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MPEG-4 Hardware Decoder For $99 286

secondsun writes: "Tom's Hardware has the story. Apparently sigma designs has made a PCI card that decodes DiVX movies in reltime with little processor overhead." Under a hundred bucks, too.
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MPEG-4 Hardware Decoder For $99

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  • DivX codec changes (Score:5, Interesting)

    by cfish ( 61161 ) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @05:39PM (#3753574)
    DivX codec changes so frequently, what are you gona do, flash your card every month?
    • I'm assuming from statements made in the article that you install the codec in the OS, and not on the hardware (they installed the newest DivX codec and it worked fine with the board). At the price of hardware nowadays, you could buy a half-decent motherboard and 1 gig+ CPU for just a bit more than the price of this board... so I don't really see the point of buying one of these.
      • by cyborch ( 524661 )

        I must second that. This seems to be just another processor for todays computers which actually aren't needing more CPU speed... How about spending money elsewhere and get a better performing system that way? The pre-build computers I see in stores these days have 1+ GHz and 64MB RAM, why on earth would I want more processor speed in stead of 512MB RAM (for instance)?

        • I think it's great. I used to have a computer (I'll put it back together again soon) that served as station to play DVD/VCD and MP3, and also served as a CD burning and scanning (as in scanning photos or documents) station. All of this in a P166MMX.

          There's no way I could have gotten DVD playback without the RealMagic Hollywood+. But thanks to that card I pulled an old computer out from under my TV (m TV stands on 3 old [486] computers as it is). I would *love* to do the same with DivX, as most of the movies I download are in that format*. The H+ has pretty good TV out quality, and I'd love to be able to just offload everything onto the MMX and my 28" and be able to watch movies and... oh... play TO:AoT at the same time.

          * I also own some 60+ movies on DVD, but prefer to preview movies I plan on buying rather than smack down 120zl on a movie I might not like.
    • by DrSbaitso ( 93553 ) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @05:48PM (#3753614)
      from the link:

      "A distinction should be made regarding the different Divx codecs: only films using version 4.02 or higher of the Divx codec are supported by the Sigma Designs decoder. In our test field, the recently launched Divx 5.02 codec did not present any problems. "

      So it sounds like there won't be any problems, if 4.00 is a minimum, rather than the latest supported version. I'm sure someone more acquainted with video encoding can explain why this is.
      • " So it sounds like there won't be any problems, if 4.00 is a minimum, rather than the latest supported version. I'm sure someone more acquainted with video encoding can explain why this is. " The DivX "scene" are still using the 3.11 Alpha coded for there releses. So the card is kind of pointless if you want to watch (most) downloaded movies.
      • by alexsh ( 2127 )
        DivX 3 isn't compliant with MPEG4 (or MPEG2 or 1 for that matter), so it'd have to be hacked in specifically in order to be supported.

        DivX 5 has advanced features such as QPel motion vectors and global motion compensation, which are not supported by this card either (since they're also extensions of MPEG4). So in my opinion it's quite useless -- if you can't use it to watch every movie you download from the net, then what good is it?
    • by unformed ( 225214 ) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @05:52PM (#3753625)
      I wouldn't mind being flashed every month.

      Actually, I wouldn't even mind being flashed every day.
    • The DivX codec is based on the MPEG4 standard. It has little improvements here and there, but it's not going to change much. It's possible you'd have to flash the card, but I wouldn't expec to need to for at least a year when DivX 6 comes out.

    • As far as I know the MPEG4 standard only specifies how it can be decoded. How to get from uncompressed data to a valid MPEG4 stream, is left as an exercise to the codec programmer. Not to mention how to find the best-looking stream of all the valid ones (for a given size, otherwise bigger is better). I don't think the playback filter has changed mucb, it's the encoding that is changing all the time, adding new features and settings to squeeze the most detail out of the input stream.

  • Remember when the brand spank'n new pentiums and 486s offered hardware mpeg-decoding? Those were the days...
    • Geez, I remember that... I got excited when I went out and bought a 'sweet' decoder card so that I could watch those new things...what were they called? oh yeah-- VideoCd's!
  • But how long until there are Linux drivers?
    • Firstly I wouldn't think this would come from a hotmail user :-)

      I've been following the dxr3 (em8300) developers closely for quite some time and from what they say it's been hell developing drivers for the card (no specs at all). Even worse getting real-time divx decoding and a/v sync.

      But it works now and I wouldn't trade my dxr3 for a "native" mpeg4 decoder card in the world. Decoding divx and reencoding it to mpeg2 takes about 10% cpu on my xp 1700 so it's no biggy and the quality is excelent.

