It would be fair to say that the image quality we obtained from ATI and Nvidia hardware has given us a lot to think about. On one hand we have ATI with a superior level of detail; on the other we have Nvidia with much more intense and realistic colour, not only on skin but many areas of scenery too.
We were quite surprised with the results of Nvidia's colour/tone enhancements also; these features have the ability to greatly increase the detail levels but most of the time this comes at a cost with other areas of the screen becoming overpowering and unnatural. We firmly believe that features like these can only be considered a success if they can be left enabled at all times, after all the last thing you want to think about when sitting down to watch a movie is “Do I want to chance the image quality being impaired?”. Therefore we cannot recommend any end user enables these options until they have evolved a little more.
So this leaves us with Nvidia default quality against ATI default quality, and the performance or features that both manufacturers offer. In terms of performance and features we have to say that Nvidia is the clear winner as they currently allow playback with Aero enabled and good CPU usage statistics regardless of whether the image includes one stream or two. With ATI, losing Aero with a high definition disc running is a real disappointment, especially considering the length of time they have had to rectify this. Additionally the inability to decode both video streams can impact the desktop experience in a negative manner, especially on systems with lower specification processors.
Image quality is much closer between the two due to both having good and bad points. Clearly with some time and patience it would be possible to work out the best settings for each card, but we should be much closer to perfection at default settings than we are. In reality, the best image is probably somewhere in between the two produced. If we had to choose one as our preference, overall it would probably be Nvidia as much of the detail issues could be fixed by an increase in brightness rather than significant work to get skin tone correct on ATI.
It is clear though that while both manufacturers excel in HQV benchmarks, there is still a lot of time and attention needed to be given to the area which consumers will care about and use most, high definition playback with the best image quality possible.