REVIEW MAY 9 , 2001
Cards for Mac Video
Ive tried and owned both platforms, and Im still more impressed with the Macs speed and ease of use when it comes to editing, graphics, and compositing. Part of my appreciation for the Mac is its elegant system and up-to-date processor. If youve ever used a G4, you know what Im talking about. After working on a PC, Ive come to appreciate the Mac for its ease of swapping files from one application to another, and the way I can stick any weird character into a file name and the Mac OS doesnt care. Also, when I am working late at night and end up with a computer error, its much easier for me to diagnose and fix a Mac problem than when Im working with Windows. Its also cool that Macs can easily read PC disks and open their files something that Windows machines still balk at. In general, I think Macs are more modern in their processes, so, in my opinion, they are a good choice for doing demanding jobs like hi-res video.
you can imagine, Macs had I/O cards, compression, and editing technology
that seemed to virtually explode from Radius, SuperMac (eventually
acquired by Radius), Intelligent Resources, Truevision, RasterOps,
Immix (acquired by Scitex and then Àccom), Data Translation
(now Media 100), and Avid. All of these companies were in competition
on the Mac platform and the PC side of things, in comparison, was
rather lackluster and just gaining a foothold. Most of what was
happening in the development of compression, QuickTime, and video
I/O was first being tried and tested on the Mac.
lost its luster in 1997, it looked as if it was down for the count.
Macs made by Apple were slower and more expensive than the Mac clones
that were prevalent at the time. The Amiga also was long gone and
most developers scrambled to port their products over to the PC.
Adobe, Avid, Media 100, and Newtek the key players in the
industry eventually came out with PC products. Most people
thought that Apple was losing it, while at the same time it was
leaving its real power users to struggle with computers that were
more expensive and less powerful than their PC counterparts. Thus
began the slide from Mac to PC.
We all know
the rest of the story. Steve Jobs came back and revamped Apple,
made sweeping changes, and restored the companys profitability.
Jobs also bought-out all the other company agreements that had been
manufacturing Mac clones, putting Apple back into the drivers
seat again. Then, Apple came out with the iMac, a Lee Iacocca-type
of company bailout. Jobs knew that Apple was making too many machines,
was confusing the marketplace, and needed to stay in step with the
innovations that were now emerging from the PC world. Apple seemed
to be going consumer, and so video pros again thought theyd
been abandoned. We all started looking at NT machines a lot more
closely. Things have changed once again and Final Cut Pro deserves
much of the credit.
versus M-JPEG Video
signals can utilize the built-in hard drive on most Macs. Currently,
a relatively quick IDE drive with enough space can handle DV video
on a Mac, and the G4 can accommodate 100GB of storage internally
without hanging on additional arrays. Thats quite a bit of
space for most people, and this setup is ideal for Final Cut Pro
or Adobe Premiere. The DV format is very forgiving.
S-Video, component analog, or uncompressed videocards require some
form of SCSI or Fibre Channel disk array because theyre digitizing
M-JPEG and not the DV format. Throughput issues then become very
important, which also includes how many channels of audio will be
digitized concurrently with the picture. Many times, this factor
is ignored. On an Avid Media Composer, you can digitize high-quality
M-JPEG video plus eight channels of 44.1kHz digital audio and this
requires a SCSI accelerator and a carefully matched disk array or
Fibre Channel setup. It raises the cost of the system, but the quality
is better than DV because video can be captured up to uncompressed
resolutions on systems that are so equipped. When all of it comes
together correctly, up to HD resolutions are possible. At HD levels,
Fibre Channel becomes a sensible requirement.
The next factor
that is important to video pros is the issue of realtime effects.
These become more difficult to achieve as less compression is used
because two or three streams of digitized video have to be manipulated
in realtime. This type of performance still requires serious hardware
and separates the semi-pro systems from those that are considerably
more expensive with a greater number of professional features. Realtime
effects also require software drivers that can actuate the components
on the board to assist in the process of producing the effect on
the designated video layer. Without this hardware and software link-up,
not much can take place.