      What happens when divx 6 or another great codec comes out? I'll just upgrade mplayer [mplayerhq.hu] and you'll be screwed :)
  • Hmm, how long until theres a new codec (or modification) that makes it redundant? Just a question.
  • but the drivers? (Score:5, Informative)

    by uiil ( 413131 ) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @05:42PM (#3753592)
    Coming from sigma designs, you can expect them to get around to releasing the drivers for it in 2008.
  • Huh? (Score:1, Informative)

    by Octal ( 310 )
    My old K6-2 decoded divx fine, why do we need specialized hardware?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 23, 2002 @05:43PM (#3753596)
    Free software implementations of the MPEG standard (2,4) legally cannot be done because the MPEG standard is full of patents, usually requiring payment of licensing fees.. If hardware vendors implement MPEG on hardware, and open the specifications for it's hardware, it is possible to have 100% legal playback of these media on 100% free software systems.
    • So does this mean that this will never work in Linux, or what?
    • Nobody can sue you (and win) for writing computer programs that uses patents, because a patent must be novel. Mathematics and computer science are natural and therefore not novel.
      • Sorry, you're wrong. Wish you were right, though.

        You can patent software. You can then sue people who make software which violates your patent. You can win.

        It used to be the case that computer programs were legally considered similar to mathematical algorithms. Being abstract ideas, they can't be patented. (It's not that you can't patent math because no math ideas are novel; it's just that you can't patent math ideas because they're too abstract to be patented.)

        Now, however, most governments (including USA) and other patent-granting authorities grant patents on software. You can't create unauthorized implementations of MPEG codecs without infringing on some valid, enforceable patents.

        Sucks, but it's true. It would be *very* hard to argue that an implementation of an MPEG codec is somehow "natural" and not original. It would be slightly less difficult -- though futile, since this question has been decided by the courts already -- to argue that an MPEG implementation is just a reflection of abstract mathematical ideas, and is thus not patentable.
      • Neither mathematics, nor computer science (nor for that matter physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc...) are "Natural". There are patents in physics and chemistry, for sure, and patents on mathematical algorithms, too.
  • Looks cool (Score:2, Insightful)

    by LemurShop ( 585831 )
    MPEG-4 for older PCs

    . To ensure that just about any Divx film can be played back without image dropouts, you should use at least an AMD Athlon with 800 MHz plus or an Intel Pentium III/733.

    um right. i have a p2/500 and i can run all divx moviews flawlesly, so the "divx for old pcs" is kind of moot, isnt it?

    It looks like a cool gadget none the less, but personally im more concerned by the direction the Divx project is going than what cool stuff i can do with it.
    • My PentiumII 266mhz could decode DivX movies just fine, heh.

      (I hear that the K6IIs have serious issues though, poor FPU and all)
      • Yeah, I've also got a P2-266 and it decodes DivX flawlessly (in my experience). I have a K6-2+ 450@550 which is my main machine, but it occasionally has trouble with DivX. A lot of times the audio will not sync up correctly with the video.

        Strange, because the K6-2+ should have more processing power than the P2. I guess its the multimedia extensions that are making the difference. Though it could be a software issue (I had such issues before, for example with the Nimo codec pack).
    • dude try using dvdrip and making a divx of any dvd that you have, but dont downgrade the quality. When I make divxes of my favorite dvds I put them on the highest quality setting possible (normally it takes up around 4-7 cds. thats about 22800MB-4900mb for a 21/2 hour movie. try playing that on a your old system! you will loose a ton of frames! thats why this divx decoder card is very nice..
  • by Patrick ( 530 ) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @05:47PM (#3753607)
    A 1GHz Duron can do real-time DivX decoding for barely 1/3 the price, without chewing up a PCI slot. Why should I buy an add-in card? Lest you say, as the Tom's review does, that it breathes new life into old PCs, a 1 GHz Duron kit costs just a little bit more than this $99 add-in board, and is a hell of a lot more useful.

    Not trolling. Just pointing out that not all that glitters is worth $99.

    • by tempmpi ( 233132 ) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @05:53PM (#3753628)
      True, but you also need a new board and maybe also a videocard with tv-out. The divx decoder board doesn't just contain the hardware decoder, it also contains a very high quality tv-out that is optimized for movie output: no black borders around the image and higher sharpness than average tv-outs on low-cost videocards.
      • That should look excellent on my computer's PCI television tuner.
      • For $99, you usually get a new motherboard _with_ the AMD CPU that takes PC133 memory (or for similar prices, you can get faster systems that require new memory.) I can't see spending the money (and the driver installation time, and the headaches when I'm running Linux as opposed to WinME) for specialized hardware that only accelerates videos when I could make *everything* go faster for a lot less work. I'll grant you the video-out issue (though my AGP-1 el cheapo Trident card has it), but if you've got a 233 MHz PII like my home desktop and want to play movies, you've probably been wanting a better video card anyway just for still pictures and text.
    • by NanoGator ( 522640 ) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @05:57PM (#3753649) Homepage Journal
      "Not trolling. Just pointing out that not all that glitters is worth $99."

