All-in-wonder is wonderful for TV-land

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Vancouver Computes, November 1999

ATI All-in-Wonder 128 video card
$329 (for 16 meg version)

?A PC is a PC is a PC?, as Gertrude Stein might have said if she lived in the 1990s. But as Rudyard Kipling didn?t say, ?A woman is only a woman, but with a good video card your PC will smoke!?

Even the low end CPUs in today?s crop of computers is faster and more powerful than last-year?s high-end machine. But for users who demand raw performance, such as game players, anxious to maximize their frame per second rate on popular 3D games, there are few ways to get more bang for the buck than to invest in a high-powered video card.

Toronto-based ATI has included 3D acceleration in their video cards for several years, but even though the company claims to sell more video cards than anyone else, frankly, their earlier Rage/Rage Pro/Rage II-based offerings haven?t been contenders by gamers.

With the newest incarnation, cards based on the company?s proprietary Rage-128 chipset, ATI is trying to change that-- promising top of the line 2D performance, as well as 3D output to satisfy the needs of demanding games. The company offers Rage-128 cards with a range of features and prices, but the top of the line All-in-Wonder 128 offers quite a bit more than just a video card.

Like earlier incarnations of this series, it offers the possibility of making your computer part of a home entertainment center, by including a wide range of TV input and output connections and features. There?s a built-in TV tuner, so by connecting the card to a TV cable or antenna, you can watch TV in a resizable window on your computer monitor. You can even put thumbnails of several dozen TV channels on screen at once, and watch them all at the same time. (Not quite as cool as it sounds, since the thumbnails update slowly, but still, a neat trick!)

You can capture a program?s closed-captioning into a text file?giving instant transcripts, or even set it to run in the background, and pop up when a program mentions a keyword. Or you can capture stills right off the TV. Automatically combine both, capturing text and stills to create an instant magazine. Hardware assistance built into the card results in very good screen captures?and even lets the card function as a sort of digital VCR, recording entire shows as digital MPEG-2 files. Even when not recording, the last couple of minutes of a show are always available for ?instant replay?.

Video output does the opposite?letting you put the contents of your computer out to a video source?record it on a VCR, or show it on a big-screen TV. To the cynical, this might seem like a way that you can play big-screen games on your $2000 PC, just like with your $200 game system, but it can add a new dimension of fun to computer game playing, or let you use your PC to show your business?s PowerPoint presentation to a larger audience. Hardware-based DVD support offers high-quality movie playback (assuming you have a DVD drive).

While the hardware works with the TV viewer that Microsoft built into Windows 98, ATI?s Media Player offers a nicer experience, giving a consistent interface for TV, DVD, CD playing, and video capture and playback. Nicely, it can be controlled with the keyboard as well as with the mouse.

The card loses points with the cutting-edge gaming crowd, however. While ATI?s Rage 128 was a hot chipset when it first appeared about a year ago, newer competing products such as 3dFx?s Voodoo 3 and especially nVidia?s TNT 2 cards have since outclassed it. As a result, while it?s greatly improved over ATI?s earlier efforts, the Rage-128 remains an also-ran in the race for top gaming performance?but may prove powerful enough for most users.

And if the All-in-Wonder?s video and TV options are more important than raw 3D performance, it?s well worth a look.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan