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Appeared on: Thursday, April 22, 2004
Aopen XRecorder


1. Introduction - Specifications

AOpen XRecorder VX2000 - Page 1

AOpen’s Xrecorder VX2000S is an external TV tuner which can also perform still image capture and video capture using MPEG2 hardware compression, so everything you need is found in an external box rather than an add-in card.

The XRecorder easily connects to a PC with a USB cable and offers IEEE 1394 (DV), S-Video and composite video inputs for connecting video devices, cameras, TV, etc. The great benefit is that all processing takes place in the XRecorder itself, which can output in both MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 formats, which means that the resulting video file is a lot smaller than raw video.

Features

  • Receive TV broadcasts: 158 channels cable/antenna
  • External inputs for video capture: AV and S-video inputs for external video resource like cameras and VCRs.
  •  1394 inputs for external video resource like DV and DV8.
  • Wireless remote control included: Channels up/down, Volume up/down.
  • Full motion video capture:
    - Hardware MPEG1
    352x240,320x240
    - Hardware MPEG2 720x480,640x480,480x480,352x480

Specifications

  • TV Function
    158 channels cable/antenna
    Re-Sizeable video window up to full screen
    Auto scan to quickly scan available TV channels.
    Favorite TV channel editing or rename.
  •  World Wide Television Video Standards
    1. USA, Canada, Middle America: NTSC-M
      South America:
      Chile: NTSC-M, Brazil: PAL-M(60MHz), Argentina: PAL-N(50MHz)
    2. England: PAL-I,
      France: SECAM-L
      Germany, South-North Europe: PAL-B,G
    3. Japan: NTSC-M
    4. Mideast: SECAM-B,G
      Turkey, South Arabia peninsula: PAL-B,G
    5. Australia: PAL-B,G
  • Capture Function (MPEG1/2 Hardware Encoder):
    -
    Still image snapshot as JPG format.
    - Fully compatible with Microsoft WDM.
    - Full motion video capture up to 720x480 @ 30 fps (frame per second) interlaced.
    - Mpeg video compression up to 15MB bitrate for USB2.0 or 4MB bitrate for USB1.1
    - Video format compatible to DVD, SVCD and VCD
  • Dimension
    18cm width x 12.5cm depth x 3.5cm height
  • External inputs for video capture: 
    - AV and S-video inputs for external video resource like cameras and VCRs.
    - 1394 inputs for external video resource like DV and DV8.
  • Wireless remote control included:
    - Power off, Numeric Keypad, Channels up/down, Volume up/down,  Mute....
  • External interface:
    - 75 ohm IEC coaxial input (cable TV), composite input (RCA), S-Video input( SVHS), Audio input(RCA), and DV(1394) - USB2.0 / 1.0 interface
  • Valuable Friendly Software Package:
    - Ulead Video@Home
    - Ulead VideoStudio 7.0SE DVD CD disc
    - Ulead PhotoImpact 7.0 CD disc
  • Regulatory Compliance:
    FCC Class B
    CE
    C-Tick
  • System Requirement:
    -
    IBM PC Pentium III 500 MHz or higher
    - Minimum 128 MB system memory
    - Minimum 200 MB of free hard disk space
    - VGA and with DirectDraw supporting 16 bit color or higher
    - Microsoft Windows 2000 / XP / ME
    - USB 2.0 or USB 1.1
    - Microsoft Windows compatible sound card
  • Package Contents
    - AOpen VX2000 Box
    - AOpen VX2000 Case Stand
    - AOpen VX2000 Manual and Quick Guide
    - AOpen VX2000 Driver and Ulead Video@Home CD disc
    - Ulead VideoStudio 7.0SE DVD CD disc
    - Ulead PhotoImpact 7.0 CD disc
    -
    1394 Cable x1
    - USB2.0 Cable x1
    - 3RCA to 3RCA cable (Video and Audio)
    -
    Power Adapter x1
    - IR remote contoller
    - battery AAA x2

The AOpen Xrecorder offers three choices of external input for video capture, namely Composite video (RCA plug), S-Video and IEEE 1394 (also known as FireWire or i.link). While we tried all three, for the purposes of these tests we decided to use the S-video connection as it is the one most likely to be used by most end users.