      I'll tell you why I want this: I want to build a cheap TiVO like unit. I have an old p2400 right now that's acting as a VCR using a Hauppauge WinTV PCI card and Snapstream to do the capturing. It's hooked up to a TV with a VGA input installed.

      The problem I have right now is that I cannot playback and record. Would a faster machine fix this? Err possibly. That depends. Both capture and playback are time dependent. If I had a dual proc machine available for it, it'd definitely work.

      I'm not building a more powerful box if I can just buy a $99 card and plug it into the one I already have running. As a matter of fact, I'm trying to find the info on how to buy one of these cards right now. :)

      Incidentally, if you're interested in a reason to buy one of these doodads if you have a more modern machine: I, for one, watch a lot of vids on my computer. As I said, I have that capture box acting as a vcr right now. While I'm browsing the web, I watch the shows I've capped in a little window. Unfortunately, the vids do cause little lags in my machine. If I scroll in IE, sometimes it'll lag the video. Is that something I should pay $99 to fix? Hmm I might, but I don't expect anybody else to. However, I have one more interesting twist to throw at this. I have a 13 inch TV doing nothing right now. I could place that TV right here on my desk off to the right, and the card will decode to it.

      Now that is totally cool. If I'm at my computer, it makes it trivial to pause the video or fast forward through commercials. I could see people who download lots of stuff from P2P really enjoying this card.
      • I'll tell you why I want this: I want to build a cheap TiVO like unit. I have an old p2400 right now that's acting as a VCR using a Hauppauge WinTV PCI card and Snapstream to do the capturing. It's hooked up to a TV with a VGA input installed.

        The problem I have right now is that I cannot playback and record...

        It looks like you have the video capture and encoding taken care of. So all you want now is something to decode? How about buying a $30 MPEG2 decoder card with TV out? The money you save could help buy a hardware MPEG2 encoder too :-) These are going as low as $200 I've heard.
      • I have an old p2400 (...)

        Yeah, I replaced that old crap with a p2533 too, 2.4GHz is just outdated. [TODO: Insert witty pun about a AMD at crawling clockspeeds still being faster]

      • "The problem I have right now is that I cannot playback and record. Would a faster machine fix this?"

        There's two things slowing you down. Encoding is much more CPU intensive than decoding. Tivos have a hardware MPEG encoder so they can get away with a low power processor. A 1GHz+ processor could probably encode TV resolution in real time. Add a few hundred MHz to decode simultaneously. However, the big problem is disk seeks. You're trying to write a big file and read another big file simultaneously. Two disk drives would help with that.

        • "Add a few hundred MHz to decode simultaneously. However, the big problem is disk seeks."

          The problem I've had is threading. (Although I have no doubt the seeks are a serious contributer here...) Other apps, even the not so intensive ones, can interfere with each other. They don't get even priorities. (Any advice?)

          I don't have a free machine to try this with, but I am curious what happens if I take a 1.2 gig machine and have it capture video while playing it back. I'm reasonably sure what'll happen is either the playback will get interrupted to the point of frustration, or the encoding will drop a lot of frames. On a dual processor machine (Even if it was only dual 400's), I could even out the processes better.

          Anybody else ever tried something like this? I'm unable to do the appropriate test at home. My 1.2 gig athlon hates my TV card.
    • Actually, that all depends on how old your setup is. I live in Australia, so divde by 2 to get the USD equivalent (or thereabouts). The CPU itself, costs $99 AUD, a SDRAM board will cost you around 150 (more for DDR) and the RAM will set you back (Say, 256mb), is about 90$.

      So all up, that will be around $340, or 170 USD. That's assuming you dont need to purchase a new case and peripherals for your upgrade, too. Even in USD thats an $80 minimum price difference. For those on a low budget or simply unwilling to buy a gigahertz CPU, this is not bad. Afterall, why should I need a gigahertz CPU to run my OS, use a productivity suite and watch some movies when a 500mhz can do the job just as well.
    • by RainbowSix ( 105550 ) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @06:21PM (#3753734) Homepage
      On the other hand, this allows one to build a DIVX player into some old hardware. Imagine if the board does so well that it works on a low power fanless Pentium p54c processor, Flex ATX power supply with a large quiet hard drive. Rather than having a fairly loud and possibly large duron system, this could take dumpster diving to a new level!

