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Formac Studio

Analog to FireWire Video Converter for the Mac By Paulo de Andrade
A few months ago I reviewed the Dazzle Hollywood DV Bridge. The response I got from our readers has been overwhelming. There's a lot of interest in devices that can convert analog video to firewire and vice-versa, specially when many users are adopting DV as their format of choice. So I was anxious to review the Formac Studio, a seemingly more robust and more expensive alternative to the DV Bridge.

The Formac Studio is supposed to do all that the DV Bridge does and more. In addition to the analog to firewire conversion, one of the interesting features of the Formac Studio is a built-in TV tuner that lets you watch and record TV programs on your Mac. While I see this as a purely consumer oriented feature, it may be useful whenever you are waiting for a longer render or if you want to follow some important news.

The first impression you get from the Formac Studio is that it is a very solid device. That's partially because of the unit's design and size, as it is considerably larger than the DV Bridge. It also uses a thicker plastic shell, making is heavier and, apparently, stronger. The Studio has some nice little touches such as a built-in speaker that compensates for the usual delay caused by the analog to digital conversion and lets you monitor your footage without an audio lag. The unit ships with a very thick firewire cable with two coils designed to keep interference down. I now know the reason for those and you will, too, in a moment. One thing that worries me is that the unit doesn't come with a power supply. Formac states that the Studio can draw its power from the firewire port on the Mac, as long as it's the only firewire device connected at the time. Otherwise they recommend that you use a power supply. Since chances are that you'll be connecting other firewire devices such as a camera or a drive, specially as firewire devices are becoming so popular, I see absolutely no reason why a power supply shouldn't be included with the unit in the first place. Considering that power supplies cost just a few dollars, Formac should have saved its customers some aggravation by including this necessary component.

The Formac Studio ships with ProTV software that lets your watch and record TV programs on the Mac by using the Studio's built in tuner. All you have to do it connect an antenna or cable to the back of the unit and you are set. The software is very cool, but it does not turn your Mac into a fully-featured PVR (Personal Video Recorder). In addition to video, you can also listen to FM radio stations.

The first Formac Studio review unit that I received exhibited some RF interference on the video that it captured and played back, ruling it out for professional use. I sent that unit back, imagining that I had received a defective one, and anxiously waited for a new unit to arrive. To my disappointment, the new unit exhibited the same problem, though slightly less intense. What this means is that whatever footage you capture with the Formac Studio will have a faint RF interference permanently imprinted over it. The interference was much worse with the first unit, but it is still present in the new one and, while it may be harder to see, it does alter your original footage after it is digitized. If the idea of using a device that converts analog to DV is to keep image degradation down, then the Formac Studio fails the task by introducing this RF interference, which causes different kinds of problems. Whenever the interference becomes fainter (it varies in intensity over time), the DV CODEC sees it as motion and the resulting digitized images looks noisy. Whenever the interference is stronger, not only does it cause this digital noise but it also becomes considerably more distracting. Using a broadcast video monitor in blue only/noise measuring mode the interference and noise problems are made very clear. To make matters worse, this second review unit I received was very unstable. If you paused any image in Final Cut Pro - specially color bars (and even the ones generated by FCP) - the unit flickered the colors horribly, driving a vectorscope crazy and, again rendering it completely unusable for output to an analog deck.

It seems to me that the RF interference may be caused by the unit's built-in tuner. Since the tuner has no apparent professional use, this is a case where more is worse. Had the manufacturer concentrated on just doing a good analog to firewire to analog conversion and dropping the tuner idea, maybe the RF interference problem wouldn't be there. As for the color flickering problem, I have no idea what causes it.

The new review unit came with a manual for a Formac firewire CD-R/W and DVD-RAM drive instead of the Studio's manual. Fortunately the Studio manual is included in the software CD in pdf format.

I wish I could have recommended this unit but I simply can't. I gave the company a chance to a fair review by sending the original unit back and asking for a new one. But the original problem was still there and a new one showed up. It is apparent that their quality control is not the best and what could have been a killer product turned out to be a big disappointment. Unless you want it strictly for home use so that you can edit your home videos and watch TV on your Mac, I see no reason for you to purchase a Formac Studio.

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Related Keywords:Dazzle Hollywood DV Bridge, Formac Studio, DV, firewire, video, editing


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