Dedicated to the Edit

When you only want to edit and edit fast, you might consider a Video Editing Appliance.

Video editing appliances (VEA) are dedicated and proprietary devices specifically designed for video editing. They are self-contained units about the size and shape of a VCR, although they share more in common with a computer. Most editing appliances (a.k.a. standalone editors) use a mouse, keyboard and monitor and they all store digitized video on hard disks. Video editing appliances don’t do anything other than edit video. You can’t play Castle Wolfenstein on them, but you also can’t download a virus from the Internet. They’re not susceptible to spyware or hackers, they are immune to many of the money pits and petite foibles that can plague a computer and, perhaps most importantly, they’re preconfigured, which makes them much less prone to accidental tampering.

Target Audience

Computers are very versatile. That’s one of their great strengths. You can surf the Internet, pay your bills and play Tomb Raider all on the same computer. And most modern computers are plenty fast enough to edit video. Sometimes that strength can be a weakness, say when your newly installed audio player inexplicably causes your video capture to stop functioning or crash. Or what about that new flight simulator that takes up two gigs of disk space?

“I think that the significant advantage of a self-contained box,” says Michael Chaskes, a Los Angeles film and video editor, “at least for any user without access to on-site tech support, is that you don’t have to worry about conflicts between the software and the operating system of the computer running it. Professional editing suites have on-site tech guys who put in considerable effort to make sure their systems work.” Chaskes’ editing credits include The Learning Channel’s reality shows “Faking It” and “Junkyard Mega-Wars” and the feature films “Bringham City” and “God’s Army.” Chaskes continues, “If it were up to me to troubleshoot my own system, barring broadcast television or feature film editing work, a VEA might appear very attractive.”

Appliance Features

Here are some of the typical components of an appliance. Knowing a bit about these features will help you in comparing and deciding which is right for you.

  • Included Hard Drive Size (GB)
    All appliances store digital video on a spinning hard drive: the bigger the drive, the more data you’ll be able to store and the more minutes (hours) of video you’ll be able to edit.
  • Typical Storage Capacity On Included Hard Drive (hours)
    Sometimes a manufacturer will describe the hard drive size in terms of the number of hours of video you can store on it. Be careful of these estimates: they may be talking about the number of hours at the lowest resolution. We’d recommend you use the lowest number in their range as an estimate of what you’ll be able to work with.
  • Removable Hard Drive
    Removable hard drives are great in a multiple-editor environment, such as a classroom, or a multiple-job environment, such as a busy wedding video shop, each project can be kept on a separate drive and switching users or editing assignments is as simple as swapping a drive.
  • Video Inputs/Outputs
    Make sure your appliance has inputs compatible with your input devices. The typical inputs are Composite, S-video and FireWire. If your primary goal is to edit all your VHS home movies, be sure your appliance has composite inputs and if you have a Mini DV camcorder, check for FireWire. You should also verify the audio outputs, although these are usually limited to RCA jacks for analog audio.
  • Optical Drive
    Just like your video inputs and outputs, the different types of media your appliance can read and write is important and depends on what type of projects you see yourself doing. If your goal is to make DVDs, for example, make sure you have a DVD burner, but even a CD-ROM drive can be nice for background music or for transferring pictures and graphics from your other computers.
  • High-Definition Ready
    Do you see yourself editing HD video anytime soon? If so, make sure your appliance can handle it.
  • Mouse or Trackball
    I’m a trackball fan myself, some people prefer mouses. Since you’ll be spending a lot of time with your pointing devices, it’s important that you’re comfortable with it.
  • Jog/Shuttle Control Available
    A Jog/Shuttle controller is a very handy tool which allows you to scroll forwards and backwards through your video at variable speeds. It’s usually a knob, the farther you turn it, the faster you forward or reverse through a scene. The Jog/Shuttle is a venerable device that has been used in video production for a very long time and is quite intuitive for both beginners and veterans alike.
  • User Interface
    How are the scenes represented on screen? A storyboard has a small image thumbnail frame representing an entire clip, whereas a timeline can show you frame-by-frame what is happening.
  • Number of Audio Tracks
    Do you want music, dialogue, and special effects? You’ll need at least three audio tracks.
  • Number of Video Tracks
    Multiple video tracks will let you transition between scenes with effects and superimpose titles.
  • Number of Transitions
    Page turns and star wipes are very popular in home video editing and even local commercials. How many different ones you need depends on your style of editing.
  • Number of Video Filters
    Video filters can be used to brighten, darken, add contrast, or color effects such as sepia to your movie. Video filters can correct mistakes or radically alter your production.
  • Auto Scene Detection
    Scene detection takes a long capture file and automatically breaks it up into smaller logical components.
  • Background Rendering
    Most modifications beyond simple cuts-only editing require some computer processing and computer processing can take time. This rendering can tie up your entire machine and leave you unable to work. Some standalone editors can automatically render your effects and edits in the background. If you’re in a high pressure environment with clients standing over your shoulder watching you edit, you don’t want to have to wait while the cross-fades are rendering. If these can be done in the background while you do other things, it can save both time and face.
  • Realtime Effects
    Even better than background rendering would be a computer that is so fast that it doesn’t need to pause for rendering at all. Speedy machines will render your fades, star wipes, and page turns in real time. If you have the kind of job where an impatient client will be sitting behind you barking orders, not having to wait for rendering can be a very good thing.
  • Keyframe Animations
    In the old days, animators drew every frame in a cartoon by hand. Nowadays, animations can be produced by specifying a starting position (keyframe 1) and an ending position (keyframe 2) and then letting the computer calculate the intermediate frames. Obviously, this works best for simple, linear animations, but keyframe animation is ideal for video effects, transitions and titles.
  • Audio Envelopes
    Audio envelopes are a visual method of (typically) controlling the volume of an audio clip over time. This is handy for fading the volume up and down, for example, to fade music under a voiceover or natural sound pop.