      There are only so many mp3 players, keychains, and paperweights that can be useful with all those old processors that people have laying around.

      This board should therefore do very well in the home-brew market.
      • I agree with your reasoning, I'd like to have a quiet, fanless machine in my stereo rack for various things as well. Instead of a Pentium I, you might want to consider a socket 360 Cyrix/Via C3. 1 GHz and nominal power usage of something like 13W - supposedly it can run fanless as well (with a large heatsink of course.) The performance is less than a similiarly clocked Celeron, but it's got to be better than a Pentium machine ;-)
    • Even better. Wait for the latest Nvidia or ATI card to implement divx decoding in hardware.
  • I mean sure I guess now you could maybe decode divx on a 486 or something, but otherwise I can't see what the point is. It's not like with graphics cards where the cpu cycles saved are desperately needed elsewhere within the same process (the game). What, if anything, does anyone think this card's selling points would be? Maybe if someone integrated this technology into pre-existing graphics or dvd-decoder cards. . .
  • This card has been out for a while. Nothing new... Only thing that is new is that the DivX codec keep changing every 3 months...

  • I have this. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Sludge ( 1234 ) <[gro.dessot] [ta] [todhsals]> on Sunday June 23, 2002 @05:54PM (#3753636) Homepage

    I preordered one of these.

    I use my software tv out for playing divx still. The drivers were shitty. (win2k fresh install) The only thing that they would have given me is the ability to fast forward and rewind with the remote control on my celeron 900.

    It comes with it's own horribly skinned app, which crashes consistently on my computer.

    It's still good for watching dvds. You could , in theory, throw this card into a machine that has no sound or tv out, and watch movies on your tv with it, since it provides high quality outs for both.

    Note that the tv out only works for watching movies-- it's not an addon tv out card that'll let you use emulators and the like on your tv. For one of those, either get a scanline converter or tv out on your video card. I use a tnt2.

  • cool but i wonder (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Edmund Blackadder ( 559735 ) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @05:57PM (#3753650)
    what the hell are you gonna use the cpu cycles for?

    CPUs are getting faster and faster, and since processor intensive tasks are getting exported to cards what the hell do you need your cpu for.

    If you are using that card that means that you are watching a movie so you are probably not doing anything else processor intensive.

    I guess there are some porfessionals that need to do processor intensive tasks in the background but thats not true for most people.

    I guess microsoft needs to work extra hard to ensure newer versions of windows soke up even moreprocessor power.
    • This does have a good use, but not much as a PCI card. I'm sure this specialized decoder uses a lot less power to decode a DivX movie than a General Purpose CPU. So imagine a laptop, with one of these chips in it and a transmeta CPU, and an OLED display... you'd have a notebook PC that runs as long a a Palm PDA on the same size notebook battery, or a small, light device that has a slim trim battery. Since it also has sound, I have a p-120 notebook I'd like to see if it could make playback DivX films, to a TV set, if for no reason better than to see if it could.
    • Blockquoth the poster:

      what the hell are you gonna use the cpu cycles for? CPUs are getting faster and faster, and since processor intensive tasks are getting exported to cards what the hell do you need your cpu for.

      The point is not to free up CPU cycles, it's to make video playable on older systems that have slower CPUs. This is one thing I object to in the review: they used a Duron 650 system, which is still pretty decent -- sure, it's not top of the line by a long shot, but Durons pack some decent power. I've got a couple of Duron 700 systems, both of which play back DivX perfectly without one of these cards. That's only 50 Mhz faster than the test system in the review.

      The reviewer says in the conclusion, "Even with an Intel Pentium II/300 it is now possible to play a Divx-MPEG-4 film in full-screen mode smoothly." I'd like to see some actual tests to back that up. If true, it could be a boon to many people. My brother, for example, claims that his P II 266 does everything he wants it to -- except play back DivX smoothly. He's been thinking of getting a new box, but he can't really afford it right now. If this card could let him squeeze another year or two out of his aging comp, that would be a sound investment, since he doesn't really want or need a whole new system.

      As it stands, however, the review doesn't really test out the card's usefulness on aging hardware. There are some other reviews listed on Sigma's Xcard website [sigmadesigns.com], but Tom's is the only English-language web-accessible one. There are several citations for reviews in hardcopy magazines, but the only other web-accessible reviews are in Japanese. (Handy if you speak Japanese.) The specifications [sigmadesigns.com] say that it'll work with any Intel or AMD processor with a clock speed of 200 Mhz or higher. Anybody know of some other reviews?

