BYTE Magazine > Chaos Manor > 2002 > November

Home Video Production

Column 267 (Continued from the Previous Week)

Raw CPU speed and video capture

Last month I covered the Windows Media Player Summit, where Microsoft announced Windows Media 9. At the Byte Graphics Lab, Alex and David have been testing the beta Windows Media Encoder (WME), the software that captures, stores, and broadcasts digital video, particularly for webcasting.

And they made a discovery: Using the analog S-Video input on the Canopus Corporation DVStorm, they could capture uncompressed, full-color video via WME, and save hours of it to disk. I don't use the word "discovery" lightly; the DVStorm product manager had never heard of this being tried.

The testbed system they used is "Wilder" (named for Billy, the director), a Tyan Tiger MP dual-2100+ AMD motherboard, with four Maxtor 160-GB hard drives and a gig of DDR266 RAM, all running Windows XP Professional. The drives are striped RAID0 with a 3Ware Escalade IDE RAID controller, which can write at over 110 MB/second, sustained. Canopus has always touted their products as being smart about using available CPU; the more raw speed, the more layers of video the DVStorm can display simultaneously. Their latest tests say that this goes for capture, too; the more CPU speed, the fewer problems capturing uncompressed video.

Uncompressed NTSC or PAL video ("D-1," check out for a quick tour of worldwide video standards) takes 125 megabits a second to store, which is why VHS tape looks so crummy; it's maybe doing 4 megabits a second, and it does an awful, noisy, analog job of compressing. DVDs use about 6-8 megabits a second, and do a much better job of compressing without introducing noise. With the 650 GB of storage, Wilder can store over 10 hours of uncompressed video. If that's not enough, Maxtor just announced 320-GB drives, which they plan to ship late in the year. The 240 and 320 GB drives will come as either parallel or serial ATA.

Alex told me, "So, using off-the-shelf equipment, with less than $3000 of hardware, we have most of a D-1 tape deck. That's about a 12 to 1 cost savings, all courtesy of Moore's Law." For Alex and David, this isn't a completely theoretical exercise. Until now, consumer and so-called "prosumer" digital video meant DV cameras, the same sort you can buy at any Circuit City. To capture video at resolutions above DV, you needed to buy into an entire new level of equipment. You could easily spend $100,000 just on a DigiBeta camera and deck to play back on, plus $10-15,000 worth of hardware to interface the tape deck to your computer. While that approach is very familiar to video nerds, it has been far too analog (and expensive) for personal-computer types.

Star Wars Episode II was shot entirely on digital video, using Sony's CineAlta high-definition camera. That's been covered in every movie publication on the planet, but what they didn't say was that every frame was captured not to videotape but to a gigantic hard-disk array. What David and Alex have in mind is to capture movies direct-to-disk, much like Lucas does, but at lower resolutions, and slightly lower color fidelity.

What's remarkable about their tests is that the only special-purpose hardware was the DVStorm capture card; once the video's captured, it's stored to disk just like any other bit pattern would be. There just happens to be a lot of it.

Wilder's video display card is the weak link in this experiment; it's an old Matrox G400 video card, and it can't display the captured video in real time. (That's right: They can CAPTURE and save the video to disk faster than they can DISPLAY it.) They're going to try an ATI Radeon 9500 AGP4x card, which should solve that problem.

Windows Media Encoder faces competition; Alex and David plan to test both Apple's QuickTime 6 and RealNetworks' Helix Universal Server, the successor to RealOne. Canopus's DVStorm isn't the only card capable of capturing uncompressed video; Matrox, Avid and Pinnacle make very nice products with competitive prices. But, whatever the hardware, the personal-computer revolution is about to make a huge change in the low end of video production.

Think of doing Good Will Hunting with your hobby equipment. Next month I'll have more on video editing software, including some really inexpensive software to let you create your own webcasts.

SCSI in Windows XP

If you have SCSI drives you may have noticed that when "upgraded" from Windows XP to Windows 2000, your drives no longer run as fast as they used to. It turns out there is a way to fix that. It's too complex to give here: Go here and pay attention, and you'll learn something to your advantage. This comes courtesy of Dan Spisak, and you try this at your own risk—your milage may vary, and void where prohibited except in Otter Haunch.

Office 2000 vs. Office XP

Microsoft Office 2000 Professional came with Word, Excel, Access, Publisher, Photo-Draw, and Front Page. It installed and worked just fine on machines from Celeron/350 to the new 2.8-GHz systems. I use Office 2000 Professional on laptops, my monk's cell machine, and both my main machines, and I like it.

In fact, I like it enough that I wouldn't normally be tempted to upgrade without good reason; but of course I do a lot of things so you don't have to, and one of them is trying out new stuff to see if you need it. In particular, I wanted to set up Office XP Professional on my new "main" machines, so that's what I wanted to install.

Right away there was a problem: Unlike Office 2000, Office XP doesn't come with Front Page. The remedy, I thought, was to install Office 2000 Professional (my copy came with 20 licenses), then "upgrade" with Office XP, which ought to leave Front Page intact. That worked fine as far as FrontPage was concerned—but Outlook XP blew sky high. It kept trying to open, then popping up a screen saying it regretted that there was an unknown error, and did I want to send a copy of the problem to Microsoft? I sent the error report and reset, and got the same problem. Over and over. I hope Microsoft likes lots of error reports.

