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TV on Your PC:
    Pinnacle Studio PCTV-USB (4/2000)

    by Douglas Dixon


So, are you ready to dive in and start doing digital video on your PC? Then the big question for you is how to get video into your computer: what kind of video capture hardware to buy. Do you need full video quality, at full resolution and full rate, or just lower-resolution video for PC or Web viewing? Do you want to capture from an analog device like a 8mm camcorder or VHS VCR, or do you have a new DV or Digitasl8 digital camcorder? Do you just want to edit audio and video productions, or would you like to watch TV and listen to FM radio too? Finally, are you willing to open up your PC to install an internal PCI board, or would you rather just hook up an external box to the PC's parallel or USB port?

A good way to make sense of these alternatives is to look at the "Studio" product line from Pinnacle Systems, which offers six different products across this range of alternatives. Pinnacle ( is a leading developer of post-production tools, and has grown further with its recent acquisitions of the MiroVideo and Truevision Targa products. Besides its Studio consumer product line, Pinnacle also has a broad line of desktop products for video capture and editing and digital video effects, and a growing line of broadcast products for post-production, on-air broadcast, and video servers.

In this article, we'll look at the Pinnacle Studio products as examples of different approaches to adding video to your PC. We'll highlight some of the special features of the Pinnacle products, including hardware compression, "SmartCapture" for "preview" quality editing, and the Studio video editing software application. Then we'll look in detail at the Pinnacle Studio PCTV-USB product, a fun and inexpensive ($99) product for editing PC-resolution video that is not only easy to install, but also lets you watch TV and listen to FM radio right on your PC.

Pinnacle Studio Product Line

The Pinnacle Studio consumer product line includes two full-resolution PCI video cards for analog and DV, two parallel port capture devices, and two PC TV viewing products. For full-resolution full-rate video processing, Pinnacle offers PCI cards for both analog and digital, a Motion-JPEG PCI board for analog capture (Studio DC10 Plus, $229 retail) and a FireWire / 1394 PCI board for Digital Video camcorders (Studio DV, $199).

For easier installation without needing to open up your PC, Pinnacle offers two parallel port capture boxes, a PC-resolution analog capture box (Studio MP10, $269), and an analog tape-to-tape editor (Studio 400, $129). Finally, for both video editing and viewing TV on your PC, Pinnacle also offers two products: a PCI board for TV viewing (Studio PCTV, $69), and a USB device with TV and FM radio at PC resolution (Studio PCTV-USB, $99).

Throughout its Studio product line, Pinnacle offers some clever features to make its products more useful and to provide better capabilities within the limitations of consumer PC's. For example, the analog capture products support both composite and S-Video input formats to provide better quality, and many also provide audio input for better control than provided by a generic sound card. Most also provide analog video output for recording the final edited production to video tape, so you can share it with friends and families without a PC.

To help reduce the video data bandwidth, and therefore increase the resolution and frame rate, the Studio products incorporate different varieties of hardware compression. Depending on the needs of the target market, the compression formats include MPEG-1, Motion-JPEG, and Intel Indeo. Each product then has different requirements for the PC system performance and available disk space for storing many minutes of video.

Another cleaver approach to reducing disk space requirements used in the Studio 400 and Studio DV products is the Pinnacle "SmartCapture" technology. These products capture the entire input video in "preview" quality for editing, at lower resolution and lower frame rate (i.e., 160 x 120 resolution at 15 frames per second). This reduces the data storage requirements to only around 150 MB for an hour of video. You can then edit the video at this lower quality, and then create the final production by re-accessing only the required clips of the original video at full quality.

Finally, the Studio products are bundled with a good collection of application software, including Pinnacle's own Studio consumer video editor, TitleDeko titling software, and Sonic Desktop SmartSound music generator. Many also include Microsoft NetMeeting for video conferencing, RealNetworks RealProducer for creating streaming Web video output, and support for creating MPEG-1 PC videos.

Studio DC10 Plus: PCI Motion-JPEG Full-Res Video Board


If you want to work with full-resolution video, then you need a powerful PC with enough processing power, bus speed, and disk bandwidth to handle lots of digital video data. Even just one full-size video frame is around 1 MB, and video keeps on flowing frames at 30 frames per second. To feed these kinds of data rates into a PC, you need to use a PCI board which plugs in to the PC's internal bus.

The Pinnacle Studio DC10 Plus ($229 retail) is an internal PCI analog capture board for full-resolution full-motion video capture from analog sources like 8mm camcorders and VHS VCR's. It uses the Motion-JPEG compression format to squeeze the input video down to somewhat manageable sizes for a powerful PC, with a maximum data rate of 6 MB per second. After you finish editing your video, you can also output it back to analog recorders like a camcorder or VCR.