      • Yes, it can make DivX and DVD more playable on older systems, but so can a new motherboard, which will make everything else more playable. It's a PCI card, not PCMCIA, so it's not useful for enhancing a laptop (which is more likeley to be underpowered), and for the $99 you'd spend on it, you can get a motherboard with ~1GHz AMD that still uses PC133 memory, or for similar prices you can get slightly faster systems that use other kinds of memory (so add $50.)

        Disclaimer: I've only played movies on my work laptop, which is 1.1GHz, and haven't tried it on my 233 MHz PII at home, since I don't currently have a broadband connection and downloading by modem is too annoying :-)

    • "CPUs are getting faster and faster, and since processor intensive tasks are getting exported to cards what the hell do you need your cpu for. "

      "I guess there are some porfessionals that need to do processor intensive tasks in the background but thats not true for most people."

      This is true. Sadly, though, Windows' threading model makes it so that browsing the web while watching a vid causes lags in the audio and video, which is a horrible nuisance.

      This card is interesting to me because I set up another box to capture TV shows. Then, on my main computer where i do email/internet/games etc, I watch these shows in a little window while I'm browsing. I don't think that's common for people to do right now, so I'm not claiming this is a mass market device. However, I personally find it interesting if it can play the video solidly without lagging.

      I have a 13 inch TV not doing anything, I'd be happy to hook this guy up to a card like that and watch my PVR stuff on it. I like the idea of pausing via the mouse in case I get an important ICQ message or something.

      I have a regular television, but I'm rarely home in time to watch anything interesting (hence my building a PVR). During some of those precious hours where I'm not at my GF's house, I'm usually skimming Slashdot and other forums I contribute to. So a device like this gives me time to browse and watch my TV show. Most of the stuff I watch is MST3k or That 70's Show, so my multiplexed attention isn't that degraded.

      Again, not trying to convince you that you should go run out and buy one. I'm just saying that it does fill a neat little niche market. As P2P gets stronger, I can see a larger need for this type of stuff. However, I expect it'll get built into my next vid card.

    • You would probably still need to spend CPU cycles for post-processing such as resizing and some noise filtering.
  • For $99 you can buy more memory and a decent video card that will benefit more than just one application.

    My old computer is a Pentium II 233 w/196 MB SDRAM and 32MB video card. I have it hooked to my TV, and it plays DivX just fine.
  • what about the licensinig issues??

    Doesn't the MPEG-LA alliance expect a user to pay .25 cents per hour of play back?

    The more I think about it, the more I wish MPEG4 would just die and something new and better would spawn from somewhere.


    • Doesn't the MPEG-LA alliance expect a user to pay .25 cents per hour of play back?

      Don't worry. The decoder card's MAC address is programmed to your credit card number.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 23, 2002 @06:03PM (#3753675)
    This product is (right now) of little use, as linux support is not out there yet... But I am a little amused by the "need a 733+" idea of DiVX decoding! Xine (http://xine.sourceforge.net/ ) lets me decode fullscreen divx on a measley PII266, and with the addition of a Creative DXR3 (20-30 on Ebay), you can display anything that xine will decode onto a TV (s-video) through the card. New codec, no problem. The card simply outputs the xine-decoded information. Beautifully, I might add. And the card includes an S/PDIF coax output that functions nicely as /dev/dsp!
    Just a thought, as this is a linux-friendly solution, and is completely codec independent.

    (caveat --> Using the DXR3 actually re-encodes the video stream into MPEG which the card can decode in hardware. Doing so is fast (using FAME), but takes a little more oompf that a pII266. 350-400 MHZ is more then enough, however, to decode DiVX, reencode at 100% MPEG, and still act as a fileserver : )

    • It really depends on the file. The higher the bitrate of the DIVX movie, the more CPU its going to chew up. While the matrix on 1 CD might not stress the system, putting it on 2 or 3 (so one can double/triple the bitrate) will cause slower systems to choke that can play the 1 CD version fine.

      and of course, higher bitrate means better quality, so the question is, what bitrate does the sigma card handle (i.e. where's its choke point)
  • These cards are great, save for the fact that you can't pipe their output onto your monitor without using their vga pass-through cables. Real Magic cards simply lay the video image on top of the images your primary graphics card provides (that is, the image of your desktop, command line, etc), and for some reason they can't do this internally and instead use an unshielded vga cable--if anyone knows why I'd appreciate hearing about it.

