This is a review of the BlackMagic Intensity Extreme from the perspective of using it to capture gameplay footage from video game consoles and iOS devices. There’s some functionality that I don’t cover in this review, simply because it’s not necessary if all you’re looking to do is find a quick and simple way to capture high quality uncompressed gameplay footage.
The Problem with Capturing High Quality Gameplay Footage…
Having made quite a few game trailers over the last year and a bit, I’ve played around with a lot of video capture software. From FRAPS to Screenflow, there’s literally dozens of applications out there that allow you to record the contents of your screen and save them as a video. But sometimes, software solutions just won’t cut it or just plain don’t work.
If you want to capture footage of an iOS game, you can try and run it on your Mac in the iOS Simulator. If you can get it to run there, there’s a good chance that you can run Screenflow at the same time, and capture your footage that way. But what happens if you can’t run your game in the simulator at all, or what if you’re using accelerometer controls, or maybe the game runs too slowly in the simulator?
One potential solution to this problem is an application called Reflection. This basically mirrors the contents of your iOS device to your Mac over WiFi. Pretty cool, but it has it’s own issues, from choppy frame rates, to slight lag.
Another potential problem is heavy 3D games. Running Screenflow or another capture app at the same time takes up some significant CPU/GPU resources, and the game can start to run at a lower frame rate than you want.
Why the Intensity Extreme is a Solution to these Problems…
All of these problems basically point to one solution: You need to capture a raw video feed from your device. If you run your game on a console, Mac/PC, or iPad/iPhone, you can take the video out, plug it into the Intensity Extreme, and capture the footage on another computer with no overhead on the gaming device. This generally results in flawless playback and capture, if your SSD or hard drives are fast enough.
This is how video capture has been done for years when working with analog and even some digital tape formats, so this workflow is nothing new to seasoned video pros. The difference is older video capture cards generally involve having a PC/Mac tower with a really fast RAID setup with tons of I/O bandwidth. Capturing uncompressed HD video has massive data I/O requirements so you need a pretty beefy setup to handle that kind of load.
Amazingly, now we can accomplish this with a cheap(ish) laptop. SSD’s are basically becoming standard on laptops, and (most of them) support the high I/O bandwidth needs of capturing uncompressed video. Now with Thunderbolt, the bandwidth is available to feed that content into our laptops. Considering I paid thousands of dollars on hard drives and capture cards to capture standard definition video on my Powermac 7500/100 back in the day, the fact that I can capture uncompressed HD video on my 11″ Macbook air kind of blows my mind…
About the BlackMagic Intensity Extreme…
The first thing that strikes you about this little box is that it’s not much bigger than an iPhone (check out the size comparison pict above) so it’s super easy to throw in a backpack, and capture uncompressed video in a coffee shop (we’re living in the FUTURE people!!) There’s also no power brick, since the device receives power through the Thunderbolt Cable.
The first immediate gotcha, is that the device doesn’t ship with a thunderbolt cable. So you’ll need to pick one up at your local Apple store, or grab one from Amazon or B&H when you buy the Intensity Extreme.
There’s HDMI In/Out on the front of the device, with a connector to the breakout cable, which allows you to capture RCA Video in, Analog RCA Audio In/Out along with Component video in/out. There’s also an AES/EBU Out which is used for outputting digital audio. I’ve never had to use that connection, so I’m not really sure how it’s used… As far as that hardware goes, there’s really not much to it.
There’s some drivers and software that you install in order to interface and actually capture footage with the device. First up is the BlackMagic System Preferences that allows you to configure various aspects of how the device inputs and exports video. This allows you to configure wherether or not you want to use the analog RCA Audio in, instead of using the digital audio that comes through the HDMI cable. It’s pretty stratight forward, but it’s kind of weird that this control is split out here, rather than in the Blackmagic Media Express capture app. There’s also some settings to specify analog Audio and Video levels, but those can largely be ignored, since 99% of the time, you’re going to want to capture your gameplay digitally through the HDMI Input.
Disk Speed Test
The 2nd app that comes with the device is the Black Magic Disk Speed Test app. You can actually grab it for free on the Mac App Store, if you want to test your drives out ahead of time, which is probably a good idea… This is kind of crucial, since it tests how fast your HD’s/SSD’s read and write. This directly affects what resolution and frame rate you’re able to capture your footage at without dropping frames.
