Sony Maximum Performance Upgrade Kit - Part 4

5. Visual Quality
I guess this is what everyone else is waiting for. I have split the area of visual quality into two areas: on the computer monitor and on the TV.

5.1 On Monitor

5.1.1 Comparisons with the Encore

It is inevitable that the REALMagic be pitted the Encore DVD decoder card, which seems to be the most dominant PC-DVD solution currently.

However, the Creative Encore newsgroup is rife with complaints that the Encore’s video quality on the monitor is horrible, and I have to agree with this consensus. For VCDs, the quality is even worse, with cheap $50 MPEG-1 decoders sometimes offering better quality on PC monitors. On TVs, however, especially when you connect using a SVHS cable, the quality of the Encore rivals even more expensive standalone DVD players.

The image on the Encore is usually a little blurry, washed out and lacks colour saturation. When ATI bundled software DVD players (that used MPEG-2 acceleration features on their VGA cards and pure CPU brute strength) with their ATI Rage Pro series of cards ([email protected], [email protected] and All-in-Wonder-Pro), it became clear that DVD/VCD images on monitor screens need not look like the Encore’s.

I have finally managed to get the Encore’s output quality on the monitor to be acceptable (but not great) by copying down the settings from Creative’s showroom in Funan, and included it in an FAQ I posted ages ago to the DVD newsgroup.

5.1.2 Comparisons with PowerDVD

PowerDVD is one of the software DVD players which usually rely on your CPU to calculate the FPU intensive calculations to generate MPEG-2 images. In most cases, PowerDVD generates highly saturated images, but relies on the VGA card to handle filtering properly. On my i740 card, the filtering was badly done, so the overall video quality, while crisp and saturated, also looked pixellated and aliased. On my Canopus Spectra 2500, which I believe has better filtering, the jaggedness is gone.

In addition, decoding MPEG-2 data is very CPU intensive. Even on my TNT-based Canopus Spectra and a 450MHz processor, I still encountered stuttering/slowdown in complex scenes.

Another problem with PowerDVD is that it has no way to handle AC-3 signals. It downmixes the 5.1 signal into a stereo signal, encoded with Dolby Pro Logic information, which allows you to extract a bandwidth limited rear-channel.

5.1.3 The REALMagic Difference

This is an area where the REALMagic really shines. The video quality on all the DVD titles I tested were just amazing. The images were sharp and crisp and the colours were as saturated as the PowerDVD’s, without any of the jaggies found on i740.

I don’t know what else to say but that it really is GREAT! The image looks just like the output on the TV. No more blurred, washed out images.

Even VCD playback seemed better than my Encore card.

.1 Widescreen DVDs: A Not-So-Quick Summary

Sigma Designs has also optimised their drivers to handle 16:9 optimised widescreen DVD titles. Most DVD titles are special editions and are shown in the original widescreen format used in the cinema theatres. This gives a panoramic view of the shots. I personally prefer widescreen titles since it captures everything that the director wanted the viewer to see.

In full-screen titles, the editor crops off the sides of the movies to fit the 4:3 aspect ratio of a TV screen. To illustrate the difference, I have used the following comic strip:

Think of it as a widescreen shot.

Now picture it cropped to a 4:3 ratio to "fit" the normal TV picture. You wouldn’t get the joke now, would you?

The only problem when playing widescreen movies on a normal TV is that you would only end up with black borders on the top and bottom of the screen, which irks most people, because their 29" TV suddenly becomes awfully small.

The solution is to:

  1. buy a bigger (4:3 aspect ratio) TV screen or
  2. buy a widescreen TV

A bigger screen costs a lot more to manufacture than a widescreen one, and has become more popular. Also, the black borders are a lot smaller.

"The passthrough on the REALMagic was virtually transparent. I didn’t experience any degradation in my i740 signal at all, even at 1152x852."

Most widescreen DVD titles, especially those from Warner Brothers, New Line Cinema and Sony/Columbia/TriStar, are also now optimised for widescreen TVs. It uses most of the horizontal lines (hence better quality) in your TV set and the image is stretched to give the right aspect ratio, like above.

If you play try to play this image on a normal 4:3 TV, it appears elongated (people look really thin, like Kate Moss). The DVD player then loses some resolution (lines) in order that the aspect ratio may be retained for 4:3 TVs.

OK, having gone through this long detour on the review, you must be wondering what this has to do with PC-DVD right?

Simple. PC monitors have 4:3 aspect ratios, and when you play widescreen movies, you normally have to play the unenhanced (lost lines of resolution) version.

The REALMagic Hollywood card however, automatically uses the 16:9 enhanced mode. This is possible on a PC monitor because we can change the resolution and increase the number of horizontal lines.

The result: higher definition for widescreen-enhanced movies.

As a sidenote, PowerDVD also optimises for widescreen DVDs by automatically switching to 1024x768 when you play widescreen-enhanced DVDs. Encore allows you this enhancement but only on widescreen TVs (using the TV output) or when you watch the DVD in a window (but not maximised) on the PC.

.2 Passthrough

The passthrough on the REALMagic was virtually transparent. I didn’t experience any degradation in my i740 signal at all, even at 1152x852.

The Encore, on the other hand, caused the brightness to bloom incredibly when I hooked it up to the Canopus Spectra. I can run the Spectra at 1152x852 (but just barely) with the Encore attached to it, but with the i740, the Encore just caused too much blurring to be of any use at that resolution.

Enough said, me thinks.

5.2 On TV
Both the Encore and REALMagic produced excellent pictures on the TV, both using DVDs and VCDs. I felt that the quality of DVDs were better than LDs played on the same TV (using a Pioneer CLD790 player).

The only downside is that the REALMagic is unable to playback simultaneously on both the TV and the monitor. This was apparently, a well thought through trade-off. In the design stage, the designers realised that having simultaneous TV/monitor playback would have compromised the video quality, and opted to have just one or the other.

Looking at the video quality on the monitor, I would have to agree that it was the right decision.


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