Stuff Recommended by Bob Hudson
BitVice MPEG 2 Encoder for Macintosh

Martin Sitter's guide to DVD Studio Pro


FastCoder - realtime MPEG2 encoding for Macintosh
Capty DVD 2.0 - Mac DVD authoring with Dolby Digital audio encoding
This article updated January 10, 2005
LaCie Releases FastCoder - at last...
wiill ship in February 2005 - cost US$249:

In coming months I will release a CD-ROM user's guide for FastCoder, CaptyDVD, (and PixeDV). In the meantime you can click on the image to the right to read a PDF datasheet from LaCie and scroll down to read about my tests of FastCoder and CaptyDVD in the last year.

Click here for a movie showing FastCoder's software in action.

Click here to see CaptyDVD in action.


Capty FastCoder is a hardware MPEG 1 and MPEG 2 encoder developed by Pixela and distributed by LaCie. It works on Macintosh G3, G4 and G5 with OS 9 and OS X. It plugs into the Mac's Firewire port and encodes files to MPEG 1 or MPEG 2. FastCoder is bundled with CaptyDVD 2.5, a full-featured DVD authoring program that includes a Dolby Digital - AC3 audio encoder, motion menus, chapter creation and lots of other bells and whistles.

HOW FAST IS "REALTIME?"

On Apple's DVD Studio Pro forum someone suggested that the only realtime encoding is when you plug a camcorder of VCR into an encoder and convert the footage to MPEG2 as it is captured to the hard drive, but that's not "realtime" because- unless you're in the habit of making DVD's from raw camera footage - the video first has to be captured, edited and saved back to tape.

In the real world, FastCoder is "more realtime" than an encoding system that lets you encode "live" to MPEG2 from video tape. If you edit a one hour video project it will take one hour for the project to be saved back to tape so you can then encode from tape to MPEG-2 in realtime. FastCoder requires movies to be in the DV Stream format before it will encode them. On my G4/667 Powerbook it takes half to save a one hour iMovie production to a Full Quality DV movie (which is in the DV Stream format). FastCoder then encodes that DV Stream Quicktime movie in realtime.

With either method it's going to take two times realtime (2X) to go from edited project to MPEG-2 (or MPEG-1) when you include the required steps of either saving to tape or saving as DV Stream Quicktime movie and with my Powerbook it's 1.5X realtime so it's faster than going to tape and then encoding to MPEG2.

Capty FasCoder realtime MPEG encoder By the way if you have Quicktime movie that is not in DV Stream format you can just import it into the FastCoder software and it will transcode to DV Stream before it starts the MPEG encoding.
REALTIME ENCODING ON A BEIGE G3/266?????: I have an old Beige G3/266 that has a G4/400 CPU upgrade in it and OS 9.2.2 and I was very curious to find out how and if FastCoder would work with a CPU upgrade and how it would do if I put the original G3/266 CPU back in it. The old Radius/Digital Origin first-generation Firewire card I had in that Mac would not work with such devices as FastCoder so I ordered a $15 three-port Firewire card from Other World Computing. As soon as it arrived I popped it into the G3, plugged in FastCoder and a Firewire drive and encoded a 2 minute movie to MPEG2. It took two minutes for the movie to be converted to DV Stream format and two minutes for it to be encoded to MPEG2. Not bad for a G4/400. Then I took out the CPU upgrade and installed the original G3/266 CPU. I knew that the G4/400 upgrade cut in half the time it took to render Quicktime movies and sure enough it took four minutes to render the two minute movie to DV Stream with the G3 chip but after that it again encoded to MPEG2 in realtime. Including QT render times then, it was 3X realtime with the G3/266 and 2X realtime with the G4/400. Considering that every software MPEG2 encoder I've seen takes 30 to 50 times realtime on a G3, the 3 times realtime was pretty amazing to see. .


MPEG-2 QUALITY

The quality of FastCoder's MPEG-2 files is very good and to meet or possible beat the quality I would have to use a software encoder that takes 12 times realtime on my G4/667. I encoded a test movie with FastCoder and BitVice (each at 4.5Mbps VBR) and FastCoder compared favorably as far as color and luma values. It's not as sharp as BitVice and has a little less contrast, but overall looks very good. I had a lot of fast motion stuff shot from a moving car, swirling water from a cruise ship's propeller, some low light stuff, cross dissolves, motion titles, etc. and it all encoded with no problems.

FastCoder will handle 16:9 widscreen footage and can encode to half D1 resolution (which Apple's Compressor and iDVD encoders still cannot do) and can also do MPEG-1 for VCD creation. It doesn't give you the kinds of options you find in a true professional encoder like BitVice: support for 24P (24fps progressive scan), deinterlacing, support for various types of color space in the source video and, of course everything encoded by FastCoder has to be converted to DV so if your source video is uncompressed it might not be the thing for you (the CaptyDVD authoring software included with FastCoder can accept files from other encoders if you first multiplex - mux - them using the free BitVice Helper software).

VCD ENCODING WITH MPEG-1

I finally got around to trying the MPEG-1 encoder: very impressive. I haven't burned it to VCD to watch on a television, but even when viewed at double size in Quicktime Player it was very clean and artifact-free. I had tried another popular Mac product for creating VCD's in the past and was less-than impressed with the quality of its MPEG1 encoder and it turned me off to the VCD format, but I'm anxious to see how this FastCoder MPEG1 looks on a VCD - it may make me change my mind about VCD's. (NOTE: Okay I authored a VCD - it was handheld camera, fast pans of Bald Eagles soaring over a river with a background of bare trees - very tough stuff for encoders, but for 1.2Mbps MPEG1 it wasn't too bad).

