Video Maker -Introduction
Though Prolink isn't what you would call a "New"
company, they have been rather quietly making VGA adapters and multimedia add-on cards. In 2000, they became a publicly listed company, and since then have been creating some pretty solid video products. Whether you're looking for 3d graphics cards, TV tuner cards, DVD/MPEG decoders, or even teleconferencing equipment, Prolink has something for it in their product line.TweakTown has taken a look at a couple of video cards from Prolink recently, and they have fared pretty well against the competition. But today, we take a look into a new area of the company; namely the Prolink PixelView Video Maker MPEG II Decoder Card. We'll take a look at features, requirements and picture quality to see if it has what it takes to compete against the likes of the REALmagic Hollywood Plus card.So, without further chatting, let's check out this new card!
Video Maker -Specifications
These specifications are from the Prolink
website. It will give us a general idea as to important technical information so that we can determine if it is a good buy or not.
Video Maker -The Card
OK... We know what the specs are for the card now, so lets take a look at how it can do all of it's assigned duties; namely the playing of MPEG files and the transfer of standard media types to MPEG format.To start things off, let's take a look at some of the capabilities of the Movie Maker card. It is designed to do numerous tasks such as:- Output MPEG files to you TV- Accept S-Video input from TV/VCR/DVD player/Camcorder- View TV on your desktop via built-in Phillips tuner- Record incoming signal as a MPEG file- Input/output both PAL and NTSC formats- Edit MPEG files with included softwareAs we can see, there are a lot of different functions that are possible with this card. It is not designed for just a single task, but rather is made for those looking for a more complete multimedia package. To accomplish this, it uses a few component chips aboard the card itself. The first we'll look at is the Philips NTSC/PAL TV tuner.
The tuner appears as a standard tuner that is included in any number of combination cards. The fact that it is a Philips device will help ensure that we have the maximum amount of compatibility with other hardware components. It accepts a standard cable connector so that hooking up to your own cable/satellite system is a snap. It was able to pick up all channels on my cable system and display them to the screen without any problems. It didn't decode the premium channels, but this is to be expected since these channels require a box from our local cable company anyway.
Next up is the processing power behind the encoding and decoding capabilities of this card. The Video Maker uses the Stream Machine SM2210 Video Encoder/Decoder chipset. It couples with the 8MB of SDRAM on the board to enable the compatibility of both MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 formats. The Stream Machine also allows for direct communication with the tuner. This will help greatly in the display of TV channels or VCR/DVD input in particular since there is no requirement for a separate chip to allow them to talk. What this means is that there will be a very smooth stream of content being displayed to the screen with no dead spots
that can sometimes appear when the decoder gets bogged down.
The Philips SAA7146A SPCI chip is what is used to allow for fully scalable windows. It also acts as the means of communication between the card and the PCI bus, so in essence, is responsible for allowing the Video Maker card to use the full capabilities of the PCI bus, the system memory, the virtual memory, and the processor. So in a nutshell, this is what talks to the computer, and also allows you to expand the window that displays the video stream without distortion.
Finally, there is the available MTS Stereo decoder. This takes the audio signal and translates it to a digital stereo signal to allow for some pretty awesome sound effects from your PC. To give you an example, it was able to create a fully surround-sound signal that played from my SoundBlaster Live card and speakers. It even supports Dolby for those who have a sound card and speakers that support this function.
Video Maker -Included Ports
With all the functionality of this card, it's time to take a look at how it manages to connect to everything. So lets tale a look at each available port and see what we have to work with...- TV Antenna
Though labeled as simply a "TV"
connector, this port will accept an antenna connection, a standard cable TV connection, or a video satellite hook-up. Basically, if it will plug into your television, then it will be accepted into this tuner.- Multi-Purpose Connector
The second port has a number of different functions. It is a multi-purpose port that allows for the hookup of a remote control, audio input, composite video input, and S-Video input. To accomplish so many duties, it uses a multi-port converter cable.
This cable allows for the connections of all the equipment necessary for the above tasks.
Remote control on the PC? Of course! In this modern day of laziness, who could possibly think of putting a TV onto the computer and then have to manually
change the channels? So Prolink has added a remote control feature. All it takes is for the cable above to be hooked into the Multi-Cable, then stick the tip of it somewhere where you can see it enough to get a line of sight with the remote control. From there, it's just like sitting in your favorite chair and surfing the channels.- S-Video Out
In the event that you want to be able to see those captured movies on your television set, there is an added S-Video output port that allows just that. It supports 800x600 resolutions in either "Hi-Color" or "True-Color" when outputting to the TV.- Composite Out
This port is the companion of the Composite In port on the Multi-Cable. It allows you to attach devices such as your camcorder.- Audio Out
A simple RCA type jack is installed at the bottom to allow for sound to be heard from the different sources compatible with this card. You'll need a small cable with two RCA jacks on it to connect to the "Line-In"
of your sound card. From there, it is a simple matter of making sure that the "Line-In"
function of your sound card is enabled to be able to hear. This can usually be done through your sound card's mixer. For some reason, this was the only cable that did not ship with the card. It may have been a factory glitch, but it was missing in our review sample.
Video Maker -What else do you get?