As of the time
of this writing, Ive been promised by both the board manufacturers
and software developers, including Adobe for Premiere 6.0, that
all of this is currently being developed. However, realtime effects
at this price point will have to be seamless if theyre planning
on competing with the big boys. Currently, Avid, Media 100, and
Àccom are the undisputed leaders in creating systems for
the Mac that use realtime effects with keyframe capability. Those
three companies have had years to perfect the marriage of their
hardware and software, and theyve managed to make it work
at professional broadcast levels. Needless to say, this is the 21st
century and miracles can happen. Also, its not the time to
ignore what is going on with the new version of Premiere 6.0. While
Final Cut certainly has made a dent in the video market, it was
developed by the same guys that created Premiere. The ease of sliding
Adobe files from one application to another and the importance of
third-party plug-ins for Premiere is not something to be taken lightly,
even if Final Cut Pro is an exciting system.
Like all current
videocards, the RTMac is PCI bus and allows realtime processing
of incoming video, compressing it to disk. Its claim is that it
can accept composite or S-Video and compress it in realtime to DV,
which minimizes the disk array requirements. Surprisingly, the card
is available for $999about as close to a grand as you can
get, yet still a hair under that magic number.
that a lot of video pros are using Macs and have been for many years.
Also, it has worked directly with Apple to make the RTMac as seamless
as possible with Final Cut Pro. Matrox is writing drivers for Final
Cut Pro that it says will allow the RTMac to handle up to three
layers of realtime video. These three layers have to be a combination
of video and graphics, not all motion video. However, youll
be able to do a number of useful two-layer transitions in realtime,
such as dissolves, push wipes, rotation, and cropping the
usual things that you could do in Final Cut Pro, but would have
to render. Dropshadow and opacity adjustments also will be available
in realtime. (As you read on, Pinnacles board will have similar
realtime capabilities as far as Final Cut Pros realtime effects).
Realtime effects will be viewable as you create your effect, but
may still need to be rendered at the time of output. So the benefit
may not be as great as we had hoped for, but may still help give
Final Cut Pro the additional horsepower it needs to keep up with
the professional crowd on tight deadlines.
The new version
of Final Cut Pro, version 2.0, will be compatible with Matroxs
and Pinnacles new drivers. When asked how users will know
which combination of effects are realtime and which ones arent,
the Final Cut Pro 2.0 program will have a render bar that will turn
green for realtime effects, instead of just red and blue as it currently
does in version 1.2. Various combinations of effects may or may
not be realtime and that combination is something that users will
have to learn by doing.
The RTMac is
a good solution for users with semi-pro equipment. The connections
are RCA, not BNC, and, likewise, audio is brought in unbalanced
on RCA connectors and not XLRs. Fortunately, there is a breakout
box to help with the wiring. It will be designed to sit on or under
The RTMac also
includes the ability to simultaneously display signals on a VGA
computer monitor, plus an NTSC or PAL monitor at full res. Matrox
wasnt planning to include a driver for Premiere 6.0 with the
initial ship. I think Matrox should consider writing a piece of
software just for digitizing for people who simply need to bring
video into their Macs, in case they arent planning on using
Final Cut Pro but are planning on compositing sources in After Effects
4.1 or for rotoscoping.
Matrox released the RTMac on March 14. We have begun shipping Matrox RTMac cards to fulfill the backlog of orders and to stock the distribution channel, says Spiro Plagakis, Matrox vice president of sales and marketing. The product is also available for purchase from authorized dealers and distributors worldwide.
point, while most contemporary cards use the D1 resolutions of 720x486
with rectangular pixels, Pinnacles card uses the more traditional
640x480 square-pixel format. However, this is a very inexpensive
card and does a lot for the money. Video and audio ins and outs
terminate in RCA-type connectors and an S-Video port also is part
of the package.
would rather talk about is the new Targa 3000 (T3K for short), which
is offered as the Targa Cine package. This package includes the
board, a copy of Commotion, and Knoll Light Factory. The bundle
will cost $6,000, which isnt bad if you consider that Commotion
is a valuable piece of software on its own, and youre getting
a D1 card and FX software to boot. If the T3K lives up to its specs,
it will be an impressive piece of hardware.
