• Video Toaster System v1.O
  • NewTek
  • 215 S.E. Eighth St.,
  • Topeka, KS 66603
  • ($3995)

In recent years no single product has fired up the video community like NewTek’s Video Toaster.

The brainchild of a group of over- achievers in Topeka, Kansas, the Toaster has permanently changed the way consumers, semi-pros, and professionals think about making video.

Even before shipping, the Toaster polarized the industry. Some touted it as the next wave of video producdon, others ridiculed its one-box approach and broadcast-quality claims.

Available only as vaporware for a substantial period of time, the Video Toaster finally became available in October 1990. For $1595 NewTek promised a four-input switcher with digital effects and dual frame buffers, 24-bit paint, a titler, real-time chroma effects, and a 3D modeler.

While it delivered all this and more, many consumers were disappointed to discover the Toaster worked best on a fully expanded Amiga 2000 or 2500, requiring an expensive time-base corrector (TBC) on each input source. Seems the $1595 heavenly miracle required a very earthly investment of $5000 to $10,000.

Nevertheless, thousands of Toasters are now in use in home studios, schools, corporate and training video production houses, as well as at the major television networks. In a market category with virtually no competition, Toaster sales continue at a brisk clip.

The Toaster has also been responsible for blowing the bottom out of the TBC market, prompting manufacturers to develop low-cost TBC5 virtually overnight.

What’s Cooking

NewTek now markets a complete, stand-alone Toaster, eliminating the need to purchase and equip an Amiga and install hardware and software. This newest Toaster, ideal for the nontechnical consumer, is the version subjected here to the scrutiny of Videomaker‘s “Product Probe.”

Functionally identical to the plug-in Toaster card, the stand-alone unit takes the Toaster out of the realm of computer peripheral and places it firmly in the dedicated “black box” bin. To further this distinction, the new system sports carefully applied stickers obscuring the “Amiga” nameplate.

According to NewTek, you’re not buying an Amiga. You’re buying a Toaster.

The system includes an Amiga 2000 computer with 5 MB of RAM and a 52 MB hard drive. The installed software autoboots, taking the user directly into the switcher upon startup.

If you want to use the Amiga-oops, Toaster-apart from NewTek’s software, you must exit the switcher to get back to the Amiga Workbench. This small inconvenience is offset by the non-computer feel it lends the Toaster. You really can forget you’re using an Amiga-NewTek’s intention from the start.

In the future, NewTek will be offering Toaster systems based on Amiga’s more powerful 2500 and 3000 series computers. Since all digital video manipulation is performed on the Toaster card itself, the only performance difference will lie in the rendering of 3D images and other non- video tasks.

Into the Kitchen

The Toaster can use either two or three NTSC monitors, though none are supplied. In the latter scheme, monitors are assigned to the preview video, program video, and Toaster menu itself.

With two monitors, the Toaster’s menu is lightly superimposed over the preview video. Both preview signal and menu are compromised with the two- monitor setup, but it works.

The switcher is the meat-and-potatoes section, the module from which all others are accessed. The switcher includes over a hundred different cuts, fades, and wipes, most rendered with the pizzazz of big-buck digital hardware. In addition to the four live video sources, two still frame-buffers and a background color generator are available for effects.

The effects are impressive. Some are standard digital video effects, others are unique to the Toaster. Exploding transitions, image trails, and transporter effects are supplied with a click of the mouse.

An inherent limitation in the current Toaster system is that what you see is what you get. Effects can’t be created or edited by the end user, though there’s no reason they couldn’t be. Hopefully, NewTek will allow user-definable effects in upcoming software releases.

On effects displaying live video in a compressed window, the Toaster’s lack of pixel-averaging is obvious, apparently due to the machine’s deficiency in number-crunching power. Instead of smoothly shrinking or expanding, the video has the appearance of small tiles or panels sliding over each other. Performed quickly, effects don’t suffer much.

