By J.R. Bookwalter
Despite being a longtime Apple fanatic, I have mostly avoided their efforts to shove the H.264 format down my throat over the years. Sure, the picture quality and file sizes are fantastic, but it takes forever to get those results during encoding, which can be a real downer when faced with a lot of material. Thankfully, a number of USB-based products have come along recently which have started to bring me around to Apple’s way of thinking — and maybe even let me stop worrying and learn to love H.264.
One such product is Blackmagic Design’s Video Recorder. Unlike their pro-level I/O cards for the Mac and Windows, Video Recorder is a consumer-centric device built exclusively for the Mac. At its heart, it’s a simple USB dongle designed to get footage into your Mac, encoded in real time as H.264 — ready to bring into iTunes, iPod/iPhone, AppleTV, YouTube or even iMovie for further editing.
Handsomely packaged in a cloth bag within a tiny yellow box, Video Recorder’s dongle plugs into any available USB 2.0 port. I tested it on my late-2008 MacBook Pro, and since the Video Recorder is wider than many dongles at 1 1/4″, it’s too big for me to be able to use both USB ports at the same time. On the left side, it blocked my Firewire 800 port; on the right, the Mini DisplayPort plug. Thankfully, Blackmagic had the foresight to include a USB extension cable to eliminate this problem. Most of the time I left it plugged into a generic USB hub and it worked fine either way, although a dedicated port on your computer is recommended.
Attached to the 3″ plastic dongle are 4 cables with female jacks. One leads into a standard stereo RCA audio input block (one white, one red) and the other 3 are intended for a component video signal (red, green and blue). If your signal source is composite video, you’ll use only the green input. S-Video is also provided via a small adapter that plugs into the blue and green inputs.
As most videophiles know, component will get you the best results, when available. S-Video is still common on many source decks, and it will give you a slight quality bump over standard composite, which should really only be used as a last resort. Since the cables are not marked (they’re only color-coded), these options can be confusing without the included PDF manual handy, but thankfully the software reminds you of the proper connections each time you change input sources. Both the manual and software are on an included CD-ROM.
Software installation is a simple drag and drop into your Applications folder. Double-click and you’re greeted by a small but efficient window. On the left side you’re presented with the 3 input choices (component, composite, S-Video) as well as 6 target device options — iPod Small (320 x 240), iPod Large, YouTube or AppleTV (all 640 x 480), iPhone (480 x 352) or Full-Res (720 x 480). Toward the bottom are selections for file name and options to let you save your videos as a user-defined number of minutes or megabytes, to stop recordings after a predetermined number of minutes or to load recordings straight into iTunes when finished, if you’d like.
Naturally, the main part of the Video Recorder window is for displaying incoming video. Beneath the video display on the left side is a button that pops out sliders to adjust brightness, contrast, color and audio input level. There’s also a visual representation of your audio next to this button in the form of stereo LED meters so you can see if your audio level is too low or too hot. A big red button at the center bottom starts and stops the recording (it appears grayed out if the USB dongle isn’t plugged in and glows when actual recording is taking place), and a HH:MM:SS:FF time counter in the lower right corner shows how much video you’re actually recording.
One of the nicest features of the Video Recorder is its ability to remove all those nasty black lines and tearing in the overscan area of older analog videos. In the days before HDTV, such unwanted artifacts were safely hidden away under the plastic bevel of your analog television, but most modern digital devices (including iPods and iPhones) will now show the entire frame, including the overscan. To eliminate them from your captured video, simply drag the cropping handles at the top and right side and the areas underneath the crop area will be removed from your new video.
This function also works for removing the black bars from a letterboxed source, which would otherwise take up unnecessary bloat your captured file size. Cropping does not enlarge the final video, however. For instance, in Full-Res 720 x 480 mode, cropping the source also reduces the size of the encoded video, rather than enlarging the source to fill the predetermined pixel size.
Tucked away between the display and the start/stop button is a pull-down menu to select the encoding quality — with 11 options, ranging from 11 kb/s for the smallest file sizes (and least quality), all the way up to 3.5 Mb/s to maintain the quality of your original source as much as possible. Which quality setting you need is probably determined by what you’ll be using the encoded file for… after all, a tiny screen like the iPod will look pretty great even with a small file size, where the same video played back on an AppleTV will appear blocky and lacking detail.
You’ll have to do some trial and error to find the best settings for your needs, but if you plan to edit the video later in iMovie, you’re probably best to stick with the highest setting, even with older VHS source material. Video Recorder is capable of capturing NTSC, PAL or SECAM signals, but it can’t be used as a capture device for anything except the included Video Recorder software. And if you plan to use Video Recorder files within Final Cut Pro, think again — H.264 in general isn’t very friendly when imported into FCP and you’ll wind up having to re-render everything to do so.
The fairly straightforward software does have a couple of other options stashed away in the menu. One is to remove interlaced fields from your recordings (disabled for YouTube format), while the other will let you continue to hear captured audio while the program is in the background. Without this option selected, playback audio is muted while Video Recorder is not in the foreground (but don’t worry, it’s still being recorded).
And that’s about it for the software. Literally! There are no Preferences options, which is a shame because the software defaults to recording your movies on your Finder’s desktop (?!), which is neither convenient or good practice. I can only imagine that this was done to simplify the program for beginners, but a better option would have been to default to the user’s Movies folder, at the very least. Personally, I’d like to see an option to record video to any drive, rather than having to move files over when you’re done, but otherwise it gets the job done well and surely there will be software updates in the future to address such issues.
Video Recorder also doesn’t add the .mp4 extension to the finished files when displayed in the Finder — or rather, it does, but they are hidden by default, which is another odd choice to me (although I’m admittedly anal-retentive about being given the option to display them or not). You can change this by selecting a file and going to File > Get Info and then unchecking “Hide extension,” and even perform it on a batch of files all at once by holding down the Option key and selecting File > Show Inspector.
While there are similar competing products now on the market, Blackmagic Design has a great reputation in the prosumer and pro video market for their Decklink series (among others). Video Recorder is a great, inexpensive addition to any video editor’s toolbox and with the versatility and high quality of its encoding, you might just find yourself using it over the laborious routine of “capture then software encode,” especially when the task requires archiving stacks of old analog tapes to H.264 in a hurry.
Blackmagic Design Video Recorder
Inexpensive, fast solution to convert tape sources to H.264 files with minimum effort and skill
CONS:Software is so simple it doesn’t allow for many conveniences like choosing where to save your files, doesn’t work with HD or copy-protected source material
BOTTOM LINE: Takes a lot of the pain and suffering out of converting video to H.264, and does it very well.