If You Build It...
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 4 (April 2005)

If You Build It...

By combining these capture cards with editing software-such as Adobe Premiere or Ulead Media Studio-and zooming the video to full screen on NTSC output, videographers could build relatively affordable non-linear editing systems for the first time.

It was the birth of the open-system non-linear editing station. The systems were modest, of course, but it wouldn’t be long, only a little more than another year, before CPUs, hard drives, and capture cards would get fast and powerful enough to capture full-frame 60 fps video, and the image quality gap started to close.

Exciting as those early days were, however, installing and testing all 22 of those Windows-based capture cards took roughly two months. That was back, too, in the very early days of Microsoft’s Video for Windows, DLL hell, and pre-Plug-n-Play IRQ and memory conflicts. Installing and using every card was an adventure, and to give each one a fair shot, I had to reformat the C: drive and re-install Windows before putting each card in the computer.
Video professionals may opt for turnkey NLE systems, such as this one from Boxx Technologies, rather than build their own solutions from off-the-shelf products, because system integrators offer support for the entire system, not just the hardware or softw

A lot has changed since then. Windows hardware installation is considerably easier. Off-the-shelf hard drives are fast enough for at least a couple simultaneous streams of DV without tweaking the mode page settings. And for standard-definition DV, expansion hardware often isn’t even needed thanks to Windows native IEEE-1394 drivers, although there are some very affordable hardware cards for high-definition I/O as well.

The success of open systems is not just built on affordability, however. They have become highly capable creation tools for video professionals doing real work and earning a living from their craft. And while the hobbyists may take pride in the do-it-yourself challenge of building a system, chances are the pros would rather be shooting and editing.

High-end systems have almost always been sold as turnkey systems, in pre-configured, pre-tested qualified workstations from authorized dealers. The computer, after all, represented just a small fraction of the cost of the whole system. And there was no reason to tempt troubleshooting fate by adding unfamiliar system elements to the mix, especially for serious professionals for whom time is the most precious commodity.

The computer is a larger part of the cost in more affordable open systems, and it’s not surprising that videographers of more modest means would want to find the most affordable box. Ultimately, in order to compete in the independent film/prosumer/event videographer marketplace, even Avid, with a reputation for exclusivity, was forced to give in to the market pressures and unbundle its software. You can now buy Xpress series products off the shelf, just like Adobe Premiere, Canopus Edius, Ulead Media Studio Pro, Pinnacle Edition, and others. But should you?

Interestingly, amid a robust open-system market, a surprisingly strong business in selling turnkey versions of those same open systems exists. Companies such as 1 Beyond, Boxx Technologies, Core Microsystems, Laird Telemedia, and others may all seem somehow reminiscent of the PC clone makers that once dotted the PC landscape, but the difference is that these companies specialize in systems for content creation.

Like those clone makers, most editing system integrators don’t make anything themselves (Laird does make proprietary breakout boxes and a few other video peripherals.) Some don’t even make the clones, instead reselling Hewlett-Packards or other quality computers. They use off-the-shelf I/O cards-such as those from Blackmagic Design, Bluefish444, or CineForm for High Definition-and install a software editing application. Yet they do it in configurations with motherboards, graphics cards, hard drives, RAM, and more that are sure to work.

For a get-your-hands-dirty, do-it-yourselfer (like me), there’s always a temptation to buy a Gateway or Dell and the software directly. Dell even offers Adobe Premiere configurations. After all, Intel processors, hard drives, and graphics cards are all somewhat standard these days, and many companies even have lists of qualified hardware.

What the turnkey companies offer, however, is video experience and support-and that can often translate directly into more time for you to do your work. These integrators have built systems before. They’ve tested the configurations, and if there’s a problem, they’ll fix it. Perhaps more importantly, they typically have staff on hand who know video (and often 3D, audio editing, and graphics creation) and offer technical support for the entire system, not just the software or the hardware.

Of course, all editing software manufacturers offer tech support of some kind. But the line between supporting the editing software, the operating system, and any hardware can come up surprisingly fast, and when you start calling multiple vendors for the same troubleshooting problem, the otherwise billable hours start adding up very quickly.

On the other hand, if you buy a 1 Beyond solution, for example, you can get a real person on the line who knows video and knows your system. If you’re working on a production, especially if you’re on a deadline, that insurance policy can be very comforting. As good as Dell is at consumer-oriented computer support, they’re going to send you to Adobe for anything past very basic software support.

I’ve reviewed a lot of video editing products since that capture card roundup, and I’ve installed plenty more hardware and software. It’s gotten a lot easier than those first 22. But my experience is that all goes smoothly if the company sends a pre-configured system that’s ready to go. Several years ago when this started to be the trend in NLE reviews, even from open system companies, I worried a little about missing the user experience, but I got over that quickly. These days, with such capable open-system tools readily available, most of us would rather build edits on a timeline than spend time building a system.

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.