Talking Turnkey
Posted May 1, 2003

Once the province of local resellers who could customize every system to user specs, the turnkey DV editing system is turning into a national phenomenon—or at least a nationally branded one. Gateway's entry into the turnkey DV market with the Digital Film Maker family marks a radical departure from the know-your-niche norm; Laird Telemedia's DVora Media Engine line feels more video-centric but it's still a bundled box. The question remains: can these pre-set pre-configs meet your needs?

May 2003|What do Laird Telemedia, a relatively small digital video technology company, and Gateway, the huge maker of computers in cow-colored boxes, have in common? It's not a trick question, really: both have marketers who have targeted digital video editors and enthusiasts with pre-configured, turnkey video editing systems. Both purport to give you all you need to be up and editing with little more than plugging in and booting up. But make no mistake, these are two different systems with different audiences. Either is a good deal, but only for the right buyer. Which is right for you? Naturally, that's the trickier question.

We tested both Laird's DVC1PRO-XPDV and Gateway 700XL Digital Film Maker; not necessarily in a direct comparison, but to examine the benefits of similarly marketed products from two very different types of integrators serving dissimilar channels. Laird and Gateway are by no means the only companies with digital video editing turnkeys: 1Beyond, ProMax, Polywell, and even B&H Photo & Video offer systems that sound much the same.

Even though Gateway is a vastly larger company than Laird Telemedia, simply by virtue of its national distribution outlook, Laird is categorically larger than the majority of companies who have thrown their hat into the turnkey DV ring—which explains why most of the names listed above may leave you scratching your head, and why anyone familiar with the field may look askance at a mass-market PC behemoth like Gateway trying to compete in such a niche market. With customized turnkey configurations largely the bailiwick of dedicated local resellers since the early days of digital video editing more than a decade ago, can a company as large as Gateway truly serve your individual needs?

Just Boxes?
The basic configurations of the Laird and Gateway systems submitted for review are similar. Each uses a fairly up-to-date Intel Pentium 4 processor with 512MB RAM. Each has two 7200rpm Seagate drives installed so you're appropriately not using your system drive for video capture and media storage. And each comes with a DVI and 15-pin RGB dual-head graphics card for the dual-monitor desktops (which are so helpful in liberating the various bins and windows of today's video editing software interfaces), as well as sound cards, FireWire, and Internet connectivity. And they both run Windows XP—Laird has XP Professional while Gateway offers XP Home as default with XP Pro a $99 add-on.

Yet there are some obvious differences at this basic system level, and a high-volume computer maker like Gateway has a distinct advantage over a smaller company like Laird. For example, our Gateway 700XL features the 3.06gHz hyper-threaded processor, while Laird's turnkey has just been upgraded to an older-generation 2.66gHz. (The impact of hyper-threading is largely untested at present; keep in mind that its benefits are application-specific, and depend on how well the program you're running is optimized to take advantage of it. For more on HT, see Phil De Lancie's "DV on HT Time," The demo system we received from Laird was actually an older 2.0gHz, although the price will not change as Laird standardizes on the 2.66gHz CPU. Gateway's full tower includes a DVD-Multi DVD-R/RAM in one bay and a 48X CD-R/RW in the other, plus two handy FireWire ports for DV camcorders and external drives in the front as well as the back. The Laird "midtower" comes with a CD-RW drive and standard back-panel 1394 ports.

The $3,999 Gateway XL system bundles larger hard drives: two 200GB Seagates as compared to Laird's 40GB system drive and 60GB media drive. (Laird's lower-end preconfigured models feature the same amount of storage as the top-end model we tested; Gateway's, considerably less.) Gateway's Digital Film Maker XL configuration also comes standard with two 18-inch LCD monitors and a five-speaker Boston Acoustics 5.1 sound system. Laird's system price ($6,999 for the Avid-equipped PRO model tested here) does not include monitors or speakers. These add-on options will run you $700-$2,500 per LCD monitor and $50 for speakers if you purchase them through Laird.