Effects are selected from one of four different banks and can be performed manually at any speed, or triggered automatically at one of three preset speeds.

A small T-bar controls the manual transition, with the speed of the effect matching the speed of the mouse. The mouse pointer needn’t be placed directly on the T-bar; holding down the right mouse button anywhere on the screen controls the effect.

Though there’s no inherent hardware limitation, current effects and transitions use at most two live video sources or franie buffers. Future software upgrades will add three-and four-source effects.


Painting the Toast

Apart from the switcher, one of the more unique Toaster modules is ChromaFX.

Almost any look can be accomplished in ChromaFX. Allowing a different color to be mapped onto every brightness value of the live video image, effects from subtle to truly otherworldly can be created. Thirty-two effects are provided, and users can create their own. The controls are ambiguous at first, but close examination of the supplied effects helps clear confusion.

ToasterPaint, the supplied 24-bit paint software, has a somewhat unfinished feel. Some functions adorn the stylish control panels, others are found under stock pull-down menus. Both 2x and lx magnification screen modes are offered, though a number of crucial swap page and brush functions are disabled on the more useable 1x mode. With five megabytes of RAM available, these limitations are mysterious.

Still, serious power is available to the ToasterPainter. Clips can be warped or texture-mapped around any shape. Any tool can apply rub-thru, range, blur, and darken effects, just to name a few. Frames from the switcher or 3D package can be colorized or manipulated in a myriad of ways.
The Toaster character generator offers 30 antialiased fonts in 16.8 million colors. Tides can be overlayed on live video with the switcher’s versatile keyer, or placed over a frame buffer or 3D image. Up to 100 pages of titles can be stored in each title “book.”

The character generator is solid, but for some reason abandons the tiny thread of user-interface continuity running through the Toaster system. Menu items are selected with the function keys, not with a mouse. This doesn’t make the generator harder to use, but it does shatter any facade of a consistent user interface between modules.

The last module to explore is LightWave, a powerful 3D modeler and animation system. Complex flying logos or objects can be created and rendered in full NTSC resolution, with user-controllable lighting, camera position, color, texture, and shadows.

As with any 3D system, the main limitation is time. Complex animations can take days to render. Luckily, a good wire-frame preview mode allows the user to fine-tune an animation before investing days in rendering.

Onto Your Plate

It’s hard to keep the Toaster system in perspective. What it does, for the money, is nothing short of amazing. There’s no other product on the market that offers similar hardware capabilities. A four-input switcher with digital effects should cost many times what the Toaster does.

Yet, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that the Toaster is a product that has almost arrived. Its software lacks a consistent user interface, giving the impression that discrete packages are being used. Overall, software implementation seems to be somewhat behind the hardware.

That gap is actually a pat on the back for NewTek’s engineers, who’ve managed to design a product that software writers will be scrambling for years to fully implement. This isn’t a bad position for NewTek to be in. Software updates are painless compared to buying new hardware.

By NewTek’s own admission, Version 1.0 of the Toaster software is the “compulsories,” where the product demonstrates its abilities to perform the basics. Version 2.0, which should be available by the time you read this, takes the Toaster a step further, adding three-source transitions and some only-on-Toaster effects.

In summary, the Video Toaster System offers serious video production power for those with the money to invest. it’s not fully refined, but the foundation is there. Hopefully, future software updates will better integrate the different modules, and will come closer to utilizing the horsepower the Toaster has to offer.

Technical Specifications

NewTek Video Toaster System v1.0

Video Inputs: 4 composite (synchronous and time-base corrected)

Video Outputs: composite preview and program

Luminance Resolution: >400 lines

Signal-to-Noise Ratio: >55 dB

Frame Buffers: 2

Background Matte Generator: 8 colors, digital snow

Hani Disk Storage: 52 megabytes

RAM: 5 megabytes

Processor: Motorola 68000

Loren Alldrin is a Videomaker technical editor.

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