The MPEG-4 standard, released more than two years ago but only now appearing in consumer devices, may be the next big thing for putting a big picture on your TV screen. Now Sigma Designs wants to find out if you're ready to put it in your PC - it has announced the Xcard, the first MPEG-4 expansion card for Windows PCs.
The Xcard is scheduled for release in March, priced at around £90 and available initially only through Sigma Designs' REALmagic Online store.
MPEG-4 is yet another specification by the Moving Picture Experts Group, the organisation that gave us MPEG-1 (video on CD), MPEG-2 (DVDs), and the MP3 audio format. It uses an object-oriented compression algorithm - a technological approach generally associated with animation systems such as Flash - to greatly reduce the bandwidth required for live-action video.
The potential is tantalizing. MPEG-4 could give us good-looking streaming video on the Web, DVD-quality movies on CD, and the long-promised video on demand. Just as MPEG-2 saw its first commercial success in DVD players, MPEG-4 is being positioned initially for sales primarily in set-top boxes. This is, after all, a technology for leaning back comfortably on a recliner in the living room and watching TV, not sitting upright in front of the PC.
For now, at least, all such set-top boxes are using Sigma Designs' EM8470 chip, the first and so far only MPEG-4 chip that supports the specification's full 720-by-576 resolution. At least one new portable entertainment center supports MPEG-4 video. Other available MPEG-4 chips have been designed for small-screen devices such as cell phones.
By TV or by PC
Sigma's aim in bringing its MPEG-4 technology to PCs through the Xcard expansion card is partly to improve the video on your PC (as the content becomes available). But, perhaps more importantly, the Xcard is intended as a tool to turn your PC into a device for sending video signals to your television. The card even comes with a remote control.
Unless you have some sort of wireless setup, that means keeping your TV and your PC in the same room. Luckily, the Xcard doesn't require a new computer. Most of the complex processing is done by the card, not the PC, keeping hardware requirements minimal. Sigma could not yet specify the exact hardware requirements, but expects the card will need at least a 100- to 200MHz Pentium system. Sigma built the Xcard as a PCI rather than an AGP card so it can be used with older PCs.
And what can you send to your TV? Not much yet, although that may change eventually. You can use the Xcard to watch DVDs, but it will provide no advantage over typical DVD software on a PC or a DVD player attached to a TV. Despite the likely low system requirements and price, the Xcard is not seen yet as a consumer item. Ken Lowe, Sigma's Vice President of Business Development, admits it's currently "for enthusiasts. People who enjoy new standards, [who like being on] the leading edge."