8 Capture Considerations: What to Look for in a Digitizer or Capture Card for Video

You already own a camcorder and you have a computer, but you want the two to work together. There is no question that editing video on your computer is the way to go, but the problem is that you need to get that video onto your computer first. Fortunately, you can solve this problem yourself with only a small amount of cash and limited technical skills. We’ve got something for you veterans out there as well, since there are some pretty sophisticated and attractive new hardware packages that you could use to upgrade your machine from basic to advanced. In any case, this is the place to start your research as we offer these eight observations.

1. FireWire

Computer editing is the way to go and going digital is what it is all about. The ideal situation is when your video starts out digital on your digital camcorder, because a Mini DV or Digital8 camcorder is already ready to talk to your computer, if you have the proper interface card. FireWire (aka IEEE-1394 or i.LINK) cards are cheap (as low as $15) and easy to install. In fact, you might not even need to install anything at all: Macs have had FireWire for some time now, and many new PCs now come with the connection as well.

You won’t need a supercomputer to edit digital video, but a fairly new PC running Windows 98SE should be a minimum. A Phillips-head screwdriver and a half an hour should be all you need to insert a FireWire card into a PCI-slot. That and a FireWire cable. Oh, and some software, of course. If you aren’t comfortable just receiving a card in the mail with no instructions at all, you might consider getting a complete FireWire bundle, such as the ADS Pyro 1394DV ($80). It comes with sophisticated but accessible video editing and DVD authoring software for beginners and includes explicit installation instructions that you might not find when you buy a generic card.


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2. Analog Inputs

Analog capture is a much more complex process since we need to figure out how to convert analog video into a digital format that your computer likes. Analog cards are most likely not automatically (natively) supported by your computer’s operating system and may need to be configured before they’ll work properly. Because analog cards need to convert your video and audio into digital data, these cards can be more demanding on your computer as well.

Analog capture is not an IEEE standardized process, so you’ll have to pay more attention to the properties of the card you buy. Low-end cards might convert incoming analog video to compressed MPEG-2 video, which can be extremely challenging to edit and is often of marginal quality. Still, MPEG-2 video files are relatively small in size and the format is great for distribution, which is why it is used on DVDs, digital cable, satellite systems and in-home digital video recorders (DVRs) such as TiVo. If you don’t need to perform extensive editing, MPEG-2 is a good choice.

Some of the higher-end cards capture 4:2:2 MPEG-2 video at a 25Mbps data rate, which is quite high (DVDs typically have data rates around 8Mbps). Some analog cards capture to the DV format, which is a good option. Professional cards often record in a high quality MJPEG mode or even in a proprietary highest quality uncompressed format.

The final advantage of analog capture cards is that they usually swing both ways, capturing analog video to your computer and also sending it back out (typically via S-video or RCA). Sometimes this analog out ability can be used by your editing software to send previews out to a television set, which is a very nice feature for hobbyists but is a necessity for the pros.

3. Quality of Construction

A good indication of the quality and professionalism of the card is the inputs. While the standardized nature of FireWire means that the quality is identical no matter what, it is a different story for analog inputs. Most analog cards have RCA (composite) and S-video (component) inputs, but more serious cards might also have a FireWire input onboard. Professionals may need YUV inputs with BNC connections or an SDI interface.

It is a similar situation for audio. Some cards have two RCA jacks for left and right audio or even a simple stereo mini-plug. A number of cards will actually leverage your existing sound card to capture audio. Once again, more professional solutions will have more professional inputs, such as XLR.

4. Breakout Boxes

We know what is lurking behind your computer: inputs, outputs, cables and wires. It can really be a nightmare if you need to connect and disconnect your camcorder all of the time, as most of us without a dedicated playback deck in the edit bay do. One really great solution is a Breakout Box or BoB. BoBs vary in quality and utility, from simple cables to rack-mountable steel cases, but all bring your connections out from behind the computer to someplace (anyplace!) more convenient. We especially like the BoB for the Canopus DVStorm Plus ($1,299) that fits in an empty drive bay on the front of your computer. The most affordable BoB we’ve found comes in Pinnacle’s Studio 8 Deluxe package ($300), which is an introductory card that captures both DV and analog footage.

5. External Solutions

What if you just want to edit a few home movies without opening up your computer to perform major surgery? We have seen the emergence of a number of reliable external capture solutions in recent years. Do not confuse these devices with low-quality Web cams. Products like Dazzle’s Digital Video Creator 80 ($70) convert your analog video into a digitally compressed format (usually MPEG-2) that can be sent over a USB connection. Again, MPEG-2 isn’t the best format for editing, but for simple no-nonsense, no-installation video capture, this may be the answer.

6. Hardware Acceleration

A number of capture cards do more than just get video onto your computer. Cards like the Pinnacle Pro-ONE RTDV ($1,000) have special hardware that can assist your computer when dealing with challenging video processing tasks. Although computers are getting faster and faster, resulting in shorter and shorter waits for video renders, there is still room for hardware acceleration cards. These cards will bring real-time DV out performance to mid-range computers that formerly felt sluggish. The hardware acceleration features are only coordinated to work with a very limited number of software applications (e.g. Adobe Premiere), so you are out of luck if one of these apps is not your editor of choice.

7. Laptop Ops

Laptops are less than ideal editing platforms, but sometimes you just have to hit the road with your video. When you do, look for a device like the OrangeCombo USB 2.0/FireWire card ($119) from Orange Micro. Another nice advantage of adding two FireWire and two USB ports to your computer is that you can then also hook up a roomy external hard disk drive for video storage.

8. Software Bundles

We’ve already alluded to software a couple of times, but it bears repeating. There obviously isn’t much reason to capture video to your computer if you aren’t going to edit it or burn it to DVD. Clearly you will need to make sure that the software that you want to work with can edit the video that you capture, but that usually is only an issue if you are working with a unique and special card (check the manufacturer’s Web site to make sure or give them a call).

All but the least expensive capture cards come with some sort of editing software. Often, this software is enough for your first few projects, but you may find you want more features and capabilities later on. Professional software is not cheap, however, so look for video cards with attractive bundles. One example is the Matrox RT.X10 ($599), which comes with Adobe Premiere 6.5 ($549 by itself from Adobe). And we haven’t even mentioned the other software in the box, including (but not limited to) an MPEG-2 encoder from Ligos, Pixelan effects, Sonic DVDit! SE and Sonic Desktop Smart Sounds. Matrox’s software bundle is hardly unique, so before you dismiss a new video card as too expensive, make sure you consider the total package.

Where to Buy

The Internet mega-stores will probably have the best prices on the Net, but if you are just starting out and are concerned that you don’t know precisely what you need, we’d recommend you find a company that specializes in video products. Give them a call, tell them what you already have and tell them what you want to do. The time and trouble you save will be more than worth any extra money you spend. And, more often than not, the video-centric stores we’ve seen have better sale prices than the big boys anyhow.

Heart of the Turnkey

Capture cards are the heart of any video-editing computer, so when you are shopping for an editing machine, you should start by considering what capture card you want. After you decide on the card you can then find a video vendor that can integrate the card into a full system. Some cards are very specialized (e.g. NewTek T[3]) and may require certified hardware, so a turnkey vendor may sometimes be the only way to guarantee compatibility.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.