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MATROX RAINBOW RUNNER

 

STANDFIRST

Has the often uneasy marriage between PCs and video finally been consummated? Rick Maybury plugs in and plays with the Matrox Rainbow Runner, video capture, recorder and output card

 

COPY

Rainbow Runner might seem like a slightly unusual subject for review, unlike pretty well all of the other products we test, this one is not a stand-alone peripheral but a dedicated add-on module for the Matrox Mystique 3D display card. However, the Mystique is now fitted as standard to quite a few new multimedia PCs and has become a popular upgrade, so itís likely that some of you will already have one. If not donít rush off, you never know, you might be in the market for a Mystique card and Rainbow Runner by the time you reach the end of this piece. For the record street prices for a 4Mb Mystique average out at around £130, the Rainbow Runner package sells for £220, both prices include VAT.

 

So what precisely do you get for the thick end of £350? We neednít dwell too long on the Mystique card, suffice it to say, itís one of the fastest 64-bit PCI bus graphics accelerator cards in the business; it make games fly along with smooth, fluid motion, and eye-catching 3D effects on supported software. Rainbow Runner unlocks itís potential to handle PAL video, turning it into a capture and output card, video editor and recorder.

 

System requirements call for a Pentium-class multimedia PC, minimum 90MHz, (133MHz is better), with at least 16Mb RAM (preferably 32Mb), and 300Mb of spare hard disc space, though you will need a large (2Gb) fast IDE mode 4 or SCSI drive if you intend to do any serious video capture. At the highest compression (lowest quality) setting moving video gobbles up just under 2Mb of disc space per minute, anything approaching useable VHS quality requires over 200Mb/minute. Itís also worth adding that to get the most out of Rainbow Runner youíll need a multi-synch monitor, or one that can handle a refresh rate of 50Hz. In addition to the board and cables, you also get fully functional versions of iPhoto Express picture editor, Ulead Media Studio video editor and VDOPhone internet video phone software on CD ROM.

 

Physically Rainbow Runner is a small board that fits onto a set of four multi-pin connectors on the face of the Mystique. Itís a reasonably simple job that takes just a few moments, though great care has to be taken with one connector as the pins are barely long enough to reach into the adjoining socket.  Once the Runner card has been fitted the two cards can be re-installed inside the PC, on a spare PCI connector.

 

The Mystique card has two D-connectors, one is for the VGA output to the PC monitor, the other one is for a plug that handles all of the video inputs and outputs. It has four flying leads, terminated with a pair of phono sockets for composite video input and output, and two mini DIN sockets, for S-Video signals. We suffered a few installation and configuration problems, the first one -- the card not being assigned an IRQ -- was covered in the troubleshooting guide, and involved changing a setting in the PCís BIOS.

 

Problem number two was the disabling of the cardís input and output functions. This showed up as Ďgreyed-outí video input selections on the settings menu. After some consultation with Matrox UK it was decided that this was a software problem and a new CD ROM installation disc was supplied. This made no difference, so we tried a second Runner board. This worked, but we continued to suffer from a number of configuration problems. The exact cause remains a mystery, our best guess is that it may be something to do with repeated installations, and an as yet unidentified interactions with other installed applications. If we ever find out weíll let you know...

 

Neither difficulty would have fazed a PC expert for long but we suspect this type of rather exotic hiccup will keep the Matrox helpline busy. Incidentally, the installation CD ROM provides speedy access to the Matrox US web site. When we looked at it there was plenty of useful information and downloadable software for other products, but very little on Rainbow Runner, apart from a lengthy description and spec sheet.

 

OPERATION

First contact with Rainbow Runner is usually via a utility called PC-VCR Remote. This brings up a stylised TV remote control graphic, and a display window. The remote control is designed to look like a VCR handset, it has three buttons to select video input (file, TV and line). The TV button is for an optional tuner card, file is for calling up material stored on disc, and line selects an external video input. Below that thereís a set of TV tuner buttons, in the middle thereís a status display window, and at the bottom a set of VCR transport keys, for controlling recording and playback. Itís all very simple to understand and use, and from there itís possible to control or access most of Rainbow Runnerís core functions. 