On the other hand, our Laird DVora system had some significant video niceties that Gateway will never touch. For example, there are stereo audio VU meters and control knobs for analog inputs right there on the front of the computer chassis, as well as oh-so-convenient toggle switches to jump between digital and analog sources, to switch between CV, YC, and YUV inputs, and even a toggle switch to select either 32 or 48kHz audio. The specific configuration we tested also comes standard with an analog I/O breakout box for easier cable connections than the alternative splitter cable octopus. Whichever way you hook it up, Laird, a 30-plus-year-old broadcast video company, has built a system that outputs a ready-to-air, sub-carrier lock broadcast-compliant feed, even if your source was MiniDV. That's worth the price right there if you're in that business.

Just Software?
Gateway's Digital Film Maker XL includes a thorough, start-to-finish software bundle from Pinnacle Systems for capturing, editing, and outputting video. Pinnacle Edition is a solid capture and editing option in the same loosely defined class as Adobe Premiere and Avid XPress DV. Commotion, Hollywood FX, and TitleDeko make a terrific special effects and graphics triumvirate. And Impression Pro is a unique but capable DVD authoring application, designed to serve users of the same corporate class as Edition and its ilk. Gateway even throws in Pinnacle's more accessible, consumer-oriented Studio 8 editing software for novices, as well as a handful of blank CD-R and DVD-R discs. It's a heck of a bundle, especially if you're just getting started.

Laird's DVC1PRO-XPDV doesn't pile on the extras, but comes with Avid Xpress DV software ($1,699 MSRP) pre-installed and, thus, targets a far more specific audience (See review, Laird is on Avid's infamous short list of national resellers and computer makers (www.avid. com/products/xpressdv/specs/pc.shtml) with qualified hardware. What's more, Laird pre-installs two Avid Xpress DV "deck configurations" for the digital (FireWire) and analog I/O of system and breakout box. We were able to start digitizing right away after opening XpressDV for the first time with no hassles. (One interesting side note: Laird's I/O requires a video input even if you're capturing audio only. That can be a black burst, but without a recognized video signal, the input shuts down.) Can you use Avid XPress DV on a system that's not on that list, like the Gateway? Sure, and given today's ubiquitous Intel CPUs and other common hardware, you'll probably have no trouble. However, if you're serious about editing, it just doesn't make much sense, since Avid won't support it. Isn't the company's list just a legacy of time past when digital video was hard for a computer to process and shouldn't Avid expand the list? Perhaps so, but that's a decision about allocating resources, and Avid historically has been more concerned about offering products that are as robust and reliable as the alternative to digital editing: video tape decks. So, if you want to use Avid Xpress DV today, Laird has Avid's blessing and that's no small matter.

Just Customer Service?
In fact, customer service is as big a differentiator with turnkey systems as anything. Too often an afterthought, support can become critical to getting your work done. For everyday video editors, this is where Laird has strength, supporting Avid software as well as the hardware. Naturally, direct support from Avid may be required for very detailed software operation issues, but as an integrator/reseller, Laird offers a first line of support for both hardware and software operation that's far more accessible. What's more, with products that range from DV/FireWire field acquisition hard drives (Laird capdiv) to Web-casting pre-processors to DV switchers, Laird is likely in a better position to support real-world issues of getting products to work together.

As a consumer/home office-oriented computer company, Gateway needs and has very good technical support—well-equipped to walk the most clueless novice through the gamut of PC-use problems—but its nature is quite different. Any system under warranty is entitled to 24/7, toll-free phone-in technical support for both hardware and Windows operating system issues. That's something that smaller companies like Laird just can't match and, for anyone who's ever had computer or Windows trouble, little more need be said. Gateway also has an extensive Web site, full of knowledge base and other help areas.

However, Gateway's support of the bundled video products is far different. First, none of Pinnacle's software even comes pre-installed. Naturally, installing software may be a pain in the watch, but it's no difficult chore; indeed it's something with which Gateway's support will gladly help. But virtually any application software help will require a fee-based support line or direct contact with Pinnacle Systems.

