Beyond the HD Hoopla
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 7 (July 2004)

Beyond the HD Hoopla

Such was the case at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention this past April. Final Cut Pro was on stage gaining well-earned "oohs" and "aahs" by editing multiple streams of high-definition video from a Panasonic DVCProHD source in software (that is, with no additional expansion hardware). It was an impressive demonstration, with real-time previewing of four layers of 720p and two layers of 1080i, and Apple deserves credit for showing (with its usual and memorable flair) just how far the industry has come.

Yet this story is both broader than what Apple makes it and a little less spectacular. Make no mistake, Apple's Final Cut Pro does deserve just about all the accolades it receives. In Version 4, it's now a surprisingly mature non-linear editing interface at a remarkable sub-$1000 price. Moreover, the NAB announcement of a new upgrade, Final Cut Pro HD, hammers home the fact that, just as Final Cut is a professional editing application priced for all creative desktops, editing in high-definition is no longer exclusive territory. Best of all, the upgrade from Final Cut Pro 4 to Final Cut Pro HD is free. Surely HD for the masses is here.
Apple's Final Cut Pro HD enables desktop non-linear editing in high definition, but requires a Panasonic DVCProHD videotape recorder deck with FireWire I/O.

And it's all true. You can edit HD on the desktop with Final Cut Pro HD without extra hardware. But there is a revealing caveat that puts Apple's announcement in perspective: You need Panasonic's new AJ-HD1200A DVCProHD videotape recorder deck with FireWire I/O. (The AJ-HD1200A is priced at $21,000, although that cost reflects the price of HD equipment, and is not really the caveat.) Granted, Apple was straightforward and didn't gloss over the Panasonic partnership. But somehow amid the hoopla of Apple's show, this piece of the picture got a little obscured, and it was the Final Cut Pro HD announcement that lingered as one of the biggest stories of the show.

Why is Panasonic's new deck so important? FireWire. A FireWire cable is the only I/O "hardware" you'll need to import HD into Final Cut. Of course, adding FireWire to a video deck might not seem like that big a deal on the surface, especially where DV users have been sending footage to Final Cut and many other editing tools via FireWire for years now. But at 100Mb/sec, DVCProHD, or DV100 as it is sometimes known, carries four times the data of 25Mb/sec DV. And processing that much data demands a faster PCI bus, faster hard-disk I/O, and a faster CPU.

DVCProHD does mildly compress high-definition video into a proprietary codec format. And editing it in real time requires both support for that codec and the processor strength to decode and encode on the fly. Therefore, as much as anything else, Apple's announcement is about the increasing processing power of its CPUs. They've come a long way since the early days of DV in the mid-1990s.

Nothing in that HD mix is really exclusive to Apple or Final Cut, or at least won't be for very long. As powerful as Apple's processors have become, Intel hasn't been standing on the sidelines, and there's plenty of number crunching power for Windows-based editing applications as well. Naturally, Apple's experience with FireWire—the company did invent it and now integrates it into both its hardware and operating system—has given Final Cut an early advantage working with Panasonic's new deck. However, Windows XP supports FireWire, too. I'd certainly expect to see Windows-based editing companies support the AJ-HD1200A with similar aplomb before too long.
Panasonic's AJ-HD1200A DVCProHD deck can send video to Final Cut Pro at 100Mb/sec over a FireWire connection.

All of that adds up to a trend toward affordable HD editing that is far broader than Apple's free upgrade to Final Cut. While no other editing company has yet been able to match Apple's early support for the Panasonic AJ-HD1200A, several companies are talking about affordable editing of HD.

For example, two editing companies, Pinnacle Systems and Ulead, have already shown native editing of HDV source material in software. HDV is only 25Mb/sec, like DV, but it uses long GOP (group of pictures between I-frames) MPEG-2, which places similarly intense demands on processing power to simultaneously decode multiple frames. Since FireWire is also the transfer protocol for HDV, Pinnacle and Ulead require no additional hardware beyond the HDV deck and a FireWire cable.

On the other hand, "additional hardware" are not dirty words when it comes to editing HD, especially when HD can mean so many different formats, with varying resolutions of 480, 720, or 1080 lines and differing frame rates of 23.97p, 24p, 29.97p, 30p, 59.94i, 60p, 60i, etc. There are also a number of different compression formats, including HDV and DVCProHD, and many others as well. It's potentially far more important to be able to work with all of those formats than it is to be able to edit one or two in software.

In fact, editing companies such as Avid, Canopus, Leitch, and Matrox have recently introduced proprietary HD codecs to make working with high-definition footage more practical. Most of these formats minimize artifacts by using very modest compression rates, often less than 2:1. However, they dramatically reduce the demands of computer and storage infrastructures needed to edit top-quality video. For Avid and Canopus, these proprietary codecs are primarily software-based, while for Leitch and Matrox, they are effectively tied to hardware cards.

One of the most compelling trends in editing today is the increasing availability of affordable HD I/O hardware from the editing companies above and independent manufacturers such as AJA, Blackmagic Design, Bluefish444, and Pinnacle Systems. For far less than the cost of an HD deck, these expansion cards can import and export uncompressed HD footage.

We'll look at these HD hardware expansion cards in more detail in a couple of months. However, one of the main advantages they offer, beyond the critical physical connection to sources, is that they can serve the valuable and very practical function of off-loading processing demand from the system CPU.

This is just the capability Apple's demonstration suggests isn't needed. But while it's surely impressive to edit a couple of streams of compressed HD in software, most editors today are used to working with multiple streams of uncompressed video all the time. And although Apple's demonstration is a wonderful solution for some, adding a card like Pinnacle's CineWave affords FireWire I/O, analog I/O, and the added processing power to edit multiple streams of HD without hitting the limit of the system CPU. For many, that means more efficient editing.

None of these options should diminish Apple and Final Cut's leadership in affordable HD—nor the software-only editing feat, nor the progress toward no-compromise HD editing. In fact, Final Cut led the way toward affordable HD by partnering with Pinnacle Systems' original CineWave HD card some three years ago.

Yet the CineWave hardware is now in Revision 4.6 and is still bringing value to Final Cut Pro users. That should be indication enough that no single solution has cornered the market for efficient editing, especially editing in high definition. Moreover, it's the competition between solutions, and the back and forth between hardware and software, that ultimately drives the industry forward toward the remarkable advancements that companies like Apple show so well.

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