Software Scope Shootout
Are software scopes too good to be true?
By Steve Hullfish | July 11, 2008
So I'm finally continuing my earlier article on software versus hardware scopes, with a shootout of the top software scope sets. The scopes I'm using for the shoot out include the Hamlet VidScope and Adobe OnLocation on the PC, Divergent Media's ScopeBox on the Mac and the dedicated Tektronix WFM7120. I also added Synthetic Aperture's Test Gear, which is a scope set exclusively for After Effects.
All of these solutions have their plusses and minuses. I'll start with Divergent Media's Scopebox. This was by far the easiest to use out of the four. Configuring it was very quick and easy and it had a great looking user interface that was very Mac-like. Part of the ease of use was due to good, clean design, part to the fact that it's on a Mac, and partly because it offered the least amount of customization options. That's one of the quandaries of writing a piece of software. The more options and customization and capability you add, the harder it is to use. I would say that the designers of Scopebox walked a very nice line between adding functionality and ease of use. Before I continue with the things I really liked about Scopebox, I'll add my other big complaint, which is that the UI is broken into four panes, much like an Adobe product, but unlike Adobe, you can't get rid of panes that you don't want. So there's a lot of wasted screen real estate most of the time.
The four panes or panels are the source bar, the palette, the sidebar and the recorder/clip list. The source bar is pretty cool because you can call up numerous live and pre-recorded sources all at the same time, so you could effectively see all of the cameras in a multi-cam shoot, for example. You can record - and monitor - multiple Firewire or video card inputs. Obviously you'd need some extreme throughput and recording capabilities to be able to record multiple HDV or even HD sources simultaneously, but you could do it with enough horsepower. But if you're simply monitoring a single video input from a video card or QCing a Quicktime movie, the source is just a small icon in an otherwise empty pane that takes up about a fifth of your screen. Part of the function of the source bar is that it allows you to control the source if it's a Quicktime, but it's pretty redundant to see the same image in the source bar that you have in the Palette as a Preview monitor. Also, since most people are used to controlling their source using the space bar and the JKL keys, why allow the user to hide the source bar and do all of the control of the source using keyboard commands, instead of being forced to use the mouse?
The Palette is where all of the action is. That's where you put all of your cool scopes: waveform monitors, preview monitors, vectorscopes, histograms, and VU meters. These tools are easy to add, subtract and customize, but there just isn't enough room for them all because of the other three panes.
The sidebar pane has great information and is very useful, but once I've checked it out, I want to get rid of the panel and concentrate on the Palette panel. Divergent Media should make it optional to get rid of this panel as well.
The bottom pane or panel is for recording and saving clips. That's all well and good it you are actually recording to your Mac, but maybe all you want is the scopes, so then it would be nice to be able to get rid of the recording panel too. After all, this isn't a product that is being marketed as "RecordingBox" but "ScopeBox!"
I am a little disappointed at the lack of customization of the views in ScopeBox. Granted, most of the other computer-based scopes are just as bad or even worse. This is where the Tektronix really shines. There are so many ways to configure the scopes in the Tek. The other close runner up in this category of customization is the Hamlet VidScope. All of these companies need to look at the "big boys" like Tek and Omni and Leader, and see all of the options to zoom, pan, configure and analyze the image.
Scopebox does have some very cool recording ability, but that's not really the point of this article. It's very similar to Adobe's OnLocation, with functions like cached recording, so you can actually start a recording up to 30 seconds too late, and still capture the beginning of it! It can also monitor the camera's tape recording mode to determine when to begin recording to disk.
I haven't been very impressed with the fine detail of any of these scopes compared to a dedicated wave/vector, but ScopeBox was slightly superior to the other two computer based competitors. What helps is the ability to choose from a few different display options. If you're looking for an HD scope for very little money, then maybe when you step up to your next big Mac, you'll save the aging dual core system and keep your old Kona 2 card or whatever you've got in it and turn it into a nice scope. It's a lot cheaper than buying a "real" scope, and you can still use it as a render farm or for whatever else you want when you're not using the scope functions.
Hamlet's VidScope is another contender in the scope wars. This one wins hands down in the number of options and customizability of the interface. There are a ton of ways to configure the VidScope. The downside to this is that it's also probably the hardest of the three computer-based models to use. Don't get me wrong: this is NOT a complex program with a steep learning curve, but it is the one that I actually had to break out the users manual to get it up and running beyond just doing the basics.
At first blush, I didn't like the waveform and vectorscope displays at all. They were too low-resolution and pixilated, but then I discovered - by reading the manual - that there were sliders to control the decay, scale and brightness of the scopes. And the REALLY cool thing is that you can adjust them in real time as the video is playing or recording. You can set the brightness and decay lower to get a finer image, or higher to make sure you can see ALL of the displayed pixels.
