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Now running full, uncompressed video should place a fair bit of strain on your system, but you will find the majority of it is taken up by the Theater 200 chip, the tuner’s onboard Video Processing Engine (VPE). ATI claims that this is its fastest onboard chip to date and improves upon the 9bit analogue-to-digital converters (ADC) used in its previous VPEs by using dual 12bit ADCs. The result is that, even running full screen television at 1,600 x 1,200 resolution, there are few dropped frames and less than 20 per cent average CPU usage on the Athlon 64 3200+ machine I tested it on. There is some noticeable slowdown when setting the television as desktop wallpaper, but the effect is very cool. Besides which, apart from novelty appeal, I can’t imagine watching your television running behind desktop icons will be your default display choice.
You can also choose to overlay the TV image on your desktop and make it semi-transparent, so that you can still work on applications running behind it. You can set the level of transparency to suit your needs, although you'd need to have a pretty well compartmentalised brain to keep up with the TV programme and work at the same time.
How about the audio? Well, quality will obviously depend largely on the standard of your own sound card and speakers but the TV Wonder does have support for left and right audio inputs which are really all you need, given we are not operating at DVD quality levels.
The player software is also more than adequate for the task in hand. Navigating channels is a simply matter of using the up and down arrows or typing in a channel number and there are all the standard volume controls. Pausing, rewinding or recording can be done by clicking the same icon buttons universal to all remote controls, while a progress bar, much like the one in media player, can be used to click back larger chunks of time. The faithful, old Teletext also makes a welcome showing.
One software feature that I had not seen before, however, was the channel surfing. Like many TV tuner cards this puts up thumbnail images of all the available channels, but click on any one of them and it starts playing with full sound. This is a superb way of quickly checking what’s on and became my channel hopping mode of choice. Of course, should you find anything risqué there is also a parental lock to protect young eyes. On the other hand, you may want to take a photo of your viewing discovery and this can be done by simply clicking the button marked with a camera image at the top of the player software. Images are saved to a separate window where you can choose whether to keep or delete it and what format you would like it to be saved in. All photos are flushed when the software is closed though, so you have to make your decision during that sitting. On top of taking photos, you can also play MP3s, CDs and VCDs.
If you spot something that takes your fancy, a single button press will capture a still image and save it for you.
Now if there is a downside to all of this, it is price. The pre-retail estimate is $99 which works out to around £55 at the current exchange rate. This is by no means extortionate on its own, but there is no remote control included for your money. ATI said it is planning to offer a 50 per cent discount to customers on its separate Remote Wonder 2 control but this would still then carry a price of £20 and the promotion has not yet officially been cleared for the UK market. The Remote Wonder 2 is a nice controller, but I would have liked to have seen some sort of remote thrown in, even a cheap one.
Despite the lack of remote control, this is an excellent external TV tuner. A sentence I can’t remember being able to say before now.
Laptop owners finally have a quality TV tuner and technophobes will be glad to know they never need consider using a screwdriver again. The TV Wonder will probably be the first of many cards to take advantage of the USB 2.0 standard, but it sets a high bar.
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