NAB In Depth: Powerful Video Cards Coming to the Mac

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LAS VEGAS--Here's a more in-depth look at two similar FireWire editing products showcased here at NAB. Both are based around hardware from Canadian firm Matrox, but differ in their approaches to solving a basic problem inherent to the video editing process.

The problem in a nutshell: the familiar fades and cross-dissolve effects often used in combining two video clips during DV editing cause the computer to decompress each of the two frames, blend them, and compress the newly created frame. This rendering process can take significant amounts of time during a project, and those using Final Cut Pro have become used to working in this manner. This will change sometime late this year with the introduction of the homonymous RT-Max from ProMax and the RTMac from Matrox.

The $999 RTMac announced at Apple's press conference this week has been under development for about a year, with two Matrox employees working at Apple's Cupertino offices for the last 6 months. This display card, with composite and S-Video inputs, is essentially a port of Matrox's existing PC hardware, the RT2000. While the RT2000 is a two-card product (one card supplies the necessary FireWire ports, the other card drives the monitor connection), the RTMac occupies a single PCI slot and uses the Macintosh's existing FireWire ports. Although it will be offered initially for the G4, Matrox is exploring compatibility with G3-based Power Macs.

The RTMac will perform real-time rendering for a subset of FCP's most common effects and transitions. These will include motion effects, crossfades, the standard SMPTE wipes, and alpha gain. The more swirly, organic looking transitions shipping with its PC brother will be missing, although these and other features such as real time MPEG transcoding -- critical for creating DVD content -- can conceivably be delivered with a software update. Such is the underlying power of the chips used in the design. Part of the legs that will deliver real-time page turns and other eye-popping effects is the 3D warping engine present in the G400 chip used that drives the display. The Matrox RTMac will be offered as part of a build-to-order system option on Apple's web site.

A significant gating factor for both Matrox and ProMax products will be the availability of the "real time" version of FCP. Note that this version is expected to ship some months after the just-announced version 1.2.5 of FCP that is slated for June introduction.

ProMax's RT-Max is closer in many ways to the PC version of the Matrox card than it is to Matrox's Mac product. This $1495 system consists of an AGP graphics card with an internal cable to a PCI compression card. The graphics card features two monitor connections, enabling it to operate in "two-headed" mode, driving two macintosh desktops (except when outputting video), or with one RGB desktop display and a separate NTSC video output. The graphics card is actually a port of the popular Matrox G400 AGP card sold to the PC market. The Mac version will support OpenGL and RAVE and will be available alone for $269. A $69 DVI digital flat panel interface will be sold as an option, but will sacrifice one connector slot on the back panel in the process. Note that Apple ships the AGP slot of their G4 machines populated with the ATI RAGE Pro card, which would have to be removed to accommodate the RT-Max.

ProMax will differentiate their product by offering features that Matrox won't ship in their first release of software, such as real-time color correction and DV-to-MPEG2 transcoding. ProMax also doesn't intend to stand idle while waiting for Apple to deliver the real-time version of Final Cut Pro; they prefer to get their system into the hands of users sooner rather than later, albeit with more limited functionality than what the board combined with Final Cut Pro will deliver.

History shows that waiting for Apple isn't always the healthiest approach for a developer to take. Digital Origin turned to developing the PC version of their FireWire editing package after waiting for Apple to deliver fixes to the FireWire software that would allow Digital Origin's software to run reliably on Apple's built-in FireWire ports.

Fast compression/decompression is at the heart of the RT-Max and the RTMac. The same nimble DVExpress chip that gives the Wired, Inc. MediaPress card the ability to perform real-time MPEG-2 encoding is also found in both products, with the RT-Max adding a companion DVExplorer chip for back-end processing. The DVEpress, from compression industry stalwart C-Cubed Microsystems ( ), is capable of either compressing a single video stream or decompressing two independent streams of video. It can transcode a DV-to-MPEG stream in real time and supports a variety of compression formats via microcode. This means that features such as the support for higher-end CODECs like DV50 utilized in higher-end DV cameras can be added later via software. And any hardware upgrade that doesn't require opening the machine means that video editors can spend more time doing what they prefer: editing.

Senior Lab Analyst JEFFY MILSTEAD ( ) is the video guru of the Macworld Lab.

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