HDMI Grabber: Terratec Grabster Extreme HD

When doing a show, I usually like to record multiple copies of audio and video to make sure nothing gets lost. I have the master signal record to SSD on a Hyperdeck, a secondary H.264 stream goes to a Mac over USB from the TV Studio, audio goes to a dedicated Edirol R4 via SPDIF. One more copy wouldn’t hurt, right?

I tried the Elgato Game Capture HD, which also needs a Mac/PC to record to. In general, this works great, but the client software is a little too heavy performance-wise and cannot be automated as far as I can see. For live applications (except in some countries that are stuck in stone-age) the interface to Flash Media Servers is really great though.

Terratec provided me with a review unit of the recently announced Grabster Extreme HD which performs the same basic function, recording HD video as H264, but in a standalone device. You simply plug in a USB key and HDMI or analog component and hit record. In theory.

130653xl

The only UI are two sets of LEDs: Sync of HDMI or Analog signal, and 720 or 1080 resolution.

When inserting a USB key formatted as FAT32, the record button will blink green until it’s ready to record. When lit green continuously, you can press the button to start recording. The button will turn red until pressed again to stop the recording. Then it will flash red until the buffer is flushed to disk and it’s safe to eject.

Software

terratec-driver

Additional settings, such as time and date, recording bitrate and volume level of the mic input can only be set by a piece of Windows software, which the manual refers to as the “driver”. It seems to be coming straight from the silicon vendor, installs a shady-looking .exe with the stock MFC icon to the Desktop. The capture chip appears to be a IT9910 HD from ITE Tech

Changing settings repeatedly didn’t work, or it would reset to the default values after reconnecting the unit.

The actual driver isn’t signed, therefore yields a Windows Logo noncompliance warning, and needs frequent reinstallations when plugging in the device.

Video

Getting a sync to the HDMI input yields inconsistent results. When daisy-chaining the Grabster, neither it nor the display behind it would recognise the signal. When putting it behind a HDMI splitter, it would sync until adding another display to the splitter, resulting in a loss of sync in the Grabster and the display. Inserting a Dr. HDMI to force everyone involved to 720p50 helps, but adds another $100 to the setup. Admittedly, this is hard to get right, and the Grabster unfortunately fails.

At first glance video quality appears to be decent, when recording at a relatively high bitrate (9Mbit/s), the default is 16Mbit/s.

Unfortunately, the signal for some reason gets a ride through the Gamma Ray Tube. Left is the reference recording, right is Terratec. Turn contrast to 11.

terratec-waveform

Audio

Audio is captured as stereo at 48kHz, encoded as AAC at 192kbit/s. The resulting perceived quality is abysmal. Additionally, a ~4db gain is applied to the audio, which of course leads to clipping very easily.

Audio also is delayed by approximately 140ms, which is way beyond the recommended -15/+45 ms value.

Top is Terratec, bottom is reference, with video in sync. Note the 140ms offset and clipping in the top track.

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First is reference, second is the Terratec.

You Had One Job

The device should grab video and audio as provided by the source signal and encode it to H264 on disk.

Audio sounds horrible and distorted, the video signal is all over the place, clipping in the lights, underexposed in the shadows. The driver is a Windows XP-era relic and doesn’t even work right on Windows XP. Why on earth would you design a stand-alone device to be dependent on a PC?

So clearly, this device doesn’t even cater to the most basic professional requirements. Even as a crash recording, the backup of the backup, the Terratec Grabster is of highly dubious value and would require lots of work restoring image and audio to acceptable levels, if at all possible.

But consider this: An additional label on top of the shrink-wrap was added to the packaging: “Records video cassettes on a USB stick or hard-disk – without PC!”

terratec-box

Use this box to digitise your precious analog videos? I’d rather not.

Alternatives

I haven’t tested any other consumer-grade stand-alone devices.

When using a Mac though, for SD content consider the Elgato Video Capture (~$80, amazon.com / amazon.de) and for HD content look at the Elgato Game Capture HD (~$150, amazon.com / amazon.de). The Game Capture HD also supports Analog Component in HD, for grabbing video off a PS3.
If you’re on a newer Mac with Thunderbolt and don’t need analog video, consider the Blackmagic Mini Recorder (~$150 + $30 cable, amazon.com / amazon.de)

Blackmagic MultiDock Thunderbolt 2 SATA Dock

As predicted, Blackmagic just updated the MultiDock to Thunderbolt 2 and SATA III.

Blackmagic-MultiDock

At $600, it’s a very affordable competitor to other Thunderbolt storage adapters, providing 4 SATA III 2.5″ slots and a daisy-chainable Thunderbolt 2 interface.

This should enable you to run 4 SSDs in stripe mode to fully saturate 20Gbit/s (2.5GByte/s!) on Thunderbolt. Something like 4TBs of storage including the dock would cost you around $2000. Can’t wait to get my hands on one.

It also gives you the flexibility to ingest a HyperDeck recording from one slot to a software raid on the remaining 3 slots.

Larry Jordan correctly points this out: Thunderbolt has long outrun the transfer speeds of spinning hard drives. Spinning 3.5″ disks deliver around 120MB/s. If you stripe four of them, this would give you about 500MB/s of transfer speed. If you go for a larger 8 disk unit, this would max out at about 920MB/s.

So now the tradeoff is storage size vs speed vs price vs weight vs dimensions. Choose what fits your needs best. Granted, the MultiDock really belongs in a rack and will look a little odd sitting next to your shiny new Mac Pro on the desk.

As the new MultiDock also supports daisy chaining up to 6 MultiDocks, you can get a setup with up to 24TBs of storage at 20Gbit/s for “just” $12k (cables not included).

Another first notable first in (my) zoo of Blackmagic devices: the power supply is built in and doesn’t take up precious space on the bottom of the rack and on the power strip.