High-definition TV from your PC for $199

A huge box with HDTV inside.
A huge box with HDTV inside.ATI

If I had the money right now I think I’d like a huge flat-screen HDTV. Actually, make that two or three flat screen HDTVs: one for the living room, another for the bedroom and maybe one for the den. But who has that kind of money? Why not buy an ATI HDTV Wonder card to turn your desktop computer into an HDTV receiver for $199?

I’m not kidding. Video gurus ATI have come up with a complete package that morphs your PC and monitor into a true high-definition TV for less than 200 bucks. You have a computer, right? And you have a PC monitor (with a picture tube or a flat-screen LCD), right?  You’re well on the way to watching HDTV in your home.

ATI’s HDTV Wonder package consists of their HDTV PCI card that goes inside your computer, a remote control for your new HDTV tuner and a directional indoor HDTV antenna which looks a lot like Terk’s HDTVi that I’m using in my living room (except the Terk also includes rabbit ears for analog TV).  The PCI card is capable of receiving broadcast HDTV stations and regular standard definition analog TV stations all broadcasting over-the-air in your neighborhood.  The card can also handle analog cable TV but not digital and HDTV Cable or satellite signals.

But the beauty of this thing is the fact that in most cases you don’t need cable or satellite TV to make it work. Did you know that there are currently 1,129 DTV stations on the air in 202 markets in the USA, serving 99.35% of households? We’re talking crystal clear, high-definition TV reception for free! By the way, most HDTV shows that broadcast during prime time also come with Dolby digital surround sound.

ATI's package also comes with software that you install on your computer that lets you choose between digital and analog TV service, current TV listings, video and audio disk playback and the personal video recorder. That’s right, the ATI Wonder system also turns your computer into a TiVo-like hard drive video recorder: you can record TV programs to watch later, add TV clips to presentations, watch, pause and record live analog TV, DTV and HDTV plus burn HDTV to DVD’s and CD’s.

Works best on higher-end PCs
As you might expect, state-of-the-art technology cannot and should not be treated lightly.  That means don‘t even try to install this stuff in an old computer - it just won’t work.  The better your computer and monitor the better the results.

ATI’s system requirements call for a PC running Windows XP (Service Pack 1 or higher), a Pentium 4, Celeron or Athlon processor (or compatible) operating at 1.3 GHz or greater, 256 MB of system memory, an available PCI slot for the Wonder card, a graphics card with 64 MB or more of frame buffer memory and Microsoft DirectX 9.0 support, a sound card with speakers and an available USB port for the remote control receiver. Remember, these are minimum requirements.

Installation of the ATI Wonder was very straightforward. The software was installed from the provided CD. The PCI tuner card went in my computer’s only available slot. The provided HDTV antenna was attached to the card and the remote receiver plugged into a USB port. I rebooted and couldn’t believe my eyes.

ATI’s Wonder system really works. My test site in lower Manhattan is probably one of the worst places on the planet to receive any TV signals -- no less HDTV stations.  But the Wonder was able to pull in nearly all the available over-the-air HDTV in the New York City market.  That’s quite a feat.

Picture quality is amazing. On the other hand, I wish I had a modern-day video card. My computer is nearly two years old – and I’m not sure it’s up to the task of handling HDTV-quality moving pictures. I had problems with dropouts that look to me as if they would have been solved by a better video card. My next computer will have one. 

Over-the-air HDTV is amazing when you see it.   There is no snow, ghosts or shadows. Either you zero in on the signal and have perfect video – or you receive nothing at all. The picture quality is so good it even fooled two cable installers in my home. They had to physically watch the antenna move before they believed that they were watching over-the-air HD television.

If you want to see what HDTV looks like, and you have a compatible computer, ATI’s HDTV Wonder is right for you. How can you beat high-def for $199?  Even if your computer needs more memory and a new video card to get up to spec -– it’s worth $400-$500 total to see what this baby can do. Highly recommended.