The heart of the PVR system is from ATI, a well known supplier of video adapters. ATI has two PCI adapters that are suitable for the home media center. The first is the $99 ATI TV Wonder Pro (see Fig. 1). The second is the $119 ATI HDTV Wonder. It includes an HDTV antenna (see Fig. 2). Both units include the Remote Wonder, a wireless RF remote control and receiver (see Fig. 3). The HDTV Wonder adds support for TV-on-demand and DVD burning.
A multimedia dongle that plugs into the adapters provide inputs for composite and S-video. This allows the boards to be used as video capture devices in addition to TV tuners. This can be handy for interfacing with cameras like Smarthome’s Day/Night Wireless Camera & Receiver or devices like VCRs and DVD players.
Installation of either board is pretty much the same. Plug in the board. Attach the antenna cable and install the software. DirectX 9 is required and included with the boards along with ATI’s Multimedia Center. This works with Gemstar Guide Plus+, an Internet-based TV listing and PVR scheduler front end. Recording a TV is as simple as clicking on the desired program with the mouse and selecting record. Likewise, the same process can be done using just the Remote Wonder. The TV-on-demand support allows instant replays and it can be controlled using the Remote Wonder. The Multimedia Center uses separate applications for TV and HDTV.
One of the nicest enhancements is Thruview. This allows the video program being displayed to act as a translucent background for other applications. This means you can see a version of a program overlaid on an application like Microsoft Word. The clarity is obviously less than the original but you can see and work with the other application. In the past you could only listen to the program if the other application overlaid the display window.
The video quality depends upon the type of transmission with HDTV being significantly better. Its audio support, 5.1 channel surround sound, is also significantly better assuming you have a good set of speakers to match and the PC audio hardware supports 5.1.
The big catch for the HDTV version is that it will not handle satellite or cable HDTV directly. This is more of a limitation on standards and the cable/satellite industry that just loves to force their own boxes on everyone. For now the ATI HDTV Wonder is the best you can get your hands on.