Summary: With the introduction of its GeForce FX family, NVIDIA has updated its Personal Cinema series to NVIDIA's latest graphics technologies. But not only has NVIDIA updated the graphics core, they've also completely revamped Personal Cinema's hardware and software suites, including a brand new RF remote control unit that shares a lot in common with ATI's REMOTE WONDER. In today's review we examine NVIDIA's multimedia offering for the mainstream segment, which comes to us from Chaintech. With a shiny heatsink, black PCB, and blue LED, Chaintech has designed their Personal Cinema card for the enthusiast, and included some nice goodies in the package as well. See how NVIDIA's latest Personal Cinema compares in this article!
Since IBM originally conceived the first personal computer over two decades ago, the PC has slowly evolved from a device used solely for work (whether it be for typing documents or spreadsheets), into other applications such as gaming and multimedia. It’s the versatility of the PC that has allowed it to grow for so long, up until the recent economic downturn, PC sales as a whole have grown annually. For 2003, PC shipments have continued this trend.
These two traits, evolution and versatility, are now taking the PC into a new era: digital entertainment. The concept is simple -- not only will your PC continue to be an excellent device for getting some work done or playing games, you can also use it to watch TV and DVDs, or, for the budding video enthusiast, create videos.
ATI was first to jump into this burgeoning market with its ALL-IN-WONDER card, first introduced over seven years ago in 1996. Over time ATI has built on its ALL-IN-WONDER line, adding more powerful graphics cores and implementing new features to boot. As a result of their dedication to this market, ATI has established itself as the de facto standard in the digital entertainment market, with millions of ALL-IN-WONDER cards sold to date.
Not content to give a budding market away to ATI, NVIDIA entered the digital entertainment business with its Personal Cinema, first announced at Intel Developer Forum 2001.
While NVIDIA’s first Personal Cinema was a capable alternative to ATI, it was limited to just the GeForce2 MX GPU, which was limited to just DirectX 7 compliance and, as a value part, didn’t offer the greatest performance. ATI also improved its software offering by including Gemstar GUIDE PLUS+ and REMOTE WONDER in its offerings, and with the ALL-IN-WONDER 9700 PRO, began to bundle Pinnacle Studio.
These features gave ATI an unquestioned advantage over NVIDIA. ATI’s software was more powerful and easier to use. Meanwhile, ATI’s REMOTE WONDER was in an entirely different class in comparison to NVIDIA’s IR-based remote. Quite simply, ATI ALL-IN-WONDER delivered a better overall experience than Personal Cinema.
NVIDIA’s Personal Cinema team did not give up however, instead they went back to the drawing boards. In order to compete with ALL-IN-WONDER, NVIDIA knew they had to address Personal Cinema’s greatest weakness: its software. NVIDIA’s Personal Cinema software tended to be difficult to install, was buggy at times, and had a cumbersome interface. NVIDIA partnered with InterVideo rather than Gemstar, whose WinDVR software just wasn’t as powerful as the Gemstar/Schedule+ combination ATI utilized for television viewing and recording, nor was its interface as polished – recording television programming was a real chore.
Now NVIDIA is back with its third generation Personal Cinema (although you could argue this as second generation), which can be found in the newer GeForce FX 5200 and GeForce FX 5600 cards. NVIDIA has incorporated a new RF remote which shares the same DNA as ATI’s REMOTE WONDER, and updated its software offering to InterVideo WinDVR 2, which sports a new interface and a new partnership with TitanTV, a web-based electronic programming guide that has its sights set squarely on Gemstar GUIDE PLUS+. Can this new combination defeat ALL-IN-WONDER for supremacy in the digital entertainment market? Read on to find out!
SIDEBAR: Zenith FM6P/N Personal Cinema FX 5600 Product Webpage
At the heart of Chaintech’s Zenith FM6P/N Personal Cinema FX 5600 is NVIDIA’s GeForce FX 5600 graphics core. Keep in mind that this is not the “Ultra” variant of the GeForce FX 5600, rather it’s the original FX 5600 that was released last spring.
Chaintech follows NVIDIA’s specifications for the GeForce FX 5600 to the letter. The graphics core is clocked at 325MHz while the memory operates at 275MHz (550MHz effective). When you couple this with the GeForce FX 5600’s 4-pixel pipeline architecture with one texture unit per pixel pipeline (4x1) and 128-bit memory interface, these figures yield a peak fill rate of 1.3Gigatexels/sec and up to 8.8GB/sec of peak memory bandwidth.
