No question about it, the preferred method of video editing these days has become computer-based: using a hard drive to record and manipulate video, audio and images, instead of videotape.
Though the price of a fully configured editing computer has dropped drastically in the past couple of years, there are still those who would rather configure their existing computers for nonlinear editing. There are many good reasons to do this, not the least of which is the considerably lower cost of going this route. If you plan to do so, however, you should know that you may be opening up a big can of worms. Even if you consider yourself a whiz at installing PC hardware, you might find that installing and configuring a Wintel machine for nonlinear editing can be a hassle of epic proportions.
In this article, we'll tell you the basics you need to know to configure an existing Windows-based PC for video editing. We'll cover all the bases, from marshalling the basic components to the inevitable troubleshooting that results when things don't work perfectly on the first try. Space does not permit us to go into all the possible problems that may arise with all the possible computer configurations. You can use this article as a general map of the terrain, but don't think of it as a specific installation guide for your particular computer.
The basic components of a PC-based editing system are:
a powerful, Pentium-class CPU and motherboard with at least 64MB of RAM,
a fast hard drive, preferably with a 7200 RPM spindle speed and a sustained data transfer rate of greater than 5MB/second,
a video capture card,
a sound card, and
It's possible to purchase a video capture card that includes an onboard sound card. If you do, you should know that you'll have no problem creating most of the audio you need for your video. However, you may have problems with some of the other sound-card applications you might want, including MIDI music creation and game playing.
About System Requirements
For capturing and processing digital video, you need more computing power than most ordinary applications require. As noted above, a very basic, minimum-level requirement is a 133 MHz Pentium computer with 64MB of RAM. This is not much computing power by today's standards, but a large number of such machines exist in homes and businesses today, and they do have the minimal power required for editing. Much better is a Pentium II or Pentium III equipped machine.
Before you begin retrofitting such a system, you need to check the system requirements of the video capture card you plan to purchase. Such requirements tend to vary widely. Some video capture cards may require a Pentium II or even a Pentium III to operate, while others claim to be able to run on a clunky old 486 PC. In general, it's a good idea to work with a system that's a few notches above what the manufacturer claims is necessary for the product.
Cracking the Case
Now let's consider a few basics on the installation of hardware in your computer.
Whenever you open the computer's case and begin installing cards or other peripherals, keep the following in mind:
The motherboard is very delicate: treat it as you would a piece of fine china or a very expensive painting.
Never monkey around inside the computer's case while the computer is running. Just holding a metal object in the vicinity of the motherboard while the computer is on can cause an electrical arc that could turn your computer into a big, expensive paperweight.
Even when the computer is off, certain precautions are necessary to avoid the discharge of static electricity, which can fry your motherboard in a fraction of a second. Leaving the computer plugged in (but not turned on) is one way to avoid problems. Another is to use the grounding strap that comes with many computer peripherals. In any case, it's a good idea to discharge any static electricity that may be built up in your person by touching the metal side of the computer case before you begin installing a card.
Installing a New Hard Drive
To begin editing video on your computer, you'll need a separate drive to handle the video. While some systems get along okay by partitioning a single, large drive, it's a better idea to have one drive totally dedicated to video storage. Why? Because video drives tend to wear out faster than drives put through ordinary usage. Also, it's easier to upgrade to a bigger, better drive by simply adding a new one, leaving your system software and other applications in place on the old drive.
Before you purchase a hard drive, you'll need to know what kind of hard drive interface your computer is capable of handling. Most computers use the Enhanced IDE interface, also known as ATA-2 or ATA-3. These are generally fast enough to handle a video-capable hard drive. Very fast Ultra-DMA drives are a sub-category of Enhanced IDE. If your motherboard has the ability to use these drives, then they're probably your best bet. Check your computer's documentation to find out which kind of drive you can use before you end up with a purchase you can't use.
Also available are a variety of SCSI drive types. Once upon a time, these fast and reliable storage devices ruled the video editing world. Since that day, Enhanced IDE drives have caught up with them in speed, while plummeting far below them in price. If you decide to use a SCSI drive, make sure it's at least a 7,200 RPM Fast SCSI-2 drive or better.
Whatever kind of hard drive you get, make sure it's a big one. In today's marketplace, it's not uncommon to find a speedy 7,200 RPM hard drive with over 10GB of storage for under $200.
Plug In the Capture Card.
Most video capture cards fit into a PCI slot. Before you purchase a video capture card, check your computer's documentation to find out the type of slots your motherboard has.
When you get ready to install your card, you may have trouble fitting it into the slot. Sometimes cards will slide in easily, but other times they take a little coaxing to become "seated" properly. Don't be afraid to apply some pressure, but make sure the card is aligned perfectly with the slot before you start pushing. Otherwise, you might damage the card or the motherboard in the process.
Always be careful where you put your fingers when installing a card into any computer. Computer cases tend to be stamped out of cheap metal in a process that can leave razor-sharp edges. Many a motherboard has been christened with the blood of hapless hardware installers who failed to keep their hands far enough away from the edges of the case. A steady hand and a little bit of patience are your best allies against this problem.
It's a good idea to follow the manufacturer's installation instructions to the letter whenever you install any card in your computer.
Install the Drivers
Next comes the fun part: installation of the software drivers that cause the hardware to operate properly on your computer. If we lived in a perfect world, every video capture card (and every other piece of PC hardware, for that matter) would work perfectly with the driver software that came in the box with it. We PC users, however, don't live in a perfect world. We have to deal with a multitude of vendors of hardware and software, none of whom are particularly keen on cooperating with all of the others. In other words: when you install your drivers for your video capture card, it just might work on the first try. And it just might not.
If you're a Mac user, pat yourself on the back at this point, as your computer's proprietary nature permits you to install hardware with very little trouble most of the time. (Then again, the fact that you're reading this article would indicate that you're considering installing an editing system on a Wintel PC, so I guess we'll let you stay for the rest of the article.)
So how does a Wintel PC owner get around this problem? Let's back up a moment to the second before you installed the software drivers that came with your capture card. Before you put your faith in those drivers, fire up your Internet connection and go to the Web site of the company that made your video capture card. Visit their drivers section (often found under the technical support area of the site) and download the latest version of the drivers for your product. Then install these drivers instead of the ones that came with your card.
Sometimes you may find it necessary to uninstall the card's drivers and try again with a newer set of drivers. Unfortunately, the process is not as simple as it seems, as PC hardware drivers are notorious for leaving little bits and pieces of themselves in the Windows system registry. The best thing to do in these circumstances is to look again at the Web site's technical support area for an uninstall document. This will tell you everything you need to know, step-by-step, in order to completely uninstall your drivers. Be careful when you're monkeying around in the Windows registry. It's possible to cause a great deal of damage to your operating system while you're down there. Follow the uninstall directions carefully, and you should be fine.
What's that? You say your computer's Plug and Play system automatically detected the card, installation was a breeze and you now have a perfectly working video capture card? Count yourself among the lucky, but be prepared for the day when you may have to uninstall the drivers and re-install the updated versions.
If your computer already has a sound card, and your video capture card also includes audio capture and playback capabilities, then you may find yourself switching between these two devices. Unfortunately, both sound cards cannot be operating at the same time, so it may be necessary to visit your computer's Settings>Control Panel>Multimedia window and select the preferred device for recording and playback from the pull-down menu.
As stated earlier, it's a good idea to retain the services of a more typical sound card, even if your video capture card has audio built in. However, when it's time to record audio along with the video, you may well find that the video capture card's audio recording services are much better at keeping the sounds in synchronization with the pictures.
Most video capture cards come with some kind of video editing software bundled into the package. This software may or may not be the ideal solution for your particular needs. You may find yourself shopping for a better package even after you've purchased your capture card.
In any case, it's usually best to install the editing software first, before you've installed the video capture card. That way, when you install the card's drivers, they'll (usually) locate the video editing software and load the correct pre-sets and preferences into place. Then, when it's time to capture your first clips, all you have to do is select your video capture card's settings from a list, and you're ready to start digitizing your video.
Patience, Young Jedi
By this time, you may be saying to yourself, "Gosh, it sure is a hassle to install an editing system in a PC." And you'd be absolutely right in saying so. However, with a little bit of patience, and a few trips to the manufacturer's Web site, you're likely to get things up and running eventually. And as you're trying to get things working, keep in mind the words of Yoda: "Try? There is no try. There is only do, or not do."