The VidScope is also capable of recording video to disk, but it definitely seems to be more of a quality control device than the ScopeBox. It has logging controls and export functions that allow errors in levels to be logged, corresponding to incoming timecode. If that's something that you find useful, then this is the software for you. Most of the hardware scopes, like the Tek WFM 7120 have this capability as well.
The question for some of these features becomes "What do you need scopes for?" If you need them to do color correction, then you need nice accurate scopes with fine detail that are fairly configurable so you get the information you need in an easy glance. If you want to do direct-to-disk recording, then it seems to me that scopes are kind of incidental, and what you really need is foolproof recording that you can't screw up. Something with the same kind of redundancy as that last sentence. If you want to QC tapes or video files before they are sent to a broadcaster or web publisher, then the logging feature is going to be really handy.
My main issue with the Hamlet product was that the user interface was definitely not elegant. Functional? Yes. But it definitely felt like Windows 3.0 instead of Mac OSX.
On the plus side, it had some decent audio monitoring tools and the ability to overlay custom files (like grids, other images and such) over the incoming video. The ScopeBox also has this ability, so you can overlay things like a background for a greenscreen shot or a previous take or shot so that you can line up the composition to match or compare.
OnLocation was the first set of computer-based scopes I ever laid eyes on, back when it was called DVRack. I was really excited by it then, but Adobe hasn't done much with it since then.
As with most Adobe products, this one is very easy to use and has a slick user interface that is definitely the most fun and coolest of the bunch because they have made it look like actual gear in a rack. My main issue with it is that it is so "designey" that they've actually screwed up the functionality of the waveform and vectorscope because they've made them look too much like the old-timey "retro" scopes. That's cool if you're the design geek who made the software, but it's much less cool if you're actually trying to get something out of the scopes themselves. These are supposed to be important, modern, central tools, and instead they look like something out of the control room in Das Boot.
Adobe also wins in the "get a lot of stuff in the box" category. The list of devices that you can "fill your rack" with consists of: a 4:3 field monitor, a 16:9 field monitor, a 720p field monitor, Digital Video recorder, a Sureshot camera Setup (basically for insuring focus, levels and white balance), DV Quality monitor (QC logger), Waveform monitor, RGB Waveform, Vectorscope, Audio Spectrum Analyzer, Spectra 60 (eyedropper tool), DV Grabber (still store) and a Shot Clock (timecode).
If you're out in the field and shooting and recording using a Firewire/IEE1394 camera, then this is the software to own, but I don't think it really belongs in this shootout as a postproduction tool. I guess the name really says it all here: OnLocation. I'd love to see what Adobe could do if it moved this tool into the postproduction realm, allowing you to monitor HD and SD signals coming in from a real video card.
Another contender in the field, though limited to being a plug-in for After Effects, is Synthetic Aperture's Test Gear. Synthetic Aperture also makes the color correction application Color Finesse, which is also a plug-in for After Effects and Premiere. The interesting thing about the way that Test Gear works in After Effects is that it doesn't come up as an Effect, but is called up by way of workspaces. Each piece of test gear in the suite of tools can be called up into a separate window. This has an incredibly clean look and is very functional. The tools that it provides are also very thorough: waveform, monitor, swatches, color picker, audio spectrum, audio phase, slice graph (waveform to view individual lines of the image), vectorscope, gamut display and histogram.
Synthetic Aperture really hits on all cylinders here. The way that each tool (panel) is configurable is easily set with the simple menu that is accessed from each panel. I was worried at first that there was no RGB waveform, but it's easily configured by menu from the standard waveform menu. Adobe really needs to take a lesson from Synthetic Aperture when it comes to OnLocation. Test Gear isn't as fun or fancy as OnLocation, but when it comes to functionality, it wins hands down. Maybe what I'm hoping for is the sexy love child of OnLocation and Test Gear.
The only other issue with all of these scopes is accuracy. I did find differences in the way the scopes measured incoming files, but it's hard to compare the live video signals since some scopes are really designed for SDI input while others are based on Firewire and others can only look at Quicktime or other pre-captured video files. Because I couldn't get the exact same video source to all of the programs, I just don't feel I can make an informed criticism of the accuracy of each of the scopes.
To sum up the shoot out, I'd say that ScopeBox is the easiest to use. VidScope is the most configurable and the best for QC purposes with its logging feature. OnLocation is the best for location shooting with DV or HDV sources and is the "funnest." And Test Gear is wonderful, but limited to After Effects.
For hardcore video work on a day to day basis, I still believe that a dedicated scope is best, but it's growing increasingly difficult for all but the highest tier of post-production to justify the cost of these machines. If you don't have a lot of money, and you have a spare computer and maybe even a spare video card lying around, you are going to be well served by the ScopeBox and VidScope. If you have clients that turn to you for full-time color correction and quality control of broadcast productions, check out the offerings from Tektronix, like their new, entry level box, the WVR4000 or WVR 5000 or OmniTek.
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