As a result, the Personal Cinema FX 5600 isn’t a groundbreaking performance improvement over the GeForce4 Ti 4200 which it replaces (although admittedly, Personal Cinema 4200’s weren’t produced in large quantities) as the Ti 4200 boasts a fill rate of 2.0Gigatexels/sec thanks to its four pixel architecture with two texture units per pixel pipe (4x2) and is matched with up to 8.2GB/sec of peak memory bandwidth. Chaintech also outfits the card with 128MB of memory.
In comparison to its nearest competitor, the ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 PRO, the Personal Cinema GeForce FX 5600 has got its hands full. ATI clocks the 9600 PRO chip it’s based on at 400MHz, giving the card a peak fill rate of 1.6Gigatexels/sec, while the memory operates at a cool 325MHz (650MHz effective). This gives ATI an advantage in peak memory bandwidth, which tops out at 10.4GB/sec.
As you can see, these figures give ATI the edge in traditional performance metrics. And since NVIDIA doesn’t offer a Personal Cinema based on the GeForce FX 5600 Ultra or GeForce FX 5900 family, they really don’t have a true answer.
One aspect where NVIDIA’s second generation Personal Cinema is superior to ALL-IN-WONDER however is in display output. Whereas the ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 PRO is limited to providing dual VGA outputs only, the Personal Cinema GeForce FX 5600 has a DVI output on the card’s backplate, and an additional VGA output that is connected to the AV breakout box. This makes the Personal Cinema FX 5600 the perfect solution for those of you with an LCD display with a DVI interface. Chaintech also includes a DVI-to-VGA adapter in case you do need two VGA outputs.
The A/V breakout box is a stylish grey pod adorned with NVIDIA’s corporate logo. The breakout box provides your standard RCA inputs and outputs for audio as well as video, as well as S-Video connections for higher quality video input and output. All output connections are organized on the right side of the A/V pod, while the inputs are provided on the left hand side. NVIDIA finishes the package off by adding two full length rubber pads to the underside of the pod. This prevents the breakout box from slipping, making it perfect for use on a table.
Just because the Zenith FM6P/N is based on NVIDIA’s GeForce FX 5600 core doesn’t mean Chaintech can’t dress it up a bit, which is exactly what they’ve done. The board sports a distinctive charcoal black PCB with a massive gold-colored aluminum heatsink that cools the graphics core and memory. The GeForce FX 5600 is a fairly cool graphics core with lower power requirements than other GeForce FX cards, so the cooling solution Chaintech has implemented is definitely overkill, but it certainly looks good.
Above the fan itself is a massive “Z” denoting the Chaintech board’s Zenith branding, Chaintech’s logo is placed at the center. Underneath the Zenith logo lies a blue LED. When combined with the black PCB and gold-plated back plate (including a gold-plated coax connector) the Zenith FM6P/N is certainly one of the sharpest GeForce FX 5600 cards we’ve seen, and would look great inside a system case with a side window.
Taking a closer look at the card, you’ll see the Microtune TV tuner in the upper left corner of the board, which as you can see is significantly smaller than ATI’s ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 PRO tuner. The tuner itself is digital, whereas ATI now uses analog tuners. Keep in mind this doesn’t mean you’ll receive HDTV signals, rather the circuitry itself is digital rather than analog. While it may be argued that this should result in sharper pictures, keep in mind the poor signal quality of cable television. Chances are your signal isn’t good enough for you to spot the difference.
On the memory side, Chaintech uses 4.0ns memory modules from Samsung, which are officially rated for operation at 250MHz (500MHz effective). This means that Chaintech is technically overclocking the modules on our board, although as many overclockers have found, Samsung’s modules tend to be very good for this task. We did not encounter any stability issues with our board during testing, although we still would’ve liked to have seen Chaintech use Samsung’s K4D261638E-TC36 module. This memory is officially rated for 275MHz.
