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Desktop Video: Bundles of Joy

Bundles of Joy

I have a good friend named Ken. Although we share many things in common, like curiosity, skepticism and a certain degree of "well-roundedness" due to a love of good food, we part company when it comes to tinkering. Although Ken and I went to the same school, we aren't remembered with equal fondness. You could always tell when I was in electronics class by the familiar odor of toasted breadboard circuits. I could ruin an experiment just by entering the room. I went through lab partners faster than Madonna went through room-mates. I was not a hardware guy, and it showed.

Ken is more of the hardware kind of guy. He loves hot solder on his fingers and alligator clips and gnarly nests of network cables. Ken's one of the world's great tinkerers.

Ken can put together a digital video system from scratch and have it working in a few hours. I can put one together, too. But I'll have to replace two broken connectors and a melted motherboard. I'll place twenty frantic calls to tech support and one to 911 when I impale myself on my screwdriver. I'll lose my mind and my hair (both dwindling resources) over DMAs (Dumb Machine Anomalies) and IRQs (Irritation and Rant Quotients, as in "my IRQs are all filled up"). In the end, three weeks later, I'll call Ken.

If you're like me, you'd appreciate some help sorting out this mess. Luckily for both of us, help is available right from the moment you purchase your hardware. It comes in the form of a bundle--a pre- tested configuration of software and hardware that the manufacturer offers as a unit. These wondrous packages can save you a lot of time and hassle when it comes time to install the whole mess in your computer.

Interested? Read on; we'll get you acquainted with the major DTV software/hardware bundles in just a few pages.

Installation Woes
But first, let's take a look at some of the problems these bundles supposedly solve.

No matter what you install in an IBM-compatible PC, you can expect to spend a lot of time doing it. It's a terrible, frustrating ordeal even to plug in the simplest card. The problem is that there are only a limited number of system resources (the previously mentioned DMAs and IRQs) that you can allocate to any new card you plug in. If you've been adding to your computer on a regular basis, trying to fill all those tempting, empty slots that came with your machine, you already know what I'm talking about. It's like snack-time at nursery school, where there are ten kids and three cookies. There's a lot of haggling, and some kids are bound to be unhappy. PC cards are as unruly as pre-schoolers, and it's a free-for-all. The difference is that unhappy cards don't cry--they just don't work. It's you who does the crying.

Here's a typical scenario, composited from my own experience and that of many of my techie friends on the bleeding edge: We decide to assemble our own digital-video system with an existing PC. It's a fast, beefy 486 or Pentium, so it should be able to easily handle the job of video capture. We stick in a graphics card, a video capture card, a high-speed SCSI card and a sound card. We notice that each of these cards has a tiny row of switches. Some have several tiny rows of switches. Then comes the first rumbling of queasiness in our collective guts. Maybe we should have read the instructions before we plugged in all the cards? Naaah!

We flip on the power and marvel at the sophistication of modern technology. Our euphoria dims somewhat when we notice that nothing is working, not even the mouse or the keyboard. There's no smoke, though, so we're optimistic and we vow to read all the manuals. We deftly turn the computer off and pull out the first manual.

Open the Manual
It's a truly remarkable achievement of civilization that there exists an international market that can supply us with goods from all over the world. However, writing manuals is a skill that doesn't seem to travel well. We're not sure what the original language of this manual was, but we're pretty sure the target language isn't English.

Fortunately, there are pictures. Unfortunately, the pictures seem to be of a different device. Oh well, there are only eight tiny switches. How many possibilities can there be?

Some of us actually know the answer to that. They're the ones who don't want to try 256 combinations. They call tech support. The rest of us actually try a few dozen combinations before giving up, thus giving rise to the term DIP switches. Then we call tech support.

Techies to the Rescue
Assuming that we get through to tech support and that we could find our mysterious "service contract number," we find out that there's a secret code that translates an IRQ and base address (don't ask) into the settings of the tiny switches. They give us a list of possible IRQs and base addresses that might work, and tell us to try them all out until one works. That sounds suspiciously like what we were doing before, but we charge ahead, undaunted.

Each card has this same problem, except in a different language. And when one card starts to work, it's usually at the expense of another card. Unfortunately, none of the cards is aware of the others, so there's no way they can just work it out on their own. Each vendor feels free to invent an individual terminology which, of course, conflicts with the other vendors. It's like a miniature electronic UN, only not quite as noisy.

Finally, after days of trying different combinations, some of us get things working together. The rest of us donate all our equipment to Ken and start thinking about composing poetry for a living.

