Matrox MXO2 Mini

I’ve covered Matrox for a number of years. With the development of the MXO and MXO2 units, Matrox has put together one of the strongest families of I/O products that are available for the Apple Final Cut Pro editing customer. The original MXO was designed to use the video signal from one of the internal graphics card’s DVI ports and turn that into a broadcast quality signal for output and monitoring. The MXO2 was built as a more traditional ingest and output system. Instead of DVI, the MXO2 connects to the PCIe bus, via a card for the Mac Pro or an ExpressCard|34 adapter for laptops. In addition to the MXO and MXO2, the product group has grown to include the MXO2 Rack, MXO2 LE and MXO2 Mini.

From the beginning, the MXO2 was designed with the addition of future technology in mind. Last year Matrox revealed that new MXO2 products accommodate an H.264 encoding chip, which customers can purchase as an option with any new MXO2. This is branded as the MAX option and involves additional hardware integrated into the MXO2 product. It adds $400 to the price of any of the units, however, customers with older MXO2 units or other I/O hardware, can still benefit from Matrox’s hardware-accelerated H.264 encoding by purchasing the standalone CompressHD PCIe card.

MXO2 Mini Configuration

I’ve been working with an MXO2 Mini (with the MAX option) that Matrox loaned for this review. It packs a lot of punch for under a grand and with the accelerated H.264 encoding, adds value beyond just I/O. The Mini is the smallest of the MXO2 products and is ideal for use with a laptop. You can purchase a unit with either a PCIe card or an ExpressCard|34 adaptor, however, the other interface can be added as an optional accessory. With both interface adapters, one MXO2 Mini can be alternately used with both a MacBook Pro and a Mac Pro.

The back plane of the Mini sports HDMI digital ports and RCA-style analog input and output connectors. The analog video connectors can be assigned as component, composite and/or S-video from the Matrox MXO2 Mini control panel (installed into system preferences), which leaves two analog connectors for left and right audio. The HDMI ports support up to eight channels of embedded digital audio. Unlike the larger MXO2 models, the Mini has no RS-422 port for VTR control and it has to run on AC power (no battery options).

To date, the MXO2 Mini supports Apple Final Cut Studio plus Adobe After Effects and Premiere Pro. I did my testing with Final Cut Pro and like all I/O products, installing any MXO2 adds a whole list of Easy Set-ups to Final Cut’s pulldown menus. Open the MXO2 control panel in system preferences and that’s where you’ll discover the true power of the Mini. You can ingest from either the analog or HDMI inputs, but both output sets are simultaneously active. The Mini uses a “main” and “SD” channel, which can be assigned to either the HDMI or analog outputs. The main channel can follow the host application settings or be forced to always operate as 720p or 1080i. Lastly, you can set the pulldown cadence for 24p sequences and adjust SD aspect ratio conversion (center cut, letterbox, anamorphic). In spite of the small size, the MXO2 Mini gives you a wealth of control to up, down and cross-convert SD and HD video streams.

Who is it for?

Clearly good things come in small sizes, but some users will find the missing items, like lack of RS-422 and SDI a deal-breaker. Those customers are better served by the other MXO2 products. On the other hand, I see a number of markets where the Mini is just right. For instance, if you work almost exclusively with file-based acquisition (P2, XDCAM, EX, etc.) and never need to capture from a digital tape deck (Digital Betacam, HDCAM, etc.) then the Mini may be for you. Most of these editors are mainly interested high-quality monitoring. Modern HD displays are adopting the HDMI standard, so the Mini fits the bill.

Another scenario is the multi-suite facility. In many of these operations, one room does the primary ingest and mastering to and from tape, while the other rooms are connected to shared storage and handle the editing chores. Again, only high-quality monitoring is required in these rooms, so no need to spend extra for I/O capability that is never used. In this situation, one main room equipped with an MXO2 Rack and several satellite suites with MXO2 Minis would seem like an ideal configuration.

Of course, the obvious – location monitoring with a laptop – goes without saying. It’s a small, light unit that’s ideally suited for this environment. Another nice feature in the control panel is HDMI calibration. Since low cost rooms frequently use consumer-grade HD LCD displays in lieu of broadcast monitors, the MXO2 Mini includes calibration controls to adjust the HDMI output for the display panel it’s connected to.

Encoding

Monitoring and I/O are only part of the equation, now that MAX has been added. When the MXO2 software is installed, it adds a component to route Apple Compressor’s H.264 encoding through the accelerator chip inside the MXO2 unit. This can be deactivated from the control panel, in case you don’t want to use it for some reason. Matrox-specific selections are also added to the various preset groups in Compressor. Pick one of the Matrox versions of an H.264 setting, such as for Apple TV or an iPhone, and it will be optimized to work in conjunction with the MAX chip. You can also create and save your own custom settings.

So, how much faster is it? I took a 6:30-long 1080i Apple ProRes QuickTime movie and encoded it a number of different ways, using the MXO2 Mini, as well as other applications. The Mini was installed on my Core 2 Duo 2.4GHz MacBook Pro, which gave me a chance to compare hardware acceleration on the slower machine versus software-only encoding on my faster 8-core 2.26GHz Mac Pro. The software I used included Apple Compressor (without the Mini), Adobe Media Encoder, Sorenson Squeeze 6 and Telestream Episode Pro.

The 8-core MacPro – using Compressor without MAX acceleration – took about 30 minutes to encode this clip into two targets (Apple TV and iPhone). The same clip running on the laptop with the MXO2 Mini was encoded in about 20 minutes, but there I assigned a total of three presets (Apple TV, iPhone and custom SD size). So, more encoded files in less time using a “slower” machine. When I encoded the same file on the MacBook Pro, using Compressor with MAX deactivated, the iPhone preset alone required 50 minutes to encode.

Encoding times vary depending on scaling, cropping, deinterlacing and so on. Another comparison was to convert this clip to a Blu-ray preset, where no resizing was involved. The Matrox-accelerated encoding was approximately real-time, while various software-only times on the 8-core covered a wide range from Adobe Media Encoder (fastest) at 15 minutes to Compressor at 26 minutes. The quality of the MAX-encoded files always looked clean and compression artifacts compared favorably with the best of any of these encoders.

H.264 Playback

The 1.9 software for MXO2 products was released in February and includes Matrox’s new Vetura Playback application. This player enables H.264 playback through the MXO2 ports, complete with SD and HD conversion. The intent is for field and studio playback of H.264 sources. For instance, Matrox envisions a field journalist cutting a story and encoding it to H.264 for a fast internet feed back to master control. This can then go straight to air using the Vetura Playback application and an MXO2 product.

I don’t know if news operations will see it this way or not, but at least it does work. I took a number of my test files (1080i source clips that were encoded to Apple TV and iPhone presets) and played them through Vetura. These files played back correctly through both the HDMI port to my HD display, as well as through the composite SD channel to an older NTSC TV set.

One interesting area to look at is the trend to use HDSLR cameras like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Canon EOS 7D for real production, including news. These hybrid cameras record H.264 1080p QuickTime movies. I took some original 5D files straight into Vetura and they played just fine in both HD and SD to the two monitors. The only quirk was that the 5D files are a true 30fps and so ran slightly fast. The video seemed to look fine, but audio sounded sped up. Unfortunately, I don’t have any 7D files, which use a video-friendly 29.97fps rate, available to test.

The reason these hybrid cameras were originally developed was to service photojournalists who also shoot video. It seems like the Mini and Vetura application could easily play an increasing role in this ecosystem. It will be interesting to see where Matrox takes the MXO2 family in the future.

Written for Videography magazine and NewBay Media LLC

©2010 Oliver Peters