With the M-JPEG compression, you can capture full-size frames (up to 640 x 480), at full video rate (30 frames / 60 fields). The M-JPEG compression rate is selectable from as little as 3:1 up to 100:1. Pinnacle estimates that every 10 minutes of captured video requires 400 MB to 3.6 GB of disk space.

Studio DV: PCI DV FireWire / 1394 Board


Once you move from analog video capture to a new DV (Digital Video) or Digital8 camcorder, then you need a different kind of video capture card, with FireWire / 1394 (also called iLINK) digital connectors instead of analog video jacks. The Pinnacle Studio DV ($199) is internal PCI DV interface board. It provides 1394 ports for controlling your DV or Digital8 camcorder, capturing video and audio from your digital camcorder to your PC for editing, and also transferring the video back from your PC to the camcorder to save the final edited production.

Even though DV is a compressed format, storing video in DV format still requires a lot of space. DV format is 740 x 480 resolution and 30 frames per second, and around 240 MB per minute. The Studio DV uses the Pinnacle SmartCapture approach for working around this problem: It captures the video in "preview" quality to save disk space for editing, requiring only around 150 MB for an hour of video. After you finish editing, Studio DV then recaptures only the clips needed for the final production at full quality. Pinnacle estimates that every 20 minutes of "preview" video requires 50 MB of disk space, and every 20 minutes of the final production requires 4 GB.

Studio MP10: Parallel MPEG-1 Video & Audio


While internal PCI cards offer the highest data rates for feeding video into your PC, they can be a pain to install and configure, and your PC may not have an available slot anyway. The easiest way to hook up to a PC is through an external port, like parallel or USB, but the reduced data rate makes these appropriate only for lower-resolution lower-rate video for PC presentations or Web use. An external video capture box can be enhanced with hardware compression to support higher resolution or faster frame rates.

Parallel ports are still used mostly for printers, but have been extended over the years to provide two-way communication and higher data rates. The problem with parallel interfaces is that your parallel port is typically already in use for your printer (and maybe also a scanner), so you may need to swap devices, or make sure you get a device that has a pass-through connection to hook up your printer at the same time. Even so, parallel ports were really not designed for sharing in this way, so your system needs to be configured properly, and still can get confused if you try to do more than one thing at a time with it.

Pinnacle Studio MP10 ($269 retail) provides an easy way to work with "TV-quality" and Web-resolution video from analog sources like a camcorder. This is a MPEG-1 compression box that connects to your PC's parallel port, so you do not have to open up your case and mess with installing a board. With its half-resolution capture size (352 x 240 and 176 x 112 resolution, up to 30 frames per second) and MPEG-1 compression, it can store an hour of video in around 650 MB of disk space.

The Studio MP10 also includes analog video and audio output, so you can save your edited video back to analog camcorders and VCR's. On output, it uses a MPEG-1 hardware decoder to filter the video up to 720 x 480 resolution. Pinnacle estimates that every 10 minutes of captured video requires 100 - 200 MB of disk space.

Studio 400: Parallel Tape-to-Tape Editing


Another approach to video editing is to not build the final production in digital form on your PC, but to edit from tape to tape, as in professional video editing studios. The way the professionals do this is to create an edit list of all the material and effects to be used in the production, and then have the editing system execute the edit list using computer-controlled frame-accurate professional VCR's.

The Pinnacle Studio 400 system ($129) applies the same concept to consumer video equipment. It uses the Pinnacle SmartCapture technology to capture low-resolution video for editing without filling up your hard disk, and then executes the resulting edit list on the analog video by copying between an input camcorder and an output VCR.

The Studio 400 includes a "SmartCable" device that connects to the PC's serial port and controls a camcorder and a VCR using standard interfaces or remote control signals. It also includes a "Studio Mixer" module that connects to the PC's parallel port, with analog composite and S-Video inputs and outputs. In Capture mode, the Studio Mixer captures low-resolution video for editing. In Make Tape mode, the Studio Mixer passes the input video on to the output recorder, and applies title, graphics, and transition effects at full video resolution.

The input video is captured at 160 x 120 resolution at 15 frames per second, and compressed in the Intel Indeo format. Pinnacle estimates that a half hour of captured video requires only 75 to 150 MB of disk space.

Studio PCTV: PCI TV / Video Board


The Pinnacle Studio PCTV ($69) is a low-cost PCI analog video capture board with an integrated 125-channel cable-ready TV tuner. It lets you watch TV in a window while you are working on your PC, or turns your PC into a VCR by recording TV shows (if you have the disk space to store them). You can also use it for videoconferencing over the Internet.

