Hardware-Enhanced Editing
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 11 (November 2004)

Hardware-Enhanced Editing

Of course, there's more to the story in today's evolving editing world. As real as the "software-only" trend is, there's also no shortage of news coming from hardware companies. After all, for about as long as digital video and non-linear editing systems have been around, there has been a tug-of-war between whether hardware or software should solve problems for the most demanding video professionals.

Today, cutting-edge hardware from companies such as AJA, Blackmagic Design, Bluefish444, Matrox, and Pinnacle Systems offers capabilities that go far beyond the power of just the system CPU. More I/O possibilities, more real-time functionality, more layers, higher quality images, and overall greater productivity are among the benefits of the dedicated hardware that you might think you can do without.

Simply put, it's a cycle. Over the years, hardware companies have led the push from off-line image quality to finishing, from compressed video to uncompressed, and from off-line rendering of all effects to real-time, multi-track editing. As processor speeds have increased, editing interface companies such as Adobe and Apple are beginning to provide each of these functions "in software," seemingly negating the need for hardware. But, they've only driven the hardware companies to find more power and offer more features and functions.
Pinnacle's CineWave hardware enhances Apple's Final Cut Pro.

Similarly, the trend toward editing with just software and a CPU started shortly after the first FireWire-equipped DV camcorders arrived in the middle 1990s. Back then, the promise was to losslessly import DV-compressed footage over FireWire, edit it using just the power of the system CPU, and output it back to DV tape over FireWire or compress it to another digital format. Of course, there were almost no computers that came with built-in FireWire ports and, at a minimum, you needed a FireWire I/O card. Many were quite inexpensive, but it wasn't long before companies such as Matrox and Pinnacle Systems started putting a DV codec on the expansion card to off-load the system CPU and to offer real-time dual-stream editing.

Today's HD transfer over FireWire from Panasonic's new AJ-HD1200A high-definition deck is similar to what was done in the early days of DV, except that the amount of data is higher and the codec has been optimized. But CPUs are faster now, so the same sans-hardware promise extends to transferring and editing compressed HD footage. Apple announced this first, but PC vendors aren't far behind.

What's left for the hardware companies this time? It begins with I/O and being able to work with a variety of formats. Thus far, FireWire has been used to move only DV, and now DVCProHD, data. In addition, several editing companies now will support HDV transfer and editing, and that should become even more prevalent as more HDV format camcorders appear on the market during the next year. Still, those are all compressed formats, and there's another clear trend in the production industry today: working with uncompressed digital video. That trend is especially true when video editing collaborates with the graphics community on animation and motion graphics.

Even for simple uncompressed I/O, you'll need extra hardware. The good news is that the hardware isn't very expensive, at least by historical measure. AJA's Kona 2 card and Blackmagic Designs' DeckLink HD Pro both cost less than $2500, and both offer uncompressed standard-definition and high-definition SDI I/O, as well as real-time analog component-out for real-time output to an HD-capable monitor for accurate preview of the work. Both also offer 12-bit 4:4:4 image processing and dual-channel editing support.

Moreover, AJA and Blackmagic Design work seamlessly with Apple's Final Cut Pro, expanding Apple's "software-only" support of DVCProHD to include uncompressed HD and SD support. AJA's Kona 2 even accelerates DVCProHD processing by off-loading part of the coding process from the CPU, allowing the editor to work with more real-time layers, just as some of those early DV acceleration cards did. Blackmagic Design's DeckLink HD Pro works with both Final Cut Pro on the Mac OS and Adobe Premiere Pro on Windows.

Even with the march forward in CPU power, expansion hardware can still bring plenty of functionality to the table simply in terms of pure strength. Digital video, especially in higher resolutions, but even at standard definition, carries such an enormous volume of data that even today's top hyper-threaded CPUs have limitations in terms of meeting the creative desires of video editors and compositors working with multiple layers, custom effects, overlaid motion graphics, and color correction all without waiting.

Pinnacle Systems' CineWave for Final Cut Pro, Matrox's newly announced Axio for Adobe Premiere, and various hardware cards from Bluefish444 for both Windows and the Mac OS all add codec processing. Whereas the system CPU can decompress, edit, and recompress one stream of HD, expansion hardware might handle two or three streams. Professional editors have come to expect real-time editing of multiple layers, and they don't want to go back to rendering just because they're increasing resolution. Adding dedicated processing support for multiple streams of DV100, or perhaps MPEG-2, offers editors a potential significant efficiency that they just can't get with software alone, at least not today.

Ultimately, professional editing is all about productivity and efficiency. And while the trend toward software-only processing is very exciting, it doesn't yet satisfy every editor's needs. DVCProHD and DV, while excellent formats, aren't every production studio's format of choice.

For about as long as digital video and non-linear editing systems have been around, there's been something of a symbiotic rivalry between hardware and software, if not hardware and software developers. Which one has the upper hand at any given time is more about perception than absolute reality. Apple's claim of "HD without any special hardware" is a tremendous achievement, but that does not mean hardware developers have nothing to add once again.

Jeff Sauer is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and director of the Digital Video Group, an independent research and testing organization for digital media. He can be reached at jeff@dtvgroup.com.