Inside the Zenith FM6P/N box Chaintech includes a ton of goodies. For starters you’ve got an anti-static brush; this can be used for dusting your keyboard (among other places). Chaintech also includes a green Q Ball. This handy device can be used to keep your monitor clean. Other accessories included are the USB RF receiver for the remote control unit, an S-Video cable, composite and audio cables, the aforementioned breakout box, RF remote control unit, and DVI adapter. The software bundle is pretty extensive as well, although the titles are a bit dated. Included are copies of Age of Wonders 2, Serious Sam 2, Rally Trophy, Max Payne, Tropico, MDK2, NVDVD 2.0, WinDVR, Ulead DVD Movie Factory 2.0 SE, Ulead Video Studio 6.0 SE, and 3Deep.
Chaintech bundles everything well, the packaging is very well done and the 96-page manual offers just enough information to get your feet wet, although like ATI documentation for the supporting software (television viewing/recording, etc) is pretty light.
SIDEBAR: Chaintech also offers a GeForce FX 5200-based Personal Cinema card.
Whenever you have a card as flexible as the Personal Cinema is, installation always becomes a concern. Sure, you’ve naturally got to worry about installing the hardware and all its underlying connections properly (and no, we’re not just talking about installing the graphics card in the AGP slot) but what can be equally challenging, and frustrating, is the software installation routine. First generation Personal Cinema software was notoriously difficult to install, you practically had to follow a very strict installation routine that wasn’t clearly documented.
Fortunately, NVIDIA has learned from its mistakes, its latest Personal Cinema software is easier to install. Simply run the setup routine off the Personal Cinema CD and the drivers for video capture software, television viewing, and NVRemote control unit are installed. Once this is accomplished, you’ll need to reboot and install the video input drivers. In our case, some of the components weren’t WHQL-certified, making installation more of a chore. Again, this isn’t the seamless install experience of ATI ALL-IN-WONDER, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. It is a bit surprising that it takes two CDs to get everything up and running however.
Once you’ve got the board installed, you’ll also need to hook up the A/V pod and the RF receiver for the remote control unit. You’ll need an available USB port to accomplish this. After you’ve got everything plugged up, you should be ready to start watching/capturing television on your PC. The whole process should take between 5-10 minutes. On another installation note, we would like to see NVIDIA add reinforcement to the connector for the A/V breakout box though, a locking mechanism is present, but we were still able to pull the connector off of the card.
Another area NVIDIA addressed over previous Personal Cinema offerings is its remote control unit, NVRemote. Like REMOTE WONDER, NVIDIA’s latest remote is manufactured by X10 and shares many of REMOTE WONDER’s traits. For instance, both units are radio frequency (RF) remotes, this is a dramatic improvement over previous Personal Cinema remotes, which were infrared (IR) based and required line-of-sight to operate. As you can see in the pictures, both remotes are practically identical in design.
There are a few key differences however. While REMOTE WONDER has six programmable buttons that can be programmed to perform practically any function imaginable, NVIDIA’s remote doesn’t offer programmability. NVIDIA’s NVRemote has a larger thumbpad for mouse control, although it doesn’t pivot as much as REMOTE WONDER and has a sponge-like feel that doesn’t provide as much tactile feedback. Keep in mind that this is highly subjective however, and may just be limited to the characteristics of our review unit. We certainly did prefer the NVRemote’s buttons for channel control (including the numeric keypad) and volume. NVIDIA’s up/down selector for the channel and volume buttons are larger and raised higher and have a crisper feeling than REMOTE WONDER, whose buttons are too mushy for these functions. NVRemote has slightly more heft than REMOTE WONDER, which may be a positive or negative depending on your tastes and preferences.
Overall we have to give NVIDIA credit for moving to an RF remote, although we would like to see programmability added to the feature set. The buttons are there, NVIDIA just uses them for specific purposes (for instance, taking snap shots, or zoom). As a final note, batteries are not included with Chaintech’s Personal Cinema card, while the ATI board ships with four batteries.
SIDEBAR: Remember those annoying X10 pop-ups? Ugh.
Now that you’ve got all the hardware hooked up and the software installed, you’re ready to sit down and watch some TV on your PC! Again, InterVideo’s WinDVR 2.0 software is used for this task. Upon first bootup, WinDVR must be setup. This process includes scanning for television stations, which can be accomplished manually or via auto scan. The tuner supports up to 128 cable stations and the ability to fine tune the video signal for optimum quality.