Most TVs today offer both composite and S-Video connections, but we would highly recommend that composite video not be used with a DVD player for technical reasons that are explained later on in this review.

Very briefly, with composite video, the luminance and colour information are combined into one signal which must then be separated at the receiveing end. This separation process invariably creates a slightly degraded picture when compared to S-video, which carries the luminance and colour information separately, thus producing a higher quality picture.

More information regarding the device is available here. The latest drivers vR4.0 can be downloaded in Aopen's webite.

We connected the XRecorder to our PC using the USB port (2.0), running under Windows XP operating system.


2. Main Chipset

AOpen XRecorder VX2000 - Page 2

- Internal parts

The CS92288 real-time audio/video codec is the heart of the XRecorder. This versatile chip from Cirus Logic supports both the MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 digital video standards, as well as the Dolby Digital and MPEG digital audio standards. It enables high quality video and audio playback across a wide range of bit rates.

The photo below shows the inside of the XRecorder with the Philips TV tuner prominent. The tuner provides very good TV reception. However, all the high tech stuff is on the daughterboard to the right of the tuner, where there are a number of very interesting chips being used. Among them the TSB41AB2 IEEE 1394a-2000 two-port cable transceiver/arbiter from Texas Instruments, the HY57V643220C CMOS Synchronous DRAM from Hynix, the PDI11394L40 full duplex 1394 A/V LLC from Philips and the NW721 DV Codec from Divio.

Underneath the daughterboard, on the main board is the Cirus Logic CS92288 shown below (all that can be seen here is the fan unit. We made no attempts to disect the unit any further).

A problem here was the large amount of noise the unit produced. After opening the box and peeking inside, we discovered the culprit was the fan attached to the heat sink of the Cirrus Logic hardware MPEG2 chip. The noise levels that it produced were rather annoying, even after a small “fix” we applied in an effort to stop it from making noise. We trust that the problem was in the sample we got for our testing purposes.


3. Inputs / Outputs

AOpen XRecorder VX2000 - Page 3

XRecorder Connections

The unit features a complete set of inputs for connecting a number of devices to capture video from: S-Video or Composite Video In, stereo audio input, cable TV/aerial antenna TV input. Last but not least, an IEEE1394 input is there if you want to connect a DV camcorder. All the connectors except the TV input are located in the front making connecting/disconnecting cables easier. All the necessary cables were included in the packaging, so you don’t need to buy any extra cables to connect your video sources.

The front panel of the XRecorder is shown in the following picture.

As can be seen in this photo, there are three choices of input available for video capture. From left to right we have:

You would connect your external video source device such as a DVD player, VCR, camera, etc using one of these connections.

The following picture shows the rear panel.

Here we have the power input (5V DC), 75 ohm IEC coaxial input (cable TV antenna), USB port which connects to your PC, and on the far right the on/off switch.

The following diagram shows the possible source devices and how they can be connected to the XRecorder, and the USB connection which is here shown going to a portable PC.

How a video signal is generated

The three primary colours used in broadcast TV systems are red, green and blue or RGB for short. The proportions in which they are mixed however is not equal. The equation 0.30 R' + 0.59 G' + 0.11 B', corresponds to the human eye's sensitivity to each of the three colours. When combined in these proportions, they produce one signal, called the luminance signal. In fact, that is how a black and white TV works. All it shows is the contrast in a picture, without the colour information. When colour TV came on the scene, one of the criteria was that a colour signal had to still be compatible with black and white TVs which were still in use. All a black and white TV does, is to take the luminance information in the transmitted signal and discard the colour portion.

Next, in order to create the colour or chrominance signal, the three separate RGB signals are again combined in the following proportions to produce two new intermediate signals.