Kyle Cassidy is a video artist and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia with his cats Milla and Tatiana.

Explanation of Feature Headings

Hardware
Included Hard Drive Size The size of the included hard drive, in gigabytes.
Typical Storage Capacity The number of hours of video that the included hard drive can typically hold.
Removable Hard Drive Whether the unit’s hard drive can be easily removed from the appliance. This allows you to quickly add more storage space or quickly switch users or projects.
Component Video Outputs Whether the appliance has component (YUV) video outputs used with higher-end video equipment.
FireWire I/O Whether the appliance has a FireWire port that can communicate with DV camcorders to exchange video data digitally.
VGA Monitor Out Whether the appliance has a VGA output that can be connected to a computer monitor.
DVD Read/Write Whether the appliance can read and write DVDs.
HD Ready Whether the appliance is capable of processing high-definition video. Note: None of the currently-shipping units have HD-ready editing software. We assume this is a planned feature, although a software upgrade will be required.
Mouse or Trackball Whether the appliance uses a mouse (m) or a trackball (t).

Software
Timeline User Interface Whether the appliance’s software can be operated using a timeline interface, in addition to the storyboard interface. Timeline interfaces are more complex, but are often preferred for layered (composited) video production and for synchronizing audio with video.
Number of Audio and Video Tracks The numbers of audio and video tracks that the appliance’s software can manage at a time. A “u” in one of these fields indicates unlimited tracks.
Number of Transitions The number of transitions that are provided.
Number of Video Filters The number of video effect filters that are provided with the software.
Auto Scene Detection During the capture process, scene detection can optically detect scene changes or can detect jumps in the time code of incoming video.
Background Rendering Whether effects placed on the timeline automatically (and transparently) render in the background.
Keyframe Animations Whether the appliance’s software can perform simple animations of, for example, a clip’s or title’s position or the parameters of a transition.
Audio Envelopes Audio envelopes let the user vary the volume of an audio track over time. This not only lets you create fade in/out changes, but also lets you duck music beds down and up under a voiceover narration, for example.

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