Hardware H264

Add this to my dreadfully dull shopping list; an Elgato turbo.264. It’s a USB2 stick carrying a media processor dedicated to hardware-accelerating H.264 video compression. For €100. I’m currently doing quite a lot of H.264 Quicktime compression on a 4 year-old 933MHz G4 Power Mac, hence my interest; this thing would be something like 20x faster, as a rough guess. Though ironically, the Power Mac is so old it predates USB2, so I’d need one of these as well.

…which leads to something of a dilemma. The turbo.264 is about 4x faster than a 2GHz Core2 Duo, which on the face of it is worthwhile – I’ve always had a rule of three about processing speed. That is, anything that gives me a three-fold improvement is worth doing, because it transforms jobs that were in the hour or so ‘too slow to bother with’ bracket and shifts them into the 20-minute ‘put the kettle on’ space. 20 minutes is about the threshold for feeling ‘interactive’ – it’s thinking time, and short enough that you can do it during the day rather than overnight.

But 4x faster than a 2GHz Core2 Duo is… roughly as quick as a 4-core 3GHz Mac Pro. Ah. See, the turbo.264 is going to be overtaken by CPUs relatively soon, and doubtless we’ll be running video compression jobs on our graphics cards’ physics engines within a year too.

So: cute little device, worthwhile if you’re doing lots of H.264 compression now. As with old supercomputer purchases, wait until the last possible minute to buy hardware – waiting for newer processor technology can sometimes cause your job to finish sooner anyway.

One last caveat: it looks like the thing only works with iPod, Apple TV, and PSP presets. I see no suggestion that it’s possible to tweak the export settings. For me, this is a deal-breaker, since the films I’m encoding for SciCast use a different frame size. Gaaaaaah!

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