16:9 WIDESCREEN SUPPORTED

FastCoder has batch processing and will encode to all legal DVD Video sizes (as well as the MPEG-1 for VCD). Since Spring of 2004 I have made many widescreen videos (16:9) by shooting on my Canon GL1 in 16:9 mode. I imported that into iMovie (where it looks squeezed), exported from iMovie as Full Quality DV, imported that into FastCoder and checked its Letterbox option and encoded it to MPEG-2. I imported the MPEG file in CaptyDVD 2.0, checked a couple of boxes and compiled a video_ts folder. In Apple DVD player (or on widescreen TV's) the movies play back "unsqueezed" in 16:9 mode with no black bars and on "normal" 4:3 TV's it plays with letterboxing.

FastCoder will encode as a muxed (multiplexed) program stream or an elementary stream for use in DVD Studio Pro. The elementary stream takes about 7% longer because the audio and video are being written as separate files.

INCLUDES DVD AUTHORING SOFTWARE WITH DOLBY AUDIO

FastCoder is bundled with a full version of CaptyDVD , Mac DVD authoring software that has an AC3/Dolby Digital audio encoder, supports motion menus, 16:9 widescreen, chapters, DVD-ROM folders and other bells and whistles. It will also burn to DVD-R/RW or +R/RW formats or simply create a video_ts folder and/or disk image if you want. The AC3 encoder is an important addition to CaptyDVD. Dolby/AC3 audio is the only audio compression that is supported by all DVD players. Programs such as iDVD use uncompressed PCM audio which has a very high bitrate and takes up DVD space that is better used for video files. Older versions of CaptyDVD and some other low-cost DVD authoring programs offer only MPEG audio compression, which is an optional part of the NTSC DVD standard, so not all players can handle it. Dolby/AC3 saves precious disk space, has good quality and works on all players.

Commerical DVD authoring with CaptyDVD 2.0: Putting my money where my mouth is, I have authored a DVD for a client using FastCoder and CaptyDVD 2.0. The video is an analog video I shot and edited for him in 1995. He's sold thousands of VHS tapes since then and in 2004 decided he wanted it on DVD. I took the original Hi-8 camcorder tapes and re-edited them in FCP, and then encoded with FastCoder. Overall the quality of the MPEG-2 is stunning and it makes the VHS version look rather dull. CaptyDVD has some good tools for precise layout of menus and chapters - in the screenshot below everything was done in CaptyDVD: the button, the text, even the yellow line.


I've worked with CaptyDVD since the first English-language version was released in late 2002. It has been upgraded and improved several times since then and versions since 2.0 are pretty full-featured with some vastly improved menu templates compared to pre 2.0 versions. CaptyDVD will let you burn to DVD-R or +R as well as RW disks and also provides supports for the Double Layer DL disks. It will also author VCD projects.
Note: I am creating a CD-ROM interactive guide to Capty DVD 2 and FastCoder with lots of narrrated Quciktime movies on how to use these products. It will also have sections on general workflows for DVD production, calculating bitrates, making your DVD's more compatible, etc. If you want to notified when it's ready, email me through the link below.
SKEPTICAL ABOUT CHEAP HARDWARE ENCODERS? READ THIS:

The FastCoder encoder box is only about the size of a pack of cigarettes and gets its power through the Firewire cable. Inside is a Fujitsu MPEG 1/2 encoder chip. I was quite impressed to be able to turn out good quality MPEG's so quickly on my Powerbook: 2X realtime as opposed to the 12X realtime it takes with software. FastCoder is a very handy tool for people working in DV. If you are working in "higher format" than DV, then you probably don't want to convert your video to DV before encoding to MPEG2, but if it's already in DV, then you might be very happy with FastCoder for encoding.

I've had the ADS USB Instant DVD hardware encoder for Mac for two years. It has analog inputs and uses a different brand of MPEG encoder chip, but it has a done a great job. Even at half D1 resolution (352x480) it turns out some pretty good MPEG files. It seems like these inexpensive MPEG encoder chips overall are pretty robust: it's pretty much the same thing that's being used in standalone DVD recorders and various set top boxes that record TV broadcasts as MPEG.

The rapid growth of the market for these recorders and set top boxes has spurred development of MPEG encoder/decoder chip technology as well as brought down the price considerably so that it is possible to get good quality from a hardware encoder costing $250 or less. It's nice to see this technology making its way to the desktop DVD producer.

Thus far, most such hardware encoders for computer users - such as USB Instant DVD - have been designed to encode from tape sources, which can be fine if you don't need to do any editing. MPEG files are pretty much limited to cuts-only editing. But with FastCoder you can edit your captured video the way you always do and then feed it to the hardware encoder for fast encoding to MPEG-2.

Again, FastCoder is not a replacement for software encoders (or hardware encoders costing thousands of dollars) which can encode direct from uncompressed video sources or "exotic" video codecs without having to first convert them to DV, but my year of tests have been very favorable, even for some professional purposes and FastCoder is the only MPEG2 encoder I use on a regular basis.



Email to Bob Hudson:
Your name:

E-Mail:


Message:

(Please click Send just once)







Visitors since Feb. 14, 2004