 

The TV output feature is likely to prove popular with PC games enthusiasts, and anyone who wants to use a TV to display computer graphics. Thereís one small catch however. In order to use the video output the PC display is changed to a 50Hz refresh rate. Comparatively few monitors can operate at that frequency and they will have to be turned off, which means the PC has to be controlled from the TV, and that can be tricky as a PAL display is nowhere near as sharp or steady as a monitor.

 

Media Studio is a well-featured editing program that simplifies the whole business of organising video clips, along with stills, graphics and even sounds, from a variety of sources. iPhoto Express is for manipulating still images, it features a number of pre-formatted styles, for turning digital photographs into posters, calendars, slide shows, even screen savers. A fun and easy to use application that kids really take to. Lastly VDOnet uses Rainbow Runner in video capture mode, with a camera or camcorder, to send moving video over an internet connection. At the moment itís a slightly esoteric facility, that depends entirely on you knowing someone else with a similar, compatible set-up, moreover, the speed at which video can be sent in this manner is still very slow, but if you know of someone else with a Rainbow Runner it might prove interesting.

 

PERFORMANCE

All sorts of bold claims are made for the video recording and playback capabilities of PCs but the bottom line is that even the fastest machines, running the latest wizzo software, still fall short of whatís possible using a VHS VCR, costing a couple of hundred quid. Matrox havenít come up with any magical solutions, on Rainbow Runner, it works as well, and maybe even a little better than some of other M-JPEG cards weíve seen. ĎNearí VHS quality video output is only achievable if you trade running time for lower compression, but this means you need a very large, very fast hard drive in order to maintain any sort output quality. If you donít mind titchy video windows, jerky movement and coarse colours, then higher compression rates yield longer recording times.

 

Imported video looks quite good at medium and low compression settings on the PC monitor screen. Colour fidelity is largely maintained, though thereís some reduction in contrast, especially in highly saturated areas, and thereís a noticeable loss of fine detail. There are further, more significant reductions in resolution and contrast when images are converted back to analogue video, and by the time theyíre re-recorded on VHS tape, itís starting to look quite ragged around the edges.

 

CONCLUSION

It really depends what you want it for. If youíre thinking of using Rainbow Runner to lick your latest three-hour camcorder holiday epic into shape, forget it. Even if youíve got a superfast Pentium with a monster hard disc, itís still impractical to try and edit clips lasting longer than a couple of minutes, and by the time the moving video image has been through the digital mangle and back onto video tape, it emerges in a state thatís far worse than a second generation video copy, for example.

 

However, as it stands the package is ideal for creating short video and multimedia clips, that will remain within the PC domain.  Itís generally well designed and easy to use -- installation problems notwithstanding -- but the key feature has to be the price. Even if you take into account the cost of a Mystique card, is still pretty good value for a combined capture and output card with software.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model            Matrox Rainbow Runner STUDIO

Price                 £220

What is it?            add-on module for Matrox Mystique PC graphics card, enabling video capture and output, M-JPEG compression (recording and playback) and editing

System req.            IBM or compatible multimedia PC with Matrox Mystique graphics card,  90MHz Pentium or equivalent, 16MB RAM, Window 95, minimum 300MB free hard disc space       

Audio               

 

Sockets            VGA output, 25-pin D-SUB to phono and mini DIN (composite and S-Video input and output)

Contact             Matrox UK Ltd., (01793) 44100

 

 

CV RATINGS

Performance                  ****

Colour fidelity            ***

Edit facilities                  ****

Build quality                  ****

Ease of use                   ***

Value for money            ***

 

Overall rating            78%

 

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R. Maybury 1997 0406

 


 

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