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How to Capture DV video via USB

... or How to capture DV video if your laptop does not have a firewire port.

For DV digital camcorders (MiniDV, Digital8 etc), video is copied from the camcorder to the computer hard drive via a firewire cable. All DV camcorders are equipped with a firewire port, but your computer must also be equipped with a firewire port before you can connect the two together with a firewire cable and capture (copy) video to your computer's hard drive. If your computer is not equipped with a firewire port then you may be able to add one, or use our suggestion for capturing through your computer's USB port.

Before we discuss how to capture DV video over USB, let's look at how you might be able to add a firewire port to your desktop or laptop computer if it does not already have one.

If you have a desktop PC, it may already have a firewire port. If it does not, then you can add an inexpensive PCI firewire expansion card (see photo on the right). This is fitted inside the system case of your desktop PC and provides an external firewire port that you can plug your firewire cable into. The card may come with device drivers that you must install on your PC before the firewire port will be recognised by Windows. Check the details of the card to ensure that any drivers that come with it are compatible with your version of Windows. Also if you are using a 64 bit edition of Windows, make sure that the drivers are 64 bit compatible (older cards may only come with 32 bit drivers).

If you have a laptop, then it might have a firewire port. However, nearly all laptops produced in the last few years do not because DV is increasingly seen as a legacy video format. If your laptop does not have a firewire port, then provided it does have an ExpressCard or PCMCIA expansion slot you can buy a firewire ExpressCard or PCMCIA card that simply slides into the expansion slot and provides you with your firewire port. The photo on the right shows a typical firewire ExpressCard. Make sure that any drivers that may come with the card are compatible with your version and bitness (32 or 64) of Windows.

However, most modern laptops do not come supplied with an expansion slot, as USB is seen to be the modern method of expanding a laptop. So in this case, how can you capture video from your DV camcorder?

Well, you could connect your camcorder's analog video output socket (often labeled "Composite" or "S-video") to a video capture device (often called a "breakout box") which is capable of converting the anolog signal from your camcorder into a digital form (e.g. MPEG-2 or MJPEG), but the image quality will suffer to some degree. This is because the native digital DV recording will be converted to analog inside the camcorder, and then converted again from analog to digital inside the breakout box - that's TWO analog/digital conversions, each of which will lose some picture quality. Worse still, the breakout box will be using a lossy digital compression format which will lose even more picture quality. Most if not all video capture products that come with a breakout box work this way. Check the ports on the breakout box - if it only has analog ports such as Composite or S-video, but does not have a firewire port then it must be doing this 2-times conversion and lossy compression. If picture quality matters to you, avoid products which rely on the analog output from your camcorder. It is far better to find a solution which copies the exact digital DV video data from the camcorder to your computer's hard drive without any conversion taking place.

Incidentally, if you have any of the older Video8 or Hi8 analog tapes, the analog camcorder will only be equipped with analog video ports, so you will only be able to use one of those analog breakout boxes. However, if you also have a Digital8 digital camcorder, you will find that most Digital8 models can play analog Video8 and Hi8 tapes and internally convert them to digital DV format which can then be captured from its firewire port, just as if it was playing a real Digital8 tape.

Most laptops have USB ports, and some camcorders have USB ports too, so can't you just capture your video over a USB connection? Well, in most cases the USB port on the camcorder is only available to copy still photos or to use a low resolution web-cam mode, but not for the transferring of DV video. There are a tiny number of Sony camcorders that are able to send DV video over USB, but these require the use of special software that comes supplied with the camcorder. Apart from that, nearly all DV camcorders are only able to send DV video across firewire.

However, with a bit of extra hardware you CAN capture over USB!

There are several small firewire-to-USB adaptor plugs available, but just by looking at the reviews you will see that none of them work successfully - at least for use with DV camcorders. The firewire and USB data transfer methods are completely different and it requires more sophisticated hardware than a simple adaptor to transfer data reliably between the two.

The Pinnacle MovieBox is a small oval unit with a built-in processor and buffering capabilities that means it can capture from firewire to USB with ease. On the front of the unit is a series of input sockets. One of these is a DV In firewire connector, and you connect your DV camcorder's DV Out socket to it using a firewire cable. On the back of the unit is a single USB output socket and you use a USB cable to connect this to one of the USB ports on your laptop. MovieBox comes supplied with the necessary firewire cable and USB cable.

