Recently I decided that it would be a good idea for me to convert several old home videos from VCR tape to a digital format. I knew enough about video capturing/editing to have a basic idea of the hardware requirements, but regarding software (editing/converting), I didn’t really know where to start. This article is for anyone who is interested in working with digital video, but isn’t sure how to get started.
With digital camcorder’s and PC’s becoming better and cheaper every day, there are more and more people who fit into this category. This article is divided into two main sections, hardware and software. This is the hardware section, which will help someone who is just getting into the digital video scene decide on a machine to do their editing on. The software article, which should be finished soon, will help readers decide what to do with the video once it’s on their machine, and how to do it.
As you might imagine working with digital video can stress nearly every component of your computer. Think of digital video as a strip of still images. We all know that it’s nothing at all for a single high quality photo to be at least 1 MB in size. Now think about your high quality video, it can consist of 30 of those still images(also known as frames) in one second of video! The DV(digital video) format used by many of today’s digital camcorder’s uses around 3.6 MB per second of video. That means an hours worth of video will consume almost 13 GB of hard drive space! It will take something a lot better than your 4 year old PC with it’s 300 mhz processor and 8 GB hard drive to provide you with decent results/performance! Hence the need for a powerful computer. This article will give reader’s an idea about what kind of computer they will need to achieve satisfactory results. The guidelines provided by this article are intended for people who can buy the components and assemble them. If you don’t want to or can’t do this, the guidelines can just as easily be applied to Dell’s(or any other OEM) “build to own” online store.
Hardware needs: Video Capture Card, Hard Drive, Processor,
Sound Card, RAM, Removable Drives, Motherboard.
To convert your analog video(VHS) to a digital format you will need a way to digitize it. There are products out there that are basically boxes that you plug one side of into your VCR and the other side into your firewire port and it does all the “magic” invisibly. However I don’t have any experience with any of those, so I’ll stick to video capture cards.
There are several advantages(and a few disadvantages) to getting a video capture card for your computer. One of the advantages of buying a capture card for your computer is that they tend to be pretty beefy video cards. This is a “good” thing if your also a gamer. Depending on what one you decide to get, the price could vary anywhere from $100 to $400. I personally have a ATI All-In-Wonder Radeon 8500 DV. I paid around $240 for it about 3-4 months ago. It has 64 megs of dedicated video RAM, digital output for newer LCD’s(it comes with a converter so you can use it with regular CRT monitors), S-Video input, RCA input, and co-ax input(TV tuner) as well as RCA and s-video output. It’s also worth nothing that if your computer doesn’t have firewire port, this particular video card also comes with one of those, which will come in handy when I buy a digital camcorder. I highly recommend the ATI line of All-In-Wonder cards. That said the biggest disadvantage to having this card(or any card opposed to a stand alone converter) is that you have to depend on drivers for a lot of your performance(I assume the stand alone video capture boxes don’t have this problem, if that isn’t correct someone please let me know). Although this applies to all video capture cards, it seems that ATI has a problem with this in particular.* If you buy the newest card on the market, chances are that the card hasn’t been out long enough for the drivers get the bugs worked out. For example, the drivers that shipped with my card weren’t the best in the world. It had this annoying habit of dropping a few frames constantly, and would drop a lot of frames if I tried to do the slightest thing while it was capturing(like clicking on the start menu). According to the date on the drivers, ATI released new drivers for this card in June. Thankfully they work MUCH better. The software that shipped with my card is useful, but as we’ll see later there are better alternatives.
If you are planning on working with video from a DV camcorder, you don’t need a capture card. The video from a DV camera is downloaded via a firewire cable. You only need a video capture card if you plan on working with video that is stored in an analog format such as VHS tapes. If you don’t need a capture card, you can buy a very good ATI or NVIDIA video for a fraction of the cost of a capture card.
Note: I was installing an AIW 7500 the other day and after I installed the drivers that came on the CD, I downloaded and installed the newest drivers from ATI’s site. After that the capture software that came with that card will not work. It seems that the warning on ATI’s site about not changing drivers unless there was a real reason to was right on the money. So as far as ATI’s cards go, if you don’t have a problem with your current drivers, don’t change them!
If it isn’t obvious by now, you need a really big hard drive. I have an 80 GB hard drive, and I routinely fill it more than half full while capturing AVI files. You need the biggest hard drive you can afford. A 7200 RPM drive is fast enough, but if you can afford a SCSI drive.
The debate over whether or not you need a single or dual processor system has been fuel for endless flame wars. Personally, since this is going to be an amateur workstation, I would recommend a fast single CPU instead of so-so dual processors. Stay away from the Celeron’s & Duron’s though. They will work of course, but the extra cache in Pentiums & XP’s will help speed up the process. You can pick up a 1.47 ghz AMD chip for $60-$70. My 900 Mhz Duron is really starting to show it’s age when it comes to compressing hours of video. If you can afford a faster processor, go for it. But for 60 bucks that 1.4 ghz chip is a bargain. As a general rule, I always buy a new heat sink/fan whenever I buy a new CPU. That way you are sure that your processor is being cooled adequately.
Motherboard & Case/Power Supply
In my opinion the motherboard is the single most important part of your PC. It is the key component that ties every other component together. When buying new computer parts, I recommend it is the one part that you don’t “get cheap” with. If you do a little research beforehand, you can buy a motherboard that will allow you to have a HUGE amount of upgradeability for the future.
