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Test drive: Video cards marry TV, computers
If you're a couch potato, get yourself a comfy office chair as well, because these days you can sit at your computer and participate in America's favorite pastime - watching television.
With hardware such as ATI Technologies' Radeon All-In-Wonder video card, you'll also have more control over what you watch - and when you watch it - than with a regular television.
As I write this, I'm flipping through dozens of cable channels with my PC mouse. The picture quality is good, and any time I want to, I can hit the "record" button on my screen to start "taping" the show on my hard disk.
If my phone rings, I can "pause" the live action of an Orioles game, talk for 20 minutes, then plop back down in front of my computer and pick up where I left off.
When I get home too late to catch those ancient "Star Trek" reruns, or if I'm away when "The Sopranos" comes on, I don't sweat it. They'll wait for me on my hard drive.
Granted, you'll need a hefty hard drive to store more than an hour or two of television programming on your computer, but the Radeon and similar cards made by rival WinTV do a terrific job marrying our two favorite boxes.
The Radeon, which comes with a host of other features including - DVD playback - is built around the concept pioneered by TiVo and ReplayTV, standalone gadgets known in the trade as personal video recorders. While PVRs aren't mainstream yet, it's only a matter of time and price before they become commonplace.
At $300, the 32-meg Radeon card isn't cheap, but it's less than a TiVo, which costs about $450 with a lifetime subscription to the company's online program listings. But the Radeon is also an excellent all-around video adapter for standard applications or gaming.
The Radeon fits into a PCI slot, so you'll have to open the computer to install it. Setup is relatively easy - just remember that in order to get television channels on your computer, you must run a coaxial or S-Video cable from a cable television outlet to the card.
Depending on your preference, the television image that Radeon displays on your monitor can be as small as a commemorative stamp or large enough to fill the screen.
The card is bundled with GuidePlus software, a television programming guide that updates local broadcast schedules based on your cable provider and ZIP code whenever you're online.
The software and hardware work nicely together - for example, you can use GuidePlus to search the upcoming week for all Seinfeld episodes and tell the Radeon to record any or all of them when they air (of course, you'll have to leave your computer on.)
Hard drive space is a critical factor. ATI's software records videos in a fairly compact MP2 format, but even so, it told me I had room for only 2.5 hours of recording time on a hard drive with 6.4 gigabytes of free space. If you want to store video, you'll need plenty of room.
If you're like me, a computer graphics card is a tough item to justify spending money on. For most of us, it's good enough that the computer and the monitor work together. But the Radeon made me see the light.
At its maximum true-color resolution of 1600-by-1200 pixels, it produces an extraordinarily sharp image, and the card enables my computer to play a couple of other neat tricks.
One is the ability to send the picture from my computer to not only the monitor but also to a nearby television screen. The card also has an RCA input jack that allows you to digitize, record and edit home movies from a standard camcorder. When you're through, you can record the video on a VCR.
If you're just interested in watching television, consider a cheaper alternative: ATI's TV WonderVE, which is available as an internal PCI card and an external USB adapter. It sells for $50, but you may have to reduce monitor resolution for the television function to work properly.
The next thing I'm waiting for is a card that will give my computer the capabilities of a refrigerator. Then I'll never have to walk to the kitchen again.