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Firewire and Analog Meet

Matching Old and New Macs with Video Cameras

© 2001 By Dennis R. Dimick

Washington Apple Pi Journal, July/August 1999, p. 13, reprint information

Ever since my Journal article appeared last year on using Apple's iMovie editing program with Macs that weren't designed for it, several queries have arrived from readers wondering how to assemble Mac-based video editing systems by connecting computers and video cameras that never were designed to work together.

The questions essentially focus on linking older Macs to new cameras, and new Macs to older cameras.

They go something like this: How do I connect my new Firewire-capable digital video (DV) camera to my PowerMac 8500 or 9600 or Beige G3? I just got a new Mac G4 tower (or iMac) and want to connect my 8mm, VHS, or Hi-8 video camera so I can use the copy of iMovie 2 that came with my new computer. Isn't there some sort of cheap and simple adapter?

An adapter is available, but it is not cheap. Sony sells one for about $400 that solves most problems linking old and new. Cheaper alternatives are available, but they are not simple and solve only some of the problems. How well old and new work together, and whether results are pleasing depends on your expectations and budget.

Like all technology quandaries, solutions depend on the computer model or video camera you already own and how much money you are willing to spend. Older PCI PowerMac and Beige G3 computers and newer DV cameras can work together; 8mm, Hi-8, and VHS cameras and tape decks can also work with new DV-capable Macs.

Most of the faster Beige and Blue G3 and all G4 Macs are more capable at any sort of video editing. In general, if you try to upgrade older PCI Power Macs for video editing, your costs soon will equal or exceed those of buying a new Mac.

Hardware for Video Editing: If you want to use Apple's iMovie 2 editing program, shown above, and don't have a latest model Mac, the accompanying article attempts to plumb the details of matching older-model PowerMacs with newer DV cameras and new DV-capable Macs with older analog video cameras.

Your Best Bet: DV Mac and Camera

If you have no prior experience with digital video and want to start making movies, your best is a G4 Mac and a DV camcorder with built-in Firewire "IEEE 1394" port. A least-cost setup could be a $900 DV iMac and a DV-format camera for about $800, total outlay about $1700. (These are all average prices taken from mail-order catalogs or newspaper ads in late March 2001.)

Blue G3 Macs with built-in Firewire ports should work as long as you have adequate RAM installed (128 MB) and enough empty hard drive space. You'll also need late-version Apple system and Firewire-driver software. You can easily add a second internal IDE drive to later model Blue G3s; a 30 GB drive costs about $130.

Keep in mind that DV-format video when captured to a hard drive needs 3.5 MB on disk for each second. File sizes add up, so plan accordingly: this means 210 MB per minute, 6.3 GB per half hour of raw footage. Generally assume that your hard drives should hold at minimum twice as much as the largest amount of raw video data you capture before editing. This extra "overhead" space is needed for editing and temporary files.

Even if you've been a Mac user for years and only now desire to make movies with your computer, your best bet is still a new Firewire-equipped Mac and DV camera. New iMacs, G4s, and late-model G3 PowerBooks all come with large, (10 GB and more) fast hard drives, built-in Firewire ports, a warranty, reasonably adequate RAM, and iMovie 2, Apple's editing program.

Though you will pay more initially for new equipment, you will spend more time creating movies and less time tweaking, adjusting, and generally maintaining equipment. If you are not comfortable digging around in the innards of your computer to add or remove parts, this is definitely the route to take.

The Not-So-Cheap Adapter

These new Firewire-capable Macs connect quite well to DV cameras but they do not necessarily link to audio and video equipment in your house. Unlike some AV-capable older-model PCI PowerMacs, these new DV Macs will not connect to your VCR, your TV, or to the audio and video outputs of a stereo receiver.

So, if you have some existing tapes or you want to record something to disk off the air, you have been out of luck. Until the latest G4 model introductions in January, Macs still included an analog audio input port, but that too is gone in favor of third-party USB connectors.

In the past few months Sony and another vendor have introduced a new "black box" called a digital-to-analog converter. Arriving with the model name "DVMC-DA2 Converter," Sony's adapter sells for $360 to $400 in Mac vendor mail order catalogs and is designed to convert digital video to analog signals and analog signals to digital video. Besides Firewire connectors, it comes with S-video and Composite video (RCA) jacks.