I = 0.74 (R'-Y) - 0.27 (B'-Y) = 0.60 R' - 0.28 G' - 0.32 B'
Q = 0.48 (R'-Y) + 0.41 (B'-Y) = 0.21 R' - 0.52 G' + 0.31 B'

The I and Q signals are bandwidth limited and separately modulated onto a carrier with frequency of 3.58 MHz and 90 degrees out of phase with each other. The resultant signals are then added together producing a quadrature amplitude modulated (QAM) chrominance signal.

S-Video input

S-Video specifications

As was stated earlier, S-Video provides much better quality as compared to a composite connection because the brightness signal (Y) which carries clock pulses travels separately from the color signal (U, V), thus preventing color crosstalk aberrations, along with a frequency bandwidth of 6 MHz ensuring higher sharpness at 500 lines.

Composite video input

Used for composite signal transmission, today, most TV sets have at least one composite video input, characterised by the yellow RCA plug. It is used for transmission of video along with audio (on separate connectors coloured white and red). The bandwidth supported is narrower than that of S-Video being only 4.2 MHz, hence the low sharpness. The bearer is a single wire with shielded earth, requiring that the colour and brightness or luminance signals be mixed. Because the two signals are mixed, they require separation at the receiver. The separation is never perfect due to the overlap of some frequencies from both signals when they are originally mixed producing a form of color crosstalk aberration, something that is noticeable in contrast details.

DV input

Digital Video, also known as DV, IEEE 1394, FireWire and i-link. Video that has been produced by a DV camera for example, and can be easily imported into a computer for editing or encoding. The video is sampled at the same rate as D-1, D-5, or Digital Betacam video, although the color information is only half the D-1 rate: 4:1:1 in 525-line (NTSC), and 4:2:0 in 625-line (PAL) formats. DV images are compressed but use a superior technique to motion-JPEG, allowing for higher-quality 5:1 compression. DV video data is transmitted at a guaranteed rate (known as isochronous), which is a feature of the IEEE 1394 bus, supporting data transfer rates of up to 400Mbps (1394a) and 800Mbps (1394b).

Connect your camcorder to the XRecorder and then save your videos to your PC through the XRecorder. Because the XRecorder performs the compression for you (and at a very high quality), you save on both disk space and processing time/power.


4. Software Features

AOpen XRecorder VX2000 - Page 4

Software

So, enough with the technical talk and on to the XRecorder itself. Using the software, the user can select the source device on the Xrecorder, arrange TV channels as well as choose the recording quality.

The XRecorder comes bundled with Ulead's Video@Home software.Software installation is a breeze, all you need to do is install the necessary drivers from the included CD, and the bundled software that controls the unit’s functions. The software used is Ulead’s Video@Home vR2.0 which proved to be quite easy to use.

An infrared remote control is included as well, allowing you to control the unit’s functions, like changing channels, adjusting volume etc. The infrared receiver is located in the front of the box. However, while simple to use, Video@Home does not offer advanced features, lacking a channel browse function, picture-in-picture or downloadable programme schedules. On the other hand, key PVR features like scheduled recording and time shift are provided.

More features

The X-recorder also has a built-in TV tuner that allows the user to receive a signal from an Antenna or Cable TV input, with the ability to record in real time any desired TV channel. The antenna input is located on the rear panel of the XRecorder, next to the 5V DC input. Furthermore, the XRecorder can operate as a standard TV receiver. Simply set the source device to TV in Video@Home.

When operating as a TV receiver, the only settings that must be configured are the Country/Region, TV system and Input Type. You will need to know the transmission standard supported in your country (e.g. PAL, NTSC). If your country is not listed, then choose one that supports the same standard as yours. For our tests, we selected Germany and Pal with input from an Antenna.

Next, by selecting the Auto Scan button, the system will scan through all the channels automatically, and marking with a tick any channels that produce a signal (see the screen-shot at left).