Plug-n-Play
The situation on a Mac is much sweeter due to the plug-n-play capabilities that Apple builds into every machine they sell. Like a well-rehearsed orchestra, every card knows its part and waits for the proper time to chime in. They all pay attention to the conductor, who's aware of every musician.

So if you have a Mac, should you run out and configure your own bundle? Well, if you want to add Ethernet or a modem, go for it. But digital video is a most complex beast. The difficulty isn't just with the hardware. There's also a problem with the enormous flexibility of the software--a "problem" you'd be crazy to fix.

Presets Galore
For instance, Adobe Premiere has so many possible configurations that it comes with a list of presets to save time and sanity. There are a lot of variables involved with a preset: everything from the size, compression and audio specs to the time base. The number of permutations boggles the mind. That's why Radius includes custom presets for Premiere in VideoVision Studio, their $4,000 flagship digital video system for the Mac.

The chief tweaker at Radius is Mike Jennings. He creates the presets that allow Premiere to wring every last ounce of power from the hardware. Like angioplastic surgery for your computer, the presets make all the data flow smoothly and quickly through the system. Since digital video is still a marginal proposition at best, the cycles you save may mark the difference between success and failure.

Mike says, "We discovered early on that Premiere can be used so many different ways that customizing all the options so that they're optimal for your particular application can take months." Knowing that Mike has saved me that time makes me feel better already.

Plug-ins
VideoVision Studio also includes an Adobe Photoshop plug-in. A plug-in is a little program that hitches a ride on a bigger program by adding to its menus. This one adds to the Acquire submenu, and will let you capture video into any application that supports the Photoshop plug-in standard.

Radius also bundles an XObject for Macromedia Director. XObjects, like plug-ins, extend the utility of another program. Here, they add to the language--in this case Lingo, the language spoken by Director.

A comparable bundle from RasterOps is the MoviePak2 Pro Suite, around $5,000. Like the Radius product, the MoviePak2 Pro Suite is a hardware/software bundle for Macintosh Quadra 800 and 900 series computer. This system includes plug-ins that let Premiere control SMPTE devices with RS-422 ports.

These plug-ins are more than just decorations. They're the connections between your software and your hardware--an essential and valuable part of the bundle. If you want to assemble your own system, you're going to need this connect-ware, but where are you going to get it? If you're lucky, you got some software with the card. Otherwise, you could try to get Ken or Mike to write it for you, but they're awfully busy. You might find some shareware on the Internet, but who is going to maintain it? Of course, if you're like Ken or Mike, you don't have a problem. You can just whip up the required programs and then you can tweak with them until the cows come home. Hacker heaven!

The Bundling Solution
To the rest of us, bundles look better and better.

The job for the bundler isn't easy. Although they may manufacture some of the components, many bundlers are assembling parts from other manufacturers. Every time they upgrade one of the components, they need to rewrite the relevant connect-ware and documentation. If several components change at once, they need a marathon testing session to ensure compatibility. If you put your own system together from scratch, you get to do these upgrades yourself. What fun.

But not all bundles are created equal. Some bundles are not much better than the do-it-yourself approach. They simply print up a pathetic, one-page "manual" that says, "Install the included cards. Consult the individual manuals for further information and trouble-shooting." Check out the package before you buy to make sure you are receiving the extra value you're paying for. Like buying a car, you can expect a markup over the cost of the separate items. Just make sure it isn't a larcenous markup (and skip the rust-proof undercoating).

Even if you already have part of the bundle, it can still be a good idea to buy the whole beast. The redundant part is all yours to re-sell, if you want. The Internet can be a good place to sell or trade these brand-new extras.

Bundling by Degrees
There are different degrees of bundling, from a hardware/software combo to entire computer systems with all the bells and whistles.

At the more Spartan end of the spectrum is the Video Machine from Fast Electronics, for about $4000 and up. It provides a 4-channel stereo mixer and two streams of digital video for A/B roll editing. For both the Mac and PC platforms, Fast claims Betacam quality. You can add extra cards to this setup to increase performance. This is great for incrementally building up your system, but guess who gets to install the cards?

Another card-based bundle for the Macintosh is the Media 100 from Data Translations. This highly-rated pair of NuBus cards is shipping with new software and is a bundle worth looking at. Data Translations uses a proprietary codec (compression-decompression scheme) that lays claim to Betacam- quality video and four-channel 16-bit audio. At around $9,000, this system is turning a lot of heads with its excellent image quality.

