Tired of tiny video? Try Reel Magic

by Alan Zisman (c) 1994. First published in Our Computer Player, April 15, 1994

Sigma Designs Reel Magic video board

Fastech Computer
140-3771 Jacombs Rd.
Richmond, BC
V6V 2L9

tel: (604) 279-9686
fax: (604) 279-9787

So you've gone for the multimedia hype, and purchased that CD-ROM system
and sound card.

You've tried playing some video clips, and what did you get?

A tiny window on screen, with a flickery movie clip that lasts around a
minute, but pauses every few seconds for the sound to catch up.

Is this what it's all about?

As you may have noticed, there are a few problems with on-computer

-- the file sizes are huge. A megs of file-size only give you a minute
or two on screen... The software Toolworks Encyclopedia, for example,
devotes 180 meg on its CD-ROM, ending up with a full 20 minutes or so of
video clips.

-- playing the video clips demand a lot of the CPU, the video card, and
the bus.

To get around this, computer-based video, whether Video for Windows or
QuickTime for the Mac or Windows uses a bunch of compromises... tiny on-
screen windows, and running at 15 frames-per-second (standard broadcast
video runs at 30) means less data needs to be pumped through the system.

The result is the minimally viewable movies that we might watch on our
computers today.

But there's an expectation that video on computer screens will become
increasingly important... not just for multimedia like we're seeing now,
but also for cutting edge applications like teleconferencing-- using
computers and networks in place of the picture-phones that futurists
have been predicting for years.

Or video-based e-mail.

And when we're all wired with fiber optics, replacing the corner video
rental store with your choice of movies over the cable.

To do all this, we need a standard that compresses video files to much
smaller sizes, and that takes the strain off the computer's CPU and
video subsystems.


This issue goes beyond the computer industry-- telecommunications, cable
TV, and movie companies are increasingly getting involved, as they sense
big money to be made in the near future.

The Motion Picture Expert Group has proposed a standard for video
compression, that goes by their initials: MPEG. While it's not the only
ame in town, it looks like it's getting increasing support, both within
the computer industry, and from the other major players.

With compression of as much as 200 to 1, MPEG compression goes a long way to solving the file-size problem. And
taking the load off the CPU can be solved by using dedicated co-
processors, (as has been done on the Amiga for years).

Sigma Design has produced a co-processor board, dedicated to playing
MPEG video on standard PCs. I got a chance to test out this $449 (US) product
in a 486SX-25V CompuCon RellMultimedia computer, provided by FastTech of
Richmond BC.

This computer comes complete with a Sony double-speed CDROM installed.
16-bit sound support is provided by the pre-installed ReelMagic board.
While it's ready to go as a multimedia machine, I would have
thought that a 25 mhz 486 would have been a little underpowered for
running computer-based video-- a task that strains my 486DX-2/66.

But that Reel Magic board installed inside this computer--
invisible to the user, makes a big difference It connects to the video card, and also acts as
the sound card. With a cap on the video card's output, you plug monitor
and speakers into the Reel Magic's outputs.

It runs standard Video for Windows AVI quite smoothly... I tested it
with Microsoft's CineMania, and it played the included movie clips,
quite creditably. But it really shines on MPEG movies.

A copy of Compton's Encyclopedia CDROM was included, with the video
clips redone in MPEG format. While before Reel Magic, the videos would
have been flickery, running in a tiny, 160 by 100 pixel window, the MPEG
version played smoothly, sending twice as many frames per second into a
320 by 200 pixel window. Better performance while pumping eight times as
much video information through at a time.

Similar outstanding performance occured playing Dragon's Lair... a DOS
CDROM game included with the package. Here, 320 by 200 pixels takes up the full screen, and this
interactive fantasy game appears to be an animated movie.

As an added bonus, the Reel Magic board lets you use CD-Interactive
disks. These standard-sized CDs are appearing in many home-electronics
stores, being sold for use with CDI players on your home TV. I got to
play with a CDI movie, "Naked Gun 2 1/2"... an entire video movie on two
CD disks.

With Reel Magic, CDI appears as a media type in Windows' Media Player...
and the movie plays, again, in a large, 320 x 200 sized window, in full
colour, and a flicker-free 30 frames per second. While a few movies have
been issued using standard video formats, an example such as the Beatle'
s "Hard Day's Night" can be frustrating to watch, due to the small
screen size, and low-resolution flicker.

While $449 for a video plus sound board may seem pricy just to watch
better movies, for many users this may actually be a reasonable
investment, especially compared to the cost of getting a more powerful
CPU while still not getting a comparable improvement in video quality.

Still, it means betting on the MPEG standard catching on. Many major
companies, including consumer electronics giants like Phillips, Sony,
JVC support this format. An increasing
number of disks support this standard, but it's still makes up a tiny minority
of the CD-ROMs available.
The Reel Magic board improves performance of non-MPEG video as well, but
that standard is necessary for this board's best use. Similarly, there
are far fewer movies available as CDI disks than as video-tapes in your
corner store. And as anyone with a big, old laser-disk player or an 8-
track player in the attic knows, it can be difficult to predict consumer media standards.

Nevertheless, if you want to take advantage of high-quality video on
your computer, the Reel Magic board is worth a look. And if you're
looking for a multimedia system that's ready to use, FastTech's
CompuCon system with the Reel Magic board included is also worth your

(Note from the year 2003): The above article was originally published in 1994, as a review. A decade or so later, I've gotten a series of emails from  fans hoping that I could sell them a copy of this software or direct them to a place where it is still available. While I have reviewed software since 1991, I am not a vendor of r any products. I suggest to everyone looking for copies of older software to check at eBay or at OldSoftware.com.If you check on my Files webpages, you'll find links to a number of (mostly freeware) downloadable software, some of which may be good replacements for older programs.
-- AZ (September 15, 2003)


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan