Anyone who has tried to "retrofit" a computer for nonlinear editing will tell you that the process can be a frightening one. But, if it’s done right, the payoff is worth it. If you are one of the daring few that decide to pass on a pre-configured, turnkey solution in favor of a do-it-yourself system, this article is for you. In the next few pages, you’ll get to watch as we configure a Windows/Intel PC for nonlinear. And you’ll see, step-by-step, just how to set up your home computer for video editing.

To demonstrate, I bought a video capture card and invited my old friend Ken over for a beer. Ken is the kind of person who will do anything for a friend, even share his beer. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a total computer-video whiz either.

Step One: System Requirements

"So what do you want to do? Set up a computer-based linear editor for assembling video or do you want the whole nonlinear enchilada?" Ken asked.

"Well, I got this FireWire card for my new digital camcorder. I guess the enchilada."

"Then you need some firepower. Computer-based linear editing is pretty simple–your computer sends control signals to coordinate your tape decks. But for capturing and processing digital video, you need more salsa. You need at least a Pentium 133MHz or a fast Mac. Oh yeah, a minimum of 64MB of RAM and as much hard drive space as possible. Show me what you got." I handed him the FireWire card and led him to the den.

"Hey, you got a decent computer this time," Ken said, making a painful reference to some of my earlier forays into garage-sale clunkers. "You’ve got a Pentium II 350MHz, not the fastest, but plenty fast to do the job, especially when you consider the 128MB of RAM. It looks like you’ve got a newer IDE-style hard drive, so hopefully it’s a DMA drive. That’s good, you need a capable machine. Capturing video is like sucking steak through a straw." Ken always has a tendency to use metaphors related to food, but this one stumped me.

Seeing my puzzled look, he grabbed a pencil and sketched a diagram. "The way video squirts out of the deck is beyond your control — and it’s a big flow. That’s why digital video, for instance, needs a pipe that can pump 3.5MB every second. It has to squeeze through various parts of your computer to make it to the hard drive. And then it all has to squirt back to make your final tape."

Step Two: Installing the Card

Ken installed the editing software that came bundled with my FireWire card. "It pays to have good editing software. You can find cheap, even free programs, but they’re like Chinese food. 10 minutes later and you’re hungry for more," Ken said. "This software is a full version, so you’ll have your fill of editing software for a while."

"You should install the editing software first, so the plug-ins for the capture card have a place to go."

Ken popped open my computer. He whipped out a screwdriver, touched the computer case to ground himself and slid the FireWire card I bought into an available PCI slot, carefully checking to make sure that the card was fully seated. Ken said, "It usually doesn’t matter which PCI slot you put the card in. But sometimes certain motherboards default certain PCI slots to specific IRQs and that can cause a conflict if the card wants to use an IRQ that is already in use."

I looked at him strangely, Ken knew I had no idea what he had just said. "In a nutshell, it usually doesn’t matter what slot you put the card into, but if you run into trouble, read the readme text file that came with the drivers and consult the company’s Web site to read whatever FAQs it has on the subject."

"You’ve got a digital setup here, which makes analog look like chopped liver. The quality sets a new standard — and being digital, you don’t get any generation loss. The 40th copy is as good as the first. And, since everything has already been digitized in the camcorder, the FireWire card has an easier job. If you had a nonlinear video setup for using an analog camcorder, the capture card would have to do all the digitizing itself.

My FireWire card was one of the less-expensive models. Usually, extra money gets you better video feedback during editing and various extra inputs, outputs and software. However, I can hook up my camcorder to a monitor or just use its built-in LCD screen.

The setup is similar for an analog capture card. The difference is mainly that you use RCA or S-video jacks instead of FireWire. "Basically," Ken said, "PC stands for pressure-cooker whether you’re capturing analog or digital. But once it’s in the computer, it’s all digital anyway, so it doesn’t matter too much what your source is, except for the fact that analog capture cards have a greater chance of adding artifacts and most analog camcorders have nowhere near as good a picture as a DV camcorder."

Step Three: Booting Up

Ken closed the computer and booted it up. With its plug-n-play feature, Windows quickly noticed that I had a new card in the computer, and popped up the Hardware Wizard. This is a program that tries to install the appropriate drivers for new devices that get plugged into the computer. Ken pulled out the CD-ROM that came with the FireWire card and slipped it into the drive. He selected the recommended driver from the disc and rebooted the system. "You should be careful about which drivers you use. You’re toast if your drivers are out of date. In fact, let’s check the Web site of the card’s manufacturer to see if there are any new drivers."

Ken browsed to the site and surfed through the web pages. "Oh, look! They’ve updated their driver." Ken downloaded the updated driver and as the file worked its way through the Internet, he continued. "It said that the new driver helps avoid conflicts with certain other PCI devices. By checking for the newest driver, we saved ourselves a lot of time and a big headache." The driver finished downloading and Ken opened the Windows device manager to update the driver.