A number of bundles include the computer itself, making your job even easier. For instance, in the $6000 and up range, Radius is introducing a new product called the VideoVision Workstation. The bundle includes one of the first Mac clones to hit the market since Apple started licensing them.

Another such system, but higher-end, is the Media Suite Pro from Avid. This moniker actually covers bundles for a range of computers including the Mac, PC and SGI platforms. The Mac version includes a Quadra 900 or 950, four NuBus cards and editing software starting at $10,000. As you might expect, the SGI system will set you back quite a bit more.

Some companies let you have it either with or without the computer. For about $15,000 you can get the five EISA boards and software that make up the Matrox Studio. Or, for the complete $40,000 bundle, you get those cards pre-configured and installed in a PC with speakers, a VGA monitor and two NTSC monitors.

The heat from all this competition should fire up the quality and melt the prices--good news for digital videomakers everywhere!

It Never Ends
Multimedia will continue to be a multimess as we add more and more gizmos to our computers. By its very nature, it requires a high degree of cooperation between the various elements to work at all. To work well, it has to be carefully tuned. And ultimately, that's what a good bundle will get you.

So where do you stand in this wide spectrum? Are you a hands-on kind of person like Ken, or a poly-thumbed type like me? This is what determines the system you need. You Ken-types can buy the parts and save a few bucks. I'll go for the bundle every time. Ultimately, the way I do things, it'll save me bucks in the end, too.

Scott Anderson is the president of Wild Duck Software, a computer graphics development company.



Scan Lines

Enhanced Standard: Apple Computer and the Microsoft Corporation have joined to support the Enhanced CD format, an industry standard that allows the playing of music CDs as CD-ROMs on personal computers. The new format allows manufacturers to add video clips and text to standard music CDs so that music lovers can play them on their CD-ROM drives for a full multimedia viewing and listening experience. Microsoft will add the Enhanced CD format to its upcoming Windows 95 operating system.

Gettin' Ready: Ameritech says video dialtone is coming and it's time to get ready. This giant among the telecommunications community is preparing a multibillion-dollar fiber optics upgrade for its telephone network. Switching to fiber optics will allow half of its present 12 million customers to receive video signals over phone lines by the turn of the century.



Product Menu

DQ-422+ ($1495)
Diaquest
1440 San Pablo Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94702
(510) 526-7167

This video animation controller gives frame-accurate control over broadcast and industrial video recorders, allowing the user to integrate them with PC-based graphic systems. The DQ-422+ controls most VCRs with serial connectors as well as analog and digital disk recorders. The controller also interfaces with many popular 2-D and 3-D animation programs. Extensive software fully automates the recording and digitizing processes.

Video Magician ($399)
Multi-Media Computing Solutions
3205 Kent Street
Kensington, MD 20895
(301) 946-2025

The Video Magician is a video editing software package that allows you to control up to seven VISCA devices at a time. The package can directly control Sony's VISCA CVD-1000 or CVD-500 VCRs; it can also control any LANC (Control-L) 8mm family decks through Vbox interfaces. The unit also offers control of MCI-compatible compact disc players and other digital audio devices. It also provides GPI (general purpose interface) control of the Video Toaster or the Videonics MX-1.

TransJammer ($150)
Elastic Reality, Inc.
925 Stewart Street
Madison, WI 53713
(608) 273-6585

The makers of the Elastic Reality morphing software now offer TransJammer for the Macintosh, a collection of over 100 transitions that you can incorporate into QuickTime movies. With these 100 transitions, you can create about 800 variations. The effects can be plugged into Adobe Premiere for Macintosh, which more than doubles the transitions available from Premiere alone. TransJammer will be available for Windows in the latter half of 1995.

Razor Professional ($799)
InSync Corp.
6106 MacArthur Blvd.
Bethesda, MD 20816
(301) 320-0220

InSync's Razor Pro is a digital video editing and composition software package for Windows. It allows manipulation of broadcast-quality images (752x480), provided you have at least 20MB of RAM in your PC. Razor Pro directly supports the Personal Animation Recorder and TARGA 2000 file formats without the need for conversion. It also allows for an infinite number of digital video layers when creating video on the PC, as well as an infinite number of composited audio tracks. The software includes built-in transitions and chromakey.



