The Power and Speed of Laptop Editing Increases

Do you remember the early days of mobile video editing? When Sony introduced their BVU line of high band 3/4-inch U-matic cassette format in the early 1980s, entrepreneurial editors would pack vans with bulky videocassette editing decks, switchers and mixers and somehow shoehorn in some patch panels so they could drive up to a client's back door and, if enough power was available for the necessary air conditioning, offer editing services on location.

We've come a long way since then. Software-based digital NLEs have severed the reliance on hot-and-costly hardware, and the remarkable developments in laptop computers mean that whole shows can be cut in HD on battery power anywhere in the world an editor can flip up an LCD screen.

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When Apple rolled out their new 17-inch MacBook Pro laptop in April, many editors took notice. Built around an Intel dual-core processor, Apple's advertising claimed it delivered "desktop performance in a notebook."

Considering that the comparison is a moving target since desktop systems are also getting more muscle, at NAB2006, visitors to the Apple Pavilion saw the MacBook Pro running Final Cut Pro 5.1 software up to five times faster than on a PowerBook G4. So the question looms-how much power do we need if we want to work outside of a permanent edit bay?


"We were even doing 2K compositing with Shake on that laptop all in software," said Richard Townhill, senior manager pro video applications marketing at Apple Computer. "Using an AJA Video outboard Io breakout box, we also demonstrated that the MacBook Pro could cut with two streams of uncompressed SD in real time."

AJA Video's Io box, co-engineered with Apple back starting in the days of Final Cut Pro 4, is the only device on the market that can provide 10-bit uncompressed standard-def I/O over FireWire for FCP.

Rick Rashby, director of sales and marketing for AJA Video, said. "We are seeing ENG in news vans and remote film productions increasingly use our Io box with laptop systems. But we do recommend the proper outboard storage like the G-RAID FireWire 800 storage from G-Tech. That will give you a bullet-proof portable system you could even use in front of clients."


Apple has also presented a technology preview of editing 24p material and native support for Sony's XDCAM HD, Townhill said.

"The processor speed on a MacBook Pro is so fast we can decode these complex codecs fairly easily, " he said. "But where working on a laptop gets problematic is when you want to work with higher bit-rate formats such as the 100 Mbps DVCPRO HD, because of the difficulty in moving the information off the disk. If you want to move into uncompressed HD, you really need an Apple desktop system."

That may hold true for the Apple world, but Windows users have been provided a portable alternative from the bleeding edge wizards at 1 Beyond who have a hard time accepting conventional limits.

About six years ago, one of 1 Beyond's customers showed up in their workshop with a desktop tower editing system in a mobile case on wheels just to get a memory upgrade. Terry Cullen, CEO and founder of 1 Beyond, realized the limitations of the laptops then available was hindering practical portable editing because laptops of the day were geared mostly toward spreadsheets, word processing and Internet access. Sophisticated video applications were simply beyond their reach without major compromises.

"Microsoft Office-style applications really don't require nearly as much power as video processing," Cullen says. "But the marketing tool of hyping the maximum gigahertz numbers on CPU's like the Mobile Pentium 4 used in laptops masked the real speed processors were working at since, due to power and heat considerations, they would usually only use a fraction of their potential."

That worked to the disadvantage of portable NLEs, since an application designed for a 3 GHz processing speed really needed all of that rated speed for software-based editing. So 1 Beyond began building laptops with desktop chips, for example using real Pentium 4 processors instead of the Mobile Pentium 4 design.


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The latest result is the 1 Beyond 3817 HD laptop. With a 17-inch screen displaying 1920 X 1200, the 3817 HD features a true 3.8 GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor with hyperthreading technology, a 800 MHz front side bus, HD-capable DVI output and a NVIDIA GeForce Go 7800 GTX PCI-Express 16X video card. Its dual 80 GB SATA hard drives with hardware raid 0 yields a total of 160 GB of storage with 50 to 60 MBps data throughput, making the 3817 HD a configuration for Windows-based editing software that can rival many desktop systems.

"Our 3817 HD is the fastest possible laptop computer for Windows you can buy today," Cullen said. "Other companies could put together something like it, but few have our background in video."

The company has taken this system "one step beyond" for mobile editing by producing their exclusive portable tape-less direct-to-disk Avid Media Composer Adrenaline HD system using the 1 Beyond 3817 HD laptop. Instead of reducing the 1920 resolution of full HD to the 1,440 pixels recorded by most portable linear tape or optical-disc systems, 1 Beyond's Avid Media Composer Adrenaline uses the Avid DNxHD-220 codec to record the full 1920 X 1080 resolution to disk.

The HD camera's HD-SDI output goes directly into the Avid Adrenaline HD system and then gets recorded onto the disks in the 3817 HD. With additional removeable disks, 1 Beyond's portable Avid Adrenaline HD system lets you shoot unlimited high definition in the field using laptop technology.

Video quality has always expanded as the performance of edit systems grows. 10 years ago, DV was the rage. Now it's compressed HD. Not long from now, native 2K will be considered the acceptable resolution. Of course, desktop systems still are considerably less expensive, making you pay a premium for the pleasure of portability. But as laptop capabilities continue to escalate editors can realistically ask themselves, "are we there yet"? After all since editors deal in the real world of practical possibilities, how fast is fast enough?