Video compression has come a long way from the days of using Cinepak on a Quadra 950 tower and the old NuBus slots. For the most part, the wars between online formats has been settled with Flash leading the way. But behind that Flash Player is often H.264 encoded video, ever since it was introduced with Flash 9 in December of 2007. Even video powerhouse YouTube is pushing out H.264 video wrapped in a flash player. If that’s not enough, one of the officially supported video formats for Blu-ray is H.264.
So from on-line video (SD or HD) to high end Blu-ray DVD’s, h.264 is a huge player. It’s all good, right? Well, mostly. Have you ever compressed an h.264 video file? It can be unbearably long. We first started running into this bottleneck when we switched from doing mpeg-1 client web approvals (something that was very fast to compress and widely compatible) to h.264. We switched mainly because we wanted to post high resolution web approvals for our clients at higher quality, and MPEG-1 just wasn’t cutting it. H.264 really filled that need. But even a shorter video, say 10-15 minutes could take 60-90 minutes to compress on a Quad Intel MacPro, and some of our videos are more in the 30 minute range. If you have the time, leaving it running overnight is no big deal, but most of the time we’re doing these web approvals close to 5 or 6pm and they needed to be posted and sent to the client that same day. Waiting around just to finish a web post feels like a waste of time (although we did minimize this to some degree using LogMeIn as covered in my previous post).
After hearing others brag about how great it was, we finally decided to try the “to good to be true” Turbo.264 USB key from Elgato (the non-HD version). I really fought it because I had a hard time believing that a little USB key could do what my huge expensive multi-processor MacPro could not. But also because it did not integrate with Compressor, which is part of our workflow. For the price though, we decided to give it a try.
For what you end up paying, the Turbo.264 does a pretty good job. It is FAST for sure, and the output is not too bad, but it’s not perfect either. It gave us the speed that we wanted, but not the quality. One of the main reasons it’s able to do what it does so fast is that the very first thing that’s done is resize the video frame, and then pass it off to the USB key for processing. This is key, because the rest of the processing is done on a lower resolution frame instead of working with the original uncompressed frame. Great for speed, but not optimal for quality. But for many people, this might just do the trick depending on your needs and budget. You end up seeing compression artifacts in places that you wouldn’t when using compressor with similar settings, typically areas of fast movement, effects or dissolves. But it did take care of the time bottleneck that we were having. So we decided to sacrifice some quality for the sake of actually getting home on time but continued to look for other options.