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Editing in Software or Hardware: War of the Worlds

One or the other? Or both? By Charlie White
It's getting to be the best time of year here on the wind-swept prairie of the Midwestern US; it's Autumn in the land of Orson Welles, Frank Lloyd Wright and Houdini. It's a region where an auteur can architect a bustling video business, in a setting that is pure magic. When Fall comes around, it makes me think of what's falling and what's rising in the macrocosm of this Midwestern microcosm -- this highly competitive War of the Worlds that is the magical architecture of digital video editing. Specifically, what's the best way to speed up the editing workflow -- using hardware or software? Or both?

Well, the talk of the town is certainly Real Time Editing, but how is that best accomplished? Some companies have placed their bets on hardware-assisted effects rendering, some have gone the software-only route that depends on the host processor, and some have covered all the possibilities by creating a hybrid concoction consisting of both software and hardware-based acceleration. Which is best?

Some say the way to go is with hardware, where equipment creators design in the power of thirty P4 chips, ready and waiting for you to take the brute-force approach, bringing this power to bear in heavy compositing scenarios. This is currently the best way to apply plenty of power into the equation, where specialized (and permanently programmed) ASICS chips like those in Media 100's 844/X take care of the heavy pixel-pushing tasks and your work is done lickety-split, before you know it. Even when we're talking about the low end of the hardware-based editing spectrum, with products like the Canopus DV Storm and Matrox RT.X100, hardware brings real benefits to your workflow, like the ability to output your finished product to DV tape with no rendering required. That is a crucial capability if you're working in a fast-paced newsroom situation where sometimes the stories have to go to air, uh, five minutes ago. These products, even the cheap ones, are a thrill to use, with their instant response and immediate results.

But then, over the years, problems arise with this approach. First of all, the companies designing such devices need to be soothsayers. They must be able to see at least two years ahead, and determine if their hardware ideas will still be as amazing as they seem now in an environment that may be far more advanced than they could ever anticipate. Then, if those companies run into delays in the development of these wonder-boards, they've fallen even further behind. But then some companies, like Matrox, are pretty damn good fortune tellers, and can act quickly and use a combination of hardware acceleration and host processing to stay ahead of the curve.


Combination of hardware and host? now there's an idea. How about taking a hybrid approach, landing squarely in between this war of the worlds, that of hardware with its lighting-quick response, and software with its ability to hitch a piggyback-ride on the benefits of the mighty Moore's Law. Here's where the smart money is. Avid, with its FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) technology they've dubbed DNA, can eat its hardware cake and have it, too. The gate arrays are hardware-fast, but software programmable. And, Avid's software also takes advantage of the host processor for some of its rendering tasks, so the Tewksbury giant has all bases covered. Another smart company with a hybrid approach -- perhaps the most ingenious of all -- is Pinnacle, which not only takes advantage of the rapid development cycles of Intel and AMD for host-based processing tasks, but takes advantage of graphics card manufacturers hyperactivity, using the power embedded in their ever-evolving board sets and OpenGL as well. On top of this, Pinnacle's Liquid Edition embraces the concept of background rendering, which teamed up with real time previews is a great way to get lots of real work done in a very short amount of time.

Then you have the software-only crowd, which has its own set of compelling benefits. Heading up this list is Sony's Vegas 4, which was seemingly underpowered when it was first released in 1999, but as processors have gotten faster by almost tenfold since then, Vegas is the one to watch in the software-only category. It was a novelty to consider Vegas's everything-in-software approach in 1999, and it makes more and more sense every day. One of the main advantages of this software-only approach is its low cost and portability. Put it on a notebook, it edits. Premiere Pro also falls into this category, as does Final Cut Pro.

But then Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro could almost be placed into a category of their own. These two application are so popular that hardware companies have taken notice, lending hardware support to the software's host processor-based capabilities with formidable products like Pinnacle CineWave and Aurora IgniterX for Final Cut Pro and Canopus DV Storm and Matrox RT.X100 for Premiere Pro, all of which I have tested extensively and like a lot. Are Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro software-only, or hardware assisted? Uh, yes. The beauty of this is, it's up to you. And, both are pro-level applications, with almost everything you'd likely encounter in a professional editing workday.

Where do I think this is all going? For larger production facilities I think this is all headed toward software-only editing and compositing applications, where multiple, cheap PC Intel, G5 and/or AMD processors are brought to bear, crunching huge volumes of data in very little time. Think of it this way: If you were in charge of a mid-size editing and compositing shop, would you rather buy one $50,000 computer or fifty $1000 computers? For the $50K model, you'd probably be required to buy expensive specialized software for it, too. For the fifty cheapo boxes, all lashed together in a render farm configuration that's about 25 times faster than that $50K behemoth, you could pick up lots of comparatively cheap and highly capable software like Vegas, Premiere Pro or After Effects. If you're in charge of a large editing facility, think about perhaps a thousand processors rendering everything your networked army of editors and compositors throw at it. At the other end of the spectrum, for the individual, one-man-band editing shops, well, even a single processor can now edit real time HD in multiple layers, so your needs are already nearly covered, too. This can only get better as processor speeds increase. I can see a day where host processors will be able to handle anything you'd ever want to do with editing or even compositing, and acceleration hardware will become unnecessary. Heck, for some applications, like DV editorial without compositing, that day is already here.

So are the hardware-based editing products akin to the leaves I see falling just outside the Midwest Test Facility on this crisp, blustery Fall day? Are they on their way down to the ground, destined to become next Spring's fertilizer? Not just yet. There's still room for those who need instant effects, right now. But thinking long term, from where I sit here in the land of Frank Lloyd Wright, Houdini and Orson Welles, hardware-based rendering is an architecture that doesn't possess enough magic to escape this War of the Worlds in one piece.


Charlie White, your humble storytellerDigital Media Net Executive Producer Charlie White has been writing about new media and digital video since it was the laughingstock of the television industry. A technology journalist and columnist since 1994, White is also an Emmy-winning producer, video editor, broadcast industry consultant and shot-calling television director who has worked in broadcasting since 1974. Talk back -- Send Chazz a note at cwhite@digitalmedianet.com.

Read Charlie White's editorials by clicking here.

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Related Keywords:Editorial, Charlie White, Autumn, Orson Welles, Frank Lloyd Wright, Houdini, video business, digital video editing, hardware, software, Avid DNA, Final Cut Pro, DV Storm, Matrox RT.X100, Media 100 844/X

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