Digital Strategies Part 3 Digital Video

Of all the digital media migrations you might make, switching from analog to digital video is the most challenging. Digital video requires a much steeper learning curve than digital music or photos. Digital video also requires enormous amounts of time and hard disk space. However, few people have large collections of legacy video footage waiting for conversion to digital formats, which eases the transition.

If you have analog video that you want to archive and edit on the PC, you have two basic options. For those with small home-video collections—for example, a few home videos in a popular format such as VHS, VHS-C, or 8mm—the cheapest and least time-consuming option is to find a local video service to convert the movies to a digital format, such as DVD video.

If you have a larger analog video collection, you'll probably need some hardware. First, you'll need a video-capture device that can interact with analog video and audio. USB-based solutions are unacceptable unless you want to create video only for the Web; USB lacks the necessary bandwidth to acquire full-sized video and is limited to 320 x 240 resolution, whereas you would want at least 525 lines of horizontal resolution for TV output. Numerous video-capture devices are available for PCs, and I've reviewed products from Pinnacle ( see "Pinnacle DV500 Plus—Part One" ) and other vendors in the past. Analog solutions for the Macintosh are less prevalent, although Apple equips all modern Macs with the FireWire ports you need to acquire digital video. Mac users can purchase analog-to-digital video converters from Formac ( ) and other vendors that convert analog video sources to FireWire.

An option available to both PC and Mac users is to use a digital camcorder, connect it directly to your analog video source, and record your images to digital tape. Then, you can connect the digital camcorder to the PC or Mac and acquire the video digitally. Note that most PCs currently don't ship with FireWire cards, but you can purchase FireWire units for less than $50 from Maxtor ( ) and others.

More so than with other digital media types, digital video also requires a modern OS that won't crash during lengthy video acquisitions or choke on the large data files that are common with video. On the PC, you can use Windows XP or Windows 2000; I prefer XP, which ships with a good video acquisition and editing package called Windows Movie Maker. Likewise, you'll need to use the New Technology File System (NTFS) on the hard disk on which you store digital video because NTFS has no file-size limitation. The more common FAT32 format has a 4GB limit.

On the Mac, you'll need to use OS X, which includes Apple's excellent iMovie 2 software, a Mac freebie that's better than most PC-based movie-editing packages. Recordable DVD-equipped Macs also include iDVD 2, which is an amazingly powerful DVD movie-making application.

Regardless of the software you choose, the process of saving and editing video is similar. You connect the video and audio "out" jacks on the video source (e.g., VHS player, camcorder) to your video/audio capture device's video and audio "in" ports or, if you're using a digital video source, you simply connect the device to the PC over FireWire. For XP users, I recommend using Windows Movie Maker for video acquisition. Windows Movie Maker lets you record in high-resolution AVI-DV, a format that takes up lots of disk space but that you can use as a master for DVD creation, and in the efficient Windows Media Video (WMV) 8 format, which offers stunning quality and very small file sizes. Personally, I prefer to keep a master copy of all video in AVI-DV format on the PC, which I can edit and resize as needed for various purposes, such as DVD movies or even Web- and email-based movies. The goal is to keep the original source video in the highest quality possible because you can always downgrade the quality later, but you can't improve the quality of a poor master copy.

On the Mac, you're best off using the built-in QuickTime video format that iMovie 2 supports. QuickTime offers very high quality but, like AVI-DV, takes up large amounts of disk space unless you compress the video during output.

Regarding editing, keep it simple: You could spend the rest of your life editing your home movies, adding professional-style transitions and titles. But the reality is that most people don't spend a lot of time viewing their own movies, and surely others outside your family will be even less interested in your videos. So don't waste time adding bizarre special effects. Instead, think of digital video editing as a process of removing the unwanted parts and smoothing the transitions between edited portions of video. Your final videos will be shorter and simpler than the original versions because you just remove content and add simple transitions so that the cuts aren't visually jarring.

For final output, you have a wealth of options, including recording back to tape, recording to DVD, creating Web and email output, and so on. Packages such as Windows Movie Maker and iMovie 2 let you output your edited video at various resolutions and quality levels, depending on your needs.

All this video work will require a lot of hard disk space, so I recommend investing in additional storage if you're serious about digital video. On the PC, opt for a newer 100GB or 120GB Western Digital drive ( ), which features 8MB of cache, compared with 2MB on other drives; these new drives are specifically designed for storing digital video. Consumer-level Macs such as the iBook and iMac are difficult to expand internally, so an external FireWire-based drive, although a bit more expensive than internal units, will fit the bill. Many companies, including Maxtor and Iomega, make such drives.

Video work is complicated and potentially expensive, but you can get good results with a little work and the right tools. By using a modern OS such as XP or Mac OS X, you can acquire your home movies digitally, then edit them into a form that you can distribute by tape, recordable DVD, email, or the Web. In the future issues of Connected Home EXPRESS, I'll revisit some of these options more closely because each requires a different set of skills and tools.

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