DV Editing: Hardware vs. Software
Can Today's Powerful Computers Trump Hardware Effects Acceleration?

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As I watch 2001 fade to black, the comments and kindness from readers far and wide keep coming in. Thank you all. It seems that you liked our shootout-style review of the three DV capture cards from Canopus (DVStormSE Plus), Pinnacle (Pro-ONE) and Matrox (RT2500), and also my positive review of Vegas Video 3 editing software from Sonic Foundry. But thereís one question that seems to be on many of your minds, and Iím going to spend this column answering it for you: Whatís better -- hardware-accelerated or software-based digital video editing?

Well, it depends. Software-based proponents cheer for softwareís scalable features, getting faster with hardware improvements and having the advantage of easy modification. Hardware aficionados boast of the quick rush of faster (or no) rendering of some effects. Both have their advantages, depending on your point of view. [an error occurred while processing this directive] From a journalistís perspective, the trend toward software-based editing takes the prize -- itís great for the industry overall to see how the feature-laden software of today becomes even more powerful with every new processor upgrade. From this vantage point, I see computer speeds getting faster almost by the minute, and this bodes well for software like Vegas Video 3 and Final Cut Pro 3, scalable applications that get even better as hardware speeds increase. The really good news is that all this computer power comes at a fire-sale price, and is getting cheaper by the minute. Supporting this point, step back with me for a minute and look at the nose-dive of computer prices: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of computers, adjusted for quality and computing power, has plunged at a 34% annual rate over the past six months. In fact, computer prices have been dropping at a rate of between 20 and 30 percent per year for the past five years. Imagine the implications of that!

Better yet, Vegas Video 3 and Final Cut Pro 3 are not necessarily the end-all in this genre. At this writing, there are more companies lining up with their formidable entries into the software-based editing derby -- really big companies who have me sworn to secrecy about their exciting new offerings. These new applications just may put Vegas Video 3 and Final Cut Pro to shame. About six weeks from now, Iíll be able to tell you much more, but suffice to say, there are really big things on the horizon in this vein.

All this future-of-the-industry talk is all well and good for industry-watching ink-stained wretches like me (what are we now -- pixel-stained wretches? Oh, well, journalists, anyway). But thatís not as relevant to the individual who doesnít give a damn about where the industry as a whole is going. Youíre more concerned with what you can use now, and what the available equipment can do with your video that you need to edit -- today. For a moment, forget that I write about and test this stuff all the time. As a DV editor, I wonít be buying a new machine every time a new chip is introduced, so why not just get a hardware card that can do what I need it to do right now? Promise for the future means nothing to me, right? Thereís something to be said for instant gratification. A huge benefit of hardware cards like the shootout-winning Matrox RT2500 is that thereís nothing quite like the instant, smooth and clean response of a hardware-accelerated 3D effect with nice anti-aliasing on it. Place the transition on the timeline between the two clips, hit the spacebar and there it is in all its glory. Itís great.

But all these cards we tested work only with Adobe Premiere. What if, like many pro editors, I canít stand Premiere? Also, look at what that card can actually accelerate first and ask yourself if youíll really be using those features. The best any of the hardware-based cards can do, for example, with 3D effects is Pinnacle Pro-ONEís ability to create two 3D effects on-screen at the same time. Anything beyond that and youíre staring at a render thermometer, and just like the old days, that great real-time viewing of the timing of your effects is not there any more. Beyond those boundaries, the editing is no longer user-friendly. But with a software-based package like Vegas Video 3, you can preview many more 3D effects on-screen at the same time, getting a good idea of how the effects will interact with each other.

Keep in mind, though, thatís only if you have a machine with lots of RAM (I had a gigabyte in one of the machines I used for testing). And, that preview isnít as rock-solid as the real-time hardware acceleration would be. You might drop a frame or two, for instance, while you preview those three spheres of video flying around with a page curl transition between them and a text key on top of it all. However, youíd be able to get a good idea of how all these many layers will look on the screen together with these RAM-based software previews, but not so with the hardware.

If you find yourself with one of those shiny new screaminí machines, hereís the biggest advantage of all: It would be a simple matter to get yourself a 1394 I/O card for around $50 (actually, lots of machines, including all Macs, already come with a 1394 I/O functionality built-in), add your favorite editing software, and then youíre off and running. Just plug in your DV camcorder and youíre editing with the big dogs.

So my advice to you is this: Even though Iím leaning toward the advantages of software-based editing applications, you need to get the card or software thatís most appropriate for your budget and editing style. Are effects like transitions important to you? Do you have a computer that's fairly fast, but not a screamer, and don't want to get a new one? Do you have around $1000 or more to spend? Go with a hardware-accelerated DV capture card like a Pro-ONE, DVStorm or RT2500. On the other hand, do you already have a fast computer with tons of RAM, create either very few effects or many, many layers of effects? Are you short on cash? Get one of the software-based editing packages like Vegas Video 3 or Final Cut Pro 3.

Summing up, there are more choices now than ever, and all of them are much better than those we were offered even a short year ago. Cheap and powerful computers raise the bar. The golden age of DV is upon us, and we have a front row seat. Itís only going to get much, much better. In closing, I can only hope your own personal future is as bright as it is for this red-hot field of DV editing. Now get out there and make it a happy new year, everyone!

Charlie White, your humble storytellerCharlie White has been writing about new media and digital video since it was the laughingstock of the television industry. A technology journalist and columnist for the past eight years, White is also an Emmy-winning producer, video editor and shot-calling PBS TV director with 27 years broadcast experience. Talk back -- Send Chazz a note at [email protected].

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