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Review: NewTek Video Toaster [2]
Posted Aug 11, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 1
  

Synopsis: NewTek's Video Toaster [2] is head and shoulders above the sub-$2,000 competition in terms of performance, capabilities, and feel. The only issues are whether you can justify the $3995 purchase price, and whether you can stomach jumping into a non-linear editing environment built more for TV producers than the average computer user. It's clearly the hottest hardware we've reviewed to date, with true, real-time operation for every tested effect. But it's clearly overkill for most DVD and Web producers, and the interface is best-suited for consistent, rather than casual users. This makes it better-suited for professional videographers, rather than corporate departments with infrequent video projects.

Like a Lamborghini amid station wagons, NewTek's Video Toaster [2] is head and shoulders above the sub-$2,000 competition in terms of performance, capabilities, and feel. The only issues are whether you can justify the $2995 purchase price, and whether you can stomach jumping into a non-linear editing environment built more for TV producers than the average computer user.

What's Past is Prologue

The original Video Toaster was digital video before digital video was cool. Introduced in 1990, and based on the Commodore Amiga platform, the original Video Toaster offered capture, editing, switching, and animation for $1,595. Though legendary among its devoted user base, the product's visibility and installed base waned with Commodore's, and an NT-based product released in 1999 created little stir.

Video Toaster [2] (VT2) should propel NewTek back into the digital video mainstream, albeit within a relatively small core group that can both appreciate and leverage the product's capabilities. The product's live switching capabilities are easily sufficient to produce a live event or television show, with easy output to a streaming media encoder and the Internet.

However, most of us set our sights a bit lower, focusing on more traditional non-linear editing applications like producing training or wedding videos. Here, as we'll see, VT2's benefits are more subtle, but every bit as important. But let's start at the beginning.

The Hardware

VT2 costs $2995 for the VT2 hardware and software, which includes two video editors, homegrown ToasterEdit and Speed Razor 4.8 from in-sync Corporation; NewTek's Aura, a video paint program similar to Adobe AfterEffects; Lightwave Express, a 3D animation program; and a separate character-generation, or titling utility. Other components offer commonly bundled capabilities like capture, preview, and audio input volume control.

The base board includes connectors for component, S-Video or composite video and stereo audio input and output. Videographers requiring additional real-time input sources should spring for the $1,995 SX-8 breakout box that can handle eight component, composite, or S-video inputs, with four XLR inputs for microphone or balanced line and six unbalanced RCA stereo audio inputs. The SX-8 also provides three RS-422 ports for playback or record decks, with GPI Triggers and Genlock.

A separate card costing $995 handles SDI input, and the VT2 software can also manage input from a DV device with full machine control. A software switcher juggles the inputs from a variety of sources, including live feeds from cameras, disc-based content, or decks controlled via RS-422 or DV.

A T-Bar control switches from preview feed to program feed, either manually or automatically, with a library of digital video effects to serve as transitions. Like most program components, you can choose between several skins, which not only customize color, but also let you eliminate unused inputs, reducing screen clutter.

The Setup

VT2 is designed to work with uncompressed video with a bandwidth of up to 22 megabytes per second (yes, that's megabytes). This boosts the quality of the video significantly over systems that edit in native DV, and also improves operations like keying that work better with higher quality signals.

The obvious price is that you'll need a fast, large disk subsystem. In addition, since most effects are rendered by the host CPU, you'll need a fast computer, preferably with multiple CPUs to leverage VT2's multithreaded operation.

Not surprisingly, NewTek sent our system in a dual 1.4gHz Xeon system with four Fujitsu 17GB Ultra-160 SCSI drives totaling about 50GB of usable disk space. The Dell Precision 530 workstation used an Intel 860 chipset-based motherboard with 1GB of PC800 RDRAM, matching the recommended machine configuration perfectly, with a gorgeous 21-inch flat panel monitor a lovely final touch.

