ATI All in Wonder Radeon 9700 Pro

The idea that you can use your PC to play leading edge games, watch TV, watch DVDs and even pause live TV and record in the background, not to mention capture and edit your camcorder footage and burn video CDs and DVDs is very, very compelling. This is what ATI’s long established All in Wonder product line aims to offer. ATI’s flagship is the All in Wonder Radeon 9700 Pro.

ATI’s All in Wonder (AIW) concept has captivated me for several years. This is the third generation of AIW card I have reviewed. The previous two proved to be interesting but, ultimately, frustrating products. The AIW 9700 Pro has moved perceptibly along the road towards the Eldorado of multimedia PC perfection, but there is still a long way to go.

On paper the AIW 9700 Pro is stunning. You get exactly the same stunning Radeon 9700 Pro 3D games performance and features as standard cards. Previously, ATI has downgraded AIW 3D performance. Radeon 9700 specifications mean support for AGP 8x, 128MB of 256-bit DDR memory and comprehensive DirectX 9 support, plus DVI-I support for digital monitors. Dual monitor capability is also provided.

The excellence of the Radeon 9700 3D platform is well documented. So what about the AIW-specific features? The card has two custom connectors. One is for an analogue AV capture breakout box, including S-video in. The other serves a multiple connector AV out lead, including one for Dolby Digital audio S/PDIF connection. The onboard TV tuner has its own multiple broadcast standard UHF input. There is no digital terrestrial broadcast support. Earlier AIW cards offered hardware assistance for software video codec work, but later cards, like the AIW 9700 Pro use a Theater 200 hardware video codec. ATI has also included various measures for smoothing Internet video streams and cleaning up digital video artefacts.

ATI’s software bundle is based around its MMC or MultiMedia Center. In Europe, this includes a TV tune/capture application, Multi-format digital video file player, including support for MPEG1, VCD, SVCD and MPEG2. There is also a smart Teletext decoder, DVD player and a video still capture management application.

The TV application is the most interesting as it offers digital video recorder options up to DVD resolution and frame rate, plus live TV pause and resume. This is designed to let you to “pause” a live broadcast, go and do something else and return to continue viewing the programme from where you paused it. Timed recordings are also possible.

ATI no longer sells its own branded cards and most ATI-powered graphics cards are made by third parties. However, the AIW 9700 Pro is manufactured by ATI and uniquely packaged by its partners, like Sapphire, Connect 3D, Guillemot, etc. Our review card came direct from ATI and was not supplied with bonus software provided by some suppliers, like video editing packages, for example.

We did receive a radio frequency remote control, though not all resellers supply this as standard. The remote, with its USB radio receiver, is non-directional, meaning you can hide your PC behind the sofa in your living room. Disappointingly, it’s only a limited function alternative to a keyboard and mouse and is not intimately integrated through one touch functions with MMC applications.

Installing the AIW 9700 Pro proved to be a long and unpleasant process. Like all Radeon 9700 cards, an extra power source is required to supplement the juice provided by the AGP bus. (On the card the socket is the one used on the humble 3.5in floppy, but the enclosed lead splits off into two larger molex jacks like those that power your IDE drives). ATI does warn customers that a 300W minimum power supply is necessary. This was underlined by our Athlon XP2400+ test PC fitted with only a 250W PSU. Unsurprisingly, the PC wouldn’t even boot. A 350W PSU upgrade fixed that. A positive note is despite the high performance specification of this card, GeForce users won’t believe how compact and quiet the cooling system is.

While ATI has streamlined the driver and MMC applications installation process nicely, configuring the display driver to work with a TV as well as a PC monitor proved to be very unintuitive. For a start, the TV must be connected for it to be selectable in the setup dialogue. You need a PC monitor near your TV during setup. Even then the configuration UI cries out for a total redesign.

Once past that hurdle, things weren’t a lot better. Watching TV and DVDs, recording TV to disk and capturing video proved to be reliable, though once again the user interface was a struggle. However, all our attempts at getting the live TV pause mode to work reliably were fruitless at the time of writing, usually ending in a blue screen - and we’re running Windows 2000 on the test machine. Goodness knows how reliable this would be under Windows 98!

The product’s US origins are also painfully significant for European buyers. There is no support for European SCART features like RGB out and wide-screen auto-switching. US customers get a sophisticated interactive TV guide, but this never got off the ground over here, though teletext support is pretty good.

Verdict

In conclusion, the mouth-watering specification of the ATI AIW 9700 Pro is not nearly matched by the experience of actually using it. ATI urgently needs a re-think of the driver and application configuration UI. You might hope it's a viable alternative to a TiVo box, but in reality the live TV on demand function is flaky. This is ATI's best AIW card yet and it's a truly great 3D gamer's card, but much of the software fails the impressive hardware.