The Studio PCTV is a flexible capture device. It has inputs for antenna, composite, and S-Video, so it can capture from any source, including broadcast TV, cable, camcorders, and VCR's. It can capture at up to 640 x 480 resolution, depending on your PC's capabilities. You can save edited video in a variety of formats, including MPEG movies and streaming Web video.



The new USB (Universal Serial Bus) interface provided on recent PC's provides a wonderful opportunity for hooking up a video capture device, without the complexity of opening your system to install a board, or the hassle of trying to chain multiple parallel port devices. USB is fast enough to support interesting PC-resolution video. It is also is a lot more convenient to use: it was explicitly designed for sharing multiple devices, you can plug in and remove devices while the PC is running, and it even provides power, so that small devices do not need a separate power supply.

The Pinnacle Studio PCTV-USB ($199) is perhaps the easiest to use and most fun way to get started with PC video. It's relatively easy to install since it uses the USB port, although it does require Windows 98 as a result. It includes both a 125-channel cable-ready TV tuner, and a FM radio tuner. It captures up to 320 x 240 resolution, and can save still frames and video sequences in standard Windows formats. It supports video and audio input from a variety of sources, with input connectors for TV (broadcast or cable), radio antenna, composite and S-Video video (for desktop cameras, camcorders, and VCR's), and audio. It also has TV video and audio outputs.

        Studio PCTV-USB Unit

Studio PCTV-USB Installation

The theory with USB is that it makes installation easy, especially because Windows 98 has built-in support for USB devices. To install the Studio PCTV-USB, you just plug the USB cable in to your PC (it doesn't even need a power supply), and Windows automatically detects the new device and prompts for the driver on the Pinnacle CD-ROM. Unfortunately, this theory can still fail in practice: My test installation on a new laptop ran fine, but the install on an older upgraded machine failed, and Windows then would hang during the boot process if the USB cable was plugged in. After fiddling with re-installing, the Studio PCTV-USB eventually worked fine, as long as it was plugged in after Windows was running.

The Pinnacle CD-ROM also includes TV viewing and video editing application software, and a great PCTV Assistant test application that is run automatically after you finish the installation. The Assistant checks that all the necessary driver and application software files have been installed, and verifies that the software can communicate with the PCTV-USB hardware. It also includes a wonderful test to verify that you have the necessary DirectX drivers for your graphics card, so that it can display the input video signal overlaid in a window at your current screen resolution and format.

Studio PCTV-USB Software

The Studio PCTV software applications include the PCTV Vision application for watching TV, the PCTV Radio application for listening to FM radio, and the Studio video editor application.

PCTV Vision works with cable or a broadcast antenna, and will auto-scan to find the available channels. It also has a cool "surf" feature to display a 4 x 4 grid of thumbnails of each block of 16 channels. While watching TV, you can grab single frames, and capture a video sequence with the VCR controls. You can also grab video from a camcorder or VCR through the video input jacks.


PCTV Vision: Live TV, Surf thumbnails, Composite input

PCTV Radio provides controls for playing and recording audio from FM broadcast radio. You can auto-scan to set up the station list, assign stations to presets, and record and play back audio clips.

        PCTV Radio 

The Pinnacle Studio video editor is common across all the Studio products. It provides both storyboard and timeline views for stepping through the video editing process: laying out and trimming cuts, adding transitions and titles, adding sound effects and background music, and finally creating the final movie production and outputting to a file or video tape. The Studio software uses Microsoft DirectShow and DirectX graphics and audio card drivers for real-time editing previews and to bypass the file size limitations of the old Video for Windows architecture.

        Studio Editor: Capture and detect scene cuts

The most impressive capability of the Studio video editor is that it automatically detects scene cuts in the input video, as the video is being captured. If you simply grabbed an hour of video with another capture program, you would then be stuck with one very long file, which you would then have to manually search through to try to divide it up into logical groups for editing. Instead, the Studio editor scans through the input video for scene changes, and automatically generates separate clips for each scene, so that you can immediately get to work organizing and trimming the individual scenes.


      Edit Step, Drag scene clips onto Storyboard      Edit / Trim Clip, with Timeline view below

Getting Started

If you are interested in getting started with video on your PC, the Pinnacle Studio product line is a good place to start to understand the range of options available. If you want full-resolution full-rate video, then you need a PCI card. If you have a new DV digital camcorder, then you need a 1394 / FireWire card. If you have an older PC, then you may need a parallel-port device.

But the Studio PCTV-USB offers perhaps the most fun and inexpensive way get started. You can grab and edit video from your camcorder and VCR, at PC and Web resolutions up to 320 x 240. Plus, you can watch TV and listen to FM radio on your PC, and even record from them. And you can use the Studio video editor to create your own productions, and save them in MPEG and streaming Web video formats. Not bad for $99!


Pinnacle Systems