VHS, Hi8, USB, FireWire, PCI, 8mm... confused on how to fit it all together? Don't be. We've got the ticket to your video capture dilemma.
Looking to get started in video capture or upgrade your existing system? First evaluate your acquisition method (read: camera or video source) to determine if you need a digital video converter. Its simple, if you are converting analog video (VHS, VHS-C, Super VHS, 8mm video, Hi8, Betacam, Betacam SP), your capture device must include a converter (with one-chip digital cameras starting at less than $250 and 3-chips starting at less than $500, all present acquisition should be digital at this point in time).
Capture devices break down fairly easily into three categories: external FireWire devices, external USB devices and internal PCI cards. Depending on what hardware your computer has available; there are devices in any of these three categories that will fill you needs.
External devices are portable and require their own power; they're useful for people who don't want to open their computer to install anything, and also in a classroom or lab environment where it might be beneficial to share a capture device between multiple computers. For those of you with a lot of VHS or 8mm video tapes taking up closet space, there are a lot of external DV media converters which convert analog signals to DV for editing or archiving on DV tape. External devices are either USB 2.0 or FireWire, two competing technologies that are roughly equal in their delivery of data.
USB 2.0 is supposedly slightly faster (480-Mbps vs 400-Mbps) but since all DV cameras come with FireWire built in, there's an added level of convenience in being able to use the same cables.
Cards are dedicated video capture devices, some are VIVO (Video In / Video Out) capable which have the potential to turn your computer into something of a home theater. We'll look at some examples from each category, and our accompanying Buyer's Guide should help you find that capture device that's just right for your personal capturing situation.
External FireWire Devices
Some people believe that their computer's case is a lot like their rib cage - it should only be opened in the gravest extreme times, and even then, only by a trained professional. For these people, external devices are the way to go. They plug into your computer via USB or FireWire and sit on your desk looking stylish. Particularly stylin' is the Studio Movie Box ($200) by Pinnacle, which looks like a stainless steel waffle balanced on one corner. Studio Movie Box was designed by Ferdinan Porsche, grandson of the car designer, and the person who has been making such a splash with the designs of the LaCie external hard drives. It captures both digital and analog, edits in DV format, let's you mix surround sound, and comes bundled with Studio 9 editing software. Canopus makes the bi-directional, ADVC-110 ($300) which requires no drivers and pulls power from its 6-pin FireWire connection (power adapter for 4-pin connection sold separately).
External USB Devices
Very similar to their FireWire counterparts, there are a host of external devices using the popular USB 2.0 format. Dazzle, Elgato, ADS, Turtle Beach and others make capture devices for less than $250. The ADS Instant DVD+DV ($230) converts to MPEG2 at different bit rates- both constant or variable- as well as MPEG1. Turtle Beach makes the popular Video Advantage USB ($130), a small device that requires no external power, supports NTSC and PAL and converts to a wide range of files.
PCI cards actually plug into a slot inside your computer -- the case comes off, the card goes in, the case goes back on. For a long time, this is how home non-linear editing worked. There are more options today, but a PCI card is still a fine option for creating a dedicated video-editing computer. Some video capture cards, such as the inexpensive Osprey 100 ($159), are "video only," meaning they only capture the video and the audio is captured separately with your audio card.
While external devices made a big foothold this year, a significant amount of the highest end capture devices are still internal; such as the EDIUS NX ($1,299), an HDV video capture device from the well respected Canopus. The EDIUS has connectors for DV, composite, S-Video and unbalanced audio, and allows you to edit a mix of HD, SD, HDV, MPEG-2, and DV and playback in full resolution HD. It will also convert NTSC to PAL in real time.
There are also less expensive cards with a lot of bang, such as Matrox RT.x10 HW and RT.x100 Extreme Pro HW (for use with Adobe Premiere Pro and Adobe Video Collection). Their dedicated hardware gives you the option of performing real-time multi layer video and graphic effects, captures from and outputs both analog and digital sources in 4:3 or 16:9 formats as well as VCD and SVCD. It includes tools for on-the-fly MPEG-2 conversion.
Ultimately, the decision of what to buy boils down to price and compatibility. If desk space and USB ports are at a premium and you don't mind taking the screws out of your computer's cover, a card could be what you're looking for. On the other hand, if you fancy taking your capture device from your home computer to your office computer, you'll find great convenience in being able to toss (gently now!) a USB or FireWire device in your briefcase. Whichever you choose, the selection is broad enough that you'll find a capture device that fits your needs.
Kyle Cassidy is a network engineer and co-author of Enterprise Internetworking and Security.