Setting up our test studio, with the switcher, two cameras, Pioneer's PRV-9000 DVD-RW as both source and recording deck, NTSC monitor and speakers spawned that momentary feeling of panic you get the night after Christmas when faced with a seemingly impossible assembly task. So we had another sip of eggnog, and fifteen minutes later we were happily switching video, glowing with accomplishment, but definitely glad we didn't have to install the board set. As with all high-end systems, we recommend buying the system installed by a value-added reseller to avoid a reasonably complicated install and possible finger pointing down the road.

Our test project was ambitious, converting our 60-minute yoga tape to 30 minutes by eliminating all that useless breathing, meditation, and extreme positions beyond the ken of my 40-something body. Tracy Rich and Ganga White, I hope you aren't reading now, though I'm guessing Ol' Ganga wouldn't care.

We immediately wanted to press the pedal to the metal and see what this hot setup could do, so we loaded up a timeline with four videos, squished them into slightly smaller than quarter screen and placed one in each quadrant. Then we pressed play, forcing the machine to retrieve 88MB/second of video data, while simultaneously producing four picture-in-picture effects.

Playback was flawless, as it was after we added a chroma-key effect to one of our clips and then another. Worried that we would run out of time before we pushed beyond the performance envelope, we abandoned this pursuit. Needless to say, VT2 easily offers more real-time performance we've seen on any non-linear editing solution within or below its price range.

The Software

Hardware and host computer setup neutralized, we shifted our focus to software, which is broken out into three groups by function: graphics, control room, and edit suite. Many individual program components, like LightWave Express and Modeler, Aura VT Point and Speed Razor, are fully featured programs widely reviewed elsewhere and beyond our scope here. Instead, we focused on the basic production building blocks: capture, editing, and output.

The program itself sits in an open palette. When you move your mouse to the top of the screen, the program lists all modules for your selection. With over 20 individual modules, the interface can quickly get cluttered and messy. VT2 helps prevent this with editable screen layouts that can restore order in a single keystroke.

Capture tools are extensive. You select your input and basic capture options in the Capture monitor, control audio volume in the Audio Mixer, use the Proc-Amp, or processing amplifier, to adjust the brightness, contrast, hue, and saturation of your videos, as well as the U and V gain and offset. ToasterScope, a real-time vectorscope/waveform monitor of either the program or preview stream, helps guide your adjustments. All tools look and act like the actual hardware found in studios and post-production houses, simplifying operation for users coming from those environments.

During capture, the program tracks remaining disk space, with an incoming audio gain control and volume meter. VT2 offers a chop function that allows you to break the capture manually into discrete files, say at scene changes, and time lapse capture. However, there is no batch capture, a fairly significant deficit that should be resolved soon after you read this review.

ToasterEdit

As the name suggests, ToasterEdit is NewTek's homegrown video editor. It provides a dual window environment, with each window capable of displaying the file bin, storyboard, or timeline views. The interface is almost too simple, devoid of menus or track numbers; clearly designed for television producers used to working with keyboard shortcuts, it provides little obvious guidance for those coming from Premiere or similar editors. Right click on any window, however, and you'll see a list of keyboard shortcuts, as well as online help for that module. After a short while, the shortcuts become familiar, and you appreciate the interface uncluttered with menus and icons.

The file bin holds all clips and digital video effects (DVEs) for dragging into the storyboard or timeline. You right click on a video to reveal an edit properties window for performing clip-related edits like selecting in and out points, resizing and moving the clip for picture-in-picture (P-in-P) effects, compositing, color correction, and audio edits for fading in and out, panning, and other adjustments. This control is both powerful and simple to use, with a host of presets and useful configuration options.

For example, when inputting motion effects, you have three configurable locations—start, middle, and end—each with a host of presets. This makes it extraordinarily simple to pan an image from right to left, or zoom an image from full screen to a picture-in-picture in any quadrant.

