GV - July 1999
Scan Converters Hang Tough
By Sheldon Liebman
The market for scan converters is being attacked these days on a number of fronts. Traditionally, scan converters have been used for presenting computer data to large groups on video projectors, recording computer-based information onto videotape (or broadcasting it over traditional television channels) and transmitting computer screens over videoconferencing links.
All three of these areas are undergoing changes that affect the need to use scan conversion. In the area of presentation, video projectors have evolved into data projectors and often include the ability to accept computer signals directly. Depending on the "native" resolution of the projector mechanics, a scan converter may still offer a better image, but many people and companies are willing to settle for acceptable results if they can eliminate one piece of equipment.
Another change affecting this area is the growth of line doublers and quadruplers. In the past, mixing videotape, camera inputs and computer signals was accomplished by converting everything down to standard video. Today, it's more likely that the video sources will be upconverted to match the computer data instead of the other way around. This preserves the detail of the original computer data and allows the video to be presented in a progressive scan environment.
The area of recording and broadcasting computer data is being affected by the growth of the new DTV formats as well as extremely low end scan converters. In the DTV area, the wide range of acceptable formats presents new opportunities to record data at higher resolutions than traditional video, again preserving more of the original information. Usually, support for these formats is provided by "scalers" instead of scan converters. At the other end, more and more graphics cards and notebook computers come with "built-in" support for video at either 640x480 VGA or even 800x600 SVGA resolutions. Using these cards and notebooks eliminates the need for a separate scan converter. As with the projection market, you can often get a better result using a scan converter, but people will "settle" for the direct output since no additional equipment is required.
In the area of videoconferencing, the growth of computer-based videoconferencing systems can often eliminate the need for a separate scan converter. If the display is already coming through a computer, transmitting a window on the computer screen is usually supported through a "whiteboard" function. The growth of the Internet and the use of products like Microsoft NetMeeting not only affect scan converters, but are also having an impact on the sale of traditional videoconferencing systems.
Scaling New Heights
As a result of the developments above, many of the companies involved in scan conversion have shifted their attention to the development of "scalers" instead of traditional scan converters. Scalers offer the ability to upconvert as well as downconvert and can provide both progressive scan and interlaced output.
It's a question of deciding what business you're in and taking the steps to develop appropriate products for your markets. In every business school or management course, a discussion usually takes place about how railroads had the opportunity to decide they were in the "transportation" business instead of the "railroad" business. Of course, they chose the latter and the industry suffered as a result. In the same way, the companies in this industry can choose to be in the "computer-to-video" conversion business or to embrace the full scope of "scan conversion" as it has evolved over the past few years. To their credit, most of these companies are evolving with the industry.
Getting More for Less
Traditional computer-to-video scan conversion hasn't disappeared, but the products being offered have evolved in three areas to meet today's market challenges - price, features and quality.
High end products sell today for the same price as midrange products of a few years ago. Lower end professional products are available for under $1500 and, in some cases, for less than $1000. Features like pan and zoom, which were limited to the higher end products just a few years ago, exist on virtually every product being sold into our market. Serial Digital (D-1) output is also becoming more common. The upper limit of scan conversion has increased to 1600 x 1200 in many cases, up from 1280 x 1024 a couple of years ago and 1024 x 768 a few years before that. And the quality of the conversion has improved, especially in areas like flicker reduction and genlock.
At this year's INFOCOMM, held last month in Orlando, this new technology was showcased. Here is a summary of who has what:
Although Analog Way is a new name for us, the company's products have been sold in the U.S. for a number of years. Recently, they introduced a new, higher-end scan converter called the Studio Scan XTD 820 R. The 820 R accepts incoming images up to 1600 x 1280 and can auto scan up to 110 KHz. Another model, the Studio Scan XTD 820 RD, adds serial digital video output.
CSI recently added another model to their Scan Do product line, the Scan Do Select. This new model accepts inputs up to 1280 x 1024 and provides composite and s-video outputs. It also features a built-in color bar generator and zoom capabilities. According to the company, no other products offer this many features at this price level.
Extron's VSC line of scan converters was recently expanded with the introduction of the VSC 50, a lower cost companion to the VSC 100, VSC 200 and VSC 300 product families. The VSC 50 supports inputs up to 832 x 624 to convert PC and Mac signals into composite or s-video outputs. This small footprint product also supports underscan and overscan.
Since last year's show, Focus Enhancements has purchased PC Video Conversion and created a Professional Products division incorporating existing PC Video products as well as a new product line, the TView Pro AV. The TView Pro AV is available as a standalone unit, a rack mount product or a PCI form factor card that fits directly into a PC-compatible computer. This new product offers 2X pan and zoom as well as image freeze. Input is up to 1024 x 768 and output is supplied as composite and component video.
Folsom returns to its roots with the introduction of the CGC-4000, which is positioned between their high-end 9700XL scan converter and the lower end 9400JR model. The company's first ever product was called the CGC (Color Graphics Converter) and this new product resurrects that name. The new CGC-4000 offers almost all the features of the 9700XL at a significantly lower price and is expected to ship by the end of the summer.
Earlier this year, RGB debuted the RGB/Videolink 1650X. This new, lower priced unit supports input signals up to 1600 x 1200 pixels with scan rates up to 90 KHz. The new 1650X uses the same conversion technology as the very high end RGB/Videolink 1700-D1 with a few less options. For example, the 1650X supports composite and component video output, but cannot be configured for D-1 digital video.
Sony was a latecomer to the scan converter market, but recently introduced their next generation conversion product, the DSC-1024HD (replacing the DSC-1024G). They are definitely trying to make up for lost time with this product as they describe it as a scan frequency converter, a transcoder, a standards converter, an aspect ratio converter, a line doubler and a signal processor, all in a single unit. The DSC-1024HD supports 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios and can be used to generate a 1080i video signal. It also supports two computer inputs and NTSC or PAL video inputs. If that wasn't enough, it also includes a signal processor for up to a 4 x 4 video wall system.
TV One is the U.S. affiliate of Vine Micros Ltd (a UK company) and sells the CORIOscan and CORIOscan-Pro lines of scan converters. CORIOscan-Pro supports any computer resolution up to 1600x1200 and utilizes a 6-line flicker reduction circuit for maximum picture quality. The product also includes an auto-sizing feature to automatically adjust sizing and positioning of the computer image to fit exactly on the video screen. The lower cost CORIOscan product line is recommended for input resolutions of 1024 x 768 or below.
In a few more years, it's possible that scalers will completely replace scan converters for switching between computer and video resolutions. We already see that the two technologies are being combined in products like the Sony DSC-1024HD and others. However, as long as analog, interlaced video exists, scan converters have a place in our world. And the suppliers of this technology keep improving it so that we can achieve the best results possible at the lowest price.
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