Once the drivers were installed, Ken re-booted and attached my camcorder to the card with the FireWire cable. "One of the nice things about FireWire is that it bundles the video, audio and control lines into one cable. Very clean." This was the first I’d heard about Ken’s acquaintanceship with cleanliness.

Step Four: Capturing Video

"Now let’s grab some video!" Ken shouted, as he ran the capture software. Connected by FireWire, the capture program had everything it needed to control the camcorder and pipe in the video and audio. Using the built-in LCD display on the camcorder and the capture window on the computer screen, Ken positioned the tape to the start of a clip. "Nuts," Ken said, "your video card doesn’t support DirectX overlay–so you can’t see a full-size image on the computer screen as you capture. Well, I suppose we can live with that."

Ken clicked the capture button. Ten seconds later, he clicked stop. A message came up saying that 57 frames had been dropped during the capture. Ken said "Don’t worry. Computers need to be tweaked for video." He jotted down "57 dropped frames in 10 seconds" on a piece of paper. "These notes will tell us if we’re getting better or worse as we tweak."

He named the file and then double-clicked its icon to play it back. It was depressingly jerky. Seeing my disappointment, he said, "This is just a computer playback–your video will look different. But it proves we can capture video!" He slapped me on the back and I smiled with all the conviction I could muster.

Step Five: Playback

"Now let’s check the video output," he said. He opened the test clip and dragged it to the timeline of the editing software. "Got a blank tape?" Ken asked. "Don’t want to destroy any of these stupendous originals." I ignored the sarcasm and put a blank tape into the camcorder. A few seconds later, my PC had spit out its first edited video.

Step Six: Troubleshooting

It wasn’t exactly Spielberg, though. "What’s with the jumps?" I asked. "Those are from the dropped frames," Ken said, "We’ll get rid of them."

"While we’re at it, let’s clean things up a bit. You have a lot of junk on your hard drive–like these temp files in your Windows folder. Mind if I delete these?" Ken dropped them into the trash before I could respond. "Here’s a bunch of stuff in your browser history folder–there must be half a gigabyte of useless junk here–it’s gone!" Again, he dropped the files into the trash. Then, right-clicking on the trash can, he emptied it out. I gulped.

Ken also deleted the captured video clips and ran the disk defragmenter, a system tool available from the accessories menu in the Start/programs pop-up. Looking at its map of my hard drive, he said, "Whoa, your system is succotashed! You have fragments floating everywhere. That’s not good for video capture–you need a clean plate. We’ll just defrag this mess," Ken said. Many minutes later, all my programs and data were stuffed into a small corner of my hard drive and I had a veritable tundra of pristine hard disk space cleared for video. "Two gigabytes of free unfragmented space–that’s a good start."

Ken tried capturing again. This time we got 29 dropped frames in our 10 second clip. He jotted down the new figure. Better, but far from perfect.

"You have a lot of background tasks going on" he said.

"I do?"

"Yup. Like virus checkers, Internet connections, email programs–anything that’s polling the computer can interrupt the video stream. They’re usually listed on your task bar, in this little area called the system tray or systray if you’re feeling nerdy," he said, pointing to the lower right corner of my screen. He right-clicked on their icons and turned them off, one by one.

When we re-ran the capture program, we still got 19 dropped frames. "My guess is that you didn’t spring for A/V-drives," Ken said.

"Um, no," I replied, starting to despair.

"Well, don’t panic. Most newer drives can use a technique called Direct Memory Access, or DMA. It lets your drives talk straight to your RAM." Ken opened the control panel folder and selected System. The System Properties interface popped up:

Ken clicked on the Device Manager tab and selected Generic IDE Disk from the Disk drive entry. He clicked on the properties button and the Generic IDE Disk interface popped up. Then he selected the Settings tab to see another screen:

He clicked on the DMA check-box to select it. If the DMA box isn’t checkable, you either don’t have a DMA drive or your drive is setup incorrectly. Once again, he booted the computer. This time, when he captured video, it was perfect — not a single frame was dropped.

Getting Results

He ran the editing software again, swiftly setting up multiple clips, and then outputting the results. They looked beautiful. "There’s no generation loss so you can do all kinds of special effects–not just meat and potatoes editing."

The results were truly professional, with frame-accurate editing, 500 lines of resolution and 16-bit audio. I was suddenly happy.

"Make up a checklist of the things you need to do to edit video on your PC. You should get predictably great results from now on out."

I wrote up this list:


  1. Make sure DMA is turned on for the hard drives (or use SCSI).

  2. Turn off all background programs (Anti-virus, Internet, e-mail, etc).

  3. Free up disk space (Delete temporary files, old attachments, browser history files, etc).

  4. Defragment the disk.

"Ken, you’re great. I can’t believe I’m editing professional-quality video on my home PC. This is really cool!"

"Um, speaking of cool things," Ken said, "is this the last of the beer?"

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