Digital World: Peripherally speaking

With such an array of built in features, what possible peripheral hardware could one need to add to an iMac?

By DAVID SHAMAH
April 25, 2006 09:48
movie box 88 298

movie box 88 298. (photo credit: )

 
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There's one (most probably last) thing I want to say about the new Intel powered line of Macintoshes - and that's compatibility with the rest of the Intel-compatible hardware out there. It stands to reason that if the processor in the new Macs can support popular operating systems, like Windows and Linux (see http://tinyurl.com/lnsn3, which describes how Macs have been successfully booted using three operating systems), then they should be able to use printers, scanners and other desktop appliances that until now have been available only to Windows users. While many newer desktop devices today use USB or FireWire connections to hook into a computer's applications - both protocols are, of course, no strangers to the Mac - many legacy products either connected to PCs via parallel or serial ports, or required the installation of a PCI card inside the computer in order to connect the hardware. Of course, PowerMacs have been able to use PCI cards for several years now, saving Mac users lots of money and hassle, with newer models of the PowerMac G5 able to use PCI-Express type cards, as well. By the end of 2006, Apple says that its PowerMac line will be equipped with Intel processors too, meaning that any legacy PCI cards that until now have not worked with the Mac may now have an easier time of it. However, most Mac users, even the ones with Intel processor computers, can't use PCI cards - because there just isn't room in the computer for one. Ironically, people who purchase currently available Intel-based Macs can load their computers up with Windows if they so desire, giving themselves access to Windows applications and device drivers that control myriad hardware peripherals, including internal modems, network cards and video cards. But they can't use the equipment itself because of the way these Macs are built. Out of the four Mac product lines - the Mini, iMac, Powerbook/Macbook (laptop) and PowerMacs, only the latter has a slot for PCI cards. The elegant contours of the iMac, for example, give the thing a design that any aesthete would be proud to display in their living room, with its flat, thin screen look, rounded edges and remote control - but the machine's beauty puts it in a gilded cage, technologically speaking, preventing users from having complete freedom to take advantage of expansion peripherals. Mac advocates would respond, of course, that they don't need fancy video cards, networking cards, modems - or even cards to provide wireless networking or Bluetooth connections, because all of these are built into many Mac models anyway. The Intel iMac, for example, has all these, plus USB 2.0 and FireWire slots, both of which are usually not built into consumer level commodity PC motherboards and require an additional card. With such an array of built in features, what possible peripheral hardware could one need to add to an iMac? Well, I can think of at least two off the top of my head, and there are probably others. In my particular case, I had a specific dilemma - how to connect a VCR to my Intel iMac. Taking on a project to convert some (many, actually) videotapes - both VHS and VHS-C - to digital format for eventual recording on a DVD, I looked hither and yon on both the VCR I was using and the Mac for a common connection - there wasn't any. Connecting a digital video camera to a Mac is no problem, because both sides use FireWire, as do many DVD players or DVD/VCR combos (it's almost impossible to find a free-standing VHS videotape player in your average chain store nowadays, but that's a story for another day). As it happens, my VHS VCR is an old one (circa 1996), which has only RCA in and out connections (also known as "composite video" outputs/inputs - meaning that it could be connected to a TV, for example, or to a computer with RCA inputs. PC users would have no problem connecting this video player to their computer, if they were willing to shell out for a TV/video card, like the Hauppauge WinTV-PVR 150 (http://tinyurl.com/4unkd), which has composite, as well as s-video inputs. Works great for PCs, but not for iMacs. As mentioned, PCI cards will only fit into PowerMacs. Not that there are too many choices for PowerMacs, either - the Hauppauges, as well as other best-selling lines, like the ATI All-in-Wonders, are not available for Macs. Mac users can, however, use cards from Nvidia (http://tinyurl.com/etjfl http://w/>) and Alchemy (http://tinyurl.com/7xvpl). Investigating the issue at a number of local computer stores (whose staff, I'm sorry to say, were mostly Mac-ignorant), I was told over and over that the only solution was to use one of those small USB transfer devices, with a set of RCA connection cables on one side and a USB 2.0 (1.1 isn't even an option for this kind of work) on the other. But all my experiences using these transfer devices have been extremely disappointing - even with USB 2.0's higher transfer rate, it just isn't robust enough to handle high quality video. Yes, I know that on paper USB 2.0 is actually faster than FireWire 400, and that most stuff people are using at this time cannot yet take advantage of FireWire 800, but what can I tell you - the quality of transferred video from USB 2.0 devices just doesn't match that of video transferred via FireWire 400. According to http://tinyurl.com/a25o8, it might just be an Apple thing - but my experience with PC USB 2.0 not transferring well has been similar as well. The best solution I've found so far has been the Pinnacle Studio MovieBox DV (http://tinyurl.com/blyp9), which allows you to connect anything you want to any Mac or PC, using a smart looking external "video card." The box magically connects and converts between a PAL or NTSC VCR, recorded in AVI or Mpeg-2 format in PAL or NTSC format (you can mix and match), with composite inputs and S-video or FireWire outputs (there is a separate product with USB 2.0 input/output). It's a nice product, and nice looking (designed by Porsche, believe it or not). There are rumors (unsubstantiated) that the next round of Intel iMacs and Mac Minis will have a built in TV tuner card, but until then, it's good to know there's a solution for the rest of us. Ds@newzgeek.com

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