Hardware Review - AJA Kona Card
August 12, 2002
Kona SD Capture Card
Power Mac G4, Dual 800 MHz
Mac OS X v10.1.3 or later
QuickTime 5.04 or later
Blackmagic Design SD
Stealth Serial Port Adapter
or Griffen G4Port Adapter
40 MB/sec sustained
80 MB/sec sustained for RT
(2/4 Seagate Cheetah 15k
ATTO UL3D Ultra 160
ATTO FC 3300/3305 2Gb
$3,295.00 - AJA Kona SD
Review by Patrick Inhofer
I've always been an early adopter. Pong, CD, LaserDisc, DVD, 5 channel surround sound - I'm usually the first kid on the block to acquire these technologies. As a kid I taught myself Assembly Language, in the hopes my parents would purchase a TSR-80 (they didn't). So when it came to deciding how to power my first wholly-owned editing system, the notion of running Final Cut Pro under OS 10 using the Kona card seemed natural.
I did have two major concerns. I was concerned about working under OS 10 in an uncompressed environment and concerned about using an unproven capture card as the centerpiece of my edit room. I will share my experience using the Kona card in OS 10 with Final Cut Pro. And I'll introduce you to some of the amazing features found in the newly released Kona SD 2.0.
Working in OS 10
OS 10.1.x has proven to be amazingly stable (as I type this, I have After Effects rendering away while iTunes pulls in a streaming internet radio station playing out the AES channels of the Kona card). All the things that OS 10 was supposed to deliver (notably pre-emptive multitasking and protected memory) work very well. I almost never need to restart my machine in the middle of an edit session. I haven't yet had a system freeze. When a program quits it NEVER takes down any other app.
Not to say there haven't been OS 10-induced problems. Most of these problems are minor annoyances. And detailing each of this issues is a whole other article (and with 10.2 just around the corner, why bother?).
So, on to the good stuff...
OS 10. The Kona card. Final Cut Pro. SDI uncompressed.
An unproven OS with an unproven capture card on a newly ported app pushing massive data rates. What early adopter could resist the siren song of that combination? Not me, certainly. And unlike my experience with LaserDiscs, the Kona experience has been terrific.
Background: The Kona card is a joint development between Aja (manufacturers of the physical card) and Black Magic Design (developer of the software codec that supports the card and founded by Grant Petty, one of the founders of Digital Voodoo). Kona is currently the only shipping capture card built entirely on and for OS 10.
After some initial bumps (more on that in a moment) the Kona card has been remarkably stable. I seem to get upgrades from Black Magic about every three weeks - a remarkably robust development pace. And these updates usually introduce new, often powerful, features. And as of yet there hasn't been a single upgrade fee. Talk about supporting your early adopters - Kona has it right.
In the three short months I have owned this card, Kona went from merely supporting a real-time dissolve, to eleven Real Time effects (five types of dissolves and six of the Image Control filters). But the first real hint of what Black Magic had up its sleeves was in the form of a new codec they had introduced in June, Kona OfflineRT. This codec allows you to directly capture to the OfflineRT codec - live from the SDI input. When introduced, this feature didn't make headlines... but it definitely presaged their intent.
But, like OS 10 itself, Kona does have some bugs. One of the more serious bugs afflicts a small percentage of Kona users. If you're one of these users (I am) Final Cut becomes extremely unstable. Unexpected quits, audio sync problems and slow screen updates are all problems I experienced. And while I initially had these problems intermittently, it was with 1.4 of the Kona codec that they blossomed. I finally sent an email to Black Magic support and the problem was immediately identified and a work-around relayed (I had to uncheck a preference). Since then my system has become a model of stability. The latest word is Jaguar fixes this problem (although Apple has yet to specify when Final Cut users can migrate to the recently announced OS).
A second bug that I've found, is in reality Operator Error. It involves After Effects; RAM Previews aren't playing back in real time out of the SDI card (another nifty feature included when the Kona card initially shipped). As of this morning it looks like I've got this problem licked. There are three different preferences to get Real-Time RAM previews out of the Kona card. If any one of these are wrong, RT is NG. Hopefully Black Magic will include more precise instructions in its documentation to keep us old-school linear guys from tripping over ourselves. But now that I have it working, it's an excellent feature.
As far as bugs go, that's about it. Not too shabby.
When Black Magic made available to me a beta version of its 2.0 software, I was very excited. For me, it was a moment of truth. I would know very quickly if my early adoption of its hardware was bold, or just plain foolish.
I'm not disappointed.
In fact, I'm ecstatic. Not only are they moving in the direction hinted at with the development of Kona OfflineRT, they have done so big time.
Kona SD 2.0 includes two new codecs, making a total of five codecs supported by the Kona card (ten if you include the PAL versions). All of these codecs capture directly to disk in real time. All of them play directly out of the SDI output in real time. Four of them capture from the SDI input. The remaining codec actually captures from Firewire!
The four codecs that capture live from the SDI input are:
- Kona 8bit
- Kona 10bit
- Kona OfflineRT
and my favorite new one:
- Kona JPEG
If there was one bit of buyer's remorse I experienced with the Kona card, it was not having Aurora's Jpeg codec. That feeling has evaporated with the introduction of Kona JPEG. It is a 4:2:2 codec, compared to DV's 4:1:1 colorspace, at a slightly lower data rate. It looks really, really clean. I'm serious. It's clean.
