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Review: Magewell Capture Plus Series

Magewell's USB Capture Plus line of HDMI, SDI, and DVI USB 3.0 capture devices proved a reliable linchpin of mobile, laptop-based conference video switching and streaming to Facebook Live.
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In addition to Streaming Media East and Streaming Media West, Streaming Media’s parent company, Information Today, Inc., produces a number of other B2B conferences, in areas ranging from library technology to knowledge management to content marketing to customer relationship management. One of my jobs as in-house video guy is to attend a number of these conferences and produce video. I film sessions, interviews, testimonials, B-roll, and deliver live streams, highlight clips, promos, and so forth. In some cases, the purpose is to capture the news of the show or generate substantive content for associated websites and social media outlets; in others, the idea is to heighten the profile of the conference or to show non-attendees what they’re missing.

Last November, shortly before the Gilbane Conference, I was asked to stream the conference keynotes to Facebook Live. The normal baseline for capturing live talks with PowerPoints, of course, is to put at least one camera on the speaker, capture the slide presentation, and switch between them. On short notice, for various reasons, I wasn’t able to assemble a viable live-switched streaming setup for this conference, but was fortunate that the keynotes were either panel discussions without slides, or single-speaker presentations where the presenter stood at the podium adjacent to the screen and didn’t move. In both scenarios, a single medium shot captured by my Sony PXW-X70 and streamed to Facebook via a mounted Teradek VidiU Pro got the job done.

Enter Magewell

For video I was capturing at the Computers in Libraries 2017 conference in late March, I set out to assemble a laptop-based workflow, with multiple sources switched and streamed to Facebook Live using Telestream’s Wirecast. For cameras, I’d be working with two Sony PXW-X70s—one medium or wide shot, one close-up on the presenter. For the PowerPoint or Keynote presentation, I’d have a VGA feed from the presenter’s laptop via a video distribution amplifier (VDA) at the front of the room (with the laptop feed also routed to the screens on opposite sides of the stage).

To get these sources into my ASUS ROG G751T laptop, I requested three units from Magewell’s new USB Capture Plus line. Because the X70s have both HDMI and HD-SDI outputs, and because a VGA feed converts easily to DVI with a small adapter, I requested one HDMI, one HD-SDI, and one DVI model. If I were concerned about long cable runs from the cameras to the laptop, I would have requested USB Capture Plus SDI models for both cameras, but I was switching the feeds from the same back-of-the-room riser where my cameras were positioned, so HDMI’s acknowledged shortcomings for disparate camera locations weren’t really a factor, and it seemed worthwhile to test both models.

The Magewell USB Capture Plus line are single-channel capture devices (Figure 1, below), roughly the size and shape of a pack of cigarettes, that take HDMI, SDI, or DVI feeds from cameras or other external devices and process them for capture via USB 3.0 to laptops or other computers. The Capture Plus devices show up without requiring driver installs, and do all the processing internally to make the captured video usable in applications like Wirecast without offloading any of the processing to the computer’s CPU or GPU. All of the models in the Capture Plus line also capture embedded audio. Although I was using the audio feed from only one camera (the one capturing the soundboard audio via XLR), I could have switched between sources from all of the devices connected to my laptop through the USB Capture Plus units. Other features of the Magewell Capture Plus units include loop-through, the ability to connect an HDMI monitor to the units for monitoring during capture.

Figure 1. The Magewell Capture Plus family. Click the image to see it at full size.

Magewell isn’t the only company that makes this a USB capture dongle; in the past, we’ve looked at older AV.io models from Epiphan that perform the same basic function. Jan Ozer demo’d a similar Wirecast-centric setup using the AV.io DVI models in September 2015. I used the same setup at a conference that December with middling results. Although the capture proved reliable and functional (and driver-less as promised), the DVI connection (converted from HDMI) significantly downgraded the image coming out of the camera. To be fair, Epiphan makes HDMI and SDI-based AV.io units now up to 4K that almost certainly capture much higher-quality images than the older DVI-only models, but I haven’t tested those products. (Magewell offers 4K Capture Plus devices as well, though I tested the HD versions. Even though one of my Sony X70s was 4K-capable, given that I was shooting in HD, recording in 1080p, and streaming in 720p, 4K would have been overkill for my needs.)

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Available immediately, Magewell's 4K USB Capture Plus devices enable all types of computers including laptops to capture video at resolutions up to 4096x2160 through a standard USB 3.0 interface