There was some ruffled feathers about a year ago when Apple first started shipping the 2011 Macbook Air’s. It looked like Apple was shipping two different brands and speeds of SSD drives in the same model of laptop. There was no way to figure out which one you were going to get until the machine was in your hands. This isn’t really the place to go on a rant about how deceptive this is, but suffice it to say, check your SSD speeds. It’s rumoured that Apple is going to be shipping even faster SSD’s with 500MB write speeds in 2012, so that’s more than enough bandwidth for uncompressed HD video.
Also keep in mind that you’re going to need TONS of disk space. Since it’s uncompressed, it doesn’t really matter what’s going on screen, and you’re going to be eating up disk space at the rate of about 125MB/sec. This means that a simple 12 second game-play clip at 1080p30 is going to eat up about 1.5GB.
BlackMagic Media Express
The third and most important piece of software is the BlackMagic Media Express app. This is what you will be using to capture your video. This piece of software looks like it’s BlackMagic’s generic video capturing application, so there’s lots of bells and whistles here that simply don’t apply when using the Intensity Extreme like controlling a tape deck.
Basically the most important setting is held in the preferences, and that’s the Project Video Format popup menu. This is also my biggest pet peeve about the device. Unless you know specifically what resolution/frame rate your device is outputting, you need to hunt and peck through this preferences window in order to find the right setting. For example, the iPad 3 outputs at 1080p30, but until you know that, you have to open the preferences, select a resolution, close the dialog, and check if you can see anything. If not, you have to go back and repeat until you find the right setting. Kind of annoying, but once you know what resolution and frame rates your devices output at, it’s not a problem.
Resolution Issues with the Apple Digital AV Adapters for iPad/iPhone
For game consoles and computers, you can specify what resolution they output at, but for things like the iPad and iPhone, it’s not so clear. This is where I ran into a weird issue. Basically, if you have a newer iPad 3, you have to buy a new Apple Digital AV Connector that was released since the iPad 3 was released. When I first tried to capture footage from my iPad 3, I was using an older Apple Digital AV Adapter, and I was limited to capturing at 720p60 resolution, which is a bit of a shame. I was hoping to capture full 1080p, but the Intensity Extreme would not recognize the video signal from the iPad when that was selected.
On a whim, I bought a new Apple Digital AV Adapter and low and behold, now I can capture 1080p30, so I’m getting 1/2 the frame rate (30fps instead of 60fps), but way more resolution, which is a fine since I’ve never had a need to capture at more than 30 frames per second.
Final image resolution when capturing from an iPad 3
Even though you’re technically capturing a 1080p video when you’re capturing footage from an iPad, you’re actually not getting a full 1080 lines of vertical resolution. For some reason, the signal from the iPad is under-scanned, which means that you’re loosing a little bit of space on the top and bottom of the image. I’m guessing Apple’s doing this since some TV’s probably display the HDMI feed over-scanned and crop off the top and bottom of the image. I wish there was a way to turn this off, but it doesnt’ look like there’s any way around it.
So, what you end up getting is a 1294×970 image out of it, which isn’t bad, but you’re loosing 110 pixels vertically. Check out the image to the right to get an idea of how that works…
The final verdict
- VERY reasonably priced!
- Super small form factor with no power cable
- Software is super simple and easy to use
- Quality of the captured footage is flawless looks awesome and is easy to work with
- Capture through HDMI, Component, or RCA Video
- Doesn’t come with a thunderbolt cable
- Only captures footage at the frame rate/resolution that the device is outputting
- Can not capture 1080p 60fps
- No Thunderbolt pass-through so it ties up your likely only thunderbolt port
Now that I solved the issue with getting 1080p output out of the iPad 3, I couldn’t be happier with the Intensity Extreme. It’s super simple to use, and very reliable from the amount I’ve used it thus far.
A few things to be aware of: It will likely use up your only thunderbolt port, since there’s no thunderbolt passthrough. In my case, it uses up the thunderbolt port on my Macbook Air, which also doubles as my mini-display port to drive my 27″ monitor. This means that whenever I want to capture footage, I have to do so on the 11″ screen on my MBA. This isn’t the end of the world, but it is slightly annoying, since the UI of the Blackmagic Media Express app isn’t made to fit on this tiny screen and certain UI elements get chopped off.
The one thing that would have made the Intensity extreme PERFECT is the ability to capture 1080p60. For whatever reason, it can’t capture at that frame rate, and the closest we can get is 1080i 59.94. For the purposes of capturing gameplay footage for use on the web, this isn’t really a deal breaker for me, since YouTube and Vimeo both cap out at 30fps. So even if you did create a video that played back at 60fps, once uploaded to Vimeo/YouTube, it would be re-encoded to 30fps. If you do need to capture 1080p60, the Ultra Studio 3D will do that.
If you have any questions about the device, let me know!