$6000 DTV Sets Out of Your Price Range? Try $500 and a Computer.

If you don't have one of the pricey new digital TVs, but you're curious about those DTV broadcasts that started in your area last week (if you happen to live in one of the lucky cities), your PC might soon be able to provide some relief. With a graphics accelerator that can handle the various DTV formats and MPEG decoding and a low-cost DTV receiver card, viewing DTV on the PC is an affordable option. A graphics accelerator and receiver card with a combined cost under $500 can provide DTV at a fraction of the price for a new digital TV and tuner/decoder.

Many analysts have predicted that DVD-ROM drives in PCs will outship consumer DVD players by a margin of 10 to 1 by the end of this year. Some also believe that PCs with DTV capabilities will be the primary means of watching the new DTV (and HDTV) signals as well, long before sales of digital television sets take off.

As most SGHT readers already know, the US Congress has stipulated that TV stations in the top 10 markets must begin digital broadcasts by May 1999. (Some networks and stations began digital broadcasting on November 1 of this year.) Stations in the top 30 markets must begin digital broadcasts by November 1999. At first, digital broadcasting will consist mainly of movies, but some shows, such as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and a few high-profile sporting events, will be digitally broadcast starting in spring 1999.

As DTV made its debut last week, ATI Technologies Inc. was explaining how to watch the new signals on a computer with its latest-generation PC video technology, the RAGE 128 graphics chip, which enables a PC to process the DTV signal. The company also claims that a graphics-accelerator card or set-top device featuring the RAGE 128 chip and RAGE Theater video encode/decode chip can display DTV on conventional television sets.

In developing the RAGE 128 chip and its DTV capabilities, ATI worked closely with Microsoft, which is dedicated to enabling digital TV on the mainstream PC platform. (Read Joel Brinkley's "Gates-Way to HDTV" in the November SGHT for more.) To accomplish this, the PC must have a high-quality graphics chip to render the video images and provide the MPEG decoding. "We worked with ATI on this development because of their advancements in the area of MPEG acceleration," says Dave Marsh of Microsoft. "Thanks to the high-speed motion compensation and inverse DCT MPEG acceleration in the RAGE 128 chip, the ability to display digital TV will become a mainstream PC feature. We look forward to the day when this level of acceleration becomes a standard feature of all graphics chips."

Most current TVs require an external tuner/decoder box to display DTV signals; ATI has also enjoyed success in the set-top market, where it has been selected by General Instruments to provide full graphics, video, and TV-out functionality for millions of digital set-top cable boxes. According to Ed Grondahl, ATI's vice president of product marketing, "ATI is a current leader in the 3D, accelerated-graphics, and digital flat-panel markets, and we are committed to taking a leadership role in the DTV revolution."