In the Studio: Matrox MXO2 LE
Posted Apr 6, 2010

I've been a fan of Matrox products for some time. I've used the company's RT.X100 and RT.X2 cards and found them to be reliable hardware when used in a properly equipped computer with the Adobe Creative Suite. In 2006, Matrox re-entered the Mac world, introducing the MXO to output your Final Cut Pro sequence to a monitor, using component, SDI, and every other known video spigot. In 2008 the MXO2 was released—that added capture ability to the silver box.

In 2009, the MXO2 Mini was released. What was different about the "Mini" was its smaller size, consumer connections (HDMI, RCA connectors for component, composite, YC, and audio), optional Matrox MAX technology (H.264 encoding acceleration for H.264 Blu-ray, and MP4), the ability to work on a workstation or a laptop, and the ability to work on a PC and a Mac. I'm a huge fan of hardware that can be used under both the PC and Mac OS. Sometimes you need a Mac, and sometimes you need a PC. When I tested an AJA Video Systems card last year, it was nice to be able to output footage if I booted the Mac Pro to OS X or to Windows XP. With the MXO2 Mini, you have that flexibility as well as the ability to use it on a laptop. At NAB 2009 I asked the Matrox crew if they planned on adding Windows capability to the rest of the MXO2 line. They told me they were considering it but that the RT.X2 and Axio were the company's main PC products, and they had no definite plans of that sort. Fast-forward to late 2009, and Matrox announced that the whole MXO2 line will now be compatible with Adobe CS4 on the Windows platform (no announcements on compatibility with the forthcoming CS5 and its new acceleration engine).

Testing the MXO2 LE
For this review, I'll look at the MXO2 LE on various Windows systems in order to test the product's success in bringing the functionality that earlier MXO2 models have delivered on the Mac (note that the LE supports both platforms). I hooked it up to an HP top-of-the-line z800 workstation and an older HP consumer laptop zd8000. The specs on the z800 are 2x 3.2gHz quad-core Nehalem Xeon CPUs, 12GB RAM, Nvidia Quadro FX4800 GPU, a 500GB system drive, and a 2TB internal RAID 0. The z9000 (top-of-the-line 4 years ago) has a Pentium 4 at 3.4GHz with hyperthreading, 2.5GB RAM, and a 100GB system drive; it will test with a Western Digital 2TB RAID 0, connected via a FireWire 800 cable, and has an Express card slot for the Matrox expansion card to connect the MXO2 LE. I'll also compare functionality to the Matrox RT.X2 card so you can see which product may be the best for you.

Installing the PCIe host card for the MXO2 LE in the HP z800 took about 2 minutes. Next, connect the MXO2 "connection box" to the host card with a proprietary cable and then attach the power supply, which uses the same 4-pin XLR connector found on most field gear. One thing absent in the box was a driver CD or an instruction book. Instead, Matrox includes a note instructing users to download the latest drivers from the web. This makes a lot of sense. I'm sure they save a lot on manufacturing CDs, and it's "green" since the driver CDs end up in the trash pretty quickly once there are updates. Before installing the drivers, make sure you've upgraded Adobe Premiere Pro to 4.2 and the Adobe Media Encoder to 4.2.

Installing the MXO2 LE on the laptop was a little more challenging, due to the HP Pavillion zd8000's express card slot being a combo slot that accommodates a wider card as well. This causes the Matrox card to be a bit loose, and I found it popped out very easily. If you have a similar slot on your notebook, you may want to secure the card with some gaffer's tape.

The MXO2 LE matches the Mac Pro "motif" of brushed aluminum, with a "Mac-ish" grill in front. The inputs are on the left side and the outputs on the right, along with power, RS-422 control, and the connection to the computer. The I/Os found on the MXO2 LE are HDMI, SDI, HD-SDI, analog component, composite, 2-channel XLR, and RCA audio. There is no 1394 connection on the box. If you want to capture DV, DVCAM, DVCPro, DVCPro HD, or HDV formats from tape, you must use the computer's 1394 port.

Setting up a Premiere Pro project is the same as before, except now there is a choice of Matrox HD and SD formats. I tried the MXO2 LE on two different projects: a bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah. The bat mitzvah was shot on the Sony S270, which sports an HD-SDI out. Instead of HDV, I set the capture settings for "Matrox I-frame avi" to see if the HD-SDI capture to a higher bit rate would be less taxing on the CPUs than the highly compressed HDV. Setting up the capture was tricky, as you have to tell Premiere Pro to use the 1394 for deck control only, and the video would come through the MXO2 LE's HD-SDI.