The T3K can handle up to uncompressed resolutions, has RGB support, and includes a much more professional breakout box equipped with BNC video and XLR audio connectors. This is more what video pros would need to interface with pro VCRs. Additionally, the T3K will have realtime effects, with the same type of effects mentioned with the RTMac. Pinnacle also says that Apple is developing QuickTime 5.0, which will allow new possibilities with realtime effects. It also is going to include Premiere 6.0 in its plans to write the appropriate drivers, along with full support for Final Cut Pro. Of all of the cards Ive mentioned, this is the one to watch.
little board really does have some amazing features, but none of
the realtime effects weve been talking about from Matrox and
Pinnacle. Its just a different kind of board for serious video
designers who work with digital recorders and are looking for the
best video quality at a reasonable price.
On the connector
panel of the D1 Desktop, there are three BNCs and one DB-15 D-sub
connector (the same type of connector used for Mac RGB monitors)
that is used for the audio. This tiny connector allows as many as
six channels of balanced AES/EBU digital audio. While this capability
is wonderful, its execution leaves much to the imagination. If you
want to bring in regular analog sound and digitize it, it requires
the user to purchase an outboard analog-to-digital audio converter.
This will, no doubt, alienate some users. The D1 Desktop does provide
a genlock port and word clock for this, and the company says this
allows its owners to use low-cost, off-the-shelf converters. But
for folks working with digital DAT machines, disk players, or DigiBeta
decks, you have a system that is totally digital. You also have
to wire this connector yourself if you want more than the two channels
of audio that it comes wired with. This is a lot of wiring to cram
into such a small connector, so on with the more impressive stuff.
The other two
BNC ports are SDI in and out. There are no composite, S-Video, or
component ports on this card. Its strictly a no-frills digital
card and the price is right at $3,999.
It is possible
to work with 16:9 images with the D1 Desktop 64AV, (720x576 or 720x486).
You can use this board to generate a Mac desktop on another monitor
so you can draw or paint in Photoshop or another application and
monitor your results digitally in NTSC. Mac software for the control
strip is included and it brings up a selectable safe title and safe
picture grid what most of us call safe
action. There also is a letterbox generator mode. The D1 Desktop
64 has a full 10-bit output and 64-bit PCI bus connection.
A simple piece
of software called Media Transfer is included with the board so
that you can capture video from a digital deck and control its transport.
The controls mimic normal deck functions. This is thoughtful considering
that owners of a D1 card might also be graphic designers who need
to bring video into After Effects or other Mac compositing programs.
Currently, Digital Voodoo only supplies a traditional round (mini-octal)
serial connector, and not the current USB Mac port on the later
G3s and G4s. Perhaps a USB-to-serial adapter will do the trick.
Because the D1 Desktop 64AV can capture uncompressed media, the company recommends a minimum of two fast 9GB drives, striped together in pairs, running on an accelerated SCSI bus. This is nothing new to Avid users, but it means that a SCSI card will need to be purchased for owners of newer Macs, and probably even older Macs. Final Cut Pro is, of course, supported and a special QuickTime codec for selecting the ability to render to the Voodoo card is offered. This card would be useful for Photoshop artists wanting to work digitally in NTSC. There is a way for After Effects users to see their motion video fullscreen in PAL or NTSC while they work with this card and even Painter is supported.
for the Money
That was nine years ago, the boards were $12,000, huge, and filled with LSIs. Nobody expected to actually digitize uncompressed media, just work with it. Now things are vastly different. Macs are still on the edge of technology, and prices are a fraction of what they once were. All of these cards will need to be proven in actual production to really test them, but for now the competition is heating up and Im curious to see who will eventually win. Im sure that Avid, Media 100, and Àccom wont be sitting idly by.
Post a message in the Creative Mac World Wide User Group.
Contributing editor Rick Shaw is managing director of Z Post, a post house in Atlanta that specializes in nonlinear editing and digital media production for a variety of broadcast and corporate clients. He can be reached at [email protected].
© 2001, Intertec Publishing, A Primedia Company All Rights Reserved.