Hardware Review


April 22, 2001

The Final Cut Pro Portable Studio
VST  Firewire Hard Drive 20 gig FW9520-G $469.95
LaCie  PockeDrive 20 gig $429

Review by Ned Soltz


Didn't you always have the fantasy that you could shoot all day in LA, hop the 11 pm red-eye to New York, settle into your seat and while your fellow passengers slept through the 2475 frequent flyer miles they were earning, you would be able to produce a rough cut of your movie? Thanks to the advances in Apple's Firewire drivers, the Titanium PowerBook, Final Cut Pro, portable firewire hard drives, and an airline seat-power adapter that day has now arrived.

I grant that mobile editing was within the realm of possibility since the introduction of Apple's first Firewire PowerBooks. However, earlier versions of Apple's Firewire drivers did not support Firewire drives. Until the advent of fast 7200 rpm drives in full-height systems and improved ATA to Firewire circuitry in all of the storage devices, video capture to Firewire drives was difficult if not impossible. Furthermore, each Firewire device required a driver, allowing for the possibility of software incompatibilities.

The prospects for true mobile FCP editing improve with each successive software and hardware introduction. The first most significant advance was the introduction of OS 9.1and Apple Firewire 2.7. This most recent Firewire extension will mount virtually any Firewire drive, eliminating the need to install the manufacturer's driver. In fact, installation of the driver will cause software conflicts. This benefits both laptop and desktop users of Firewire drives.

Then, there is my sleek, sexy, ultra-thin and positively gorgeous Titanium Powerbook G4. My wife only wishes that I would describe her in such terms. The power of the desktop now fits in your lap or on the tray table in front of you. The G4 altivec chip now allows rendering times to approach the reasonable and the 1152x768 resolution screen provides sufficient real estate for viewing. A single-chip G4 400 or 500 certainly is not as fast as a dual 533 or the faster machines which are rumored to be in the pipeline. But rendering is speedy nonetheless.

The real question, though, is storage fast enough and large enough to accommodate the four hours or so of editing you get to do between takeoff and descent below the altitude at which the flight attendant cheerfully orders you "to turn off all electronic devices at this time, to raise your seat backs... in preparation for..." (you know the script well). Continuing improvements in Firewire enclosures can now provide that needed storage and portability.

When I speak of portability, though, I must qualify how portable you wish your system to be. Airplane editing requires the use of a 2.5" Firewire enclosure in which the drive can draw its power from the Firewire bus. These are based around notebook computer drives and generally are going to be slower than full height ARA drives. The largest capacity currently available is the IBM 32 gig drive, and it also spins at 5400 rpm, faster than the 4200 rpm rotational speed of the 20 and 30 gig drives, the only options really viable for providing sufficient storage. IBM has announced a 48 gig notebook drive to be shipping later this year.

The drive mechanism, however, is only part of the issue. The bridge circuitry and power circuitry of the enclosure play the significant parts in determining the ability to transfer DV. The formatting software as well determines the drive's abilities.

For purposes of this article, I tested two portable Firewire drives with FCP 2, a Powerbook G4/400 with 384 mg of RAM, and a Sony TRV-900 camcorder. I also opted to test nationally-available name-brand drives rather than go the route of purchasing an enclosure and adding my own drive. I also qualify my remarks by disclaiming extensive testing. I simply hooked up the devices, performed an hour or so of real-world activities and then arrived at some conclusions.


My test drives were the LaCie Pocket Drive and the VST Firewire Hard Drive (in the granite-colored enclosure). The LaCie Pocket Drive had both Firewire and USB interfaces; the VST was Firewire only, although they do manufacture a combo drive. USB is out of the question for video transfer so the lack of a USB port on the VST is irrelevant for FCP users. Both drives were 20 gig capacity, which provided the best price/performance ratio. The 20 gig drives run around $500 while the 30 gig drives sell for about $800. Portability comes with a price tag.