At around three megs/second, this codec alone completely changes the way I can approach projects. It looks good enough to go to air with, although I'll still be uprezzing my projects to uncompressed. But I'll never have to explain to my client's client why the video looks so blotchy (a la Avid's AVR4). And working in 4:2:2 means I can do preliminary color corrections as I'm editing, saving me some time when I'm in finishing mode. And now I can take on projects much earlier in the editorial cycle, since the reduced data rate increases the amount of material my hard drives store by a factor of eight.
Kona 2.0 doesn't stop there. Remember I mentioned a codec that can be captured through Firewire? It's called Kona DV.
That's right. DV.
You can now capture DV directly through Firewire (using serial control for accurate timecode, of course) and output live through the SDI/AES card! While I don't see this feature impacting my business too much, I'm sure for others it'll have as much impact on them as Kona JPEG has impacted me.
But wait, there's more!
You can also capture from SDI to the Kona DV codec. This brings the total number of codecs that can be captured through SDI to five. This also means you have three offline codecs to choose from; Kona OfflineRT, Kona DV and Kona JPEG. Personally, in head-to-head comparisons I find the Kona JPEG codec more pleasing than DV - mostly because the colors are much more vibrant and crisp. 4:2:2 really does matter.
H'okay, we're not done yet....
More new features also include:
- YUV render support in Final Cut Pro
- Jaguar-ready Mac OS X Quartz Extreme-ready
- Trillions of Colors, 64bit RGB rendering in After Effects
With all this great new stuff, you've got to be asking, is it all true?
Yes, it is. I've tried them all (well, except for DV Firewire capture, but I'll be pointing you to another review in which the author found this feature worked great).
There are some things you need to keep in mind. When capturing the Kona DV or Kona OfflineRT codecs, you don't get all those real-time effects that you'd expect - not if you also want to play out the SDI board. Kona DV forces you to choose between real-time effects or SDI out. Kona OfflineRT is more limiting, you have to choose between outputting or editing. Unlike Kona DV, it's impossible to edit in Kona OfflineRT while monitoring out the Kona board. With either codec, outputting via the Kona board requires rendering your effects. According to Grant Petty these limitations have to do with Final Cut Pro, not the Kona board.
Also, when capturing to Kona DV via SDI the documentation states this feature may not work on all computers. It worked fine for me (Dual 800 with an ATA to SCSI Raid).
Finally, for current users, you will be pleased to know that we no longer have to do "manual' installs of the codecs. The new Kona installer puts everything in the right place (including deleting the necessary preferences) - except for the Trillions of Colors enabler in After Effects; for that you'll have to modify AE's preference file by following the instructions in the Read Me.
In the time it has taken me to go from draft one of this article to draft five (ten days), Black Magic has let loose Kona 2.1. Didn't I say these guys are a moving target?
By the time you read this, 2.1 may already be under a public beta and its main feature is - you guessed it - a film option! That's right, reverse telecine and, when playing back from a 24fps timeline out of the NTSC monitor, automatic 3:2 pulldown. No rendering necessary.
Of course, why should they stop there for just a measly .1 release? How about outputting Kona OfflineRT at it's native size centered on the screen over black, without rendering? It's in there.
How much for the 2.1 upgrade to the film option? For current Kona users, nada. For new Kona purchases, it's included! I can only imagine the effect Kona 2.0 and Kona 2.1 must be having on their competitors. I'm just glad I'm their customer. Let them bring it on, it can only be good for the rest of us.
In my first draft of this article I wrote that I wanted to see Kona support a film option. Clearly I haven't set the bar high enough. There is nothing more I want to see happen in real time than Synthetic Aperture's Color Finesse; with all due respect to Apple's color correcter, Color Finesse is a true professional color correcter. And having that in real-time on FCP would be a real boon to my business (but I'll first have to wait for Apple to fix Final Cut's compatibility with AE plug-ins under OS 10). There are also some very nice filters in Joe's Filters I'd like to see supported in real time.
I'd also encourage Aja to solve the BOB issue that seems to nag at so many editors. If your beef with Kona is that it doesn't have a BOB and you have the budget for a beefy Cinewave SDI BOB then you have to check out this nasty little converter from Leitch to act as your SDI to analog interface. It's excellent, NTSC/PAL switchable (though it's not a standards converter) and has so many test signals even your engineer will be overwhelmed. I highly recommend it.
Options, options, options. The flexibility of the codecs Kona supports means it's a serious contender for all but the smallest of budgets. Take into account Apple halting further development of Final Cut under OS9 and if you're in the market today for a capture card you can't ignore what Aja and Black Magic have achieved.
If you're like me, and need to have uncompromised quality but would like the flexibility of working at several resolutions without the heavily visible artifacting associated with OfflineRT or one of Avid's offline codecs, you have to be very psyched at this unexpected (and totally free) upgrade to the Kona card.
And if you jump on board now, it's still soon enough for you to join the ranks of the early adopters. Unlike mini-Discs, this one is here to stay.
(For more information on Kona 2.0/2.1, check out Marco Solario's in-depth review for even more comments on each of Kona's features - especially the new film option.)
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Patrick Inhofer is an editor, compositor and nice guy. He has 12 years experience in post-production and broadcast graphics. He is also the guy in charge of applePi Editorial, Inc, a New York City-based editorial design shop. You can praise him or flame him at firstname.lastname@example.org. [Top]
This article first appeared on lafcpug and is reprinted here with permission.
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