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Sigma Designs REALmagic X-Card review

Many years ago when the Hollywood Plus was first released it was considered a great piece of hardware, allowing everyone to play VCDs/DVDs & MPEG1/2 on just about any system that could run Windows.

Without doubt, one of the most popular peripherals Sigma has ever released however, since then, we have all moved on a bit.

Tired of sacrificing quality vs. analogue overlay support, and with the continued release of more impressive software DVD decoders (and videocards supporting better MPEG decoding); the REALmagic Xcard from Sigma Designs is their latest attempt to show us all why a hardware decoder is still the best choice. Or, is it?

 

Connectivity

The X-card comes with a good variety of outputs for sound & video. Compared to the Hollywood Plus some of the main improvements being the addition of a Digital Video Port which allows you to use digital overlay with compatible Graphics cards, e.g. NVIDIA GeForce & such (Well, any Graphics card that features an internal Digital Video input – though a cable for this isn’t provided and is regarded more as a future feature as not all Graphics cards support this – thus currently isn’t enabled even), a Component Video output (RGB/YPbPr) adapter is also included (Supporting up to 1080i) – it’s worth noting that this is also available on certain revisions the Hollywood Plus though not officially supported and requires some other workarounds in addition to just the adapter. There’s also a SCART RGB kit available online for the Xcard – I was sent this too, however the bracket was missing so I’ll not be testing that out.

Other than those additions, the Xcard bundle includes a S-Video to Composite video adapter, a Composite video cable, 2 Line-Out cables – 1 short one which is intended if you wish to (externally) connect to your Soundcard’s Line-In via the Xcard’s Line-Out port, the second one provides Left/Right Phono outputs should you wish to connect directly to your Speaker system.

The internal connectors (Line-Out, etc.) have been updated over those on the Hollywood Plus also & should be compatible with standard Analog/S/PDIF cables you’ll find with your Soundcard & such.

For those of you who’ll be using the (analog) pass-through cable to connect with your Graphics card the strength of this cable has been significantly increased over that which was supplied with the Hollywood Plus.

There’s also a Coaxial S/PDIF output port on the Xcard’s bracket to provide AC-3/DTS output to a compatible receiver, this can be used for digital output of other audio formats also though too. The only minor niggle with this is that there is no Optical S/PDIF output though seemingly lack of space is the reason for this – most decoders accept both Coaxial & Optical inputs anyway (& Coaxial to Optical converters are always available too of course).

 

Analogue Overlay

Much like the Hollywood Plus before it, Xcard supports Analog overlay when using the VGA pass-through cable to connect to your Graphics card. This is one important aspect which has been improved upon since the Hollywood Plus as the Xcard no longer features the analog overlay chip – which was the cause of image degradation (Depending a bit on the resolution & refresh rate used) with many systems. With this chip gone I can honestly say I saw zero difference between using analog overlay and not using it, with the Xcard. One minor side effect of the non-existence of this chip however is that there is no windowed playback available as there is with the Hollywood Plus – only fullscreen. A small price to pay for better quality overlay support though. After a few weeks using the pass-through cable I’ve now removed it as I only really use the TV output with the Xcard.

Xcard also uses 30-Bit output which provides improved colour output over that available with most of today’s Graphics cards (32-Bit colour on most Graphics cards actually means 24-Bit plus 8-Bit for transparency). As such only the Matrox Parhelia perhaps can rival the image vibrancy available with the Xcard thanks to its 10-Bit per channel output (Rather than 8-Bit).

 



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