Elgato Turbo.264 Media Encoding Accelerator Review

by Reads (17,382)

by Perry Longinotti

One of the main reasons people upgrade their computer is to achieve better performance when handling media files. It is pretty common for people to collect a large assortment of video and audio files. And there are a lot of ways to share these collections and take them with us (iPod, PSP, cell phones, PDAs, etc.). For this reason trans-coding media from one format to another has become a necessity.

If you are using an older PC, these tasks can take a long time to complete. Not to mention a computer with a CPU pegged at 100% utilization is almost useless while a trans-coding operation is in progress.

So should you spend the extra time and money to upgrade? It can be a pain to get everything reinstalled and important files moved over to a new PC … not to mention the environmental impact of trashing a still useful PC.

Thankfully there are devices like the Elgato Turbo.264 that can help you get a little more life from your old, trusty computer. As the name implies, this is a USB dongle that enables hardware acceleration of H.264 encoding/trans-coding. Bottom line, it speeds up your Mac when encoding media files.


The Elgato Turbo.264 (view large image)

If you are not familiar with Elgato, they have been in business since 1992 making various types of extenders for Macs – in particular the EyeTV line. This is a company that was founded by the creator of Toast, the popular authoring program for Macs.

What is in the Box?

Turbo.264 comes in a rather nice iPod-like box. It should be rather easy to stock next to iPods. Inside the box you get the dongle, dongle cap, short USB cable, quick start guide and software disk.


The Elgato Turbo.264’s iPod-like packaging (view large image)

In order to use the Turbo.264 your Mac needs to meet the following requirements: Macintosh computer with PowerPC G4, PowerPC G5 or Intel Core processor, 512MB of RAM, built-in USB 2.0 port, Mac OS X 10.4 (or later). You will also need update QuickTime and iTunes to the latest version.

Performance

Install the Turbo.264 utility and plug in the USB dongle and you are set. This is a truly plug and play product.


The Turbo.264 installation screen (view large image)

You can use the utility to drag and drop video files and convert them into one of four predefined export formats: iPod standard, iPod high, AppleTV, PSP. Preferences are limited to picking a default destination folder.

Turbo.264 software also installs profiles into iMovie. This allows you to select the predefined formats from directly within iMovie. If you export from within iMovie you still get the hardware acceleration.

In addition to iMovie the Turbo.264 also supports Final Cut Pro, QuickTime Player Pro and Elgato’s own EyeTV.

How much acceleration do you get? I tested the Turbo.264 on my PowerBook G4 and an iMac Core Duo desktop. Here are the specs of the two machines:

PowerBook iMac
1.67GHz G4 1.86GHz Core Duo
1GB DDR 2700 RAM 1GB DDR2 5300 RAM
100GB 5400-RPM HDD 500GB 7200-RPM HDD

 

For testing purposes I used a 10-minute DV clip of home movies. The original file was 2GB in size and the output files ranged in size from 50MB to 100MB.

The DV to H.264 test on the PowerBook looked like this:

  Time (m.s)
iMovie iPod Export (no acceleration) 58.45
Elgato iPod (High) Export 11.27
Elgato PSP Export 9.03

 

New video compression standards such as H.264 are very demanding. You can see that from the results. The time saved by using Turbo.264 is impressive, but what the results don’t say is that the PowerBook was usable while the Turbo.264 was compressing this video. Using the OSX Activity Monitor, the Turbo.264 encode required about 25% less CPU time and finished the task almost 5x faster.


PowerBook activity monitor without Turbo.264 (view large image)

 


PowerBook activity monitor with Turbo.264 (view large image)

 

The DV to H.264 test on the iMac looked like this:

  Time (m.s)
iMovie iPod Export (no acceleration) 20.46
Elgato iPod (High) Export 10.12
Elgato PSP Export 8.47

 

Core Duo handles encoding with no problems – the iMac was almost 3x faster than my trusty old PowerBook. However it was not as fast as the PowerBook/Turbo.264 combo. With the assistance of the Turbo.264 the iMac managed to do an iPod encode in just over ten minutes. A PSP export took less than nine minutes.

As with the PowerBook, using the Turbo.264 reduced the CPU load while encoding. In this case the difference was much more pronounced.


iMac activity monitor without Turbo.264 (view large image)

 


iMac acivity monitor with Turbo.264 (view large image)

I expected output quality to be the same, but I noticed that the Turbo.264 encoded content had better de-interlacing and overall looked better.

Value Proposition

Elgato has made a product that can appeal to people with older Macs or the latest models. At $99 (USD) it also comes with a reasonable price if you happen to be the sort of person that juggles a lot of media.

A PowerBook benefits from the Turbo.264 in terms of a significanty reduced encode time. The PowerBook is now able to perform on par with its much more powerful younger cousin, the iMac. To a lesser degree, you will also be able to multitask a bit better. Even the iMac sees a reduction in its already decent encode time, but the real draw is that CPU utilization drops to an almost negligible level.

The biggest surprise is that the resulting encoded material looks great. Any concerns that the Turbo.264 was cutting corners in the quality department in order to achieve its impressive performance was dispelled

That said, there is some room for improvement. There is no way to create a custom export profile with the included application. Hopefully this will be added in the future. In order for this to become an absolutely killer product the Turbo.264 needs to support more applications. In particular HandBrake, an open source DVD to MP4/H.264 converter, would really benefit from this type of acceleration.

As it currently ships, the Elgato Turbo.264 is recommended. It is a very targeted product and does exactly what it sets out to do very well and with no fuss.


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