As an aside: They do make use of that automated bug reporting. I've been talking to some of the worker bees in Microsoft Technical Support, and apparently many of those stealth upgrades you get through their "Drizzle Technology" are bug fixes crafted to take care of commonly reported bugs. This is a Good Thing, and Microsoft is to be congratulated for doing this. And yes, I know, if the bugs weren't in there in the first place they wouldn't have to be fixed. So it goes.

Office XP does have a few good points. Word, for instance, now has an "Open and Repair" option for damaged files. (File|Open. Choose a file. Click on the arrow by the word "Open" and choose "Open and Repair.") I have reports of this saving several people's backsides, by opening files that would crash Word 2000. It's worth having a copy of Office XP around just for that.

One warning: If you install Office XP on your laptop and you expect to actually use it, be sure to carry your installation CD-ROM at all times. Office 2000 is notorious for demanding the installation disks at unexpected times; Office XP is the same in spades with big casino.

Yamaha YST-MS201 Powered Speakers

You can pay a lot of money for good speakers, and if you think you ought to, you probably should. Since I've been partially deaf since 1950, top-of-the-line audio equipment is wasted on me. What I need is volume, with lots of sound in the low and high ends of the range: My hearing losses are largely in the middle speech frequencies.

I also need a lot of speakers. There are at least five, and often seven, computers online in my office. They're controlled by two keyboard/video/mouse stations through Belkin KVM switches. Now there are KVM switches that will also switch sound, but I don't use them: In general, if a computer needs sound at all, it gets its own speaker. The question then becomes, what speakers does it get?

If the only reason I want sound is for warning signals—mail from my partner or one of my agents announces itself with a drum roll—then almost anything will do, and size is more important than quality. On the other hand, if the system is going to be used for a game, such as EverQuest or the new (terribly addictive) Earth and Beyond space game, I want something better; and for the moment the default speaker set is the Yamaha YST-MS201 speaker set. This comes in three parts, a base/midrange unit that sits under the computer table, and two smaller tweeter units that sit one on each side of the monitor. I have three sets of these at one work station, and while it looks a little silly, they don't take up much room, they can be conveniently numbered so that I can tell which unit works with which computer, and they sound all right to me. Each has its own volume control, too.

Once again, let me caution you that I'm no expert on sound system quality: Quite the opposite, in fact. But if the goal is to hear the sand giant trying to sneak up on you in Everquest, the YST-MS201 speaker set is Good Enough, and can be had for under $50.

Winding Down

The book of the month is Philip Bobbit's, The Shield of Achilles (Knopf). This is a highly readable treatise on military history and the modern industrial state, and Bobbit does a very good job of showing some important but often overlooked relationships between military technology and forms of government. This book, along with the previously recommended intellectual history From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun, are pretty good midlevel guides to understanding the modern age. I am often asked to recommend some books for general education; my advice is to start with Fletcher Pratt's The Battles That Changed History, which is a lot more than the title suggests; then read Bobbit and Barzun. Barzun alone is one of the best bibliographic resources you'll ever find. No set of three books will comprise anything like an education in Western history, of course; but those three do a pretty darned good job of showing what there is to learn.

A second book of the month to go with Bobbit is Paul Johnson's Napoleon, one of the Penguin biography series. Bonaparte was one of the most important figures in recent history, and Johnson does a great job of embedding him in his time without resorting to the kind of sentimentality that makes Carlyle's biography wonderfully readable but sometimes misleading.

The computer book of the month is Computing In Russia, edited by Georg Trogemann, Alexander Y. Nitussov, and Wolfgang Ernst (Vieweg). This is precisely what the title implies, a comprehensive, profusely footnoted, sometimes dry and sometimes fascinating survey of computing in Russia. It gives both history and a modern summary in most areas of computing, and if the subject interests you at all, this is probably the book to read. I note that many of the people discussed in the book were Academicians who took Mrs. Pournelle and me to a formal dinner when we visited the then USSR in 1989.

The game of the month remains EverQuest, which works really great with iDSL. Sony has greatly improved the game interface, introduced many new items and quests, and fixed a lot of bugs recently. It may be that Earth and Beyond will seduce me away from EverQuest, but I have to say, I still enjoy an hour or two a couple of times a week running about finding friends to go hunt monsters with...

Movie of the Month

This month, the essential movie is Spirited Away, a delightful animation about a young girl lost in the Japanese version of Through The Looking Glass. You may want to see it twice: There's that much detail to look for. It's shown as a children's movie and it is certainly that, but we loved it. I can't imagine not being delighted.

The movie was first made for Japanese audiences, but then was rebuilt for the American market, with voice-overs so Americans could get some of the Japanese cultural markers. That worked splendidly. The characters are recognizably Japanese, but the American voice actors manage to convey that without funny accents: They speak good idiomatic English even as very strange things are happening on screen. I really loved this movie. You will too.


Jerry Pournelle, Ph.D., is a science-fiction writer and's senior contributing editor. Contact him at Visit Jerry's Chaos Manor at Reader letters can be found at Jerry's letters page.

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