These days, almost every Mac user in the world has some sort of collection of videos on his or her computer — home movies, TV shows, short clips, and even professionally produced videos. Watching those movies on the computer is easy; however, converting them to iPod or Apple TV format can be frustrating and terribly time consuming, especially for people with older G4 and G5 Macs. Elgato comes to the rescue with the Turbo.264 USB-based video encoder. Claiming to boost the speed of video conversions by upward of 1,200 percent, Elgato makes a pretty strong argument for buying their $99 USD product. We gave the Turbo.264 a thorough test to see if it lives up to the hype. Read on to see how it fared and if it’s something you should buy.
Features & Design
The Elgato Turbo.264 is a small USB device (about the size of a Zippo lighter) that acts as a video conversion co-processor for Mac computers: G4, G5, and the new Intel lineup. Given its size, the Turbo.264 is extremely lightweight and easily fits in a pocket. The elegant matte-black finish complements black MacBooks, though it looks equally high-tech with any other Mac laptop or desktop system.
The Turbo.264 is specifically designed to work with Intel and PPC Mac computers, as long as they have at least one USB 2.0 port available. Because the Turbo.264 uses USB 2.0 as its data pipe, conversion speeds are limited to available USB 2.0 resources. And while USB 2.0 has a maximum (theoretical/potential) data rate of 480mbps (roughly 60MB/s), some Mac users will experience slower data rates, closer to 15–20MB/s. Even with this potential limitation due to specific system configuration, the data rate is really quite sufficient for moderate and heavy video conversion tasks.
Elgato makes it very clear that the Turbo.264 is a crutch device; the slower your system, the more you need the Turbo.264. Folks with G4 systems will benefit the most, followed by G5 users, then Intel. The with/without comparisons on G4 and G5 systems are stunning —conversion rates are upwards of 1,200 percent faster using the Turbo.264. If you believe in the “time is money” theory, the Turbo.264 will probably pay for itself in one or two G4/G5 conversions. As for Intel Mac users, the Turbo.264 is certainly helpful and will either a) speed up your video conversions, or b) free up your processor for other concurrent applications. No matter how you look at it, the Turbo.264 is a practical and beneficial assistive device.
The Elgato Turbo.264 & MacBook Pro
Setup & Use
Getting the Turbo.264 set up on your Mac computer is quite easy. Pop the CD in and drag the Turbo.264 app into your Applications folder. The whole app is only about 9.8MB, so it takes up very little room on your hard drive. My entire installation took 12 seconds, start to finish.
Once the Turbo.264 app is installed, plug in the Turbo.264 USB device into your Mac. Don’t expect the Turbo.264 to show up as a drive — it’s a video encoder, not a flash card.
Open the Turbo.264 application, and in 1–2 seconds, it’ll be ready to encode your video files. You can quickly drag and drop any number of video files into the Turbo.264 app window, and it’ll prep each for batch conversion. Select the desired output file type (iPod High Quality, iPod Standard, Sony PSP, or Apple TV) and click “start.” You’ll see the progress indicators keeping you informed of the conversion progress, much like old-school analog tripometers in a car. As the conversion nears completion, the countdown switches from minutes to seconds. When done, the app signals successful conversion with an upbeat “ding!”
Drag and Drop your Files Here
If you use Final Cut (Pro or Express), iMovie, or QuickTime Pro, you can export video files from these apps with the assistance of the Turbo.264 hardware. In any of those apps, select Export, then click the drop-down menu that gives you file format options. You’ll see the newly added Turbo.264-assisted options for iPod, PSP, and Apple TV [e.g. Movie to Apple TV (Elgato Turbo.264)]. Select the desired format, and away you go — the Turbo.264 will help your app of choice convert the video.
I ran several conversions to compare against Elgato’s conversion stats. The test file was an avi file, 39 minutes, 52 seconds, 350.5MB.
MacBook Pro 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo
Turbo.264 to iPod High – 17m 35s, 333.9MB file, 60fps average
Turbo.264 to iPod Standard – 7m 48s, 197.1MB file, 120fps average
Turbo.264 to Sony PSP – 11m 05s, 231.5MB file, 117fps average
Turbo.264 to Apple TV – 17m 49s, 397MB file, 50fps average
Turbo.264 assist QTPro to Apple TV – 17m 36s, 397MB file
QTPro (no assist) to Apple TV – 58m 36s, 486.1MB file (yikes!)
VisualHub to Apple TV – 13m 50s, 159.9MB file
Other sample conversions on slower machines are as follows: one-hour DV video converted to Apple TV format.
