Do you own an older or underpowered Macintosh? Is converting video for playback on your iPod, Apple TV, or even PSP just asking too much from your system? Elgato's new $100 Turbo.264 may be the solution you've been looking for. It's a graphics co-processor in the form of a USB dongle. Insert it in a spare USB slot, install the software, and the Turbo.264 offloads video compression from your computer.
The Turbo.264 frees up your CPU cycles and speeds up compression by a factor of two to ten times, depending on the base speed of your Mac. In this article, you'll discover whether the Turbo.264 is right for you and, if so, how to use it for your video compression needs using four handy compression methods.
Sometimes, products cross your path that you never knew you needed or could use until you actually stumble upon them. If compressing video is a slow and arduous process for you, the Elgato's new Turbo.264 may be of help. It speeds up video exports to the MPEG-4 H.264 format. That's the video format used by iPods and Apple TV, not to mention PlayStation Portables, as well. Turbo.264 allows you to convert your videos faster, with less time waiting and fussing between videos and without all the burden on your main CPU. If you regularly perform a lot of video conversions--for example, if you own an EyeTV tuner, which records using MPEG-2 and you want to play those recordings back on other Apple devices--then the $100 Turbo.264 will save you both time and overhead.
Figure 1. The Turbo.264 Graphics Accelerator is a USB dongle that you plug in to your Macintosh. It offloads video compression tasks from your main processor, speeding up compression and freeing your CPU for other work.
The product works by installing a new component into your /Library/QuickTime folder (
Elgato Turbo.component). If you're using a QuickTime-compatible program, you can export video using the T.264 processor instead of your main CPU. This speeds up exports from both QuickTime and from QuickTime-supporting programs like iMovie. Simply select one of the preset Elgato Turbo.264 export options (See Figure 2).
Alternatively, you can drag a movie into the standalone Turbo.264 application, drop it into the compression queue, and wait for it to process. With this queue, you don't have to wait for each file to finish compressing before you can start the next. Just add several files at once, or wait and add more files later while the first ones are compressing.
Figure 2: The Turbo.264 offers four export options: Movie to Apple TV, to iPod (both low 320x240 and high 640x480), and to PSP. Select these from the export dialog of any QuickTime-compatible video application.
As with any product, there are tradeoffs. For example, the Turbo.264 trades speed for size. Converting my copy of the "Serenity" movie DVD to Apple TV format took only three hours with T.264 versus five hours with Handbrake on my 1.66 GHz Intel Core Duo Mac Mini with 1 GB memory. (Expect far more dramatic speed gains with older, slower Macs.) The T.264-generated file occupied 2 GB of disk space compared to only 1.38 GB used by the Handbrake-generated file. An iPod conversion of the "Fruity Oaty Bars" featurette showed a similar compression scaling. The T.264 version was 18 MB in size, the Handbrake version just 13 MB. Figure 3 compares the quality of the output from the "Serenity" movie.
Figure 3: Comparing the results of the Turbo.264 compression (top) with Handbrake compression (bottom). Handbrake took more time to compress but produced finer details and a less fuzzy overall look.
Configurability is another tradeoff. With programs like MPEG Streamclip and Handbrake, users can tweak video settings to produce output that best suits their needs. The Turbo.264 offers essentially no configurability. You drop off the video, you select a destination format (iPod, Apple TV or PSP), and that's pretty much it. The Turbo.264 uses its own presets. You don't get a lot of bells and whistles (e.g., subtitle support is noticeably missing), but you do get a fast workhorse that can speed your video exports.
Also, since the unit is still new to market, it still has a few bugs in the early releases. For example, it refuses to play nicely with my SimpleTech USB drive. I can use my hard drive or the Turbo.264, but not both. Elgato is working on correcting this problem.
Most Elgato EyeTV tuners record video using the raw MPEG-2 transport streams they pick up from the cable company and from over-the-air transmissions. This video cannot be played back directly on iPods or Apple TV. You need to convert the video to H.264 to make it compatible with these devices. EyeTV works seamlessly with Turbo.264 to create a PVR bridge that brings your recorded video to your iPod or Apple TV in the fastest possible way.
When you tell EyeTV to record a TV show, you can also direct it to compress that video to either AppleTV or iPod format after recording and automatically add it to your iTunes library. Once the program records and compresses, it appears on your device after the next sync, and you don't have to perform any further work. Here's how to make this happen.
