Pinnacle Video Transfer
PC-free H.264 video encoding
Review Gadgets now capable of playing video have left owners are hungry for content. Folk with large VHS tape collections want to digitise them, just like vinyl. Two problems, one solution, says Avid offshoot Pinnacle: its Video Transfer standalone H.264 encoder.
Pinnacle's Video Transfer: one-touch, PC-less H.264 encoding
The Video Transfer is a handsome black unit that's a bit bigger than an iPod Touch and about as twice as thick. At one end are the inputs: stereo audio and composite-video RCA jacks - white, red and yellow - and an s-video port. Pinnacle includes a composite cable, but you'll need buy an s-video lead separately. The box also includes a Scart-to-composite adaptor.
The other end of the Video Transfer is home to the power connector - it's driven by a small AC adaptor - and a pair of USB 2.0 ports, though one is "reserved for future expansion" and doesn't work.
The working USB port is ready for connection to any storage device with a suitable adaptor: a hard drive, a Flash key even an iPod or PSP connected through an appropriate cable and formatted to the FAT32 file system. The Video Transfer is smart enough to know what it's connected to and configure its settings depending on whether you've selected Good, Better or Best for the video quality.
The top of the Video Transfer sports a silver circle that's a two-way switch. Press the top to start and stop recording. Push the bottom to set the recording mode. Each category of device - iPod, PSP or generic storage unit - has three different versions of the Good, Better and Best pre-sets, selected by pressing the Mode button once, twice or three times in a row. A set of three blue LEDs below the Mode button indicate which one you've selected.
With a PSP connected, for example, the resolution remains 320 x 240 no matter what, so improving the quality simply ups the audio and video encoding bit-rates. Using an iPod, Good and Better run at 320 x 240, but Best is 640 x 480 - again, audio and video bit-rates rise as you step up from one mode to the next.
The only controls: two switches under the silver ring
The best possible resolution is only achieved when you connect a storage device: select Best quality and the resolution is set at 720 x 576 in the PAL world or 720 x 480 in North America and other countries that use the NTSC standard. But the overall video encoding rate is 1.5Mb/s - the same as the Best iPod mode.
With the source connected to the destination through the Video Transfer, it's just a matter of hitting the source's Play button and the Video Transfer's Rec key then leaving them to get on with it.
The Video Transfer generates its H.264-encoded .MP4 files in real time, so it's not the quickest encoding system but at least it's not tying up your computer while it's in action. Once you set it going, all you need to do is remember to go an switch it off again.
Ready for standard-definition input
So is the simplicity of operation matched with quality recording? Unfortunately, not entirely, no.
First, we connected the Video Transfer to our Humax P9200T DVR and a USB hard drive. Starting and stopping the recordings was effortless. The sound quality was spot on.
Better quality (640 x 480): check out the jaggies, which weren't seen at other quality settings
Click for full-size image
All three modes generated smooth-playing files, but the Better, 640 x 480 transfer was spoiled by prominent jaggies. The Best and Good pictures lacked this, though neither was as crisp as the Freeview-transmitted source material thanks to a heavy compression.
Another big issue for us was the Video Transfer's inability to sense the source's widescreen aspect ratio. In each case, the image captured was the broadcast anamorphic 4:3 ratio, which a widescreen TV automatically stretches to 16:9 to fill the screen. Because the Video Transfer doesn't do this, characters on screen appeared stretched vertically.
Pinnacle may be pitching the unit at folk with VHS tapes they want to digitise, all of which will be 4:3 ratio, but since it also talks about how the Video Transfer can be used to generate content from other sources for portable media player use, not being able to deal with all the DVD and broadcast material configured for widescreen TVs is something of a handicap.
We next set the Video Transfer to work on some 4:3 source material. This time we tried it hooked up to a DVD player and used discs of filmed content and footage videotaped in the studio. Once again, the Best, 640 x 480 picture showed jaggies. Ironically, this actually helped minimise the very obvious interlacing artefacts seen on the Better-quality picture produced from video material.
Good quality (320 x 240): small but artefact free - ideal for iPods, etc.
Note the overscan: the 320 x 240 picture is padded with black to 350 x 240
Filmed content was fine, the quality hindered only by the high level of compression and the use of composite video. Despite the greater number of pixels packed into Best quality, Good produced the crispest picture because shrinking the picture minimised the impact of the compression, interlacing and other artefacts.
Indeed, copy any of the transfers to a portable media player, and the viewing is better than it is on a computer or TV screen. Scaling them down takes the edge off the quality limitations seen at the higher resolutions. So while you might not want to use the Video Transfer to digitise material for viewing on a large screen - or copying to DVD - it is worth consideration as an accessory for a handheld viewer.
The Video Transfer is a good way of generating 'quick and dirty' transfers of movies and TV shows for playback on an iPod, PSP or other portable media device. Pinnacle's done a very good job of making the process simple, straightforward and PC-free. Only the quality of the encoding - and the lack of widescreen support - lets it down. Stick to 320 x 240 and you'll be fine, but if you want higher resolutions you may be disappointed with the results.