1.25GHz G4 iMac without Turbo.264 – 23h 06m
1.25GHz G4 iMac with Turbo.264 – 1h 50m
1.8GHz G5 PowerMac without Turbo.264 – 9h 10m
1.8GHz G5 PowerMac with Turbo.264 – 1h 30m
2GHz MacBook C2D without Turbo.264 – 4h 21m
2GHz MacBook C2D with Turbo.264 – 1h 06m
As you can see, the slower the computer, the greater support Turbo.264 gives.
H.264 to H.264 Output Quality
I converted a 1.3GB Final Cut video to Apple TV format using the Turbo.264. The 1.3GB file was in .mov format, 640 x 480, and encoded as Integer (Little Endian), H.264. The original file had flawless quality. The Turbo.264 converted it to Apple TV 640 x 480 at about 20fps, which is two-thirds “real-time” encoding speed. The output file was only 170MB, and the quality was exceptional. I was prepared to see obvious pixellation but was pleasantly deprived of that letdown.
Converting video for the Apple TV
Because HandBrake is a stand-alone application that does not directly integrate with OS X’s video encoding and decoding software (QuickTime API) like QuickTime, Final Cut Pro, and iMovie do, the Turbo.264 will not show up as an export option in HandBrake. If you’re ripping your home DVD collection to H.264, it’s best to stick with HandBrake until Elgato adds a full-featured DVD conversion feature. If you really must convert DVD using the Turbo.264, know that it’s limited to converting unencrypted VIDEO-TS folders and will render H.264 files from each VOB file. The Turbo.264 will not stitch them together to produce a full-length video. Again, with the encryption issue, the likelihood is that almost no commercial DVDs will allow direct decoding via Turbo.264. A program like MacTheRipper could strip the encryption in most cases, but a) it brings up obvious ethical questions and b) HandBrake cuts out the middle man by converting directly from a DVD disc to an H.264 video file.
Alas, the Turbo.264 is not a decoder. If your system is so slow that it cannot easily handle playing H.264 video files, the Turbo.264 will not help improve playback. It’ll certainly help encode those videos in short order, but assistive playback is not on the menu.
Sorry. No custom settings for the Turbo.264 like in HandBrake. The Turbo.264 is optimized for very specific (and popular) conversions, and it does so quite well. Most users will likely not need personalized options if they’re using the Turbo.264. The default options render really nice video, perfect for the target devices. But for those users who like to tweak settings to get very specific results (custom video resolutions, etc.), the default-only options could sour the deal.
Quelle dommage! No subtitles from DVDs unless the subtitles were previously included on-screen in an avi/mp4 ripped DVD.
The Turbo.264 is limited to maximum output resolutions of 800 x 600 at 30fps. That’s not HD quality, so anyone needing true HD content will need to wait until Elgato comes out with a second-generation Turbo.264 that can handle HD, or they can use existing software conversion tools. The 800 x 600 resolution is sufficient for standard-def DVD videos.
Laptop Battery Life
Given the fact that the Turbo.264 acts as a sort of slave processor dedicated to video conversions, your main processor is freed from that grueling activity. With CPU activity dramatically reduced, battery life on laptops will benefit. You won’t get extra hours of uptime, but what you do gain will certainly be appreciated.
Low Processor Hit
While running a handful of avi conversions to Apple TV and iPod formats, total CPU usage stayed right around 25 percent, 3–6 percent of which was already taken by OS X and other apps. Real memory used was 55MB, and virtual memory was 497MB. Page ins/outs stayed n/0 the entire time — more than 10 conversions. Why? As mentioned above, the Turbo.264 acts as a co-processor for video conversions. Of course, your main CPU is still used a bit, but not nearly as much as it would be if video conversions were done directly and unassisted from QT, FCP, etc., which can push upwards of 80 percent CPU usage.
If you’re into video editing, or if you want to convert movies and avi files to Apple TV and iPod-friendly formats, the Elgato Turbo.264 is bound to be a great assistive device. If you have an older Mac computer and you’ve been considering an expensive upgrade to a new Intel system solely for video conversion projects, the Turbo.264 is definitely a device you’ll want to check out. It could save you hundreds of dollars in upgrade costs, and depending on your system configuration, the Turbo.264 could literally save you hundreds or thousands of video-conversion hours per year. At only $99 USD retail, the Turbo.264 is a fantastic assistive device.
• Small USB device
• Massive assistance to slower systems
• Frees up main CPU
• Integrates with QuickTime Pro, Final Cut, and iMovie
• Easy batch conversions
• Can’t convert DVDs directly
• No custom settings
• No subtitles from DVDs