Analog-to-DV Converters

Perhaps you're intrigued by Apple's new focus on digital video, but own an analog camcorder or have a pile of home movies on VHS tape. In either case, you'll need some way to get that analog video into your Mac digitally. The best way to do that is with a FireWire analog-to-DV converter, which can send the audio and video from your Mac right back out to your TV screen. And if you already own a DV camcorder with analog inputs, a converter can handle the link to your computer so you won't have to frantically unplug your camcorder each time you rush out to capture breaking events on videotape.

We looked at four analog-to-DV converters that offered similar features: the Dazzle Multimedia Hollywood DV-Bridge, the Formac Studio, the Power R Director's Cut, and the Sony DVMC-DA2 Media Converter. All the products performed as advertised, but the Formac Studio stood out as the most Mac-compatible and innovative of the bunch.

Making the Connection

When you play analog audio and video, a converter box digitizes the media and converts it into the same DV format used by digital camcorders; that data is sent to your Mac via FireWire.

Hooking up a DV converter is simple: just plug it into a six-pin FireWire port on your computer and connect it to your video source, and it's ready to go. The Hollywood DV-Bridge and Formac Studio converters come with the necessary FireWire cables. However, the Sony unit includes a FireWire cable with a four-pin connector--ideal for hooking the converter up to a Sony Vaio but not, unfortunately, to your Mac. And only the DVMC-DA2 includes an S-Video cable and an A/V cable for connecting the audio.

Once the converter is connected to the computer and the camcorder, you can begin capturing or exporting video. In tests with a 500MHz G4 Power Mac and an iMac DV, we were able to capture and play back video using each of these converters from within Apple iMovie 2.0.3 (including the Mac OS X version), Adobe Premiere 6, and Apple Final Cut Pro 2. We didn't notice any differences in image quality among the four.

In our tests, iMovie immediately recognized all the converters with no problem. For Premiere, we had to select each device specifically from a control menu before the program could communicate with the converter. The Formac Studio and the Hollywood DV-Bridge detect whether you're capturing or outputting a signal, and they have LED indicators that show the direction of transfer. Both also have buttons for switching sources, in case automatic switching doesn't kick in. With the DVMC-DA2 and the Director's Cut, you must switch sources manually.

From Geek to Sleek

In the industrial-design department, the Director's Cut looks as though it belongs in a TV studio: it's housed in a sturdy, utilitarian black metal box that only an engineer could love. At the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum is the Formac Studio, a curved silver box that would look more at home in an ad agency (Formac also sells a clear model). The compact DVMC-DA2 has the simple elegance typical of Sony gear, while the lithe form and vertical orientation of the Hollywood DV-Bridge make the device so structurally unstable that even the strain from the connecting cables can pull it over.

S-Video and AV jacks are standard on all the converters, but the Director's Cut carries an extra S-Video—out port for monitoring the signal being sent to the VCR--a handy feature you'd normally find only in professional studio equipment. It also has a quarter-inch headphone jack with a level knob. The Formac Studio includes two additional coaxial inputs, for cable TV and antennae.

The Hollywood DV-Bridge and DVMC-DA2 use external power supplies; the Director's Cut and Formac Studio take a more convenient approach, drawing power from the FireWire bus. The Formac Studio also has a second FireWire port, for daisy-chaining other peripherals.

The Details

The Formac Studio offers some unique features, including a TV and radio tuner and an internal speaker. An option in the ProTV tuner software allows it to search for available TV and radio channels; you can assign names to the individual stations it finds. The ProTV software can also capture timed snapshots to a folder--handy if you're building a Web cam. Unlike Formac's other TV tuner product, the ProTV PCI card ( Reviews, October 2000), the Formac Studio doesn't support closed-captioning or let you adjust brightness and contrast.

The Formac Studio also offers more playback options than the others, supporting 16:9 and 2.35:1 aspect ratios in addition to the standard 4:3. All four products support the NTSC video format, which is common in North America, and all but the DVMC-DA2 support the PAL format, found overseas. In addition, the DVMC-DA2 is the only converter in our roundup that supports Macrovision, an analog copy-protection scheme used by most DVD players and VCRs. Videotapes and DVDs that have the Macrovision signal embedded will appear normal when viewed on most TVs; when they're recorded to tape and played back, however, the image will be distorted and unwatchable. It makes sense that Sony Pictures wants to prevent its movies from being copied, but we believe you're better off using a product that doesn't put up this kind of a roadblock.

If you own an analog Sony Handycam, the DVMC-DA2 and the Hollywood DV-Bridge let you control your camcorder's playback functions from within Premiere or iMovie, making these features almost as easy to use as a digital camcorder. In those applications, however, the DVMC-DA2 required us to switch manually between playback and editing modes.

Macworld's Buying Advice

If, in addition to converting analog audio and video, you want to add a TV and radio tuner to your Mac or would benefit from the flexibility of an added FireWire port, the Formac Studio is a great all-in-one choice. If you need a dedicated headphone jack or an extra video output, consider the Power R Director's Cut. If you're on a budget and willing to forgo extra features, choose the Dazzle Hollywood DV-Bridge. The DVMC-DA2, with its copy protection and lack of PAL support, is the least attractive option.

Find DV-related tutorials and forums at this user-group site.

Adobe's Web site offers tips and techniques for working with digital video.

Tune In: The Formac Studio lets you turn live video into something resembling Web-cam footage. Add time stamps, titles, and even blurring mosaic patterns to an image.

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