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More perspective on video editing

I read Bill Machrone’s current PC Magazine column on PC non-linear video editing with a bit of bemusement. He talked about the difficulty he and his son have editing video on their PCs, and he concluded with the question: “How do normal people do this stuff?” and the misguided answer: “They buy a Mac.”
You don’t have to do that. In fact, you can do pretty well on a PC if you just play by the same rules the Mac forces you to play by.

Consider this for a minute: With the Mac, you have one motherboard manufacturer. Apple tends to revise its boards once a year, maybe twice. Apple makes, at most, four different boards: one for the G4 tower systems, one for the iMac, one for the iBook, and one for the PowerBook. Frequently different lines will share the same board–the first iMacs were just a PowerBook board in an all-in-one case.

And the Mac (officially) supports two operating systems: the OS 9 series and the OS X series. You keep your OS at the current or next-most-recent level (always wait about a month before you download any OS update from Apple), and you keep your apps at current level, and you minimize compatibility problems. Notice I said minimize. PageMaker 7 has problems exporting PDF documents that I can’t track down yet, and I see from Adobe’s forums that I’m not the only one. So the Mac’s not always the bed of roses Machrone’s making it out to be.

Now consider the PC market for a minute. You’ve got two major CPU architectures, plus also-ran VIA; 4-6 (depending on who you ask) major suppliers of chipsets; at least four big suppliers of video chipsets; and literally dozens of motherboard manufacturers. Oh, you want an operating system with that? For all the FUD of Linux fragmentation, Microsoft’s in no better shape: Even if you only consider currently available offerings, you’ve got Windows 98, ME, NT4, 2000, and two flavors of XP.

So we go and we buy a video capture card and expect to put it in any old PC and expect it to work. Well, it probably ought to work, but let’s consider something. Assuming two CPU architectures, four chipset manufacturers, four video architectures, and twelve motherboard manufacturers, the chances of your PC being functionally identical to any other PC purchased right around the same time are 1 in 384. The comparable Mac odds: 1 in 4. But realistically, if you’re doing video editing, 1 in 1, because to do serious video work you need a desktop unit for its expandability. No Blue Dalmation browsing for you!

So you can rest assured that if you have a Mac, your vendor tested the equipment with hardware functionally identical to yours. On a PC you just can’t make that assumption, even if you buy a big brand name like Dell.

But you want the best of both worlds, don’t you? You want to play it safe and you want the economy of using inexpensive commodity PC hardware? It’s easy enough to do it. First things first, pick the video editing board you want. Next, visit the manufacturer’s Web site. Pinnacle has a list of motherboards and systems they’ve tested with the DV500, for instance. You can buy one of the Dell models they’ve tested. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer like me, you buy one of the motherboards they’ve tested. If you want to be really safe, buy the same video card, NIC, and SCSI card they tested as well, and plug them into the same slots Pinnacle did. Don’t worry about the drives Pinnacle used; buy the best-available SCSI drive you can afford, or better yet, two of them.

Video capture cards are cranky. You want a configuration the manufacturer tested and figured out how to make work. Otherwise you get the pleasure. Or the un-pleasure, in some cases.

As far as operating systems go, Windows 2000 is the safe choice. XP is too new, so you may not have drivers for everything. 98 and ME will work, but they’re not especially stable. If I can bluescreen Windows 2000 during long editing sessions, I don’t want to think about what I could do to 9x.

And the editing software is a no-brainer. You use what comes with the card. The software that comes with the card should be a prime consideration in getting the card. Sure, maybe an $89 CompUSA special will do what you want. But it won’t come with Premiere 6, that’s for certain. If I were looking for an entry-level card, I’d probably get a Pinnacle DV200. It’s cheap, it’s backed by a company that’ll be around for a while, and it comes with a nice software bundle. If you want to work with a variety of video sources and output to plain old VHS as well as firewire-equipped camcorders, the DV500 is nice, and at $500, it won’t break the bank. In fact, when my church went to go buy some editing equipment, we grabbed a Dell workstation for a DV500, and we got a DV200 to use on another PC in the office. The DV200-equipped system will be fine for proof of concept and a fair bit of editing. The DV500 system will be the heavy lifter, and all the projects will go to that system for eventual output. I expect great things from that setup.

The most difficult part of my last video editing project (which is almost wrapped up now; it’s good enough for use but I’m a perfectionist and we still have almost a week before it’ll be used) was getting the DV500’s video inputs and outputs working. It turned out my problem was a little checkbox in the Pinnacle control panel. I’d ticked the Test Video box to make sure the composite output worked, back when I first set the board up. Then I didn’t uncheck it. When I finally unchecked it, both the video inputs and outputs started working from inside Premiere. I outputted the project directly to VHS so it could be passed around, and then for grins, I put in an old tape and captured video directly from it. It worked. Flawlessly.

One more cavaet: Spend some of the money you saved by not buying a Mac on memory. Lots of memory. I’m using 384 MB of RAM, which should be considered minimal. I caught myself going to Crucial’s Web site and pricing out three 512-meg DIMMs. Why three? My board only has three slots. Yes, I’d put two gigs of RAM in my video editing station if I could.

OK, two more cavaets: Most people just throw any old CD-ROM drive into a computer and use it to rip audio. You’ll usually get away with that, but if you want high-quality samples off CD to mix into your video production, get a Plextor drive. Their readers are only available in SCSI and they aren’t cheap–a 40X drive will run you close to $100, whereas no-name 52X drives sometimes go for $20-$30–but you’ll get the best possible samples from it. I have my Plextor set to rip at whatever it determines the maximum reliable speed may be. On a badly scratched CD sometimes that turns out to be 1X. But the WAV files it captures are always pristine, even if my audio CD players won’t play the disc anymore.

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