This past spring, just before the start of the National Association of Broadcasters convention, Apple introduced real-time HD editing to its line of video post-production tools [see "NAB 2004: How Ya Like Dem Apples?," May 2004, p. 6]. As is usually the case with Apple, it was an impressive demonstration. However, less usual for Apple, and no doubt thanks to the increasing years of software maturity and revisions, it was a presentation that was relatively free of the oft-noted "reality distortion field."
A simple G5 machine (actually it was a top-of-the-line dual-processor system, but Apple was up front about that) was able to number-crunch through full-resolution 1080i and 720p material—even multiple streams at one time—"without," they claimed, "any special hardware." That was true for the new revision of Final Cut, now called Final Cut Pro HD, and it was true for the latest revision of Shake and a new motion graphics creation tool, simply called Motion. (Although Apple introduced Motion at NAB, the software's ship date announcement coincided with the more graphics-intensive SIGGRAPH show in early August.)
On the surface, that HD capability may or may not seem all that impressive. After all, Wintel-based editing systems from several companies have, for a long time, been able to do real-time editing without special hardware, thanks to DV camcorders and FireWire transfer. Others have leveraged the power of the processor to natively edit multiple streams of uncompressed standard-definition footage, albeit requiring I/O expansion hardware of some kind.
So, it stands to reason that HD can't be too far away, especially given Intel's processing power advantage. Still, with the release of Final Cut Pro HD, Apple is, once again, blazing a trail that Windows-based systems will likely follow.
Apple arguably has gotten there quicker because QuickTime is integrated into the operating system and FireWire I/O is a part of the hardware. Because all Apple computers include built-in FireWire ports (and the G5 comes with both FW 400 and 800), they can import HD footage directly from a new Panasonic DVCPro HD deck, the AJ-HD1200A, that includes FireWire out. The combination gives Final Cut Pro HD the ability to import and edit HD without so much as the installation of a FireWire capture card.
That's not to say that expansion hardware, like AJA's Kona 2 card or Pinnacle's CinéWave, doesn't offer a lot more functionality. After all, the Panasonic does cost about $21,000 and that's several times more than the price of those cards, which can capture a much broader range of source material. However, if you have one of those AJ-HD1200A decks, you don't need any other special hardware.
In the most basic way, the "without any special hardware" claim is still rather misleading. For some 97% of the computer-using population, gaining access to any of Apple's increasingly impressive set of tools does require a significant piece of special hardware: the computer itself. Admittedly, that percentage is lower in creative industries, where Apple's relative market share is larger.
But the point remains that for many potential users of Final Cut Pro HD, you have to buy "special hardware" if you want to use the software. And, needless to say, the cost of buying Apple's hardware, including the Cinema Display you'll want for serious video editing, is greater—in both dollars and in the time it takes to adapt to a different OS—than the cost of a Kona 2 card or CinéWave.
Still, in a very real way, Apple's penchant for driving the capabilities of applications like Final Cut Pro, Shake, and Motion—as well as DVD Studio Pro, Soundtrack, and Logic Pro—is making the G5 the video industry's new black box. Whether or not the G5 is used for anything else, Apple is solidly building a compelling case that there needs to be one in just about any studio that expects to keep pace with the competition.
In its fourth revision, Final Cut has become an editing interface that aspiring industry professionals absolutely need to know. It has features and functionality that can go head-to-head with just about anything out there, while also offering accessibility that has made it an assembly platform for sound, effects, graphics, and animation collaborators.
Shake is a desktop effects compositing tool that has been used at the highest levels of the craft. DVD Studio Pro 3 really stands alone in its price class for its authoring capabilities and competes with Windows-based DVD tools that cost several times its price. And the new Motion is an amazing piece of interface design work that makes the potential drudgery of motion graphics accessible to just about any editor.
Ultimately for most users, the HD capabilities are just icing on the cake. Even if you exclude the addition of HD to Final Cut Pro, Apple's pre-NAB demonstrations were so impressive because the products are all top-notch tools with smartly designed interfaces and features that far exceed the price Apple sells them for.
Why? Because it's all about the "special hardware" without which none would run. It's about the dedicated silver box that needs to sit in the studio in order to offer the functionality. Apple is a hardware company—that's been said many times before—and even impressive pieces of software don't change that. The only way you can edit HD "without any special hardware" is if you already have the latest G5 in your studio.
Of course, for Apple that's precisely the point, whether they state it explicitly or not.