The first thing to decide when buying a new motherboard is whether it’s going to be dual or single processor and whether or not it is going to run an AMD or Intel processor. For the purposes of this article I recommend a single processor. As far as AMD vs Intel, you decide that for yourself. Once you’ve decided on what brand of processor you want, you need to decide what speed & type(Duron/Athlon/XP or Celeron/PIII/PIV) of processor your going to buy. You will also need to make a decision about SDR ram or DDR ram. DDR ram is more expensive, but also provides better performance. You’ll have to decide for yourself if DDR ram is worth the extra money. Whichever type you decide on, buy at least 512MB.
Also, be very careful about the speed of the processor that the motherboard supports. When I bought my motherboard, I ordered it with a 900mhz Duron. I made sure that the motherboard I was ordering supported better/faster CPU’s. My motherboard supports Duron’s/Athlon’s/XP’s. It supports speeds up to about 1.8 ghz(or more, but I don’t feel like digging out the manual to see). When the faster processors become a little cheaper, I’ll double the speed of my processor and never have to worry whether or not my motherboard can handle it. Be certain that your motherboard supports both faster speeds and newer types of processors.
If you expect your computer to be as upgradeable as possible, one of the worst things you can do is buy a motherboard with a) integrated audio/video and b) limited PCI slots. That said, I recommend buying a motherboard with no integrated components (expect maybe a NIC, but even then not really). With any decent motherboard you should get an AGP slot, and 5 to 6 PCI slots. I’ve got a video card(AGP), a 3com NIC, and a Sound Blaster Live! card in my computer right now. The only other thing I can think of ever needed to add would be a modem. That still leaves me with room for a USB 2 card, firewire card or a IDE/SCSI controller, should the need arise.
Now that we’ve picked out which motherboard we need, we pick the case and power supply to match it. Get at least a mid-tower sized case. My case has 4 5.25” bays and 2 3.5” bays. It has plenty of room inside, and has lots of room for extra hard drives or CD/DVD-Roms. When I ordered my case it was bundled with a 350 watt power supply. It has always “supplied” enough power, however if you are going to be powering a lot of devices via firewire & USB I would recommend you go with a 400 watt or higher power supply. Also, pay attention to the fine print on in case descriptions. Some cases and power supplies only support Intel processors, and some only support AMD processors.
For an idea of the money involved in this section, I would say a fair price for the motherboard outlined above would be around $90-$120 depending on how high-end you want to go. For the case, you can probably get a good sturdy case with a 400 watt power supply for $50-60 bucks. Note that the price for the case assumes you get an ugly beige case like I did. Pretty aluminum ones cost more.
There’s really no question about it in my opinion. Creative Labs make great sound cards. You can pick up a Live! sound card for around $35(USD) or an Audigy for around twice that. If you really want to go crazy check out the Audigy 2, which sells from around $110 to $160. It’s worth noting that both the Audigy and Audigy 2 sound cards come with an integrated firewire port.
Get at least 512MB. If you have the money, go for a gig or more. As for SDR or DDR ram, see above.
Depending on what you want your final product to be, will be what determines what kind of removable drive you buy. If your going to be making Video CD’s(VCD’s) or Super Video CD’s(SVCD’s) then you need to get a CD-R(W). If you want to burn DVD’s, you need to look into buying a DVD burner. The different DVD formats are discussed below.
There seems to be a lot of confusion on the ‘Net about the competing DVD standards. I would logically assume that if your going to be working with large amount of video’s at home(or at work) that you aren’t going to want to span them across a whole spindle of Video CD’s. That’s where DVD-Writer’s come in. By burning your video to DVD’s you can hand out one or two disc to family & friends instead of a one or two stacks. The 5 most common formats are: DVD-RAM, DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW.
DVD-RAM: Best used for back-up purposes. It’s not really compatible with stand alone DVD players. Not recommended storing video’s that you want to play on anything other than a computer.
DVD-R: Compatible with most stand alone DVD players. Can only be written to once.
DVD+R: Compatible with most stand alone DVD players. Can only be written to once.
DVD-RW: Can be erased and used several times. Similar to CD-RW discs in that they can be written to many times. Some new DVD players can read this type of disc, but older DVD players can not.
DVD+RW: Can be erased and used several times. Similar to CD-RW discs in that they can be written to many times. Some new DVD players can read this type of disc, but older DVD players can not.
As you can see, there are several in-compatible formats. Currently there is no “universal” format. Personally that is the reason I have not purchased a DVD recorder. What’s the point of spending all of that time & money to archive the video on a format that has not standardized? You run the risk of having all your hard work being rendered incompatible. However if you need the capability of DVD writer, you need to do your research before buying. Below you will find a link to an online database that keeps track of DVD players and what formats they support.
I hope that I’ve given you a good place start. Following the above guidelines will get you setup and editing your video in no time. Expect an article that covers the software side of things in while. I have had wonderful success buying computer parts from www.newegg.com. I am not an employee, or sales rep or anything other than a very happy customer. They are a reputable site, with great prices and great service. Give them a try.
About the Author:
Nathan Mace is a recent graduate of the University of Charleston. He is interested in BSD/Linux operating systems, OS-X, digital video and photography, and generally anything geeky. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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