There are a few things to watch in the set up of the mobile system. A less-obvious caveat is networking set up. Many times laptops will be used on a network and you might be set up to get your IP address from a DHCP server. Apple has noted in a recent TIL that FCP can crash if the TCP/IP control panel is set to DHCP and the computer is not connected to a network. So, watch the network setting.

While the drives draw power from the Firewire bus, it really is not advisable to run the Powerbook on battery power while also powering a hard drive. You could barely make it from cruising altitude out of LAX to Arizona on a fully-charged battery. So, if in your hotel room, plug in your Powerbook. If on an airplane or in your RV, use an auto/air adapter from Lind Electronics or Madsonline.

Mounting the drive couldn't be easier, but, here again, there are a few things to watch for. Plug the Firewire connector into the drive and then into the computer. Since Firewire is hot pluggable, you can do this while the computer is on. Both the VST and LaCie drives mounted immediately. Do not install any of the drivers that VST or LaCie provide. These are only for pre-OS 9.1 users. To remove the drive, first manually unmount it by dragging the drive icon to the trash and only then can you unplug the drive. If you unplug a mounted drive, you risk damage both to data as well as to the drive itself. If you put the PowerBook to sleep and unplug the drive, upon waking the PowerBook you will get an error message looking for the drive and the machine will be hung up until you plug the drive in once again.

I first performed a simple benchmark test of each drive using ATTO ExpressPro-Tools 2.5. This SCSI utility also provides benchmarking software. There are other utilities out there that will benchmark drives; I happened to have had a copy of the ATTO tools and I was looking for generalities rather than the precision of a testing lab.

Results were similar for both drives.

  Read   Write  
  Peak Sustained Peak Sustained
LaCie 13.84 mb/s 13.57 mb/s 12.74 mg/s 10.91 mb/s
VST 19.03 mb/s 18.54 mb/s 11.71 mg/s 11.42 mb/s

This is an example of how software and circuitry potentially make a difference. Both the LaCie and VST drives are based on the IBM 20 gig mechanism. The VST showed slightly faster results in all actions except Peak Write. All of these tests were based upon a small 512k sample. The ATTO software allowed testing with segments up to 8 megabytes and the larger samples showed similar results.

Now, for real world tests.

In order to test the ability to start a project on the desktop and then work on the road, I first plugged each drive into my old B&W G3 desktop. Using the Media Management features of FCP 2, I copied a short 6 minute project I had completed to each of the drives, together all used/unused media and associated render files. This came to about 3 gigs of material.

I then worked with each drive separately in FCP.

Both drives mounted on the Powerbook after the copy operation from the desktop and all of the necessary files had been copied from the desktop and linked properly. So, I was able to open the my project and continue editing. For purposes of this portable test, I connected Powerbook to drive to TRV-900. Note that the lack of the second Firewire port on the Titanium Powerbooks is irrelevant. In the earlier two-port machines, both ports derived from one bus anyway. Firewire was intended to daisy chain and today's Apple drivers can sustain it. I was able to play through Firewire and monitor on my TRV-900. Had I been on an airplane (or even in a hotel room where I would still want to hear my audio clearly), I would have plugged a set of headphone into the TRV-900.

With both drives, I dropped frames on playback with mirror on desktop on and canvas set to the default layout in FCP 2 on the TiBook at full resolution (it happened to be 77%). Lowering the Canvas to 50% or turning off mirror on desktop solved my dropped frames issue. Playback is simple. Capture is the true test.

I tried two simple captures from the same tape. I first did a capture now and then a batch capture of 6 short clips. I knew from experience to turn off the Abort Capture on Dropped Frames option since I know there would be drops. The LaCie was able to perform a Capture Now without any reports of dropped frames. The VST reported dropped frames. Playing back that clip which reported dropped frames only produced a flicker in the first second of capture.

Next came the batch capture test. My TiBook has one little annoyance - it tends to forget the function key preferences between restarts. The TiBook comes with the F2 key mapped to brightness, unless you turn off that option in the control panel. My particular logging style is to hit the "I" key to mark my in point and F2 to log the clip. After failing the first time because screen brightness came up instead of my clip-naming dialog box, I reset my preferences, uttered some unintelligible sounds of disgust and continued. I performed this batch test first with the VST.

