Your High-Def Mac

High Definition (HD) video—once limited to people with very deep pockets—is catching on as financially viable for even the most modest budgets. By renaming its professional video-editing software Final Cut Pro HD, Apple has also acknowledged the growing popularity and viability of HD on the Mac. Last month we introduced you to the world of HD video (“Meeting HD,” Mac Beat, November 2004); now let’s take a look at how Mac users can get in on the game.

For the Pros

HD falls into two main camps: professional production level—with expensive equipment, superb quality, and high data rates—and consumer level, which is typically more affordable and highly compressed.

Professional HD facilities usually edit with uncompressed HD, which requires staggeringly high data rates. A 1080i HD signal, for example, needs 160 MBps of throughput. As a result, editing uncompressed HD requires a hefty Final Cut Pro system, preferably with a dual-processor G5, and large and very fast RAID storage—an hour of that uncompressed 1080i HD video gobbles up more than half a terabyte of hard-drive space.

Editing HD video in Final Cut Pro has been possible since the introduction, back in the OS9 days, of Pinnacle Systems’ CineWave HD capture card—which now supports Power Mac G5s and Final Cut Pro HD in OS X. But Pinnacle has plenty of competition. AJA Video and BlackMagic Design are releasing second-generation versions of their HD cards that support both Standard Definition (SD) and HD video: the $2,490 Kona 2 HD and $1,995 DeckLink HD Pro, respectively. And Aurora Video Systems has entered the HD space, with its $1,499 PipeHD card.

Getting Cheaper All the Time

Product Price
Power Mac G5/dual-2.5GHz, 2GB of RAM, 250GB hard drive, SuperDrive, and two 23-inch Cinema Displays $8,076*
Final Cut Pro HD $999
Xserve RAID with 3.5 terabytes of storage, dual-512MB cache, and cache battery backup modules $11,649*
HD capture card $2,495
Keyspan USB-serial adapter (for deck control) and control cable $110
Total $23,329

* Price is as custom-configured through Apple’s online store.

Here’s a sample of what it costs to set up a pro editing room.

Apple finally tacked the HD onto the Final Cut Pro name in April 2004 because editing professional HD content without any extra hardware or drives had finally become possible. How? With FireWire.

Panasonic has an HD format, DVCPRO HD, that is based on DV. In fact, people in the industry sometimes call this format DV100 because it uses DV-type compression to record to tape at 100 Mbps (four times the rate of normal DV). Two years ago, Apple vowed to support the Panasonic platform and Panasonic vowed to add FireWire to all its decks—the result was HD over FireWire this year. (Even standard FireWire 400 has plenty of bandwidth for DVCPRO HD.)

Although DVCPRO HD cameras are still in the $60,000-plus range, you can capture that professional-quality video into Final Cut Pro HD using a Panasonic AJ-HD1200A HD deck. Even at $21,000 (plus the $4,000 FireWire add-on), the deck costs less than half of what you would have paid for an HDdeck before this one came out. The system requirements are so basic that you can use a PowerBook to capture and edit HD.

Final Cut Pro HD also has the ability to play HD footage out to a Cinema Display or a DVI projector. The 23- and 30-inch Apple Cinema Displays work particularly well with this feature, since their optimal resolution settings surpass the HD pixel count.

Data Deluge

Video Format Data Rate (MBps)
HDV, ATSC HD broadcast 3
DV (25) 3.6
DVCPRO HD 720P 24-fps (native) 5.8
DVCPRO HD 1080i 30-fps (native) 14
Uncompressed SD 10-bit 30-fps 27
Uncompressed HD 24-fps 1080P 10-bit 126
Uncompressed HD 30-fps 1080i 10-bit 160

All capture rates include sound.

As video quality increases and less compression is used, video data rates are skyrocketing. Here are rates for some common video formats.

For the Rest of Us

Nonprofessionals—whether they’re watching an HD signal from satellite, cable, or over-the-air sources, or recording with an HD video camcorder—never deal with uncompressed HD. Highly compressed video formats (usually HD MPEG-2) are far more manageable and easier to store, in the range of 2.4 MBps. Because this signal is so highly compressed, you can easily capture it to stock hard drives.

Consumer HD got a big boost when JVC introduced the first HDV camcorder, the $3,500 GR-HD1, in 2003. (HDV is HD for the masses—it lets users record very compressed HD MPEG-2 video onto DV tapes, as both 720P and 1080i. The quality for the price is astounding, and the data rate is in the same ballpark as conventional digital video’s.) The GR-HD1 was followed by the $3,995 HD10U. And Sony’s $3,700 HDR-FXI should be out soon.

These HDV camcorders also come equipped with a FireWire port that lets users transfer footage to computers to edit and also send video to HD DVHS tape. Unfortunately, the editing program that JVC currently includes with its HDV camcorder supports only Windows XP. MPEG-2 is notoriously difficult to edit because of its interframe compression, but Apple has promised native support of HD MPEG-2 in a future update to Final Cut Pro HD. Currently, if you want to edit HDV in Final Cut Pro HD, you’ll need a third-party application such as Heuris’s XtractorHDV (part of the $500 Indie Tool Kit) or Lumiere HD’s $179 eponymous product to import and use the footage.

And there’s more good news for Mac video creators—with Mac OS X 10.4, Apple plans to add support for H.264/AVC (Advanced Video Coding) video, one of the video types approved for the new HD DVD standard—which will make HD content even easier to distribute.

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