Review: ATI TV Wonder Elite vs Hauppauge

ATI released their newest tuner card a few weeks ago, and all of the “best card ever” hype piqued my curiosity.  The Hauppauge tuners that I’ve been using for the last year deliver pretty darn good quality in most cases, so how much better can this new ATI card be?  This review will attempt to answer that question.

As with all reviews that I perform, let me accurately set the scope of what I’ll be talking about.  My MCE setup is fairly baseline and low-tech as far as home theaters are concerned:

You’ll notice that all of my consumption is done using standard-definition television sets and good old-fashioned analog cable.  This review will focus specifically on performance with my setup and may not be applicable to those of you who are using a higher-end HDTV setup.  You’ll also notice that I don’t use the PC to watch television at all, so screenshots will not be the focus of this review and previous attempts to photograph my television screen have proven to be a useless way to evaluate picture quality – I’ll have to paint you a picture with prose.

I installed the ATI TV Wonder Elite into my Gateway 901x alongside the Hauppauge Roslyn card and ran them both through the paces for about a week.  At first glance, there’s nothing about this card that will make you install it over another current card and pee your pants with glee.  Use it for a bit longer and it will become clear that it does correct many of the little annoyances that pop up throughout a week of normal television viewing.

General Picture Quality Observations

Dark Scenes – I’ve always had problems with dark scenes, especially with darker drama series such as Law & Order.  On the Hauppauge, the picture seems overly dark and the differences between grey, kinda grey, greyish blue and black are very difficult to make out.  It’s somewhat annoying, but to be honest I’d gotten used to it.  The ATI TV Wonder Elite goes a long way to brighten up those dark shows, to the point where when I come across something in my Recorded TV library that was recorded on the Hauppauge it makes me squirm just a little bit now.

Scene Lighting – Another small annoyance I’ve always had with the Hauppauge is how it deals with lighting changes in a scene.  For example, if a scene contains a bright window it will appear to be white and correct by itself.  If in the next scene someone walks in front of that window, the overall brightness captured by the tuner card changes a little bit.  If a second person enters the scene, the brightness will change again along with the color and skintones of the first person in the scene.  I don’t pretend to know what I’m talking about, but from what I’ve read this is most likely due to automatic gain control.  The ATI TV Wonder Elite goes a long way to correct this.  It’s not something that you’ll notice when you’re watching a recording because it’s really the absence of a problem that you’re taking in.  But switch back to the same show recorded on the Hauppauge and you will be reminded of the problem and how happy you are that it’s been corrected.

Masking Noise – This will be a difficult problem to describe, but it’s the most noticeable picture quality issue that I’ve found with the new ATI card.  Imagine if you will that you have a large window screen (in my mind this is a patio door screen), with a picture of Jerry Orbach taped to the back of the screen.  As you look through the screen , it’s pretty clear to you that there is a picture of Jerry on the other side.  If you move the screen, the picture moves with it and you don’t really notice any change other than Jerry Orbach moving.  That’s how I would describe what I see with the Hauppauge card – the blocks that make up the Jerry image move with him.  Now, imagine that same screen scenario but instead of being taped to the screen, the picture of Jerry Orbach is being held by a friend.  If your friend moves the picture, you see Jerry moving but you also distinctly notice that the gridlines of the screen are not moving.  This screen now becomes much more noticeable and you become much more aware of the fact that you’re viewing the picture through a layer of screen.  That’s how I would describe what I see with the ATI card – the blocks that make up Jerry don’t move with him rather they change colour as he moves.  I know that’s a terrible analogy, but hopefully gives enough detail for the ATI guys to try to fix the problem and helps you the reader remember a great actor.

Saturation – I personally prefer the level of color saturation that I get out of the Hauppauge cards, but I’ve heard from several people who think that the Hauppauge is over-saturated.  Message here is that the saturation level on the ATI is somewhat lower than the Hauppauge, but is probably calibrated properly and will be pleasing to most users.

XBox Extender Picture Quality

As noted in a previous article, the playback on the XBox Extender shows a great deal of compression artifacting versus similar playback on the PC or Extender.  The blocky appearance of dark areas on the XBox is something that I’ve personally been wanting to address since I added the console to my home theater.  The good news here is that the ATI TV Wonder Elite records a video file that contains fewer and/or smaller artifacts than the Hauppauge which directly impacts playback quality on the XBox in a positive way. 

HP / Linksys Extender Picture Quality

The HP and Linksys cousins do a much better job of dealing with the video files that MCE records, and remains the best way to get excellent picture quality out of your standard definition television.  I’ve previously called the Hauppauge/Extender combination “excellent” for video quality and that assertion remains.  I didn’t notice any major differences in artifacts between the two cards, the HP seems to smooth out whatever you give it just perfectly.  All of the points noted above in the general section still apply to the HP extender as well, so you will see an incremental increase in quality using the new ATI card with the extender.