 

Ulead's Video@Home also includes a scheduled writing feature. By using this feature, you can record a TV program at a scheduled time, so you will never have to lose your favorite show again. Simply specify the channel, date, the start and the end times, the recording frequency (i.e. whether this is a once off job, every day, etc), and the recording mode (quality). One handy feature that is missing here is an auto shutdown option so that the system will shutdown when recording has finished.

The retail package also includes an IR remote control (see photo at left). The dimensions of the control were a little bigger than we expected but it does allow you to fully control the X-Recorder with the remote control. The response time is fast and it includes Power On/Off , Channel Up/Down, Volume Up/Down, Mute, Source selection, Record, Snap and navigation buttons. One snag is that there is no explanation in the manual for what each button does, so you'll have to experiment. While most buttons are similar to those found on most common remote controls, on button that may not be so well known is SAP (Second Audio Program). Most television sets can receive two separate audio channels, Main (stereo/mono) and a Second Audio Program (SAP) channel.


5. Working with the software

AOpen XRecorder VX2000 - Page 5

Working with the software

The quality of the video capture is dependent on whether you’re using USB1.1, or 2.0. For USB 1.1 only systems, the USB port’s available bandwidth is only 4Mbps, while hooking up to a USB 2.0 port will provide 15Mbps. Keeping in mind that around 10.08Mbps is the bandwidth that DVD movies use, you will see that there is a bandwidth problem when the device is connected to a USB1.1 system. In fact, during our tests we tried connecting the unit using both USB1.1 and USB 2.0 ports.

Before proceeding to capture any video, we configured the capture quality. The available choices are illustrated in the screenshot below which shows the preset values. In addition to these, the program allows the user to manually configure his/her own video capture quality.

We connected the X-Recorder to a home DVD player (S-video connection) in order to capture a DVD movie. We used the S-video cable that came with the X-Recorder and used both USB 1.0 and USB 2.0 connections to run the tests twice. We then launched Video@Home. The first step is to choose S-Video as the input source. The software, without any further configuration, recognized the input signal and the movie played in Video@Home's window.

We used the same video snippet and proceeded to record and store a file for each of the available preset recording quality levels. The duration of the test snippet was 30 seconds. The results are given in the table below.

Preset Quality
Video Size
BitRate
DVD (Extremely good)
36.7mb
Video 9.79MBps
Audio 224Kbps
DVD (Very good)
27.6mb
Video 8.19MBps
Audio 224Kbps
DVD (Good)
22.3mb
Video 6.14MBps
Audio 224Kbps
DVD (Normal)
11.0mb
Video 2.27MBps
Audio 224Kbps
DVD (Fair)
7.56mb
Video 1.47MBps
Audio 224Kbps
VCD
3.07mb
Video 8.19MBps
Audio 224Kbps

As would be expected, the resultant output video file sizes correspond to the selected BitRate used for video capture.

When using USB1.1 the quality of the image is not very good and we noticed the classic MPEG2 video artefacts (blocking, mosquito noise). This was apparent especially on fast moving scenes, or when the source video is noisy, or when the TV signal is poor (due to bad reception for example). Also the performance of Video@Home software was quite jumpy when a USB1.1 connection was used. Quite a number of times the application would crash or would become unresponsive.

Connecting the box using a USB2.0 connection did not seem to suffer from the problems described above. In this case, when viewed with the naked eye, there were no visible differences from the DVD (Extremely good) to the DVD (Good), while the VCD preset gave us a fair picture.

Overall, the quality of the captured image is very good depending a great amount on the quality of the video signal. For example, when capturing video from live television and the signal is coming from an aerial TV antenna, it is understandable that reception quality cannot always be consistent. The software offers many options for adjusting the quality of the capture, either using the offered presets (VCD/SVCD/DVD/Custom) or manually adjusting the level of the compression the hardware encoder uses.

Another fact that might seem strange is that the unit does not allow capturing a raw DV25 AVI over the USB 2.0 connection. As all the other signals from the rest of the inputs, the FireWire connection is passed through the Cirrus Logic chipset. This means the output will always be MPEG-based, regardless of the original source.

