Sapphire ATi Radeon 9800 Pro All-in-Wonder Review

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  • Review Price: £368.00

ATi’s All-in-Wonder range of cards is almost legendary in the PC graphics arena, combining cutting-edge 3D performance with killer multimedia features.


The downside is that the All-in-Wonder cards tend to be one of the most expensive graphics solutions you could buy. However the fact that this feature packed card can be picked up for around the same price as a GeForceFX 5900 Ultra, is a clear sign that ATi is doing something right.


As its name suggests the card is based on an ATi Radeon 9800 Pro – currently one of the fastest 3D performers around. With its speed and DirectX 9 support it’s a card that will get the most out of the latest games such as Half-Life 2. The Sapphire is equipped with 128MB of DDR RAM running at 340MHz while the Visual Processing Unit operates at 380 MHz. There’s no 256Mb version but as the extra memory has a negligible impact on performance this is no great loss and would only serve to make the card more expensive. However with no heatsinks on the RAM chips, and a heatsink that’s been cut off in the corner to accommodate a heat generating TV Tuner, the Sapphire All-in-Wonder isn’t a great candidate for overclocking.


”””Performance”””


That said there’s little incentive to push the hardware above its rated limits when it offers so much as standard. The score of 5607 in 3DMark03 on our standard test-bed PC shows that the Radeon 9800 Pro powered All-in-Wonder is in a different league to the MSi Personal Cinema card with its GeForceFX 5200 chip, which only manages 1488. The Flyby Unreal Tournament 2003 test, at a resolution of 1,280 x 1,024 with 4x anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering enabled is a breeze for the Sapphire, with the card managing to average over 100 frames a second.


However, the downside of high performance cards is that they require significant cooling. This means a fan, which is something of a drawback for a card that is geared towards use in a Home Theatre PC. These systems by their nature are likely to be used in a noise sensitive location such as a lounge. Some might also miss the FireWire port from the earlier All-in-Wonder 8500DV. However considering how cheap add-in FireWire cards are now and the increasing presence of FireWire ports on motherboards, it’s a reasonable omission. Disappointingly the power connector, necessary to run all 9800 Pro cards, returns to the flimsy floppy style connector used with the 9700 Pro, a step back from the sturdy molex connector used on the standard Radeon 9800 Pro.


”””Features and Multimedia capabilities”””


With all its features the box contains a wealth of cables to hook the card up. Connecting the All-in-Wonder can be complex so first-timers should feel no shame when using the manual. At least the installation routine has been improved and shows how the audio loop through connector should be hooked up in order to get sound.


As there’s not enough space on the back plate for all the various connections, a break-out box is supplied. This contains composite and S-Video, plus stereo inputs and outputs. The lack of space means that there is only a DVI-I output connector and no analogue D-SUB. This means that multiple monitor support is limited to one DVI or CRT display and a device that uses S-Video or composite such as a TV or plasma screen.


The star of the show though is the superb remote control, which makes watching and recording TV on your PC from your armchair more of a pleasure than ever. The Multimedia Centre software, now up to version 8.6, offers a slick new interface called Eazylook. In conjunction with the remote this makes navigating channels and files from a distance easy. A neat feature is that you can overlay a library of your recordings as you’re watching TV, and select one to play.


The TV application not only enables you to watch TV but also to record, choosing between MPEG2, MPEG1, a proprietary ATi codec, or Windows Media Video. MPEG2 quality is excellent thanks to the hardware assisted encoding that the All-in-Wonder cards have offered for some time. Features such as Videosoap and Fullstream designed to remove noise and artefacts from images, ensure that playback quality is better than ever.


The card can perform TIVO like tricks such as pausing live TV, and you can even resume watching at a faster speed enabling you to catch up with the live broadcast. It works very well. However what’s sorely lacking is a TIVO-like integration with an Electronic Programme Guide (EPG). You can manually schedule recordings on the card, but this is no better than setting a VCR. In the USA the GemStar Guide+ service provides such an option but it’s not available in the UK, which is a real shame. You can use EPG products such as DigiGuide which integrates with PVR software such as ShowShifter. However with this solution you can’t use the cards MPEG2 encoding, as it’s only available for use with ATi’s own MMC software – another frustrating limitation. What’s more if you’re recording TV from a satellite or cable box via the composite or S-Video inputs rather than the analogue tuner, you also have to manually change channels or look for a third-party infrared solution such as a Red Rat.

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