Video makes the voyage to desktop PCs

If you think video won’t become a mainstream office application in the
next couple of years, remember how quickly charts and graphs have popped up in almost
every document.


Most of the factors that catapulted desktop graphics applications into the
mainstream—faster computers, cheaper memory, bigger hard drives, larger monitors and
low-cost scanners—also are driving PC video.


Government offices use video for training, support, public information, crime scene
recording and historical event recording. For example, the FBI’s Multimedia
Production Group has produced about two dozen training videos for local police since 1989
using editing equipment from Avid Technology Inc. of Tewksbury, Mass.


Low-end analog editing systems cost less than $500. For professional results, look to
digital video editing systems that cost $5,000 and up; $50,000 buys the equivalent of what
would have cost $500,000 a few years ago.


Analog video from camcorders and videocassettes will not be of broadcast quality unless
you invest in professional-grade hardware. Offices with modest needs, however, can edit
analog video footage from a $400 camcorder on an average Pentium PC, insert special
effects, add narration, score the production and export it to VHS cassettes.


Depending on the editor’s skill, the results can look pretty impressive at low
cost. You can do only so much with VHS, though. To edit analog TV signals on a computer,
you must first convert the signal to digital format, then change back to analog for
display on TV. Sequential editing degrades the quality at each re-recording step, so
unless you use some sort of booster device when making VHS copies, most of the color
signal will be lost by the fourth generation.


In contrast, images taken with a sub-$100 pocket-sized digital camera can be edited and
copied endlessly without losing quality, and they start out with a resolution surpassing
that of analog television screens.


A $3,500 digital video camcorder such as the DCR-VX1000 from Sony Electronics Inc. of
Park Ridge, N.J., has professional-grade charge-coupled devices to convert light into
signals that, within certain limits, equal network television in quality. Visit the
company’s Web site at http://www.sony.com.


Digital video files, stored on the camcorder’s digital tape, can be edited on a PC
just as any other form of digital data. There’s no need to convert as with analog
footage. That means fantastic special effects are relatively easy to achieve on an
ordinary computer.


Clips can change into still images with perfect clarity, unlike the fuzzy results of
converting VHS video to stills. That’s because analog VHS is an interlaced signal,
whereas digital video is just a stream of still images.


If you’ve sometimes had disappointing results from low-end digital still cameras,
you might think inexpensive digital video will be just as disappointing. That’s not
so.


Even fairly expensive digital still cameras, and digital video cameras in still mode,
have poorer resolution than disposable film cameras. But the resolution isn’t obvious
unless you magnify the image. Digital video recordings even at low, 600- by 800-pixel
resolution surpass ordinary TV quality.


Unlike sequential analog editing, digital editing can start and end anywhere once the
file has been transferred to a PC. Although the original video is recorded on tape, which
is a linear medium, you can cut and paste at will on the computer without waiting for a
VCR to rewind to selected spots. Nonlinearity makes a big improvement in editing speed.


You can even edit in real time and place titles and captions on streaming video, just
as television station control rooms can.


The preferred way to transfer digital video from the camera to the editing PC is via a
card that follows the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ 1394
standard, known as FireWire.


Many video capture cards on the market still compress video to the Motion Picture
Experts Group or Joint Photographic Experts Group standards, or a hybrid of the two. But
they are bad choices for digital video editing because you must have very large MPEG and
JPEG file sizes to maintain quality.


FireWire, in contrast, is a hardware data transfer rather than a compression standard.
It streams digital data into a PC without compression and data loss.


A simple digital video setup, consisting of a camera with FireWire output and a PC
editing card with FireWire input, maintains the pure digital quality necessary for
multimedia productions that use stills taken from a video stream.


Here are some of the leading FireWire cards and bundles for PC video editing:


The Macintosh and Microsoft Windows NT versions of Avid Technology’s Avid
Xpress editing system are very different, and the Mac version easily comes out on
top. A complete Xpress editing system with the Genie 3-D effects card from Pinnacle
Systems Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., can easily top out at more than $32,000. But for
the price of the bundle plus a relatively inexpensive Macintosh, you get what is probably
the best sub-$100,000 video editor around.


