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Interview with ATI's Godfrey Cheng - It's all about the beans

by Ryszard Sommefeldt on 11 March 2005, 00:00

Tags: ATi Technologies (NYSE:AMD)

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Interview with ATI's Godfrey Cheng - It's all about the beans

It's all about the beans

Godfrey Cheng
Godfrey, taking care at the wheel

In my line of work, ATI's Director of Marketing for Multimedia Products, Godfrey Cheng, is someone you have to meet. Utterly infectious enthusiasm, not just for the products that he's marketing, but for computing in general, paired with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the old school, makes him someone to definitely seek out and chat to if he's around.

To put it simply, if you like talking computing and you like to shoot the shit, talk to him. You'll always learn something and you'll have a laugh at the same time. So it was a pleasure to sit down with him recently, as he dropped by the UK to drop off some hardware for a couple of crappy tech journos.

We talked about All-In-Wonder X800 XT, Theater 550 PRO, beans, firing members of his team and much more. Anyway, he's the guy who's hardware I stole to photograph on hot Heinz. Here's how our chat went.

The serious stuff

Rys: "The tough question first. When we met in September last year, we spoke about the imminent release of Theatre 550 PRO and All-In-Wonder X800. It's taken nearly five months since then for them to be ready for sale in Europe and the rest of the world. Can you outline the biggest issues that caused the delays for both products?"

Godfrey: I'll start with All-In-Wonder. Basically we've added some entirely new features to the latest AGP All-In-Wonder, like SCART output, DVI and VGA on the backplane and FM tuning. All three of those things have to work together and work well, along with everything else the All-In-Wonder has to do. There's also been a lot of unforseen localisation work involved to bring, especially the TV functionality, the product to different markets with different TV standards, so it's been a bunch of work to get that done, more than we anticipated.

With 550 PRO, I'd say we've done a fabulous job to bring it to market as soon as we have. It's got half a TV tuner can, MPEG-2 output, PCI and PCI Express interfaces, 12-bit decoder, to name just a few. Add to that the testing that we've gone through with Microsoft and ISF in terms of the video quality, and I'd say 550 PRO absolutely has the best video quality available on the PC today, and we absolutely believe in that.

Rys: "So it's a given that 550 PRO brings all those features to the table, including 3D comb for composite video and millions of gates on the silicon just for cleaning up video streams, all in what seems a very affordable ASIC?"

Godfrey: Yeah, that's right.

Rys: "So with that kind of feature set, are you still confident that, despite the delay, you're still well ahead of your competitors with the features and video quality?"

Godfrey: Absolutely. It's a pure video chip, to coin a term that someone's misusing at the moment. What we've been able to do is revolutionalise the TV chip industry, and I don't just mean for the PC. Everyone else is reacting to us with the 550 PRO's unassailable video quality. The magic with the 550 PRO is the integration of pretty much 5 separate ASICs into one chip, while still improving on the video quality.

Rys: "So far, all the talk about 550 PRO has concerned video quality. So what have you done on the audio side with 550 PRO, to improve on 200's ability and quality?"

Godfrey: The 550 PRO has a full world-wide audio decoder for absolutely any AV stream that the 550 PRO can deal with. It's got a best in class signal-to-noise ratio and we've spent a bunch of our transistor budget on the AV-sync engine and that capability.

Rys: "I remember when we talked in September that you told me 550 PRO had come back from TSMC first time, as working silicon. You sent it back for a second spin to tune the analogue video quality. But the 550 PRO sample you showed me earlier was A13 silicon, indicating it's had another spin in the meantime. What else has changed?"

Godfrey: Yeah, A11 came back with all blocks functional and we tweaked a minor quality issue to get A12. All that happened for A13 were further analogue video quality tweaks, to get things right.

Rys: "We talked yesterday about how people in Europe are keen to embrace dual tuners in their system, moreso than you'd thought and more than you think America is keen to do. Are you surprised, and what's the status of dual-tuner running with 550 PRO?"

Godfrey: It's always been something we've been looking at. Remember the dual-tuner demo in September? The challenge at ATI is always to come up with the best solutions our customers want, so we'll do everything we can with our partners to make sure we get it right with 550 PRO.