    The result is your video windows look great, but on a good monitor you see a lot of image degradation from the pass-through. Sigma Designs has used this poor design for a some time, at least since their first big dvd card.
  • How fast exactly *is* reltime?
  • Nice chip (Score:5, Informative)

    by mocm ( 141920 ) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @06:19PM (#3753729)
    The em847x is a very nice chip and cries out for being used in STBs. It is the successor of the em8400 which was used in the netstream PCI cards and in some STBs and which provides a great MPG1/2 decoder with a very high quality TV picture. The great thing is that some of the em847x chips are pin compatible with the em8400, so that manufactures don't have to change their layout.
    The only shortcomings are that it only provides overlay for the display on your PC, i.e. no DMA into the graphics memory like most TV capture cards. That's of course because of the paranoia of the DVD consortium.
    There will probably also be Linux drivers, in the same fashion as for the em8400 (closed user space and with a pass through kernel module) which is unfortunate and ill designed. That means no video4linux or Linux DVB API support (although you can probably get the latter also closed source).
  • It seems to me the real benefit of this.. is that we should see some consumer level devices playing divx soon.. ie next gen dvd player ..
  • by Bollie ( 152363 ) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @06:42PM (#3753794)
    Reasons why it might be useful to have a hardware MPEG-4 decoder:
    1) Latency, latency, latency... You wouldn't want to miss 1 second of Baywatch just because you are compiling now, would you?
    2) Embeddable solution... Look ma, no X! Just slap one of these puppies in and you can run your fav OS with high-quality TV out... assuming someone doesn't try to prevent drivers from being written for it...
    3) Encoding possibility... Heck, if hardware decoders exist, hardware encoders can be built too! I just hope they wouldn't be too expensive.
    4) Hiiiiiigh load... I can just see some bragging in the future: "Hey, I can play a DVD and write a CD and rip a CD and record a TV program all at once!"
    5) The future... People, realise this, in a couple of years your PC architecture is going to be a CPU that delegates tasks to the dedicated sub-CPUs. Look at the 3D card industry if you want an example.

    Things that might not be cool:
    1) I don't need one! Nobody's going to buy this one because they can already play the stuff!.
    2) Too expensive! $99 is a sizable chunk of salary where I come from. (Don't ask). I'd rather save that to invest in my next PC.
    3) Not enough features! Bundled with VGA output for dual-screen, this would have been very, very useful. Bundled with TV capture, this would have been a shoe-in. Bundled with an encoder it would have been... glorious!

    I'm not going to buy one. If they bring out an encoder, I will buy one!
    • by Jerf ( 17166 ) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @07:29PM (#3754035) Journal
      People, realise this, in a couple of years your PC architecture is going to be a CPU that delegates tasks to the dedicated sub-CPUs. Look at the 3D card industry if you want an example.

      People keep saying this, over and over, for the last, oh, let's say ten years or so. And people, no matter how snottily they may say it, have always been wrong.

      History in fact shows a strong trend in the opposite direction, for better or worse. Winmodems now run off the CPU. The whole "PCI" soundcard means roughly that the soundcard is just a prettified ADC and DAC on a card, with some assorted supporting circuitry. Not like an Adlib card, which did everything on board, back when a computer couldn't simulate even FM sound in any reasonable amount of time, let alone multitask. Movie decoding is moving onto the CPU, and staying there. (Three or four years ago, you had to get a hardware decoder. In another couple of years, this product notwithstanding, they'll be largely a thing of the past.)

      Integrated motherboard video graphics w/ AGP directly sharing the system memory means that the CPU does slightly more work shuffling around memory in 2D mode, even for graphics cards.

      The only reason graphics cards remain seperate is that our need for speed is such that the graphics card is often more powerful then the CPU; if the general-purpose CPU tried to keep up with a 200MHz Geforce 2 or 3, it's anybody's guess how many GHz the CPU chip would need. I'd guestimate around 5 or 6, running at full power, maybe more, and of course that's 100% utilization.

      Upshot, this device is fighting market trends. My measly Duron 800 can encode with xvid at roughly 1/3 real time speed (everything I have is Duron-optimized courtesy Gentoo); it's only a matter of time before that gets to realtime for the majority of people.

      (That would be one advantage of Linux TiVo-like software products: The ability to use DiVX, instead of MPEG, blowing away TiVo's recording capabilities.)
      • (That would be one advantage of Linux TiVo-like software products: The ability to use DiVX, instead of MPEG, blowing away TiVo's recording capabilities.)

        Umm isn't DivX = MPEG4? Last I checked those were pretty much the same. Of course TiVo uses MPEG2...

  • Not So Interesting (Score:5, Interesting)

    by littleRedFriend ( 456491 ) on Sunday June 23, 2002 @06:43PM (#3753796)
    I would rather have a DIVX hardware ENcoder. Something that allows you to rip^H^H^H make safety copies of you DVD collection in less time.
  • I believe that as consumers find video and audio to be an increasingly important part of their computing experience, increasingly more operations will emmigrate from the main processors, onto auxiliary processors designed and programmed for specific purposes.

