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Pinnacle Studio: Instant PC video
all you need to add is talent...

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PC video: a wide range of options...

It's been a while since we last looked at PC video options
(see our review of  Dazzle Video Creator ), and a lot has changed since then.  For a reasonably up to date computer system, there is a plethora of low cost yet effective ways to get involved with PC video editing.  In our ongoing pursuit of "push-button ease", we've tried a few of them.

Well, more than a few, actually.  The process of selecting the right combination is complicated by the wide range of options available and the interrelated dependencies thereof, all of which boils down to the standard PC question: what's going to work with what you have?  And, of course, the corollary question: what's going to work with what you want to use?

The variables in this equation are the usual suspects- existing equipment, current skills, and what you're aiming for.  With PC video, there's an added wrinkle in the convoluted path toward acquiring a working setup- the not so simple matter of personal taste.

Get the right software...

Video editing is sufficiently popular that Microsoft has bundled a basic application with Windows ME and both versions of XP.  In terms of hardware capability, any computer purchased with these installed is likely to be adequate for the task.  As with most OS bundled applications though, you'll probably want something more capable than the Microsoft "starter" software.

There's a bewildering array of offerings to choose from, with interfaces ranging from business-like and efficient to downright goofy.  Since we can generate a more than adequate supply of the latter on our own, we prefer the former when it comes to making a purchase.

Pinnacle Studio...

Among all the packages we've tried, the Studio series from Pinnacle Systems provides the flexibility, features, and usability we're looking for.

Though shaded, no doubt, by our experience with other packages, we found the Studio interface very intuitive, with the placement of options and commands pretty much where we'd expect them to be.

In contrast, many of the others seemed to have added certain features as an afterthought, wedging them into an existing package anywhere they'd fit, sometimes buried deep in a menu tree or lurking behind an inscrutable icon.

Not that the Studio interface is perfect of course, but it's been arranged with an eye for usability, with the common functions more accessible and sequentially arranged.  The clean, uncluttered result is a relief after some of the non-linear "post modernist" (to put it charitably) interfaces we've seen on this type of software.

The only rough spot we encountered on our initial run was the output selection dialogue for Internet bound productions, which seemed to favor Real Player over Windows Media.  Closer examination revealed most of the Windows Media options concealed behind an "advanced" button.

This isn't really surprising, since our version (seven) came bundled with Real Player.  It was, thankfully, an optional install, and we declined.  Like AOL, RealNetworks is too aggressive for our tastes, taking the notion of "push" content to extremes.

Aside from web bound output, Studio offers the usual choices including MPEG, AVI, DVD or CD video, and (with the right hardware), the not-so-usual choice of output to analogue or digital video tape.

Professional video...

Pinnacle's main business is producing tools for professional video production, a business in which they've earned several Emmy awards.  The Studio software includes a large assortment of impressive transitions and effects, with even more available as an "add-in" option.

Beyond your basic slice and splice, Studio offers a lot of control over the video itself, with the ability to adjust brightness, contrast, tint, intensity, and more.  You can easily extract or insert still photo's, add titles, voice-overs, music, and more.  The software will even create background music in your choice of styles.

Compared to everything else we've seen, the editing controls are very precise and relatively easy to use.  Impressively, the cost of the Studio package is competitive with much less capable titles.

Start to finish...

Studio is a "start to finish" video environment, designed to capture, edit, and output your project.  Unlike MGI's VideoWave (which would be our second choice), it does not support a wide range of import options for existing digitized video.  Studio recognises only the AVI format. 

If you want to use existing MPEG or other format sequences, you would need a way to convert them first to AVI, and Studio does not provide this function.  This is not necessarily a problem though, as AVI is a standard output option for many programs, including Ulead's GIF animator.

The Studio package (software only) works with a wide range of capture hardware, including internally mounted PCI cards, USB, or FireWire equipment.

Although the "Help" files are remarkably complete, there's nothing like a printed manual for mastering complex software.

We particularly like the full printed manual (not included in the USB "Studio LT" version), which explains not only the software and its operation, but provides a primer on the basics of good video production, from planning scenes to avoiding common amateur mistakes.

A variety of packages...

Pinnacle Studio comes in several flavors.  The right one for you depends on your equipment.  If you already have a means of transferring video to your computer, the software only version is likely to work with what you have.

These could take the form of a dedicated video capture card, a USB connected video capture device, web cam, or one of the many TV tuner cards currently available.

Naturally, the quality and resolution of your video depends on the quality of the source video, and the capability of the hardware capture device.

For quality and maximum flexibility, the internally mounted dedicated capture cards are by far the best.  If your computer has an available PCI slot, and you're comfortable with adding or changing internal components, we strongly recommend this route.

Although we have several capture devices, we chose the Studio AV package, which includes a PCI video input/output card designed to work with an analogue style video source such as VHS or High 8.

For a digital video camera, there's a DV version with an IEE 1394 (FireWire) input/output card included.

In the bargain basement, you can get a "light" version of Studio bundled with a USB analogue input gadget that works pretty well if you're just starting out and not prepared to open your computer or invest in the more complete packages.

Finally, if you're starting to get serious, there's a combination version which accommodates both analogue and digital and includes a handy "breakout box" to simplify connections of a variety of input/output options.

Any of these will capture and digitize your video complete with sound, so it's a matter of choosing what will best fit your source and your budget.

System requirements

Our computers are on the floor beneath the desk, and although we often pull them out for one reason or another, we didn't want to have to do so every time we wanted to transfer video from our camera.

We set up a VCR with front-mounted AV inputs and connected it to the Pinnacle card, making it a simple matter to attach our High 8 camera and double up utility, transferring High 8 to VHS at the same time we digitize it.

It's installed on an XP system, and although the capture card drivers provoked an XP warning about possible incompatibility, they've worked as they ought to.

Ours is a one GHz Pentium III, with 512 MB RAM, far above the nominal system requirements.  We're generally satisfied with Studio's speed and performance, but only after we'd bumped our original 256 MB to its current level.  Part of this is no doubt a function of XP's demand for hardware, but it's obvious that software of this type functions best when it has an adequate hardware environment.

Pinnacle recommends, at minimum, a 300 MHz Pentium II with 64 MB RAM, and strongly suggests 128 MB.  We'd suggest double this for Windows 98/ME, and no less than 256 MB for an XP installation.

More information

For more information about Studio, visit the   Pinnacle Systems Web Site.

Version eight

We've reviewed Version 7, and are looking forward to the release of version eight (early August, 2002).  While supplies last, the "software only" package is selling at a ridiculously steep discount at Amazon (link below).  With Pinnacle's upgrade pricing, it's a good deal.  If you want a bundled capture card, we'd suggest waiting for eight to hit the shelves.


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