Heard the Buz? Some Good-Priced Gadgets for the Spielberg in You

I don't expect to win an Emmy, but, thanks to a couple of reasonably priced gadgets, I've just produced some pretty good quality videos on my home PC.

Buz from Iomega (http://www.iomega.com) and Video Sphinx from FutureTel (http://www.futuretel.com) are combination hardware-software products that let you capture and edit video. Both require at least a 100-megahertz Pentium PC with 16 or more megabytes of memory. Iomega's Buz requires an internal PCI slot and a compatible video card. Sphinx plugs into your PC's parallel port. Unfortunately, it doesn't have a printer pass-through slot, so you have to disconnect your printer while using it.

These devices allow you to do nonlinear editing, which wasn't possible with older consumer video-editing products. That means that you import the video directly to your PC's hard disk and edit on the PC rather than on videotape. Professional nonlinear equipment used by TV stations can easily cost $50,000 or more. The Buz device sells for $195 and the Sphinx for $399. Both accept standard composite video and higher-quality S-Video.

Buz consists of two pieces of hardware: a board that you plug into a PCI slot on your desktop PC and an external connector box, with input and output sockets, that sits on your desk.

The board is both a video compression device and SCSI adapter that you can also use to connect external hard drives, scanners and other SCSI devices including Iomega's own Jaz and Zip drives. If you need a SCSI card anyway, the Buz package is an excellent value. The external Buz box has the necessary connectors to receive and send video and audio to a VCR or video recorder. But you can't use the device on a notebook computer. And to install the hardware, you must take apart your PC. The CD-ROM includes an easy-to-follow tutorial on this procedure.

The Sphinx is a single, small external device that plugs directly into your PC's parallel port. It doesn't require a slot, so there's no need to take apart your machine. This device does work on notebook computers.

Both have their pros and cons. Obviously, Sphinx is easier to install than Buz. But the Buz device allows you to record back to a VCR; the final product created by the Sphinx can be played back only on your computer, unless you have another device that lets you send computer images to a VCR. Sphinx software is easier to use; its files are more compact than those created by Buz, and it takes a lot less time to generate video files.

Buz provides higher-quality video output with far more options. In addition, Buz allows you to add some impressive special effects and transitions, including a variety of dissolves and wipes, titles and audio tracks.

It's no coincidence that Buz comes from the same company that makes the popular 100 MB Zip drive and 1- and 2-gigabyte Jaz drives. Anyone serious about using the PC for video editing is likely to soon be in the market for a high-capacity hard disk or a removable high-capacity storage system, such as Iomega's Jaz drive.

Video productions take up lots of disk space, but how much depends on a number of factors, including the quality of the final product and the type of compression used when digitizing analog data. In general, the higher the compression, the lower the quality. But even that depends on the form of compression used. Buz uses JPEG compression, which typically takes up about 100 megabytes to produce a reasonably good one-minute video. If you set the software to the highest possible quality, you'll eat up a whopping 180 megabytes of disk space for every minute of video.

Sphinx uses MPEG-1 compression, which is more efficient than JPEG. A one-minute video clip takes up about 10 megabytes. Buz can also save MPEG files, but converting from JPEG to MPEG is a time-consuming process.

The software that accompanies both devices gives you control over the quality level of the data you wish to capture as well as the sizes of your video window. Again, the higher the quality and the larger the windows, the more disk space required for the video file.

Using Buz to create a video was both fun and frustrating. On the fun side, it was a blast to be able to rearrange the video clips, insert titles and create my own special effects and transitions between frames. The end result was a surprisingly good video, considering my lack of both talent and experience with this medium.

On the frustrating side, it took me several hours of capturing, editing and tinkering to produce a five-minute piece. I now realize why professional video production is so expensive and time consuming. I started my project in midafternoon and, fortunately, I didn't have a producer pestering me for footage for the 6 o'clock news.

The Sphinx software was easier to use, but wasn't as versatile or fun because I couldn't create any special effects other than to combine and edit the raw footage into a video clip. The end result in terms of both the video and audio quality was excellent, but I was frustrated by my inability to save it to videotape.

A third product, Dazzle ($199 from Dazzle Multimedia, http://www.dazzlemultimedia.com), is an external device that plugs into a parallel port, however it does have a print pass-through socket. Like Sphinx, Dazzle saves files in MPEG-1, allowing for up to 10 minutes of video on a single Zip disk.

All three products can be used to capture still images from video and come with photo-editing software.


Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at magid@latimes.com. His Web site is at http://www.larrysworld.com

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