Avid, on the Web at http://www.avid.com, also sells
high-end professional editing stations such as the $100,000 Avid Composer. It’s
possible to achieve virtually the same results with Xpress.


The $700 HotConnect Ultra 8945 from Adaptec Inc. of Milpitas, Calif.,
is a hardware-only Ultra SCSI and FireWire input/output card that has all the necessary
drivers and compression-decompression software for digital video editing.


The earliest version has one big drawback: lack of Direct Memory Access support, which
improves performance in PCs. Most users will want a guaranteed-compatible single solution
that has editing software as well as a FireWire interface. Adaptec is on the Web at http://www.adaptec.com.


Sporting its own compression-decompression hardware chip, the $2,995 DVRex-M1
card from Canopus Corp. of San Jose, Calif., works even without a digital video camera
attached to the editing PC because it outputs S-Video signals. It’s better than
standard composite TV but not the equal of digital video.


The FireWire and digital audio card supports composite signals and can mix digital
video with composite video.


Canopus’ Rex Edit package and MediaStudio Pro from Ulead Systems Inc. of Torrance,
Calif., come bundled with the card. Rex Edit is rather primitive but easy to use for basic
editing. MediaStudio Pro requires more learning time but adds special effects.


The bundle for Windows 95 also does native 12- and 16-bit digital audio editing.


Visit Canopus on the Web at http://www.canopuscorp.com.


The $899 Spark Plus bundle from Digital Processing Systems Inc. of
Florence, Ky., lacks analog signal support and digital audio editing. The FireWire and
SCSI bundle also lacks features present in the other products listed, but it might meet
basic editing needs with its included Premiere editing software for Windows 95 and NT,
from Adobe Systems Inc. Digital Processing Systems is on the Web at http://www.dps.com.


The $3,295 DV Master FireWire board from Fast Electronic U.S. Inc. of
Woodinville, Wash., comes with Ulead’s MediaStudio Pro for Win95. It supports S-Video
and composite TV I/O signals but lacks native support for 12-bit digital audio. It also
works with Adobe’s Premiere software. DV Master Pro is a just-released version for NT
only.


Fast Electronic’s Web address is http://www.fastmultimedia.com.


Bundled with Adobe’s Premiere LE, the $799 MiroVideo DV300 package
from Pinnacle Systems has a FireWire and Ultra SCSI interface card but does not support
audio I/O. The Macintosh version, however, supports native digital audio editing. Check
out Pinnacle System’s Web site at http://www.pinnaclesys.com.


A Mac-only video board with minimum software priced at only $619, the FireMax-DV
from ProMax Technology Inc. of Irvine, Calif., comes with Adobe Premiere for $500
more. Visit ProMax at http://www.promax.com.


The $999 Mac-only Radius EditDV bundle from Radius Inc. of Sunnyvale,
Calif., does not support analog video I/O but does edit native digital audio. The bundle
includes MotoDV and RadDVPlayer software. Radius’ Web address is http://www.radius.com.


EditDV does two-window editing, showing source as well as program images. MotoDV
handles shuttle control for digital video players and cameras. RadDVPlayer creates a
reference movie and outputs the file via FireWire.


All the bundles listed above will import digital video images, edit the video streams
and create at least limited special effects. Now, what do you run them on?


Although Pentium PCs are certainly powerful enough for digital editing, Macintoshes are
far easier to set up.


The average user can install a digital video editing card and software on a Mac and
even continue to use that computer for other tasks. But Pentium PC memory fragmentation
and device-address problems, especially interrupt request conflicts, make PCs difficult to
configure properly for digital video editing.


Offices that don’t already have a powerful Mac would benefit from investing in a
dedicated turnkey PC system. 


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s.

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