Since this card is designed to allow for video editing, how can we accomplish this? Well, with the included software of course. Some of you folks who have checked out TweakTown's review of the Prolink GeForce3 video card may remember a little program from ULead that allows you to edit MPG files called Video Studio
. Since it was a simple program to use, it was left in this package as well; but in a newer version. This one is version 5.0 and still features the same basic functions of the previous, and maintains the ease of use that was an inherent quality in the older version.Also included is a driver disk that allows for the installation of the card, installation of DirectX for those who don't already have it installed on their systems, and installation of the software package that allows for the TV tuner to function on your PC. Of special note is the fact that I installed this on a WinXP system. I used the standard driver disk and had no problems with compatibility or functionality of the card. Its just nice to know that even with a brand new Operating System, you can still have fun with your new toy.How it works...
All right now... We know what makes the card tick, and we know exactly what we get when we buy it, but how well does it work? It's hard to do any real-life benchmarks on this card since it doesn't fall into the parameters of a standard component. It is strictly an add-on piece that allows for some specialized features that are not normally present on a personal computer. So I decided to just test out these features and try my humble best to explain them and let you know the results. So here we go...- Watching TV
When I first installed the card, I had a devil of a time figuring out how in the world it would work. After all, most MPEG decoder cards have a 15-pin monitor port. The tactic is to hook a crossover line from the video card to the MPEG board, and then connect the monitor to the add-on board. I have also found that your normal graphics suffers for this since it isn't a direct line of communication between the video card and the monitor. So since it was time for my quarterly reformat, I decided to just give it a go and see what happened. After setting everything up, it worked like a dream.So after getting things the way they should be, I started checking out the local offerings of my cable company. The window opened up without incident, and I was able to size it to whatever dimensions that I wanted. Picture quality was very acceptable. It is obvious that it is an MPEG stream, but there wasn't any real distortion at all, and even when I had five other windows open, there wasn't any loss of smoothness in the picture. It was also able to accommodate full screen video at my standard 1280x1024 resolution without a hiccup.
There is also a very handy TV Control Console that allows you to control the functions of the TV tuner, as well as controlling other aspects of the card (like which input device to use). This is also where you go to set up your options. One of my favorites was the ability to open a specific sized window for the TV broadcast, and then having it always appear on top of other programs. It allowed me to work on writing reviews, switch between numerous notepad files, browse the internet... and all without missing a beat in the football game I was watching. Life just keeps getting better all the time!- Recording Content
Here's a fun feature... recording video content. You choose how you want everything set up, and then just tell it to start recording. You can adjust the video source, format, and bit rate of the capture. Just as a warning, though, if you are going to be recording any real length of video, then you'll want to probably change the default bit rate. At the 6mbps bit rate, I ended up with a file that was about 78MB in size for a 1.5 minute clip. While the playback quality was excellent, it won't take too much to start making a huge dent in my hard drive.There is also the ability to designate the length of the recording session. This allows you to start your capture, and then let the program run by itself while you leave and do other things. Then you can come back later and see what you missed. Sounds like a VCR... doesn't it? About the only fault I could find in this particular area is that when you designate a capture length, your only choice is an amount of time in seconds. It would be nice to see a more intuitive system that allows you to figure time in hours/minutes/seconds.- Miscellaneous
Connecting to other media devices is pretty simple and straightforward. Whether you want to hook up to your VCR, DVD Player, Camcorder... whatever you have in mind, it's a simple matter of connecting it to the Multi-Cable leads and telling the card's main Control Panel to switch to that device. If it can work through an S-Video cable, then you can probably hook it up to this card. Ease and simple installations are a very nice change of pace!Finally, if you're the type of person that doesn't want to mess around with the mouse all the time, and are keyboard literate enough to be able to enjoy the use of hotkeys, then you'll love the interface. It has a built-in hotkey ability that allows you to make nearly any possible change from a keyboard hotkey. I prefer the mouse or remote myself, but the Prolink folks seem to be trying to make everyone happy with this decoder card.- System Requirements
System requirements aren't too steep for this card. It shouldn't be too difficult to come up with them, but here they are:Intel Pentium II 500MHz or higher processor64MB system memory60MB hard drive spaceWindows 98SE/ME/2000Note: The included drivers worked fine within a Windows XP environment.
Video Maker -Conclusion
So lets take a look at what we have here...An MPEG Decoder card that also allows the use of nearly any conceivable video appliance, has a built-in TV tuner, recording capabilities in variable bit rates, and also an included video editing program. Is there anything else that we need? Not that I can think of off-hand.While the TV picture quality isn't perfect (due to a digitalized MPEG stream and the lack of using the system video card), it is still very clear and lacks the distortion and jerkiness of some tuners that I have seen in the past. It has a remote control for all the Couch Potatoes
out there, and everything is designed for ease of use.Recording quality is also very good. You can adjust the levels of recording quality to fit your own personal needs, and balance them for a good combination of file size and clarity. At the higher levels, you will get a playback quality that rivals the original feed. It's hard to find fault with a setup like that.Bottom line... If you've been looking for a TV card, then that alone would be reason to look at this product. Adding to that the ability to accept signals from various video devices and the recording capabilities makes this an excellent choice for your multimedia needs.- Pro's
High quality tunerExcellent recording capabilitiesAllows for numerous video inputsNo passthough connection to the video cardRemote control- Con's
Missing crossover cable for sound cardLimited to "seconds" in recording time limitsRating 9.5/10 and TweakTown's Editors Choice Award