When EyeTV detects a Turbo.264 unit on your system, it automatically exports using the T.264, rather than using QuickTime. (You can tell because the export bars turn red instead of blue.) The export speeds up significantly, an important feature when you're recording more than one show in a single evening. It still takes time. If you want to watch your recorded shows right away, either buy a TiVo or hook up your computer to your TV so you can watch them directly as they record using EyeTV.
Figure 4: You must set up an "Export to" request for each recording that you schedule in EyeTV. Select from iPod or Apple TV, and choose an optional iTunes Playlist to add your recording to.
Elgato does not provide a decrypting component in its Turbo.264 software. That means, for the most part, you cannot use it to directly rip your personal DVD collection to a form you can use on your iPod or Apple TV. Fortunately, there is a simple and easy way around this. To save you a lot of work, let me jump right to the punch line. You don't need to rip first and compress later (using a program like Mac The Ripper), instead you can bypass the whole rip-then-compress-process by using the fabulous FairMount tool from Metakine.
FairMount (Figure 5) is part of the MetaKine DVDRemaster download. It allows you to insert a DVD into your Macintosh and treat it as if it were not encrypted. The utility forwards the DVD data to the Videolan Client (VLC) Media Player (which must be installed for FairMount to work) and uses VLC to decrypt the data. The DVD appears on your desktop, and you can open it, play it, and rip it as if it were unencrypted.
Note: Please limit your use of FairMount and the information in this article to ripping your own DVDs for your own personal use.
Figure 5: FairMount allows you to mount encrypted DVDs and use them as if they were unencrypted.
To perform the compression, open the DVD icon on your desktop, select a VOB file from the VIDEO_TS folder, and drag it into the standalone Turbo.264 application (Figure 6). In two or three hours for most commercial DVDs, you'll have converted the data to an iPod or Apple TV friendly format. This is especially great for trips.
Figure 6: To rip and convert a DVD using FairMount, just drag a VOB file from the DVD into the Turbo.264 software and compress it.
If you author your own videos, you'll be pleased to discover that you can export using Turbo.264 directly from iMovie and Final Cut. That means the distance between your home video camera and your friends and family's Apple TVs just got a lot shorter. Here are the steps you need to take in iMovie to produce H.264 video.
Figure 7: In iMovie, share your movie using Expert settings to access the Turbo.264 options.
Although the iPod and Apple TV live in an H.264 world, many of our friends and colleagues live in the WMV and AVI-centric Windows world. The Turbo.264 software can make your life a lot easier when you want to view material you've received in these formats on your Apple TV or iPod. Here's how:
The Turbo.264 compressor will convert practically any video you can open and play back in QuickTime. So, to make QuickTime speak the most "international tongues," you need to install two key items: Perian and Flip4Mac. Perian is the self-described Swiss Army knife of QuickTime components. It's free and open source and provides QuickTime components that play back most popular media types including AVI, DivX, and Xvid. Flip4Mac is the free QuickTime component that provides WMV playback.
By installing these two components, you allow QuickTime to access and read the widest range of video formats. And once QuickTime can read them, Turbo.264 can convert them, either directly, by exporting from QuickTime Player or by dropping them into the Turbo.264 standalone compression application. Not only will you be able to convert a wide range of video formats, the Turbo.264 allows you to convert them fast. You'll be able to place shift and time shift these videos, playing them back on the Apple device of your choice.
In this article, you saw several ways to use the Turbo.264 to move video to an iPod/Apple TV-friendly format: by recording your own shows, by ripping DVDs, by compressing your video compositions from your favorite editor, and by converting files you've received from friends and colleagues. The Turbo.264 allows you to leverage each of these video sources to produce H.264 video quickly and simply. Elgato's Turbo.264 video compression co-processor frees up your Mac's CPU, speeds up your video conversions, and provides an inexpensive way to get your video into H.264 format. Sure, there are trade-offs, but for a $100 gadget, it can save you a lot of time and let you focus on the most important part of video: watching and enjoying it in the place you choose.
Erica Sadun has written, co-written, and contributed to almost two dozen books about technology, particularly in the areas of programming, digital video, and digital photography.
Return to macdevcenter.com.
Copyright © 2009 O'Reilly Media, Inc.