|Matrox MXO: Broadcast Monitoring on a Desktop Monitor|
I met Matrox's Wayne Andrews in San Francisco at MacWorld 2007. I was working at the CalDigit booth, which Matrox was sharing as a sort of cross promotion thing. Wayne was showing off the Matrox MXO, the handy little output box that allows you to see a true broadcast HD image on an Apple Cinema Display (ACD).
Now, I had heard of this box. Many people in the Final Cut Pro forum posted that it was the solution for viewing your HD footage on an external monitor. A few of those people were people whose opinions I value...yet...for some reason, I didn't quite believe it.
I'm one of those guys that has to see it for myself, if it's something that seems too good to be true. And that's what this seems like. It seems too good to be true that you can monitor broadcast quality HD on a computer monitor.
I and others have always said that a computer monitor is NOT acceptable for critically judging the quality of your image. I even have a Stock Answer (Shane's Stock Answers) for this...#2 on my list...USE AN EXTERNAL BROADCAST QUALITY MONITOR TO PROPERLY JUDGE YOUR FOOTAGE. Or something to that effect.
Now, I knew that this was possible at one point. eCinema Systems had a converter box that converted an HD SDI signal to a DVI signal and then connected to the first generation aluminum Apple Cinema Display for a broadcast quality image. This box was primarily used in the field by camera operators. In fact, a guy that shot the last 4 shows I worked on has one. But the converter box went for $4000, and ONLY worked with the first generation Cinema Displays And it was HD-SDI only, so you needed to come out of the camera, or have a capture card with HD SDI out. Not an inexpensive solution.
I had my doubts that the MXO would really be that good when compared to my HD CRT monitor. So Wayne told me that he'd send me a unit to test and see for myself. Now, at the time I didn't have a Cinema Display to test this with, just had my Dell monitor. And the signal sent to that was nice, but too saturated and red.
So I decided to first compare the output of the MXO to the output of my Kona LH connected to the HD CRT. This was the only way to be sure that the signal coming from the MXO was good...and it was identical. That was a good thing to know, because how the MXO gets this signal is rather unique.
The MXO connects to your computer via the DVI port.
Yes, the DVI port, the one you use to connect your computer monitor to.
Because of this, it not only works with a Mac Pro or Power Mac G5, it also is the ideal HD monitoring solution for the Powerbook G4 or Mac Book Pro, because they lack any ability to connect a capture card.
From this DVI port, the MXO extracts the video and embedded audio.
Yes, the DVI port sends out an audio signal.
Then the MXO can take this video signal, and send it out either Component or Composite, or combine it with audio and send out an embedded HD SDI signal.
This is how I connected the MXO to my HD CRT. I sent the same video image from my laptop via the MXO and from my G5 via the Kona LH to my Sony PVM-14L5 HD CRT and saw the same image on the monitor. Nice.
Okay...but what about the MXO and Cinema Display combination? I was finally able to borrow an ACD from my boss, and then I did a proper test. I hooked up the Matrox to my Powerbook G4 1.67Ghz and to the Cinema Display. Then I exported a video clip from my current project: the trailer I edited for The History Channel, all nice and color corrected and with a variety of footage from the Panasonic Varicam and HVX-200.
I copied this clip over to the Powerbook, and loaded the same clip up on my G5. Then I put the images up on the PVM and the Cinema Display side by side.
This picture does NOT do this justice, but one thing it shows is that the image on both monitors is identical.
When my initial shock wore off and I looked more critically, I noticed that the image on the Cinema Display was slightly greenish. I had to look close to see it, but it was there. I could see it in the white collar of the actor, and in the green of the plants – they were even greener. So I loaded color bars in both and looked again. Yep...slightly greenish.
Now, because of the HD CRT test I did earlier, I knew the signal from the MXO is a true signal. So I knew this had to be the fault of the Cinema Display.
I found a friend who had a monitor calibration device and software, ColorVision's Spyder 2 Pro. He came over and calibrated my monitor, then I tried again. I looked at the bars first. I didn't see the green. Then I loaded the clip again and looked at the same spot. Finally the image on both was nearly identical. Still just a hair greenish, but very negligible. And I was scrutinizing carefully.
So, it was close. Close enough for many purposes, and close enough that I could recommend it as a low cost solution.
Then came the spring. And a new update from Matrox that solved this issue....
....and added this handy new feature:
A control surface, one that gives you all the adjustment controls that you would find on a professional monitor: brightness, contrast, hue, saturation.
And not only that, but this control surface lets you load color bars (by clicking LOAD CLIP) so that you can tweak these controls just right.
This is what I needed to get the green out and make it match my HD CRT.
But still, something was missing. Back to Wayne, this time at NAB. As we're looking at the MXO together, Wayne holds up a finger as if to say "hold on a moment," and he leans over the laptop, clicks the mouse a couple times and shows off this:
Blue Only bars!
While they look black and white to the eye, blue-only bars are critical for accurate (and fast) calibration. They're indispensable for setting up hue and chroma in particular.
Adding this feature to the MXO made a big difference in its usefulness.
Another handy feature of the MXO is the ability to display interlaced footage. That is, to see the individual fields on screen when paused. That's a big plus, and something you don’t normally see on an LCD.
So now, the combination of the Matrox MXO, the Apple Cinema Display, and the adjustment controls with the BLUE ONLY option, you can really balance your display to give you color accurate, broadcast quality HD monitoring. And you can adjust the monitor settings with a probe like the Spyder 2 or EyeOne2 to get it to the D65 color setting.
For under $2000.
The feature set doesn’t stop there. You can also downconvert HD to SD:
And send out a letterboxed signal, or anamorphic or pillarboxed...VERY handy, because not everyone has a monitor with at 16:9 button to unsqueeze anamporphic footage.
Now, just a word of warning...
...because there are a couple drawbacks to this solution.
First being that the MXO doesn't yet work with the newer MacBook Pros. This is because Apple replaced the ATI graphics cards with Nvidia graphics cards, and the Nvidia cards on the laptops and MXO don't communicate well at the moment. That issue is being worked on.
And then I was going to say that the other drawback was that the MXO wasn't compatible with Color, Apple's new color grading application, because when I started writing this article in late November '07, that was one of the issues. But I noticed that as of the most recent update, Color 1.0.2, the MXO was in the list of monitoring devices for Color. And in playing with it, I can get it to work on my system. So that's one hurdle cleared.
This solution does still suffer what all HD LCD solutions suffer...black levels are more gray than black. But the fact is that it can compete with the $4000-$5000 range HD LCDs, something almost unheard of. Almost unheard of because I'm telling you about it now.
So, with the new options released in the 2.0 drivers, I can say that the Matrox MXO and the Apple Cinema Display is a perfect low cost, broadcast HD, color correction combination.
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