You can copy and paste color correction and other filter settings from clip to clip, or merge a number of clips into a subproject and adjust them en masse. Subprojects can be saved non-destructively, so you can create standard segments like intros or conclusions for simple reuse in other projects. Or, you can open up multiple ToasterEdit windows and copy and paste between them.

In testing, we found we also liked the compositing controls, which will scan your video and automatically select between chroma and luma keying and select the background color. Then you can adjust the tolerance manually as well as edge smoothness. Though you can set keyframes for fading the composited video in and out of the background sequence, we missed Premiere's rubberband controls for transparency on the timeline—if you were in charge of fading Patrick Swayze in and out for the movie Ghost, you would definitely prefer Premiere.

Ditto for Premiere's audio rubberband controls, which we find more intuitive than dials and levers. That said, you can adjust the volume of any clip in real time in its properties window, or all clips in real time in the audio mixer.

Character Generation

ToasterCG, for character generation, is a very comprehensive titling utility though lacking the lovely templates available in Premiere 6.5. Text capabilities are very extensive, with the usual control over color, font size, shadow, and fill, and advanced controls over spacing, rotation, and width and height by character. Drawing tools are similarly extensive, including box, polygon, line, splines, and circles, so you can create very advanced graphics without resorting to a third-party program. Motion controls simplify scrolling and similar effects.

You can preview your work on the NTSC monitor, speeding color selection and precise placement, and output the result as either static graphic files or as actual video files. ToasterCD automatically inputs an alpha channel into still image or motion output files simplifying keying on the timeline.

Like Premiere, you can collapse sections of your timeline into subprojects. You can also save your subprojects for later inclusion into subsequent projects, and open up multiple instances of ToasterEdit, and copy and paste within them, enabling a level of subproject management unavailable in Premiere.

Render options are extensive, but don't include MPEG-1 or MPEG-2. High-volume producers will likely purchase a separate hardware encoder, but most smaller producers will end up outputting a separate AVI file for encoding within the authoring program, or a separate MPEG-2 encoder. At 22MB/sec per second, this could create some interesting storage problems, though you could use slower IDE drives for offloading and encoding, which are relatively cheap. There are some third-party solutions that can encode a VT2 project into MPEG-2, but they are far from seamless and only for very technical users.

The Bottom Line

What's this add up to? VT2 is clearly the hottest hardware we've reviewed to date, with true, real-time operation for every tested effect. From an interface perspective, however, the product can be challenging.

By modeling most components after their studio hardware equivalents, the product clearly favors those coming out of the television production environment. In addition, like most NewTek products, ToasterEdit has a bold, highly stylized interface that defies most design conventions, which complicates operation, at least at first.

For example, ToasterEdit is the only timeline we've ever seen without a scroll bar for moving around the production or simple visual controls for zooming in and out of the canvas. While keyboard controls for these operations may ultimately prove faster in the long run, they're certainly frustrating in the short term.

Overall, VT2 is clearly the easiest sell to producers who need real-time capabilities as well as non-linear editing, and the ability to produce flying logos and other animation type projects and video paint capabilities. It's also a natural for those working with a range for formats from Digital Betacam to DV to VHS.

On the other hand, VT2 is clearly overkill for most DVD and Web producers, and the interface is best-suited for consistent, rather than casual users. This makes it better-suited for professional videographers, rather than corporate departments with infrequent video projects.

NewTek, Inc. www.newtek.com

Minimum Machine Specifications: • Windows™ 2000 Service Pack 2 • Direct X 8.01 or higher • Intel 850 chipset-based motherboard or KT266a chipset motherboard • Pentium™ 4, 1.3gHz CPU or Athlon™ XP 1500 • 512MB PC800 RDRAM • 20 Gigabyte ATA-100 (7200rpm) System Drive • Adaptec 19160 Ultra-160 SCSI Controller Card • 4 Ultra-160 SCSI Drives (10,000 rpm) striped as Video RAID • nVidia GeForce 2 or Quadro2 Pro Graphics Card

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