.com

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