    The good ol' SGI machines, for example, could have up to 12 "graphics-only" processors, if I remember correctly. Nowadays, as home computers are approaching (and perhaps even surpassing) the raw speed possible with the good ol' SGI machines, perhaps the idea of multiple specific-purpose processors and one (or more) general-purpose processors makes more sense.

    Right now, these are available in the form of add-on PCI cards, but I believe that as standards converge and begin to stabilize, you'll find motherboards produced with an assortment of processors. For example, a motherboard might be produced with on-board processors for:

    • Encryption (supporting the major encryption standards)
    • Video (supporting the major video standards)
    • Audio (of course, supporting all the major audio formats)
    • Graphics (for hardware implementations of OpenGL and DirectX or whatever it's called)

    You might even put an implementation of X on a CPU specifically designed for the purpose, thereby offloading even more crap from the main processor. In other words, these specific-purpose processors could offload quite a bit of crap from the main processor, making your applications a lot more responsive, even while you've got a ton of really intensive stuff going on. And if you buy cheaper hardware that doesn't have one or more of these "standard" chips, it'll just happen in software, and slow down you system accordingly.

    Oooooooh well.

  • ... In my experience, the loop connections between these decoder cards and the video card degrade the image quality so much that it's very hard on the eyes when you're NOT watching movies.

    I had a hardware decoder to play DVDs on my old P2 400 years ago - it was great watching a film with only 5-10% CPU usage, but I had to keep switching the plugs around at the back to get real work done. If someone comes out with the same functionality with a card that communicates internally with the normal graphic card then I'm all for it, but I wouldn't buy another "pass through" solution...
  • I built a dedicated box with a Celeron 333 and a Matrox G400 card with S-Video out just to stream my DiVx's to my TV set. Not so sure if testing this card on a Duron 600 constitutes a TRUE test of this cards capabilities.
  • Lets not kid ourselves, this isn't a hardware solution to playing back divx; it's just a software solution with the software and a cpu on a separate card. Of course, most of us realize we don't want a hardware solution, it would be locked in to current codecs and hard or impossible to upgrade. But there are a lot of reasons to not want a software/firmware playback system either. Maybe it might have been handy when my p90 just couldn't keep up, but now that I have the cpu to support it, extra hardware just seems foolish. The only people I can see having a use for this are those who want to "upgrade" a very old computer, and that seldom if ever is a smart move. Considering the cost of putting together a new box these days, it seems like just throwing money away to do this and have an extra card that can only play video but the computer is still under powered for everything else. For those of use with anything remotely recent, it's just redundant. Here are some of the problems I see:

    More cards, more power, more heat.

    Opps, there goes another slot, as well as all the driver issues involved in supporting it.

    I'm not the only one to see this, but it deserves to be mentioned in any list: The card will quickly get out of date compared to the newest codecs. Updates, if they come at all, will likely be so slow to appear that most new videos will always be a version ahead of the card. And, of course, if the manufacturer goes out of business, or looses interest, or doesn't support the same favor of M$ software that you want to run, you have a hundred dollars worth of junk.

    • Decoding video isn't what needs constant updates, encoding video is. A properly designed codec will work as such. Just look at MPEG2 on DVDs-- most players can still play "new" format DVDs, without needing updates.

      This card does have it place. I use mine to play out to a TV while I do other things. My friends can watch an archived movie/tv show (encoded in DivX or MPEG2), while I do other things. And the picture/sound is flawless. Other times I have used it for "VJing" at parties-- showing music videos while people dance to the music. The remote control works great, and doesn't work with just their own player-- you can get remote selector and use it to control winamp and powerdvd as well.

      And, of course, if the manufacturer goes out of business, or looses interest, or doesn't support the same favor of M$ software that you want to run, you have a hundred dollars worth of junk.

      Couldn't the same be said about any hardware manufacturer? I'm sure they'd have some sort of contingency plan for situations like that. But until they do go out of business, why worry about it?

      Unless you're complaining about lack of drivers for other OS's (ie Loonix/BSD).. if so, I can't help you there. Most manufacturers don't want to provide support or drivers for Linux because it's not a "mainstream" desktop OS (and in my opinion, it shouldn't be; it's not ready.) Anyhow..
  • What I want is a board for video capturing with a decent mpeg encoder chip on it. No a co-processor... a real mpeg encoder that does correct 3-2 pulldown detection, deinterlacing, etc. To get a really good quality video capture on a PC means capturing with any of the many video capture boards using a codec that either doesn't compress at all, or just compresses a little bit... then taking the .avi file and running it through an mpeg compressor that can do the de-interlacing, and whatnot... all to end up with a DVD spec mpeg file. Using a real-time codec usually means crummy quality.

