FireWire Digital Video Converters
You can't remember the last time you bought or rented a video, but you still have shelves full of your well-worn favorites. And then there's that shopping bag filled with old Hi8 tapes of birthday parties and vacations gathering dust in the closet. What can you do to preserve your video library and bring all of this analog stuff into the digital age?
An analog-to-DV converter allows you to capture video from your VCR or analog camcorder and convert it to digital video. Once you've captured it, you can edit it and burn it to a DVD. Or you can export it back to analog format (to a brand-new videotape, for example).
We tested ADS Technologies' Pyro A/V Link, Datavideo's DAC-100, and Miglia Technology's Director's Cut Take 2 bidirectional (analog to digital and back to analog) converters. We also looked at the Canopus ADVC55, which converts in only one direction, from analog to digital. (We've already reviewed the Canopus ADVC-100 [ ; September 2002], another excellent bidirectional converter.)
While the ADVC55 doesn't specifically claim OS 9 compatibility, we successfully captured and exported video with all the units in both OS 9 and OS X. At a reasonable price of $199 and with excellent picture quality, the DAC-100 is the best buy of the bunch for most users.
Sight and Sound
Any of these boxes will do a competent job of capturing analog video and converting it to DV in NTSC (the American video standard) or PAL (the European standard), but there are noticeable differences in image quality between them. Some of them captured highlights and shadows more faithfully than others. We liked the ADVC55's picture quality the best: the blacks were deep and the colors were saturated. The DAC-100 and the Director's Cut captured video that, while not quite as rich as the ADVC55's, was also excellent. The Pyro A/V Link's captured images were slightly brighter, but colors and blacks looked washed-out. This was barely noticeable when we viewed our footage on a computer, but it really showed up when we viewed it on a TV, because TVs handle color differently.
Since Apple's iMovie and Final Cut Pro recognize converters as DV devices, you can't make any adjustments to the audio during capture unless you run the video through a mixer. If you're capturing your favorite Hollywood flick, this won't be a problem. But if you're working with an old home movie in which the audio may have been quiet to begin with, you may have some challenges. Each of these units captures audio at a slightly different level. The Pyro A/V Link had the strongest audio. The ADVC55 is the only unit that allows you to adjust the volume (you can toggle a DIP switch on the unit to boost the audio 15 dB), but using it may result in some distortion unless the source audio is very weak.
Plug and Capture
All of these units are extremely easy to use. There are no drivers to install; you simply connect your camera or VCR to the converter's inputs. If you're using Final Cut Pro, you can connect a TV or a preview monitor to the outputs (on the Pyro A/V Link and the DAC-100, you may have to swap cables if you use those same outputs to export; only the Director's Cut has two sets of outputs so you can export and use your preview monitor simultaneously). Then you connect the converter to your Mac's FireWire port.
We had no trouble getting right to work with the ADVC55, the DAC-100, and the Director's Cut. We did have some problems with the Pyro A/V Link. At first we couldn't get our preview monitor to display in color during capture; then we couldn't view captured video on our preview monitor. Finally, we managed to play video from our preview monitor by manually flipping the A/V Link's Mode switch, which toggles between digital and analog. ADS says that our color problem is a known firmware issue that affects only certain equipment (such as older VCRs), and that it should be fixed in the next revision, which should be shipping by the time you read this.
Ins and Outs
All of these boxes come with FireWire cables, and all but the ADVC55 come with A/V (composite video and audio) and S-Video cables. Only the DAC-100 has two six-pin FireWire ports so you can use it as a DV repeater (a small piece of hardware that lets you join two FireWire cables). The A/V Link has a six-pin and a four-pin FireWire port, as well as component video in and locked audio (but you won't have a problem keeping audio and video in sync with any of these units). The Director's Cut has all of its ports in the rear, which may help keep your cables from sprawling all over your desk (the others have front and back ports). It also has a headphone jack, so you can monitor the source during capture, and Kensington K & Lock support, which lets you connect an antitheft security cable -- a nice feature if you're looking for a converter to use in an open office or classroom.
If you have limited desktop space, you'll appreciate the ADVC55. This unit is the most compact of all the ones we tested -- it's not much bigger than an iPod. Another place where space may be an issue is in your power strip. If you're a hard-core DV enthusiast, you've already got your computer, monitor, camera, extra hard drive, preview monitor, and speakers plugged in. The DAC-100 and the A/V Link both require an external power supply, and the plugs are bulky. Both the ADVC55 and the Director's Cut draw power from the FireWire cable. You'll need to plug them directly into the computer (as opposed to using a hub), though, if you want them to be reliable. If no FireWire port is available, you'll need an external power adapter for these converters, which will be an added expense.
The cases of the ADVC55 and the Director's Cut are metal, whereas those of the DAC-100 and the A/V Link are plastic. If you plan to use these in the field, the ADVC55's compactness and the Director's Cut's relative ruggedness (as well as their ability to draw power from a FireWire port) are pluses.
Macworld's Buying Advice
In spite of the Pyro A/V Link's stronger audio capture and component video in, we prefer the DAC-100. Due to its excellent video quality and reasonable price, most users will find the DAC-100 to be the best overall value. We like the ADVC55 for its picture quality, but because it can't export video back to analog, its price is hard to justify.
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