This box is your solution if you want to capture video from 8mm, VHS, or Hi-8 tape to your Firewire Mac, and this is your solution if you want to send video out from your Firewire Mac to your VHS, 8mm, or Hi-8 VCR.

Another vendor, Dazzle Multimedia, sells a recently introduced product called "Hollywood DV-Bridge." In the catalogs for about $260, it is said to perform the same conversions of digital to analog and analog to digital signal as the Sony product.

Another Option: Sony's Video 8 Cameras

Sony has introduced a line of cameras called "Video 8" that essentially work as a bridge format between the analog and digital video worlds. If you already have an existing archive of 8mm and Hi-8 tapes these cameras will play them. Further, these "Video 8" cameras also come with Firewire "IEEE 1394" connectors so you can connect to Firewire Macs. Priced in the $600 to $900 range, these cameras also allow you to record DV format signals to 8mm and Hi-8 tapes. These cameras don't support Mini-DV tape cassettes used by true DV cameras, nor do they support timecode as real DV cameras can.

Mixing Beige G3 Macs and DV Cameras

Of all PowerMacs without built-in Firewire, the Beige G3 series perhaps is the easiest to convert for use with DV cameras. At top speeds of 300 Mhz and 333 Mhz, they are generally quite fast, they support fast and cheap IDE drives, and their logic boards are fast enough to move DV data.

You will need to add a Firewire PCI card and install Apple's Firewire and QuickTime DV drivers so you can connect your Mac to the DV camera. (This also means you'll need to have a minimum of Mac OS 8.6 on your Mac.) I recently purchased an Orange Micro PCI combo Firewire/USB card for about $130 that also came with a limited edition of Premiere 5.1, Adobe Systems' capable video capture and editing software. The card has worked fine for me and was highly rated in MacAddict magazine. Other vendors such as Macally, Belkin and others sell Firewire PCI cards.

If you need to add more drive capacity to Beige G3s, you have a couple of options. If your Mac has empty drive bays, you can buy a cheap IDE drive and install it as a slave drive on one of the internal IDE buses. Beige G3's support an IDE transfer standard called ATA/33, an older and slower standard but capable of handling disk read/write rates for editing DV. (Keep in mind all drives being used for digital video must be able to sustain minimum constant read/write rates of 3.5 MB per second, and faster is better.)

Marketing hype would have you believe it's a snap to add a Firewire hard drive and you'll be set to capture flawless video from your DV camera. This is probably true with newer Macs that have built-in Firewire, but if you're adapting an older Mac you might have more success capturing to the faster internal ATA drives. I've read several reports on various online forums related to digital video where unhappy users have suffered dropped frames and data loss when capturing to external drives attached via PCI Firewire cards. That said, external Firewire drives attached via PCI adapter cards should work fine for file storage.

If you have empty PCI slots in your Beige G3, you could also add one of the recently introduced ATA/66 host adapter cards, which let you use faster ATA/66 IDE drives in any Mac with PCI slots. (ATA/66 means support for transfer rates of 66MB per second.) For example, Sonnet sells a card for about $100. The card will support a pair of IDE drives.

One firm specializing in digital video solutions has been selling these cheap ATA host adapter cards called TurboMax for a couple of years. Promax of Irvine CA, (www.promax.com) offers drive/card combinations optimized for digital video editing. You can, for example, get a card and single drive for less than $500 that will give you 75GB of high-speed storage for video capture and editing.

I've been using the original TurboMax ATA/33 card in a PowerMac 9600 (with Newer G3/400 CPU) for a couple of years and have been happy. Recently I changed the drives: for a total cost of $260 I bought at an office supply store a pair of Maxtor 30 GB 7200 RPM drives for use as a RAID array. Less than $300 for a 60 GB disk array seems incredible, but it is true.

G3's with AV Personality Cards

If you own a G3 Beige Mac with AV personality card you have a rare bird that will allow you to capture analog video from existing broadcast, Hi8, 8mm, and VHS sources with its built-in S-Video and composite RCA-style AV connectors. As long as you have adequate drive space and RAM and the processor as at least 300Mhz, your Mac is a good candidate for adding a PCI Firewire card to capture DV. Typically Beige G3 towers have one empty drive bay if they also have a Zip drive built in. The hard-to-find G3/333 Minitower with fast-and-wide SCSI usually came with no Zip drive and two empty drive bays, presenting itself as a great expansion candidate for more drives.

