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Four Ways to Compress to H.264 with Elgato's Turbo.264

by Erica Sadun

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.

Is the Turbo.264 Right for You?

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.

Turbo.264 Graphics Accelerator
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.

The Turbo.264 offers four export options
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.

Turbo.264 compression with Handbrake
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.

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