Having logged my clips, I performed the batch capture. Computer and TRV-900 responded perfectly, the tape cued up and I captured all 6 clips. True to form, Clip 1 reported dropped frames (several dropped frames). Playing Clip 1 revealed that these drops again were in the first second of capture. The other 5 clips were fine.

In order to test the same clips, I exported a batch list, quit FCP and switched drives. I started FCP, re-set my capture preferences to the LaCie drive, imported the batch list and captured. Here again, the first clip reported a dropped frame. And again, it was in the first second of capture. The other five clips exhibited no problems and the analyze movie utility showed no dropped frames and normal parameters.

The practical lesson here is a two-fold one: first, turn off the abort on dropped frames option and second, add an extra second of handles to your captures.

I repeat my earlier qualification that this was not to be construed as exhaustive test-until-you-break-it testing. Rather, my intent was taking two popular models of portable Firewire drives and attempting to make them work. They both did.

Your choice of drive, then, should be a personal one. The LaCie drive is comes with a universal AC power supply in the event you do desire to power the drive. It also has a USB interface, which, as I indicated, is irrelevant for video purposes. The LaCie is slightly larger than the VST and is surrounded by a rubbery border, giving the feeling that it might be more shock resistant. The LaCie drive comes with Silverlining software.

The VST drive is wonderfully portable owing to its very small foot print. It comes bundled with a freeware version of SoundJam MP and a collecton of Aladdin utilities, in addition to VST's drivers and formatting utility.

Such is the state of mobile FCP editing as of this writing, the week before NAB 2001. But, this is the world of computers, so next week things will be different.

There has been much talk in the full-height world of new Firewire enclosures based upon the Oxford ATA-Firewire bridge chip. Granite Digital has been producing a full-height enclosure which has received high accolades from users and testers alike. They are set to introduce a 2.5" enclosure based upon this chipset at some point later this spring. LaCie will be introducing at NAB a line of full-height Firewire drives based upon the new faster TI chipset. Again, while nothing is announced, it is plausible that this chipset will find its way to the smaller portable drives. VST has also indicated that they are looking at a next generation of bridge hardware.

So, more speed is available immediately in full height drives. This may even be of interest to mobile users if you don't have to do that rough cut on the red eye but can pack a slightly larger drive and edit in your hotel room. Incidentally, all of these enclosures have a universal power supply so you can do that edit in your hotel room in Times Square or Trafalgar Square.

Something else is on the way at NAB... Videonics is introducing a $995 device which will actually allow you to record from your camera to Firewire hard drive in QuickTime format. Then, plug device into your computer and edit. You can skip the log and capture part. Now, granted, log and capture actually allows you to preview your footage and at least to me is an important component of the creative process. But it would certainly be a lot more efficient use of time to skip an entire step. It would also take up a lot less room on the tray table in front of you just to have the TiBook and a drive rather than balance TiBook, drive and camcorder/deck. Stay tuned for more information after NAB.

Portability is here. Creativity need not be limited to the studio. The Titanium PowerBook G4 provides reasonable editing capabilities in Final Cut Pro and ever-improving Firewire drives allow for efficient capture, storage and portability to the big desktop system when you're back in the studio to tweak those on-the-road edits.

There is one little hitch in the airplane thing. At the moment, most airlines only provide in-seat power in First and Business class. So, use your points, stickers or client's budget to upgrade to enjoy airplane editing. For the rest of us, that good old electrical outlet in the Motel 6 will provide the power we need to run the TiBook and drive.

Happy Travels and Happy Editing.

Ned J. Soltz   Ned Soltz is passionate about the uses of technology to enhance the creative process. He only wishes that he were more creative. Now that he has a mobile FCP studio on his Powerbook G4, you can catch him on the road at nsoltz@aol.com.

copyright © Ned Soltz 2001

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