Computer Upgrades & HD Recording

The cat isn't just out of the bag, it's clawed its way up the curtains, leapt to the ceiling fan, and is now currently gnawing through the wiring.

A while back I posted a question about upgrading my PC and, as I guessed, many of you know far more about PC upgrades than I and sent emails and comments that were very helpful. And, lucky for me, many of your suggestions matched my gut feeling on what I needed to do. The problem, as I laid it out, is that I have a very capable machine that is starting to show its age and that I need to prepare it for HD video capture and editing. My goal is to spend a little bit of money to hopefully squeeze another year or two out of this machine.

First things first, I don't do much gaming on my PC anymore. I used to, but then again I used to only pay 50 cents for a cup of coffee too. Nowadays I use the PC for writing (obviously) and for batch-editing thousands of screenshots and using Photoshop & Illustrator for maps. I'm also soon going to be recording significant portions of my gameplay in uncompressed 1080i video files. As I'm sure many of you have noticed, BradyGames offers downloadable strategy videos (for a small fee) over Xbox Live and, I believe, on the Playstation Network. The gameplay you see in the Gears of War videos, for example, is that of me playing -- we dubbed Cliffy B's voice-over work on top of it, but it was me working the controller. The problem is that I had to make a special 1-day trip across the country to Epic to record that gameplay on account of not having any HD capturing equipment. The reason I didn't wasn't because of an unwillingness to invest in equipment, but rather that the cheapest capture cards back in 2006 were thousands of dollars and required dedicated machines, not to mention broadcast-level know-how.

It's 18 months later and cheaper, easier-to-use alternatives now exist. I can't put off the upgrade expense anymore -- I need to have HD video capturing capabilities for work and I can't justifiably say no any longer. Fortunately, I was tipped off to the Black Magic Intensity Pro capture card. It very simply uses an HDMI input and a PCI Express slot to capture full-resolution 1920x1080 HD video. I can use it to capture live gameplay (I'm getting the "Pro" version for the added analog inputs in case I ever need to do anything with a Nintendo Wii) on one monitor while running a second HDMI cable from the card's output to a second monitor for gameplay, as the captured video stream will be a little jittery and not conducive for gameplay.

Now for the hurdles: Recording uncompressed HD video at 1080i takes up 350 gigabytes of space per hour of video. Even compressed HD-Jpeg 1080i video occupies roughly 36 gigabytes of space per hour of gameplay. In contrast, recording uncompressed 720x480 standard-definition gameplay took up about 17 gigabytes of space per hour of video. I usually end up with a minimum of 15 hours of gameplay when I'm recording video. And for a lengthy RPG or, say, a sophisticated racing game, that total could approach 100 hours. If I recall correctly, I had over 60 hours of recorded gameplay for Okami.

So, to prepare for this increased demand for computing power, I upgraded my RAM. The PC had 2 gigs and I upgraded to 4 gigs of RAM. Best Buy had a sale on 1-gig sticks of RAM for $35 each and I picked up four of them (the PC came with 512 sticks and they were in the way). Yes, I'm running Windows XP and yes it's only recognizing 2.0 gigabytes in the System Properties box, but both the bios and MSinfo32 (thanks Erik!) are reporting all 4 gigabytes. I spoke with Dell and they said (and MS Erik concurred) was, in effect, that it doesn't matter what Windows thinks you have, you're still going to feel the benefits of having twice as much memory. And so far so good.

I also upgraded from a GeForce 6800 videocard with 256 MB on-board memory to a GeForce 8500 GT with 1 gig of on-board memory. The 8500 isn't a gamer's card per se, but is actually more geared towards HD video and application usage which is what I needed. I originally bought two of them (Best Buy on sale for $149 each) to run in SLI since I have an SLI-capable motherboard, but after much trial and error (and a housecall from Erik) we realized I simply didn't have enough power to run two of them. Each card draws 300 watts and although I have a 650-watt power supply in my PC, it was cutting it too close and the system denied the necessary resources for the second card. Since I was on the fence about running SLI again anyway (I really like using the two monitors and you have to drop down to one monitor with SLI) I decided to forego upgrading the power supply and simply returned the second card. I was already deeper into the rabbit hole than I wanted to venture in the first place.

So, moving forward, it now looks like I may have to upgrade to Vista. Black Magic says their card works with XP Professional but not XP Media Center. In fact, they specifically say it doesn't support Media Center. They also mention that it works with Vista Ultimate edition (which would at least see all 4 gigs of RAM, so it has that going for it). I supposed I could find a new-in-box copy of XP Professional for sale online. We'll see...

Then there's the issue of HDCP. HDCP is an encryption used to protect HD-quality video being output from devices like Blu-Ray Players and, I believe, the Xbox 360. I haven't gotten a straight answer on this yet but if the new-and-improved Xbox 360 with the HDMI outputs does in fact utilize HDCP I may have to get a new monitor that is also HDCP compliant. Else I won't be able to play on a second monitor and would have to actually try and play in the capture window of Adobe Premiere Pro.

Speaking of Premiere Pro, I have to get that too. I got a killer deal on the Adobe Design Standard CS3 bundle the other day through Kristin's access to the Seattle University bookstore: I scooped up CS3 versions of Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, and Acrobat Pro for just $479 (normal retail is $1100 to $1300 for this bundle) but now I also need to get Premiere Pro as well in order to utilize the HD capture plug-ins that come with the card. It's either that or buy a Mac and install a copy of Final Cut. Since I don't have limitless funds, that's not an option. It's bad enough after all is said and done I'm going to have to get at least one terabyte-sized hard drive as well.

As an aside, I'm really excited to have Illustrator and InDesign again. I'm taking over layout/editing duties for the brochures and leaflets for Kristin's social justice project and have also been asked to make some changes to the Village Volunteers logo and potentially help design a fund-raising brochure for them.

So, as you can see, the upgrades are a happening. The system seems to be stable and I'm sure as soon as I get back to work on my current project -- I had to exchange the build I had for a new one so I'm at a standstill right now -- and start diving into the maps and screenshots, I'll know for sure if the new card and increased RAM are having an impact. I just dread the thought of having to upgrade operating systems. I just know I'm going to run into driver issues and other compatibility problems. Ideally I'll be able to keep on using XP until I plunk down in 2010 for a new machine.


Anonymous said...

I am curious why they say no to XP Media Center. It is built on top of XP Pro minus Domain Ability.


Doug Walsh said...

I'll ask the reseller/distribution shop in Bellevue about that when I go in to pick it up. Seems to not make much sense to me, other than them possibly wanting to scare off the more casual consumers and focus on professionals. Nearly every other product they make costs thousands of dollars.