Video Blaster RT300 ($500)
Creative Labs, Inc.
1901 McCarthy Boulevard
Milpitas, CA 95035
(415) 428-6600

Creative Labs has been providing quality video and audio capturing hardware and software for some time now. Their newest entry into the video capture market, the Video Blaster RT300, easily meets the high standards set by their earlier offerings. The RT300 offers full-motion digital video for the PC. You record captured images, either stills or full-motion, to your computer's hard disk (or directly to RAM if you have enough) for playback or editing. Using one of the Video Blaster RT300's four video inputs (three composite and one S-video), you can compress and record video using Intel's Indeo video compression scheme. You can use any good software-based video editor with Blaster-saved movie files. The Video Blaster RT300 comes bundled with Premiere 1.0, but any video editing software based on the Video for Windows engine (version 1.1) will suffice. Admittedly, this version of Premiere is a little old, but it's included free. The software for the RT300 driver is easy to install, but we had some problems installing the capture board. The factory settings for the I/O (input/output) address jumpers, as well as the interrupt jumper, apparently are the same as those often used by other common computer peripherals. (These jumper settings control the board's interaction with the computer, helping it keep track of which device is where.) Once you load all the software, an icon for Premiere appears in Windows' Program Manager. Clicking on this opens up the usual Premiere icons. Choosing Capture will put you into the Capture Setup program. From here, you choose the video input source you want, the method of compression, frame rate, capture time limit, video format and audio options, among other things.

Through the Adobe interface, you can capture video in one of four ways: Normal captures video as an .AVI file at the frame rate you choose; Single-frame creates a bitmap file of a single frame you specify; Step Capture creates an .AVI clip of specified frames; and Timed Capture creates a time-lapse .AVI clip. The RT300 will run in a 386 or better PC with a minimum of 33MHz processor speed, 4 MB of RAM and 16-bit ISA slot. Performance of the unit will depend on the host computer. The size of your hard disk, and more importantly its data transfer rate, will dictate performance at higher frame rates. Capture resolution is 320x240 at a rate of thirty frames per second. Full-screen playback is possible, but this slows down the frame rate. I was quite satisfied with the results I saw at 15 frames per second and higher. Images captured on the Video Blaster RT300 were remarkably sharp with good color reproduction. These features, along with the unit's complete audio options, make the Video Blaster RT300 certainly worth considering if you're looking for a video capture and digitizing board.

Ease of Learning: (4)
Ease of use: (4)
Documentation: (3)
Value: (4)


Instant Replay ($149)
Strata, Inc.
2 West St. George Blvd.
Ancestor Square, Suite 2100
St. George, UT 84770
(801) 628-5218

Recognized for its powerful 3-D paint and animation programs like Studio Pro and Vision 3-D, Strata now enters the world of Macintosh software video capturing utilities with Instant Replay.

Strata promotes Instant Replay as a full-screen movie capture program useful in all kinds of presentations, including multimedia authoring, screen snapshots, QuickTime movie editing and others. The software, once paired with the necessary hardware, can capture video and audio from a wide range of external sources. You can play back these captures with Instant Replay, or you can use them with any other software that supports QuickTime movies.

Instant Replay runs on any QuickTime-capable Macintosh (68020 or better) using System 7.0 or greater. A minimum of 4 megabytes of RAM is necessary (and more is better).

There are two parts to the software. The first part is the Instant Replay application. It does the job of recording and playing back QuickTime movies or external audio and video, as well as importing and exporting non-QuickTime files. The second half is the Instant Replay extension, which you place in your Macintosh system extensions folder when you set up the program. This provides the computer with the necessary components for running the Instant Replay application.

Installation is simple. All necessary files are on one disk, while a second disk provides a demo movie made with the software.

After you've installed the software, you control the program through the standard Macintosh menus. You can import AIFC, AIFF, PICS, PICT, text and sound files; exporting of such files is standard. You can set up a Movie Directory which opens a folder to store your captured movie.

An Edit menu offers standard editing tools for trimming, cutting and pasting your movies. An advanced video setup window found under the Record menu lets you select a number of settings, including the file format you wish to use and several audio controls.

A number of controls are available from the Play menu as well. You have control over the speed, direction and frame rate during playback.

Once you activate Instant Replay, you can define specific keys for the record and playback functions. Then you can still record and play back your files using these keys while programs other than Instant Replay are dominant on the screen.

Instant Replay is a good, cost-effective solution for those who want to capture movies in QuickTime or other formats. If you're looking for something along these lines, it's definitely worth considering.

Ease of Learning: (4)
Ease of use: (3)
Documentation: (4)
Value: (3)
Tags:  July 1995
Scott
Anderson
Sat, 07/01/1995 - 12:00am