Video-Capture Cards

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Final Cut Pro works admirably as a software-based, nonlinear editor, but adding hardware to the mix can expand its capabilities. PCI video-capture cards allow editors to capture and edit uncompressed and even high-definition video and graphics. Choosing the right card can be daunting, though, since there is more to consider than just image quality.

Final Cut Pro supports four capture cards: AJA Video Systems' Kona SD, Aurora Video Systems' IgniterRT, Digital Voodoo's D1 64AV, and Pinnacle Systems' CineWave Classic. But be aware that you'll need peripheral equipment to support them: an Ultra-SCSI RAID is a must for the data rate these cards produce, and to control your videotape deck, you'll also need an RS-422 serial port.

Our test systems were an 867MHz Power Mac G4 and a dual-1GHz Power Mac G4, each with 1GB of RAM, an Ultra-160 SCSI RAID, an ATA-133 hardware RAID (for comparison), and a digital beta video source. The cards performed as promised, so their individual features are what set them apart.

The Contenders

Of the four capture cards we tested, there are two types: standard cards and breakout box (BOB) cards. The Kona SD and D1 64AV are standard capture cards with built-in video and audio inputs. Meant for high-end work, these cards have only serial digital interface (SDI) video inputs and AES audio connections. If you want to work with composite video, you'll need to connect a composite-to-SDI converter to the card. Both cards have a desktop-mirroring ability for routing a desktop workspace to a video monitor.

Unlike the Kona SD and D1 64AV, the IgniterRT and CineWave Classic are base cards without built-in video inputs. You add functionality to these cards through BOBs -- connection boxes tethered to the capture card -- and/or daughter cards. To gain SDI inputs, for example, you'd have to add an SDI BOB, which costs $1,295 from Pinnacle and $2,999 from Aurora.

Additionally, these cards have upgrade options that significantly expand their capabilities. The IgniterRT has a unique $3,999 film-option upgrade for converting telecined video footage from its 30-frame sequence to the film's original 24 frames per second; and the CineWave Classic card can even step up to high-definition editing with the addition of the $9,995 HD BOB.

Real-Time Capabilities

Real-time (RT) effects are the ultimate time-saver, and in this arena, the CineWave Classic is the clear champ. With its dual-stream system, the CineWave Classic can play back either two streams of video and one graphics track with an alpha channel, or one video stream with two graphics layers. You can even add keyframeable RT effects and filters -- such as color balance, tint, opacity, and scale -- to these simultaneous streams. However, to unlock any of its powerful effects, you'll need to part with $2,495 for Pinnacle's RT software upgrade. The only other card with dual-stream capabilities is the Kona SD, whose accompanying software currently offers 11 dissolve and color effects. (AJA says more RT effects will be added in future free software upgrades.)

Both the IgniterRT and the D1 64AV are single-stream cards and have fewer RT effects. The IgniterRT can handle Final Cut Pro 3's (4.0 mice. ; Reviews, May 2002) new three-way color corrector in real time -- this is definitely handy -- and it has a few additional RT color effects, including a tinting effect. Presently, it can't perform a RT dissolve between two clips; the D1 64AV, an older board, offers even less in terms of RT effects; it's capable only of simple RT dissolve transitions. (Digital Voodoo's D1 64RT, which was released too late for review, has additional real-time effects.)

Offline Capabilities

Having good offline quality is essential in saving hard-drive space for large projects. In this department, not all cards are created equal.

The Kona SD makes use of Final Cut Pro's Offline RT format for its low-resolution solution; the resulting files are small enough that you can load them onto your PowerBook and edit them on the road. Unfortunately, the results of AJA's conversion to Offline RT are noticeably blockier and less detailed than Final Cut Pro's DV-to-OfflineRT conversion.

The D1 64AV has an offline feature as well; the quality is acceptable, but at 5 MBps, a lower bit-rate option would be useful for projects such as documentaries, which can have 30 or more hours of original footage.

The CineWave Classic resizes uncompressed images but does no compression otherwise. The CineWave's offline function, CineOffline, offers quality levels of 75 percent, 50 percent, and 25 percent. The results are only passable in the 25 percent offline quality, despite consuming nearly twice the bandwidth of DV, at approximately 6 MBps.

But when it comes down to it, there's no contest: the IgniterRT reigns supreme here, using its MJPEG-A codec for multiple levels of offline quality. You can determine your desired level of compression exactly, and the resulting offline clip quality is respectable, even at data rates much lower than the D1 64AV's and the CineWave's offline features.

Mac OS 9 or Mac OS X?

Capture cards are complex, and the more features they offer, the more challenging it is to develop the software drivers for them. It's not surprising, then, to see that the simpler Kona SD and D1 64AV cards are now OS X compatible. At press time, both the CineWave Classic and IgniterRT worked only in OS 9. Pinnacle stated that OS X drivers would be ready by the time you read this; Aurora said that an OS X driver is still months away.

Macworld's Buying Advice

No professional capture card does it all. But when it comes to standard cards, AJA Video Systems' Kona SD has a slight edge over Digital Voodoo's D1 64AV. And if you're into RT, the Kona has a superior RT-effects update strategy (for free) and costs $200 less than the D1 64AV.

If you're a Final Cut Pro user looking for a BOB card with a lot of flexibility, offline quality, and a film option, consider Aurora Video Systems' IgniterRT. If timesaving techniques are paramount, Pinnacle Systems' CineWave Classic is ruler of the RT world. This may also be the card for you if you're a pro looking toward high definition.

How Many Bits?

Image quality is the primary reason for choosing to work with uncompressed video. Two of these cards -- the Kona SD and the D1 64AV -- capture video at 10-bit quality, which is technically superior to the 8-bit quality allowed by the IgniterRT, though either is sufficient for impressive results. The CineWave Classic, in addition to its 8-bit capture, offers a unique 16-bit option (but because there isn't a standard video format that works at higher than 10 bits, this one-of-a-kind capture rate serves only to take up valuable hard-drive space).

For graphics-card animation sequences, the 10-bit Kona SD or D1 64AV cards are the clear choice. But for standard video, it's difficult, if not impossible, to see the difference between 10-bit and 8-bit (and most video formats are 8-bit).

But here's one thing to keep in mind: Final Cut Pro's render engine is 8-bit. So even if you start out capturing in 10-bit, your rendered video will be processed through an 8-bit pipe. This is where each card's software codec, which determines the rendering quality, comes into play. In our tests, the D1 64AV, IgniterRT, and Kona SD fared better than the CineWave Classic. The CineWave RGB to YUV codec showed some contouring (albeit minor) in rendered material, particularly with graphics. Unless you work in a graphics-intensive environment, you're unlikely to see much difference among the cards in terms of uncompressed image quality; your purchasing decision will be largely influenced by the other factors discussed in this review.

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