One aspect that we quickly realized was the slow responsiveness of the tuner. Changing channels was a little slower than ALL-IN-WONDER, as the lag between pressing the button to change the channel and the tuner actually performing this function was noticeably slower. This is even more frustrating when you factor in the crispness of the NVRemote’s buttons, you’re almost reminded of a nice Omnikey keyboard. We found that if we deliberately pressed the remote three times to change the channel in rapid succession, nine times out of ten it would only change the channel twice.
We were unable to get the second display to work properly with our installation, despite multiple attempts, so we were unable to confirm if the second display can be used for television output. For ATI’s ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 PRO, the display is limited to the primary monitor.
Unlike ATI, NVIDIA doesn’t offer a built-in 10-foot interface, this is accomplished by ATI’s EAZYLOOK feature. EAZYLOOK cleans up the interface and uses bigger text that is easier to read from long distances.
In essence, the TV tuner does a good job of performing its primary function, watching TV, but it lacks some of the over-the-top features found in ALL-IN-WONDER such as THRUVIEW and closed caption search.
Electronic Programming Guide
For WinDVR 2, InterVideo has partnered with TitanTV for its electronic programming guide (EPG). TitanTV is a free Web-based programming guide that provides television listings for a large number of areas. The only problem with this implementation is that TitanTV isn’t much more powerful than going to tvguide.com and looking at the listings manually. For instance, whereas ALL-IN-WONDER/Gemstar downloads programming listings to your PC’s hard drive (much like a TiVo would) TitanTV doesn’t. Launching the EPG merely takes you to TitanTV’s website with the listings for your area/provider you’ve pre-selected. This means you’ll really need a broadband internet connection that’s always on for the best experience, especially if you use TitanTV to schedule your recordings.
You can manually schedule recordings as well, but this is little more than setting your VCR for a specific television station, time, and date circa ten years ago, as the program information isn’t tied into the interface.
Fortunately, TitanTV does provide search functionality. So for instance, if you want to find all the instances of X-Files you can do a search for “X-Files” or even the actors such as David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.
SIDEBAR: The North American Auto Show is this week, lots of interesting cars have already been unveiled.
NASCAR Racing 2003 Season (Bristol custom demo)
Nascar 2003: OpenGL
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB: OpenGL
Quake III - OpenGL
Unreal Tournament 2003 – Direct3D
Unreal Tournament 2003
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
Tomb Raider – Direct3D
TV on your PC: With NVIDIA’s Personal Cinema, you really can watch television programming on your PC. And with added features such as timeshifting, you can actually turn your PC into a personal video recorder (TiVo). NVIDIA integrates an A/V breakout box that’s simple to use, and includes software for video editing as well. All this means you really can transform your PC into a digital entertainment device.
GeForce FX 5600 graphics: NVIDIA’s GeForce FX 5600 graphics core isn’t a dramatic improvement over its predecessor, GeForce4 Ti 4200, merely a lower cost alternative. As a result, in some cases the GeForce4 Ti 4200 is able to outperform the GeForce FX 5600. The only area where the GeForce FX 5600 really establishes itself is with AA/AF enabled, although it can be argued that it lacks the horsepower to deliver sufficient frame rates with these features turned on.
NVIDIA has told us that they plan on integrating Gemstar with their next generation Personal Cinema software, but this is the same story we heard a few years ago.
A note to NVIDIA: if you really want to surpass ATI’s latest offering, don’t copy it, beat it. The most efficient way to accomplish this is to partner with someone who has a compelling software package and a wealth of experience.
So where does Chaintech fall into place? Right now, they’ve done the best with what they’ve got. They’ve built a good-looking card and rounded out the package with a nice bundle of hardware accessories, but we would have liked to see slightly faster memory being used.
Other than that, Chaintech’s execution is very good. If you can get over the aforementioned issues with NVIDIA’s Personal Cinema implementation (or NVIDIA improves them), it would certainly be a worthy upgrade. And as the first manufacturer to integrate the GeForce FX 5600 graphics core, the Chaintech Zenith FM6P/N is currently as fast as it gets when it comes to NVIDIA Personal Cinema cards.
SIDEBAR: What are your thoughts on NVIDIA’s Personal Cinema? Do you have any experiences with the GeForce FX-based PC cards that you’d like to share? Speak up in the news comments!
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