Rys: "Why no RF pass-through on the first round of 550 PRO-based standalone tuner products? For some people the 550 PRO might not be the end of their RF feed"

Godfrey: It's something we'll consider for future versions of 550 PRO products, but the backplane space is really vital real-estate and we need to be absolutely sure what we use it for.

Rys: "So when will we see 550 PRO-based products that will tune HDTV and DVB-T? DVB-T is a pretty big deal over here now, making it a deal-breaker for some. Related, what does ATI think about the FCC demanding that the HDTV Wonder be removed from sale until it full supports the broadcast flag that can protect HDTV AV streams?

Godfrey: The solution to the first part of your question might not lie with 550 PRO! We're in active development with solutions that support DVB-T and HDTV, but 550 PRO might not be what we use. Stay tuned.

As for the FCC stuff, we're very aware of the FCC regulation and we'll supply products that are broadcast flag compliant after the 1st of the July, the for-sale limit.

Rys: "So that means the current HDTV Wonder becomes hot property on July 2nd?"

Godfrey: I've got no idea.

Rys: "I've been talking to some people with the NTSC version of the standalone 550 PRO tuner product and they're not seeing giant leaps in video quality over their Theater 200 or other PC tuners, tuning regular broadcast cable TV. Are they just enjoying clean feeds to start with, or do 550 PRO's biggest strengths in improving video quality lie with different types of video, outside of basic TV tuning?"

Godfrey: Try looking at it on a larger screen! The improvements are definitely there, empirically, through analysis and just through what you can see on a big screen. We've been working with Microsoft and ISF for certification on 550 PRO and it's passed those tests easily, making it by far the best TV tuner product for PC that they've ever tested. In addition to that, X700 and X800 have been certified by ISF to have the best quality possible and they pass the same tests as 550 PRO with the same flying colours.

ISF has been around for a long time and they usually certify stuff like high end projectors from guys like Barco, and therefore their work with ISF to certify our products shows you just how well we do in terms of video quality. Other vendors you might have heard about have also submitted hardware to Microsoft and ISF recently, but I can't see any announcement that they passed *shrugs shoulders*

Rys: "Haha, point taken. So you've stopped the creation of your MPEG-2 decoder software for DVD and you don't ship one for MCE2005. Is it just a question of resources being spread thin inside ATI?"

Godfrey: You're right, there's no decoder for DVD for MCE2005 from us. It's just not a profitable investment for us right now, and we'd rather work closely with guys like Intervideo and Cyberlink to make sure their decoders work great with our hardware, since those are the two decoders that get shipped with everything worldwide.

Rys: "What about NVIDIA's decoder?"

Godfrey: Yeah, we're aware of their decoder but as far as we're aware no OEMs ship it at all, and OEMs seem not to want to ship a decoder that's hardware dependant, whereas the decoders we support from Cyberlink and Intervider don't just support ATI hardware.

Rys: "Finally, before we move on to the REALLY important stuff, a personal kind of question from me, related to your comment about AV sync not long ago. Whenever I attempt to build my perfect PC-based PVR, I'm never entirely happy with AV sync. I'll be watching TV via the PC and slowly the audio will creep out of phase with the video stream. It's something I see with my set-top boxes at home too, that I use to tune Freeview. So if I buy a pair of 550 PRO-based tuners for my next attempt at the perfect PVR, what's 550 PRO going to do for me and help me create a system that's immune to AVsync issues? And will adding a third tuner, or a fourth, give me even bigger problems in that respect?

Godfrey: Each 550 PRO looks after its own input AV stream and output MPEG-2 stream, and it's a separate subsystem on the chip. Like I said before, each 550 PRO has dedicated gate count designed to really tackle and solve this problem. So each 550 PRO keeps that particular house in order, so to speak, and adding multiple tuners doesn't affect the ability of each individual tuner subsystem. I'm confident 550 PRO is the best affordable processor for that problem and things should be great if you give it a go with our newest tuners. So what's the REALLY important stuff you want to ask?