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Integrate Review — Canopus ProCoder 2

When ProCoder made its debut a couple of years ago, Canopus billed it as something of a better mousetrap than the venerable media compression tool Cleaner. Discreet Cleaner was then five versions old and a solid product with a robust user base, but Canopus had an angle — with faster processing speed and a new take on workflow that wasn't encumbered by years-old original development. Now, in one way, ProCoder 2 is following Cleaner's lead again, with Canopus increasing support for shared workgroup encoding as Discreet did with Cleaner XL.

Yet while Canopus has expanded ProCoder 2's reach toward that automated bulk compression workflow, it also separates ProCoder more distinctly from Cleaner XL. Where Discreet completely retooled the old Cleaner to focus on higher-volume workgroup encoding, ProCoder 2 adds workgroup efficiency while retaining its now-familiar user interface and original desktop product orientation.

At $499, ProCoder 2 is now the default desktop-class utility for Windows-based encoding. As an upgrade, there's a little something for every level of user. If you use ProCoder regularly, the $149 upgrade price (free if you purchased ProCoder after September 2003) is certainly worth it. For others, the choice might be less obvious.

ProCoder 2 adds advanced encoding options like basic clip editing and video filters (top) and batch-encoding features like Watch Folders (bottom).

ProCoder 2's main interface and workflow are very similar to those of the past version, with a few subtle yet powerful additions. The three large tab buttons for Source, Target, and Convert still run down the left side of the interface and create an intuitive workflow. The right side of the interface changes according to which of those tabs is selected, providing source clip details, conversion status, or target encoding path, format, and filter information. You add one or more Source clips at a time, then set one or more target formats for batch-encoding those sources. And you can select those encoding target formats from presets or by setting parameters on the fly. (That's more straightforward for one-off encoding jobs than Cleaner XL, where you have to save any set of parameters as a preset before using them to encode even a single file.)

An “Advanced” button in the source window opens a trim interface for basic mark-in/out clip editing, and you stitch source files together to create one output file. The Advanced tab is also where you'll find ProCoder's video filters, including new filters for 601 color space expansion and reduction, 709 SD/HD color space conversion, sharpen, and temporal noise reduction. ProCoder still has work to do to match what long-time Cleaner users have been able to work with, but ProCoder 2 is moving in the right direction. A double-paned source/preview monitor in the Advanced window shows the effects of added filters.

ProCoder 2 adds minimal, if important, new codec support, including MPEG-4 via either QuickTime's MPEG-4 codec or DivX Pro and, if you have Flash MX installed, the Flash Video format. ProCoder 2 also can now preserve closed-captioning data and import DVD chapter marks from either Canopus's Edius or Adobe Premiere Pro, both of which can export directly to ProCoder through a plug-in. (ProCoder still lacks a plug-in for Avid Xpress.) And ProCoder 2 can multiplex separate video and audio files together. In the Convert interface, Canopus has also added a very helpful feature that pauses during encoding.

Although very few elements deviate from ProCoder's interface, there are a couple of significant additions that aim to broaden ProCoder's appeal in two directions. First, a new, more intuitive Wizard interface adds a series of straightforward questions to the step-by-step wizard of past versions. That should assist those who are new to encoding. That's a feature similar to one in early Cleaner versions, but one that ultimately went away, presumably out of disinterest or increasing professionalism. Therefore, its appeal to ProCoder users is questionable.

Certainly more importantly for professional users, ProCoder adds Watch Folders and Job Queuing. It's here that ProCoder becomes more like Cleaner XL, but with a much different implementation. The main interface doesn't change but for the addition of three new buttons on the left side below the Source, Target, and Convert tabs. These buttons, “Queue,” “Manage,” and “Watch,” are not additional tabs in the workflow sequence — they have a different shape and color to differentiate them visually. They add features to help automate, organize, and manage higher volumes of encoding.

In the nicely expanded user manual — some three times longer, although much of that is for hints, resources, and a glossary — Canopus explains that Queuing and the Queue Manager are something akin to a basic print manager, and that's a good analogy. Hitting the “Queue” button sends an encoding job to be processed much like hitting Print sends a document to the print spooler. Of course, that's what happens, too, when you simply hit Convert, but Queuing a task affords the opportunity to set a priority. (Old Cleaner users will remember a similar 1-5 priority setting; ProCoder's goes 1-9). You can also “split” a task for multiple-CPU processing (if applicable).

Hitting “Manage” opens the Queue Manager, an interface that is just as bland as you'd see if you clicked on the print manager. Jobs in the Queue are listed in rows, with columns of job details and status from left to right. The Queue Manager can start, stop, and pause jobs, as well as re-prioritize and cancel jobs entirely. You can even manage individual segments of jobs split for multiple CPUs.

The “Watch” button leads to another simple interface. It merely lets you browse your computer drives and allows you to set file folders as Watch Folders, but it's likely the most powerful new feature in ProCoder 2. When you create these Watch Folders, folders that sit on your desktop or on a local or network drive, you assign encoding presets to them. Then, any time you drag and drop a file into that Watch Folder, ProCoder automatically starts processing the job. That's a lot like ProCoder's original Droplets, Canopus's little custom-made, process-driven encoding applets. Although here, the creation process is a little more straightforward. Also, using Watch Folders allows ProCoder to handle multiple files more robustly — up to 2,000 files at a time, with collaborators on a network dropping files into the same folders.

Canopus is even looking to the higher end. In addition to ProCoder 2, Canopus has announced a product due this summer. For about $15,000, ProCoder Station will consist of a configured computer server running an enterprise version of the ProCoder application. In many ways, ProCoder Station will target users of products like Anystream's Agility and, to a lesser extent, Telestream's FlipFactory. A browser interface will afford remote operation and administration, as well as the ability to FTP encoded files automatically and send email or page notifications to an administrator. Details on specific configurations and features should be available early in the summer.

From my tests, there's little value in upgrading to ProCoder 2 for speed increases. I did measure speed improvements using ProCoder 2, but generally they were less than 5 percent compared with ProCoder 1.2 rather than 1.5.

On the other hand, if your encoding needs are growing, especially if they are growing to include multiple collaborators, ProCoder's maturing should serve you very well. At $499, ProCoder 2 is clearly taking the lead among desktop encoding utilities with its flexibility to handle both one-off experimental encoding and collaborative batch encoding. Admittedly, ProCoder 2 doesn't match all the workgroup-level features of Cleaner XL. But in many ways, for the individual user and the smaller studio, that's for the best.


Jeff Sauer is a freelance video producer and industry consultant. Reach him at
jeff@dtvgroup.com.


BOTTOM LINE


Company: Canopus
San Jose, Calif.; (408) 954-4500
www.canopus.com

Product: ProCoder 2

Assets: New Watch Folders automate encoding with presets; new codec support for Flash Video and MPEG-4; expanded user manual.

Caveats: No real speed gains over previous versions.

Demographic: Smaller studios with some batch-encoding needs.

Price: $499; $149 upgrade


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