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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.

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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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