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Digital Voodoo
Jamesburg, N.J.

Pinnacle Systems
Mountain View, Calif.

Dorval, Canada


REVIEW MAY 9 , 2001

Trailblazing Cards for Mac Video
A look at three cards designed for the Mac that capture video but won't break your budget

by Rick Shaw
[email protected]

Three recent videocards for the Mac may prove to offer a lot of bang for the buck. The Mac is coming back into favor again with video pros, mostly because of FireWire, Final Cut Pro, and the DV format. However, the Mac certainly isn’t limited to prosumer mini-DV video, even though its most recent offerings have been promoting that. Several companies are offering uncompressed D1 video for the Mac at ridiculously low prices compared to what it traditionally costs to get similar quality.

I’ve tried and owned both platforms, and I’m still more impressed with the Mac’s 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 you’ve ever used a G4, you know what I’m talking about. After working on a PC, I’ve 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 doesn’t care. Also, when I am working late at night and end up with a computer error, it’s much easier for me to diagnose and fix a Mac problem than when I’m working with Windows. It’s 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.

The Mac and the Amiga computer broke all of the molds back in the early ’90s and were responsible for starting the digital video revolution. Newtek’s groundbreaking Video Toaster and 3D software came out on the Amiga platform, and Apple started to build more powerful machines that could accommodate six NuBus slots.

Faster than 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.

When Apple 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 company’s profitability. Jobs also bought-out all the other company agreements that had been manufacturing Mac clones, putting Apple back into the driver’s 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 they’d 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.

FireWire versus M-JPEG Video
There still are a lot of pros that aren’t using the DV or miniDV format. They may have already made a big investment in composite analog or component BetaSP, work in S-VHS or Hi-8, or have leaped beyond all that to DigiBeta or even HD. They need to capture composite, S, or SDI signals. In other cases, miniDV users would really like to be able to print to VHS directly without having to master back to the DV camcorder first, and then have to make a dub from tape.

FireWire “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. That’s 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.

Most composite, S-Video, component analog, or uncompressed videocards require some form of SCSI or Fibre Channel disk array because they’re 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, I’ve 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 they’re 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 they’ve managed to make it work at professional broadcast levels. Needless to say, this is the 21st century and miracles can happen. Also, it’s 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.

The Matrox RTMac
Matrox recently released its first Mac product, the RTMac videocard. Some say that the company has never favored the Mac, perhaps even holding a bit of prejudice against it. So it will be interesting to see if the company’s engineering staff has rallied to the task. The new card sounds to me as if it has real potential and could prove valuable to Final Cut Pro users, although I haven’t used it personally.

Matrox RTMac bundle

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 $999—about as close to a grand as you can get, yet still a hair under that magic number.

Matrox realizes 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, you’ll 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, Pinnacle’s board will have similar realtime capabilities as far as Final Cut Pro’s 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.

Matrox RTMac offers realtime editing and effects exclusively for Final Cut Pro.

The new version of Final Cut Pro, version 2.0, will be compatible with Matrox’s and Pinnacle’s new drivers. When asked how users will know which combination of effects are realtime and which ones aren’t, 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 desk.

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 wasn’t 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 aren’t 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.”

Pinnacle has had the DC30plus for the Mac for some time. However, it’s a decent low-priced board (street price is around $600) that would be good for hobbyists and industrial video editors. Unlike Matrox’s RTMac, which is exclusively designed for Final Cut Pro, Pinnacle’s DC30plus currently is compatible with Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere. The DC30plus also has audio capability, 44.1kHz in 16-bit, and is captured in sync along with the video. Unlike the Matrox board, the DC30plus is a motion JPEG board, so it’s more conventional in design. However, it’s capable of almost 2:1 compress in NTSC and also has PAL capability. Compression also can be increased up to 32:1 for draft mode.

Pinnacle Targa 3000 (T3K) system

Another interesting point, while most contemporary cards use the D1 resolutions of 720x486 with rectangular pixels, Pinnacle’s 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.

What Pinnacle 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 isn’t bad if you consider that Commotion is a valuable piece of software on its own, and you’re 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 I’ve mentioned, this is the one to watch.

Digital Voodoo
Digital Voodoo is an Australian company that is making small, D1 uncompressed PCI cards that can fit into the palm of your hand. The company actually makes four models, but we’ll concentrate on the D1 Desktop 64AV. Because of its Australian heritage, there is some concern over support of the product. It’s just too soon to tell if there will be difficulties.

Digital Voodoo D1 Desktop Mac Systems

However, this little board really does have some amazing features, but none of the realtime effects we’ve been talking about from Matrox and Pinnacle. It’s 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. It’s 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.

More for the Money
It seems as though the new generation of Mac videocards offers a lot of bang for the buck. It wasn’t long ago when I remember testing an Intelligent Resources Video Explorer card, a D1 board back in 1992, in the digital edit suite at Turner Productions in Atlanta. When held up on the switcher in a split-screen comparison to a $100,000-plus Quantel Paintbox system, no one could tell the difference between the two.

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 I’m curious to see who will eventually win. I’m sure that Avid, Media 100, and Àccom won’t be sitting idly by.

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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.

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