The MovieBox will receive the DV data from your camcorder, and send it unchanged (in a USB wrapper) via the USB cable to your laptop.

MovieBox comes with a device driver that you must install on your laptop. The device driver effectively pretends to be a DV capture device that appears when the camcorder is powered-on and connected fully through the MovieBox as shown above, and disappears when the camcorder is powered-off or the connection is broken - this is exactly the same behaviour as when a camcorder is directly connected to a computer via a real firewire port. So, any video capturing software that you are using should be able to use the device driver, and behave as if the laptop had a real firewire port with a camcorder connected to it.

It all seems to work transparently - it correctly reports when the camcorder is in camera or VCR mode, and even the tape transport control works through the MovieBox. So if your capture software has on-screen tape transport buttons (play, pause, stop etc), then clicking these will affect the camcorder - this works great with DVMP Pro 7.

The MovieBox also comes with additional software such as Pinnacle Studio HD version 14 which can be used for video editing, but if you do not wish to install this because you already have your own favourite video editing software, then you only need to install the device driver and it should work with all video capture software. The device driver installer can be found in the "Drivers" folder of the accompanying CD. Depending on whether your version of Windows is 32 bit or 64 bit, just double-click either the file Pinnacle_Video_Driver_32bit.exe or Pinnacle_Video_Driver_64bit.exe and when installation is complete reboot your laptop (we found we had to reboot twice for some reason). Then connect your DV camcorder to the MovieBox unit, and connect that to your laptop and start up your video capturing software.

We found MovieBox to be very reliable, apart from the first capture which froze the laptop and we had to power it off. This was a bit ominous, but we were then able to capture from dozens of tapes without any problems at all.

There is a bit of a problem however. Pinnacle who make MovieBox were bought out by Avid a few years ago but they continued with production, so you may see it referred to as Pinnacle MovieBox or Avid MovieBox. Then in 2012 Corel bought the domestic video product range from Avid which apparently includes MovieBox, and unfortunately it looks like MovieBox is no longer being produced - the DV format is getting fairly old now, so I guess it had to happen eventually.

Currently, MovieBox does not seem to be available from any major suppliers, but you will probably find it on online auction sites for a while yet. If you have a large collection of tapes it might be worth looking at MovieBox before it becomes more difficult to find.

Also, you may want to check the MovieBox version before you buy it, because the latest version 14 is the only one that supports Windows 7. Versions before 14 only support earlier versions of Windows. And note that Windows 8 is not supported by any version of MovieBox.

Please note that Pinnacle are currently advertising that "Studio Moviebox is now called Dazzle DVD Recorder HD and it is better than ever". However, the Dazzle only has analog input ports so it only acts like an analog breakout box as described earlier. The Dazzle does not have a firewire port so it can not be used for capturing DV digital data from DV camcorders.

Update: We recently tried MovieBox version 14 on Windows 8.1 and it seems to work fine! The device driver installed without a hitch, and after a reboot we were able to successfully capture a couple of hours of video. We only tried it for a short period, so although it worked OK for us, we can't be sure that issues may not have arisen with a longer period of use. Nevertheless, a pretty good bonus considering that MovieBox is not officially supported on Windows 8 or 8.1.

Further Update: We have also tried MovieBox version 14 on the final release version of Windows 10 and it seems to work OK there aswell! We didn't even need to do a reboot - just installed the device driver from the DVD, plugged in the MovieBox and it worked right away. There were no issues in the few hours that we tried it, but remember that Windows 10 isn't supported by Pinnacle at all so there are no guarantees. Also note that the drivers are not signed, so make sure that you only install them from the installer file on the official Pinnacle CD.

Although MovieBox is a great solution for laptops, you can also use it if you have a desktop PC that has no firewire port. It is cheaper to open the system case and add an inexpensive PCI firewire expansion card to your desktop, and it is a relatively straightforward operation, but if you prefer not to mess with its internals then MovieBox can provide a good solution for desktop computers too.


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