As far as watching TV goes, the AOpen VX2000 performs quite well. The image quality is good, comparing both with a TV and a Pinnacle PCTV Pro fed with the same signal. With the use of the bundled remote control you can use it in the same way as a TV, even begin recording a show you’re watching at the moment. It supports channels transmitting in stereo as well.

A feature that we would like to see but was not offered by the software was the ability to fine tune the frequency of the channels, or even enter manually the frequency of a TV station. If you have cable TV, probably you’ll never need this, but for us who still get TV through the air, it is something quite useful and can help adjust the quality of the received image for every channel. But these are more limitations of the bundled software than of the box’s itself.

Also during installation the software will ask you about what country you live to adjust the TV system (PAL/SECAM/NTSCS) and whether you have cable TV or TV through an aerial antenna. The list of countries is far from complete, so if you can’t find yours, just try a country close to you. In our case, there wasn’t any option for Greece, but the settings for Germany worked as well.

Third party software support for the tuner is a bit of an issue as well. We tried to operate the box using the latest version of Dscaler, but the program would refuse to initialize it. Most probably was a driver issue. So it seems that for the moment, you’re pretty stuck to using the bundled software to control the box’s functions. This may be ok for the majority of users, but for the ones that want to use the box in a more advanced way this may prove to be a setback. Let’s just hope that third party software developers will support it, and Aopen will produce drivers that will address the incompatibility issues.


6. Final words

AOpen XRecorder VX2000 - Page 6

Conclusion

Pros

Cons

  • Easy to install
  • Easy to use software
  • MPEG1/2 Hardware encoding
  • Complete set of video inputs
  • Tv-Tuner and video Capture in one device
  • Supports Pal and Ntsc
  • Led indicator for busy mode
  • Switch for Power On/Off
  • Wireless remote control, with fast access time
  • Good overall video quality
  • Usb 2.0 connection
  • Full retail package
  • Miserly manual, without remote control functions details
  • Process intensive during playback and capture
  • Noisy fan
  • No teletext/radio support
  • Does not allow raw DV25 capture from Firewire input
  • Use of third party software is problematic due to the current drivers
  • Price could be lower

The X-Recorder is the first capture device from Aopen that supports the USB2.0 protocol for connection with a dekstop or portable PC. The installation of the unit is easy enough as is the installation of virtually any USB device under WinXP. Despite the fact that XP recognised the device, new drivers must be installed in order for the device to work properly. The VX2000 XRecorder comes as a complete package, ranging from the XRecorder unit, a remote control (including batteries) and software for image editing.

The remote control is of course very handy for the user who wants to watch TV while laying back in his couch, and while it can control almost any function on the XRecorder, for capturing to disk, you must use the mouse or keyboard on your PC to press the ok button to store the captured video.

Overall, the quality of the captured image is very good depending a great amount on the quality of the video signal. The software offers many options for adjusting the quality of the capture, either using the offered presets (VCD/SVCD/DVD/Custom) or manually adjusting the level of the compression the hardware encoder uses.

On the other hand, a fact that might seem strange is that the unit does not allow capturing a raw DV25 AVI over the USB 2.0 connection.

Another of the weak points of the package is the manual and while most experienced users may not have much trouble figuring everything out, the manual is not going to be of much help to newbies or when you run into problems. It should have been much more thorough and with greater detail, containing only seven pages including three for the table of contents. Also, we didn't manage to find any information regarding the functions of the remote control. Depending on your familiarity with remote controls from similar devices, you will have to do some experimenting to figure everything out.

AOpen has managed to create a product that targets a wide audience, and which is both easy and fun to use after a short period of learning. Most of its shortcomings mentioned above would seem to come from the software, than from the box itself. If a simple TV tuner and video capture combination is what you’re looking for, then Aopen VX2000 should be perfect for you. However, its high price (~250 euros) and the lack of features like teletext and radio tuner could discourage some demanding candidate users.



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