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First Look: AJA Kona 2Uncompressed 12-bit 4:4:4 RGB HD/SD capture card for Final Cut Pro
At NAB 2004, AJA Video announced the Kona 2, their new flagship video capture and interface card for Final Cut Pro. In a nutshell, Kona 2 is a PCI capture card for Final Cut Pro that supports 10-bit and 8-bit 4:22 uncompressed high definition and standard definition, as well as 12-bit and 10-bit 4:4:4 uncompressed high definition. Besides the requisite HD-SDI, SDI, and dual-link HD-SDI connections, it also has 8-channels of AES/EBU audio on XLR and/or BNC connectors, built-in Sony-compatible RS-422 9-pin serial control port, 10-bit HD up-conversion and down-conversion, and 12-bit HD/SD component analog output. An optional ?K-Box 1U breakout bay adds unbalanced RCA audio outputs, genlock loop thru, and simultaneous BNC and XLR AES output. Shipping in June with a retail price of $2,490 ($299 for the optional K-Box), Kona 2 has the specifications to be a monster of a card that will be difficult for AJAs competitors on the high end of the Final Cut Pro market to match up against.
Given that the Kona 2 is not yet shipping, this is not an actual review, but rather a preview. I had the opportunity to spend several hours working with a prototype version of the card while I was in Las Vegas for the NAB 2004 convention, and I followed that experience with many questions fielded by AJAs Nick Rashby (Sales Manager, Desktop Video) and Ted Schilowitz (Product Manager, Desktop Video). Once the Kona 2 is actually shipping, I will have a full product review available here at DMN.
AJA Kona 2 with included breakout cables
12-bit 4:4:4 RGB
If 10-bit 4:2:2 uncompressed high definition isnt good enough for your work, youll be happy to know that with the Kona 2 youll be able to capture in 12-bit 4:4:4 RGB format. (Blackmagic Designs DeckLink HD Pro, also announced at NAB 2004 and shipping in June for $2,499, will also support 12-bit 4:4:4 HD). Previously the exclusive domain of six-figure finishing systems from the likes of Discreet, Quantel, and Avid, this level of quality is demanded for high-end effects and finishing on commercial spots and feature films. Bringing this format to the desktop with Final Cut Pro will certainly open it up to a much wider creative community, and I hope other manufacturers follow suit with this development.
The 4:4:4 format stores video as RGB components (Red, Green, Blue) rather than YUV structure (where Y carries luminance while U and V contain the color information). One big advantage of RGB is that it is the native format for most paint, compositing, animation and effects programs. For those programs to output to YUV actually involves a color conversion when rendering and can create undesirable color shifts. A second advantage is that RGB has full color resolution, or twice that of 4:2:2 YUV (which only samples the UV color components for half the pixels). None of this will change the fact that all video broadcasts are effectively 4:2:2 (including HDTV). The real value is for use as a digital intermediate, for projects destined for distribution on film, digital cinema, and ultimate archival quality.
Traditional sources for 4:4:4 include digital disk recorders, film scans, and computer generated imagery. Sonys new HDCAM SR tape format provides the first tape acquisition format featuring 12-bit 4:4:4 with very modest 2:1 MPEG I-frame compression, and more formats are in the works. Besides preserving the quality of these formats, Kona 2 will also allow you to capture 4:2:2 sources to the 4:4:4 codec using hardware-based chroma interpolation. Likewise, you will be able to capture 4:4:4 sources to 4:2:2 files.
Final Cut Pro HD does not yet support native 4:4:4 capture/export. It can render to a 10-bit or 32-bit float RGB file, but exports to tape are currently limited to YUV. With both AJA Video and Blackmagic Design now offering 4:4:4 cards and the promise of more formats like HDCAM SR on the horizon, it would be logical for Apple to update Final Cut Pro to support 4:4:4 as soon as possible. Neither Apple or AJA were able to comment on when exactly this will happen, although both indicated that they were very aware of the need and it is ?on the list of features in development. In the meantime most compositing applications already support 4:4:4, including Adobe After Effects, Discreet Combustion, and Apple Shake.
Broadcast Quality Conversion
Long before the release of their popular Kona and Io series of interface cards, AJA was well known and respected for making affordable broadcast-quality video converters. This includes rackmount frames with installable converter cards, as well as their seemingly ubiquitous stand-alone D-series converters. AJA uses the same converter chips and designs in the Kona 2 (as well as their SD-only ?Io product line) as they do in their professional stand-alone converters. Given how many mediocre converters Ive seen in other video capture and encoder cards, even on very expensive products from reputable manufacturers, I find this fact reassuring.
There are three main converters included in the Kona 2, which are the 10-bit SD to HD up-converter, 10-bit HD to SD down-converter, and 12-bit HD-SDI/SD-SDI to HD/SD analog component converter. AJA tells me there will be a software control panel for Mac OS X that lets you configure the inputs and outputs virtually any way you want them so you wont have to move cables around. This includes capturing SD source through the up-converter to an HD sequence; capturing HD source through the down-converter to an SD sequence; and outputting an HD or SD sequence to SD and HD simultaneously. The 12-bit component outputs are configurable as YUV or RGB mode, or you can set it to composite or Y/C (s-video) output using the BNC connectors.
Regarding the down-conversion specifically, Kona 2 should support SD output as letterbox, crop (to left, center, or right) and anamorphic when it ships. When I asked AJA whether Kona 2 would have a pan-and-scan feature similar to Pinnacles CineWave HD, they said ?[we are] looking into keyframable pan and scan as we expect that this will essentially be required. Exactly what form that feature will take remains to be seen.
Its also notable that you can place the Kona 2 in ?E to E mode to use it purely as a converter. Given that the costs of buying all this conversion capability separately is thousands more than the Kona 2 by itself, I can imagine someone doing that. In fact, the 12-bit digital to component converter is even better than what AJA features in their stand-alone converters.
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