The software even automatically moves converted files into iTunes if you'd like
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
Elgato USB device speeds up video conversion

Sept. 23, 2007

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2007, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2007, The Post-Standard

   It's great to be able to take your own video without spending a lot of money on a camcorder. As I reported last week when I reviewed a new Samsung camera, you can now buy a camera that does a good job taking both photos and videos.
   But still pictures don't take up the kind of space that videos do. It's as if the people who make video cameras are holding hands with the folks who make hard drives -- sell a camera, get an order for a bigger hard drive on the way out.
   This isn't just a minor problem. I can store 400 digital photos in the same space that a single hour-long video takes up. What's that, you say? Store them on CD-R disks? I've got scores of videos that are all too big to fit on a CD-R.
   It's discouraging. But rather than letting it get me down, I've been looking into ways of squeezing my videos so they take up less space -- a LOT less space. My goal is reduce most of my videos to 10 percent of their former girth. That would let me turn a 300-megabyte (MB) video into a 30MB file.
   I wish I could say I've been successful. In a few cases, I actually have hit that goal. But the problem, as you might suspect, isn't just making video files smaller. That's easy to do. You simply find software that will turn your full-screen VGA movies into teeny videos the size of your thumbnail.
   The real difficulty comes when you want to make the files a lot smaller without losing quality -- when you need to take that 200MB video of Jason's birthday party and turn it into a 15MB version.
   Is this possible? Is the Pope Polish?
   Oops. Forget that. But you can, indeed, trim those videos easily with the right software. As I discovered recently, you can even get a little help from hardware.
   Let me explain. A trick called video compression is the secret to making video files smaller without reducing the picture quality -- or, well, without reducing the quality very much. Any time you compress a video to make the file smaller, you lose details here and there. That's the way it goes.
   My usual choices for video-compression programs are Magic Video Converter (www.magic-video-software.com) and Blaze Media Pro (www.blazemp.com), both for Windows, and VisualHub (www.techspansion.com/visualhub) for the Mac. VisualHub is especially well designed.
   But those three programs tax my computers when they're working hard. All the work is done in software, and video compression is tough stuff.
   But not any more. A company called Elgato Systems (www.elgato.com) has come up with a tiny USB device that plugs into your Mac and handles all the work of video conversion and compression. There's a software interface with a cool design, but the heavy lifting is handled by the USB thingie.
   The thingie -- is there a better term for such, um, thingies? -- is called the Turbo.264 and costs $99. It's about four times faster than using software alone, so the price is reasonable considering all the time you'll save. (And if you do video conversion commercially, you'd be wise to pick up the Turbo.264, since it handles all the conversion tasks within professional programs, too.)
   I found it delightful. I like the way it shows the video frame by frame as it processes each file, and the software even automatically moves converted files into iTunes if you'd like. If a perfect hardware device rates 100 on my usual scale, I'd have to give this a 101.