Beyond the realms of 3D graphics, ATI have had a fearsome reputation in the multimedia arena, particularly with regard to video playback, to boot. This line of thinking reached a new level with the introduction of the company's AVIVO technology alongside the Radeon X1000 series, offering all sorts of video-based goodies to customers. With video playback, and High Definition video in particular, becoming more and more important to the market, this focus was never liable to change with the launch of the Radeon HD 2000 series, and so yet again we find ourselves looking at a pile of new functionality under the AVIVO banner with this new range of boards.
Between next-generation consoles, High Definition optical formats such as HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, the introduction of broadcast HD video via cable and satellite and dropping prices, more and more people are picking up HD compliant television sets and PC monitors. ATI aims to be well and truly ready for this High Definition revolution, by providing complete and comprehensive hardware decoding support for both of the major codecs.
We saw NVIDIA update their PureVideo decoding engine for the recently released GeForce 8500 and 8600 series, by adding in complete video decoding from beginning to end for an H.264/AVC bitstream. However, the one thing they negated to do was to add in similar functionality for the VC1 codec used by many High Definition movies. This is where ATI steps in with the Radeon HD 2000 series, to proudly show off their UVD (Universal Video Decoder) functionality, complete with the capability to completely decode and process both H.264 and VC1 video feeds - Functionality offered for both the mid-range and low-end on their new range of boards, with the processing power of R600 left to do much of the work on the Radeon HD 2900.
Although NVIDIA's G84 and G86 PureVideo engine handles every part of a VC1 stream aside from bitstream processing and entropy decode, ATI believe that this omission gives rise to the need for a high-end CPU to assist with decoding the video, and also increases the power draw of a system. Thus, the fact that the Radeon HD 2000 series' UVD handles the entire process for both major High Definition codes should allow for both lower CPU utilisation and lower power draw when dealing with VC1 video playback.
Another aspect of High Definition video processing ignored up until now has been post-processing to improve the image quality of HD video - Quite an oversight, considering the whole point of High Definition is its fantastic image quality! Witness recent tests using an early version of the HQV benchmark for High Definition video (where both ATI and NVIDIA scored a big fat zero) for evidence of how this has been set aside. The Radeon HD 2000 series aims to change this, by offering up custom logic within the Radeon HD 2400 and HD 2600 (although, bizarrely, not the HD 2900 it seems) to handle upscaling, downscaling, deinterlacing and colour correction. All of this is performed from memory to memory, and the functionality is designed specifically to handle 720p and 1080p HD resolutions.
The final point of note here is that ATI's UVD engine works under both Windows XP and Windows Vista, unlike aspects of NVIDIA's PureVideo functionality which are only available to Vista users.
HDMI as standard
While DVI has been the standard for most graphics boards over the past generation or two, there's a new kid in town, and he demands the ability to transfer both audio and video - HDMI. Considering that most HDTVs, and many new HD monitors, carry an HDMI input, the move to HDMI on graphics boards has been surprisingly slow. ATI aims to change this with the Radeon HD 2000 series, offering HDMI output as a standard from top to bottom across this new range of boards.
For starters, all boards now have HDCP keys for content protection stored on-chip, rather than requiring an internal ROM, and thus keeping costs down for AIB partners and making boards cheaper to produce. All boards also have as many HDCP ciphers as they have outputs, allowing for the use of dual-link connectivity for high resolutions, as well as multiple HDCP monitor outputs.
The tricky part of HDCP support for graphics boards in the past has been the need to output audio as well as video, often leaving a requirement to use an SPDIF cable between sound and graphics boards, which in itself often disables digital outputs on the sound card itself.
To negate this problem, the entire Radeon HD 2000 series features its own on-board audio controller to handle the output of video, meaning no more internal cables in your PC case, no more disabled digital outputs from your sound card, and an audio controller capable of supporting both Dolby Digital and DTS as well as PCM stereo.
The final part of the solution is, of course, to actually offer HDMI ports on the graphics card. Again, this would normally involve losing at least one DVI port, so instead of this ATI are offering up DVI to HDMI adapters (which can carry both audio and video - A first) which can be connected to either (or both) DVI port to turn it into an HDMI output. Et voila - One complete HDMI capable solution!
So, now we've taken a look over the base architecture of the Radeon HD 2000, let's take a look at the range of boards, low-end to high, and desktop to notebook, being launched by AMD today.