You've seen the Apple commercial. Dad can use video, and the kids will be "Forever Young." While the advertisement doesn't lie, "it don't show the whole thing, neither," as one of my friends once said. What appears on the commercial is the output of a specific situation: an iMac DV taking FireWire digital video input and using an Apple-written video editor. If you don't have the exact same setup on your memory-stuffed iMac, video as a medium may become a little less obvious. It's still a possible scenario; you just have to do some of the system integration legwork. And that's what I'll discuss in this article for the rest of us.
Current consumer video technology primarily consists of four-headed, Korean-made, American-branded VCRs that cost about $70. They relay output through analog jacks, not through digital FireWire. This type of legacy input may be optimal for some situations, especially if it’s reliable input. Getting this input into the Mac for processing requires that a digitization dongle converts the analog video signal into those pesky ones and zeros that computers love so much.
One such conversion unit is Global Village’s VideoFX suite. The video hub has USB output, and it accepts normal composite video-in and S-VHS plugged video. There’s a video pass-through in case your Mac is just one link in a chain of machines that need to use the video. It’s a very handy feature to have, but you need System 8.6 and 32 MB of RAM (along with 15 MB of disk space and a 800x600 resolution monitor) to run the included software.
Global Village’s gotcha
There’s a hidden gotcha when you’re getting the USB output of the videohub (and of other video devices) to your Mac. The VideoFX instruction manual tells you to connect the USB plug to the back of your Mac. You may be using the USB port for your printer—in which case you’ll probably try to connect the videohub through a four-port USB hub. This USB hub works fine with most USB devices; it allows the printer and other USB peripherals to work together without a lot of cord changing. But most USB video devices draw their operating power from the USB bus. They need 500 microamps (ma) of current, which is what’s available at the back of your Mac. However, that amount of current isn’t available to the four ports of the USB hub; the hub splits the 500 ma into one stream of 100 ma of current to power itself and four 100-ma streams of current for the ports. Plugging the VideoFX into one of these port hubs will cause an error message to appear and state that the "unknown device" won't be mounted. What do you do?
To upgrade or not to upgrade
You have two basic choices: swap plugs often or upgrade your USB ports. Your choice may have been made for you when you bought your Mac. If you’re running a closed machine (like the iMac), you’ll have to swap plugs. I know of no way of adding USB ports to such a machine—except through a USB hub, which won’t have enough power for the situation. (By the way, I would be very happy to have my assertion proved wrong. Maybe there's something out there that I haven't seen.)
On a blue-and-white G3 or G4, however, you have 32-bit PCI slots on your motherboard for expansion. Recently, I discovered that Macally makes a nice $40 card (UH-275), which adds two more USB ports to the machine. Installation involves removing the back panel and plugging in the card. It’s very simple. Each of the new ports can handle 500 ma; you could attach two more video devices. If you're not using OS9, you must download and install an Apple software driver in order to use the card. In my opinion, it’s a better solution than cable twitching—if you have the PCI slots available for use.
The programs of VideoFX
There are four programs that make up the VideoFX suite: VideoImpression, PhotoStudio, PhotoPrinter, and Photomontage. Together, they comprise a very effective and useful suite.
VideoImpression is used for video capture and storage. In reality, it’s more of a clip assembler than an editor. Of course, that's perfectly acceptable; an assembler is less intimidating to users. Clips (or stills) are captured from the source and strung together. Inpoints and outpoints (the logical beginning and end
of the clip—as opposed to the physical file) are assigned when you move sliders within an edit window. No time coding (like SMPTE) is done to the clips. What you select is basically what you get. There are no transition effects (like a dissolve), either. However, it starts the new segment without any visible transition flicker. That means the program is smart enough to start the new segment cleanly, without blank frames or frame-to-frame bleed-over. Once the clips have been strung together in the order that you want, you have your movie. The program handles simple labeling of stills; you don’t have to start up another program. You can take care of titles and credits very quickly and effectively.
PhotoStudio, PhotoPrinter, and PhotoMontage
If you have a still that needs some retouching or custom lettering, PhotoStudio, which is included in the suite, will help you. There are tools that alter brightness, contrast, hue, saturation, and other features. To create special effects, you have tools for cloning, smudging, embossing, and rippling. With PhototPrinter and PhotoMontage, you can print into layout templates and edge automatically. Think of PhotoPrinter as a digital cutting room, where all the design elements are laid out and fixed. PhotoMontage works differently; it's a post-processor for stills. Using a database of microimages to vary the output, it creates a montage effect on your still. Over 20,000 of these microimages come with the program, and you can add your own images, too. These programs will help you create that postcard that you've been meaning to send to Mom.
Movies that are produced at 30 feet per second get large very quickly. If you want to store or send these movies, you must compress them. MediaCleaner Pro is an expensive tool that works on movies frame-by-frame, but it nicely compresses them with JPEG/MPEG protocols. The MCP demo, which you can obtain from Terran, processes 15 seconds of video—enough for a test. Of course, using the QuickTime 4.X Pro upgrade from Apple may meet your needs. But don't expect Stuffit 5.X to do the job; it just cuts the average video file by half. When you’re talking about multimegabytes, that isn’t enough.
Now, consider a different video input/USB output product. Take the FX and add audio-in and audio-out jacks. (I'll bet that you forgot about audio for the FX. There's a cable that plugs the stereo audio straight into the Mac from two RCA phono plugs.) Keep the S-video and composite video plugs. Throw away all the capture/edit/post-process software. Add some simple controller software. Now, add cable input and antenna input (both coaxial cable). Voilà! You have MyTV/fm from Eskape Labs.
This product is designed to take a cable signal, turn it into a TV signal, and let you display it. (The antenna connection is designed for places where one antenna on the roof of the building is connected via coax to multiple apartment drops. It doesn't work very well with rabbit ears—even with a 75-ohm matching transformer.) Older Mac users will recognize this TV-on-the-computer setup; it’s similar to what Apple did with its Performa 630 line. You bought a card from Apple that plugged into a communications port on the machine. Then, you ran some startup software, and your TV would show up on your monitor. The screen size was smaller with the Apple product than it is with MyTV (QuickTime was younger, too), but both products do basically the same thing. MyTV just does it on the USB. You've probably figured out that the power considerations we had with the FX also apply to MyTV. It needs all 500 ma.
The controller software for the device needs to be upgraded on the company's Web site. Although the Eskape Labs was offering version 1.2, I received a 1.2 beta. I hope that this product is updated soon; the controller software was functional but not polished. The MyTV software designers should examine Apple's previous efforts if they’re looking for inspiration. Sure, MyTV is (theoretically) beta, but it's still clunky in ways that Apple’s products weren’t. In MyTV, you build up a menu of selections (antenna/cable/fm, followed by the channel or frequency) through manual entry and then select them for use. You use the controller to capture video streams into a still, and you can save them as QT movies for later processing by a QT-compatible editor.
With a USB port, you can get video into a Mac for processing. Of course, how you want to manipulate the images afterwards will eventually determine which product you use. For instance, do you really want your Mac to work like a TV? Regardless of which specific product you obtain, however, each of them makes manipulating video easy, and the results look presentable and professional.
Larry Loeb has 20 years of computer journalism experience. He was the consulting editor at the late, lamented BYTE magazine, he launched WebWeek, he ran the online Macintosh section of BIX (the BYTE Information eXchange), and he wrote numerous articles for many major computer magazines. Recently, he wrote a book on Secure Electronic Transactions, the protocol endorsed by MasterCard and Visa that allows merchants, cardholders, and banks to work together over the Internet. For banter, tips, and general screaming, send Larry an e-mail .The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.