Other Considerations

Driver Support – This is in my opinion the biggest risk for users considering the ATI card.  At this point, I’m willing to concede that the ATI TV Wonder Elite is the best hardware out there.  However a tv tuner solution includes more than just the hardware, it also includes the ability to keep that hardware running when you bump up against bugs or upgrades.  ATI has had a bad track record with drivers across all product lines, but have made huge strides in the last 2 years in their focus on the Catalyst video driver series.  This proves to me that they are able to improve if they want to.  That improvement in video driver support does not appear to have carried over into the TV Tuner product line yet however.  I’ve seen too many MCE users left high and dry by ATI over the last couple of years to dismiss this issue.  ATI needs to demonstrate a commitment to driver upgrades before I’ll ever be comfortable recommending this card to the masses let alone my friends and family.

Bundled Remote – I haven’t had time to test the remote, but it does appear to be a viable solution for people who are rolling their own MCE boxes and have no need for set-top-box control.  The remote now has a placeholder for what would be called “The Green Button” on other remotes, and it seems to be ergonomic and contains all the buttons one might need for MCE.  The remote is RF-based and has double the range of previous incarnations.  I’ve heard that there are hacked drivers on TGB that will allow this remote to work with MCE, but out of the box it does not support all MCE functions.

Audio Volume – I have no idea if audio is part of the ISF certification or not (one would assume not) but I am desperate for the tuner manufacturers to adopt some sort of standard.  The ATI TV Wonder Elite has a rather low volume level compared to the Hauppauge cards.  If you’re using the ATI card only, this isn’t an issue.  However if you’re mixing the ATI and the Hauppauge (or any other card) then your wife will get angry with you, as mine has, when volume levels vary wildly between recorded TV files and wake up the baby.

Included Cables – I was surprised by the number of cables they threw into the box.  Kudos for ATI, it’s rare to get a product these days with all the cables and batteries you’ll need.

Cost – This is an expensive piece of hardware.  The Hauppage PVR-150 comes in at about $90 while the ATI TV Wonder Elite comes at a cost of about $160.  If you’re looking for almost the same hardware, but can live without the ATI name and the ATI remote then you should consider the Sapphire Theatrix in the $90 range as well.  Is it worth the extra cost?  That’s a matter of personal opinion and I’ll address some of the key decision factors in the recommendations section.

Summary and Recommendations

Bottom line, the ATI is the best tuner hardware that I’ve seen.  If ATI can back that up with decent driver support then they have a winner on their hands.  The ATI TV Wonder Elite is not however the best thing since sliced bread, as many of the other rave reviews and marketing hype would seem to let on.  It’s certainly better than the previous generation of cards, but doesn’t deliver nearly the jaw-dropping PQ improvement on a television set as the HP Media Center Extender did when it was introduced in October of 2004.

XBox Extender users – I would recommend this card to you specifically, as it helps to mask many of the playback artifact issues that come along with the XBox hardware.  I’ll go so far as to say that if you’re considering building out an MCE system in your house with an XBox Extender as part of the equation, you should plan to use the ATI TV Wonder Elite (or the Sapphire Theatrix) driver concerns be darned.  If you’re somewhat frustrated by your current PQ on the XBox, this is a very good upgrade for you.

Linksys or HP Extender users – No harm in using the ATI TV Wonder Elite for this group of users, but I would not recommend it as an upgrade path for you.  You will get marginal improvement in picture quality but for my money, I wouldn’t bother with this upgrade path yet.

First Generation Tuner Card Owners – If you’re still using the old Emuzed Maui that came with the HP 873n, then you should seriously consider an upgrade.  All cards have made significant improvements since that time and direct comparisons show huge picture quality improvements.  For you, the Hauppauge PVR-150 or the ATI TV Wonder Elite are the cards you should be considering.

Current Generation Tuner Card Owners – Unless you’ve got money burning a hole in your pocket, I wouldn’t personally bother with an upgrade from any current-generation card (Hauppuage Roslyn, USB2, or 150) to the ATI TV Wonder Elite.  Look at the improvements I’ve noted above and ask yourself how much money that’s worth to you – that answer will guide your decision.

All of these recommendations come with the caveat that I don’t know if I trust ATI yet to support this card.  Let’s hope they do, because it’s great hardware.  But if the rumored Longhorn version of MCE comes out and you’re stuck unable to upgrade due to your ATI card, don’t say I didn’t warn you.  Like I said earlier, I really hope this isn’t the case but it’s a hard thing for them to prove until we get to that point.  Until that point, I’ll have to assume the worst.  If a friend comes and asks me what card to buy, I’ll still respond 9 times out of 10 with “Hauppauge PVR-150” unless I know that the ATI delivers something that they specifically need that the Hauppauge doesn’t deliver.  It’s a harsh position I know, and it’s the same reason I continue to recommend HP over technically superior MCE systems – there’s more to life than just hardware, especially with a machine that the whole family will use every day.

Other good links

I didn’t go into much technical detail here because in the end it’s results in my particular situation that matter to me.  There are other sites who have done excellent technical reviews of this card and the remote, here are the link.