AV PowerMacs: 8500, 8600, 7500, and 7600

From late 1995 to late 1997 these Macs were the center of the Mac video editing revolution. They all came with upgradable CPU slots, and the 8500 and 8600 came with built-in audio and analog S-Video and Composite video inputs and outputs. The 7500 and 7600 had audio and video in but no video out. (The later model 7300 abandoned all digital video support, though it kept audio connectors.)

All these Macs can take Firewire and USB PCI cards but your success with DV will vary. The native PowerMac 601 (in the 7500) and 604 family processors in these Macs are not fast enough to support handling of DV data. Logic boards and RAM are slow compared to newer Macs, and all of these three-slot Macs have limitations in the "PCI bus" that may cause dropped-frames when capturing video files to your drive.

If you seek to use an older PCI PowerMac, at a minimum add a new G3 processor upgrade card, an ATA host adapter card and an IDE drive. The built-in SCSI drives in these older Macs are just not fast enough to handle the burst and transfer rate demands of full-frame DV editing. Of course you'll also need to add a Firewire PCI card to your older PCI Power Mac so you can connect a camera.

As you can see, upgrade costs can easily approach the cost of a brand new G4 tower. Further, you're essentially trying to make a computer do what it never was designed to do and there will be inevitable glitches, conflicts and crashes.

I speak from experience, having previously upgraded an 8500 beyond what it was capable. I also turned a Mac IIci into a QuickTime video-editing powerhouse, so to speak, in the early 1990s.

For those of you Mac archivists interested in QuickTime arcania, at the end my Mac IIci was configured as such: DayStar Turbo 68040/40 MHz CPU ($1500); SuperMac Spigot II Tape QuickTime movie board ($850); 32MB RAM ($800?); Radius 8.24xp Pro 24-bit video card ($450); NuMedia 16-bit stereo digital audio card ($425); and finally a 1.7 GB APS Micropolis AV drive ($1100). This let me create 320x240 movies that ran at 15fps. Using some fancy settings magic, I could get the movies to play full-screen on a TV.

So, when you look to upgrade what you have, take a hard look at the expenses involved and what you will end up with. I could have bought a top-of-the-line G4/733 tower (or two G4/400s) with DV camera for less today than just my IIci upgrades cost. (The original IIci cost $2700 with 230MB drive and 6MB RAM.) Most of my time was spent keeping this "VW with a Porsche engine" up and running; much less time was spent using it.

Analog Video Cards for All PCI Macs

Since DV and Firewire appeared on the Mac, the market for PCI digital video capture cards that support analog signals has declined. Aurora Designs produces a couple of cards called Fuse and Igniter, both designed to support high-quality capture, editing, and output of analog video from Hi-8, 8mm and VHS. The $500 Fuse and $1100 Igniter are both well-regarded and if you still primarily use analog video formats these cards may be your best choice, regardless what of Mac you own, new or old.

Until recently, Pinnacle Designs still sold a miroMotion DC30plus card for the Mac that did the same thing. (A recent visit to the company website showed promotional materials but no purchase information.)

For the most part though, the Mac-based analog QuickTime video capture market has withered. Media 100 itself is gone from the low-end business, Radius and its "Video Vision" cards some years ago disappeared after being acquired by Media 100. "DV Edit," a $500 editing program and companion DV Firewire card are about all that remain from the original Radius stable.

Bottom of the Barrel

If you have a NuBus Power Mac such as a 7100 or 8100, don't waste your time considering them as a platform for DV editing. As far as I know, no NuBus Firewire cards exist. The older NuBus slot architecture on the Mac didn't offer enough bandwidth to support any sort of consistent performance-oriented video editing. Granted the 7100/80 AV (which I still have) and some 8100s offer built in AV cards, but these are quite limited in performance, generally comparable to my souped-up Mac IIci mentioned earlier.

Your queries can always provide fodder for a future article. Possible future articles along these lines could include discussions of DV-capable video editing software for the Mac and a discussion of QuickTime reference sources and books. If you have interests, let me know.

Pi member Dennis Dimick has been working with QuickTime since about 1993. Anyone interested in his old Mac IIci "VW with a Porsche engine" is welcome to make an offer. Are there any museum curators out there? He can be reached via email: ddimick@aol.com