Capturing to Matrox AVI
Unfortunately, when capturing to a Matrox I-frame AVI, the hardware won't break the video into separate clips at start-stop points, as can be done on the RT.X2. This changed my event video workflow of the past 9 years. The RT.X100 and the RT.X2 allowed me to capture everything and then scan the clips quickly from the hard drive, to label or to delete them. The only choice on the MXO2 LE is to capture the tape as one clip or to log and batch capture. Since single 3-hour clips are a bit hard to work with, I chose to log and batch capture, something I haven't done since I used S-VHS as my main format. While the S270 is a great camera, it's not meant for heavy shuttling back and forth; compounded with the way HDV shuttles, it was not a pleasant experience. I communicated my feelings about not having the auto breakup of clips to Matrox AVI. They responded that other people have missed it too and that they'll look into including the feature in an upcoming software update.

Once capture was done, I went to sleep and started editing the next morning. One thing I quickly discovered is to make sure the MXO2 LE hardware is powered on before you turn on the computer, not just before you run Premiere Pro. If you don't heed these words, you'll find that Premiere Pro only "sort of" works with the MXO2 LE. Along with outputting only black to your video monitor, it can corrupt your sequence and/or project.

Fortunately, there's a simple fix: Turn everything on properly, create a new project, and import the old one. After doing that in my tests, everything showed up where it was supposed to.

To test the analog inputs, I captured a VHS tape of the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge (Calif.) earthquake in our home. My sister, who is a teacher, wanted to show her class what it looked like in real life. I captured from a newly acquired JVC BRS-800 S-VHS deck, without RS-422 deck control or a TBC (time base corrector) like my Panasonic AG-7750 have. At first, the MXO2 LE didn't like the signal from the deck. After a couple attempts, and adding more "preroll" for the MXO2 LE to sync to, it worked. If the BRS-800 had a TBC, I'm sure I would have had an easier time.

Using the Maxx hardware to encode the file to an H.264 file is a little tricky. You start in the Adobe Media Encoder (AME) dialog in Premiere Pro, but once you set your settings, you can go to the Matrox tab to start the encoding, or go through the AME. Depending on what you're doing, it may be quicker to do one or the other. The HP z800 we use for testing is a really speedy machine, and on some tests,
the AME beat the Matrox Maxx. See Table 1 (below) for details.

Matrox MXO2 LE Table 1

Other Good Features
Another feature I like a lot is that you can use the MX02 LE on multiple programs at once. While working in Premiere Pro, I needed to jump into After Effects to do a comp for a title. Magically, when I bounced from program to program, the video on the video monitor followed. I really liked not having to close down one program to use the external monitor on the other. The MXO2 LE also does real-time up-and-down scaling.

I didn't have an HD monitor available immediately for the review, but I did have 13'' NTSC monitor. Once you set the MXO controls, the video appears as it should on the external monitor. One more complicated issue is the audio. Audio coming from Premiere Pro automatically finds its way through the MXO2 LE's audio outputs. Audition, Soundbooth, and other audio products will require you to go into their "audio hardware preferences" and select the MXO2 LE hardware, and in some cases you'll need to do it in Windows system audio preferences. Conversely, you can route audio for Premiere Pro away from the MXO2 LE to the sound card too. If you're reluctant to touch your preferences, you can always hook up a second pair of speakers to your sound card.

In Conclusion
The Matrox MXO2 LE is a good choice if you need every possible input and output from your Windows or OS X machine and the flexibility to use it on a workstation or a laptop. If you're mainly editing HDV on a Windows workstation and don't need all of the I/Os and you want the real-time effects for editing, the RT.X2 may be a better choice. If you need all of the I/Os as well as a few more codecs, you can move up to Matrox's top-of-the-line Axio LE, which handles what the RT.X2 doesn't.

Marc Franklin (marcfvp at yahoo.com) has been shooting video since 1982 and has run Franklin Video Productions since 1992. He has been featured in the Hollywood Reporter, Forbes, and TV Technology and has written for Studio Monthly, Student Filmmakers, and WEVA.