Laird DVora DVC1PRO-XPDVGateway 700XL Digital Film Maker
Primary Hard Drive50GB Seagate Ultra ATA200GB Seagate Ultra ATA
Media Hard Drive60GB Seagate Ultra ATA200GB Seagate Ultra ATA
Optical Drive (s)CD-RW 48X16X48; 2X DVD-R $495 optionDVD-Multi (DVD-R/RAM), 48X24X48 CD-RW
Diskette3.5-inch floppy3.5-inch floppy
Graphics CardMatrox G55032MB dual head (DVI/analog RGB)ATI Radeon 9700G PRO 128MB dual head (DVI/analog RGB), analog video out
Monitor(s)Not inc. (Viewsonic 17-inch LCD, $699.95 each)2x18-inch LCD flat-panel
Sound CardCreative Labs SoundBlaster LiveCreative Labs SoundBlaster Audigy w/1394
FireWireADS PyroFront: 4-pin; back: 6-pin on soundcard
USB2 ports4 ports
Network10/100 EthernetGigabit ethernet, 56K modem
Keyboard/MouseAvid-style keyboard/USB mouseUSB keyboard/Logitech mouse
OSWindows XP ProfessionalWindows XP Home (XP Pro $99)
Bundled SoftwareAvid XpressDVPinnacle Edition, Studio 8, Hollywood FX, Commotion, Title Deko, Impression Pro; CD/DVD Stomper Pro Kit
Analog Video I/OLaird LTM-DVCBX, breakout box with CV, YC, YUV balanced audioN/A
Machine ControlRS-422 interfaceN/A
Audio MeteringCabinet-front VU meters and analog audio gain controlN/A

Turn the Key?
In digital video's adolescence, when moving huge blocks of data was beyond a reasonable request of slower, less media-savvy Windows boxes, turnkey systems from resellers were the norm. Even buyers of Adobe Premiere and the capture card du jour would likely do better getting a pre-built dealer system, RAID array, etc. Is Gateway breaking that mold in offering the turnkey Digital Film Maker bundles?

There's no question that DV camcorders and standard Windows OHCI FireWire drivers, along with capable software like Premiere, Edition, and Avid Xpress DV, have made digital video I/O exponentially easier than even just a couple of years ago. And if you're a self-sufficient DV-only editor, the savings and the bonus package from Gateway may suit your needs very well. Indeed, computer-oriented tech support may well be more valuable then the occasional question about your editing application.

Laird does offer several system configurations, including a FireWire-only system that is a more direct comparison to the Digital Film Maker for $3,999 with Avid XPress DV or $2,499 without, compared to Gateway's $4,199 Digital Film Maker price, as well as bundles with Pinnacle Edition. But while you still get Laird's video knowledge and direct-to-broadcast DV output, Laird's top system still has a slower CPU and won't include the monitors, the speakers, the DVD-R drive, or the added storage capacity. It actually costs slightly more to manually configure a Digital Film Maker-equivalent package with a slower processor and the video software bundle, and a similarly configured built-to-suit video editing workstation from Dell would cost about the same, suggesting that for the money, the Gateway 700XL Digital Film Maker bundle is tough to beat.

However, if your time is worth money, too, then shaving dollars off equipment purchase might not completely balance the ledger. If you work with multiple input formats, digital and analog, and if your output goes to BetacamSP, broadcast, or some other media, Laird's video-specific hardware should have serious appeal that you won't find in cowtown. If you're an Avid editor, Laird's understanding of the software and professional video generally are likely to be a great value, as well, if not more than worth the exact extra dollars. After all, if you work smarter, more productively, and with timely professional assistance when needed, you'll likely be able to buy all the extras straight-up and still come out ahead.

Historically, the true value of turnkey systems, as custom-configured by a local reseller, has been in finding out and getting exactly what you need in a system. Both Laird and Gateway have handsome packages, but they are only worth the price you pay if they come with what you need.

Avid Technology, Inc.
Gateway, Inc.
Laird Telemedia,
Pinnacle Systems, Inc.