    What I want is a board that has an mpeg chip, similar to what might be in a standalone DVD recorder or a TiVo, that will take an incoming signal and spit out a good quality mpeg file in real time. Standalone DVD recorders can do it, so surely a PCI card can too.

    • What I want is a board for video capturing with a decent mpeg encoder chip on it. No a co-processor... a real mpeg encoder that does correct 3-2 pulldown detection, deinterlacing, etc.

      Go to www.pricewatch.com and search for PVR. The bottom entry will be for the Hauppauge PVR USB encoder at $186 after shipping. You can proably get it at Fry's for $200.

      This should use the same encoder chip as their earlier PCI card, which is a fairly decent encoder based on the Visiontech KFir design. For comparison, the $750 Sigma Designs RealMagic DVR is based on the same chip design. I have used a (different) board based on this chip, and the quality is pretty good. Not as good as a $7000 encoder from Optivision or Minerva, but still good.

      One of my coworkers bought the USB version of this and he did have to fiddle with the registry to get encoding rates not in the software menus, but otherwise he seemed happy with it.
  • by iCEBaLM ( 34905 ) <icebalmNO@SPAMicebalm.com> on Sunday June 23, 2002 @08:50PM (#3754449)
    ... is an MPEG4 hardware encoder for $99...

    -- iCEBaLM
  • by Cramer ( 69040 )
    • The solution involving the loop cable seems slightly antiquated, since conventional TV cards use a Conexant chip, which writes the data directly via the PCI bus into the graphics card's memory. The solution from Sigma Designs does offer one advantage, however - the PCI bus is not overloaded, thus avoiding problems, particularly with older computers. The manufacturer also cuts costs with this solution.
    It's not "antiquated", it's "stupid". There has never been a technological reason for this. You don't have to use the PCI bus to write directly to the frame buffer. The "vga feature connector" has existed much longer than any local bus (even predating EISA.) The BS about bus saturation is laughable -- exactly what would be competing with the PCI transfer? As for costs, that is very much a proven lie! (They may claim that it's cheaper only because the technology is already developed and they won't have to devote developer time for a new driver interface. But don't let Sigma's marketing people fool you, the silicon for that hardware overlay is not cheap and certainly not free.)

    Anyone who has ever dealt with Sigma Designs, Real Magic, et. al. knows very well why the external, analog overlay is there. It's there for one almighty reason: DVD CCA licensing rules. There is zero chance the decoded content can be "stolen" in digital format. Rumor has it, even the external SDRAM on the card doesn't hold the decoded data during playback. Where I live, that's called "paranoid."
  • They tested this card out on Tomb Raider? My respect for Tom's Hardware just went down a notch or two.
  • In the article, I mean. There's so much advertising dreck on Tom's Hardware now that it's too tough to read the articles. You get about half a screen worth of text and then have to click on a new page.
  • QQ (Score:2, Interesting)

    by RAMMS+EIN ( 578166 )
    I am no expert, but it seems that there are a whole lot of DivX and MPEG4-variants out there. Which ones does the card play, which ones will be developed in the future, and will the card play those? Do they provide specs for how to drive the card or do the users of Free operating systems have to reverse engineer those? Just some questions that popped up in my mind.

    Thus spake the master programmer:
    "Let the programmers be many and the managers few -- then all will
    be productive."
    -- Geoffrey James, "The Tao of Programming"
  • You'd be much wiser to buy a new computer. I mean seriously, the only computers with "software" playback problems are 400MHz or below. Somehow, it seems this is a tiny market. For god's sake, for $99 you can buy a very fancy Athlon complete with heatsink, and the thing will decode MPEG4 and anything else you care to throw at it.

    Of course, I'm sure the price will drop to something like $20, and assume the real use of the technology is for living room equipment that is not yet out. I support that use, but a PCI card sound just stupid. Where is their market?

  • In particular the 8500 chip. They have a reference DVD player design [realmagic.com], which just needs an IDE DVD transport, front panel and PSU to be up and running. And it's tiny. I like reference designs; they make it much easier for small companies to put together interesting kit that the big guys don't see a big enough market for.
  • Personally I think that would be a lot more interesting... I'd like to have some nice little box running it. Even a mini-pc looks big compared to the DVD/mp3 players. Now a DVD/MP4 (or mpeg4 avi)/MP3 player, and I'm buying. My PC can run this without problems in software, so it really misses my marked. Or combine one of these chips with a DVR solution, would need hardware encoding and/or a network interface, but that'd also be great...

  • I guess that means that Ogg Tarkin hardware is only 10 years away now!

The party adjourned to a hot tub, yes. Fully clothed, I might add. -- IBM employee, testifying in California State Supreme Court