Digital video file conversion is a crucial component of many a filmmaker's workflow these days.
Since footage can be taken from so many different cameras, using specific formats, they often have to be altered into something that their editing package will accept.
But they're not the only ones who need to transform files to make their content compatible with a different system than the one they were originally meant for.
Take Flash video for instance: it's well known that this format won't work on an iOS device because it's deemed to be too much of a drain on battery life. Most websites now offer alternatives, so it's not a major problem. But what do you do if someone sends you a Flash video that you'd like to enjoy on your iPad, for instance?
This is where video converters come in. Transforming a video file is a complex process, which often leads to a degradation of the image - the trick is to limit this loss of quality by as much as possible.
Technology's moved on in leaps and bounds since the early days and this is epitomised by the proliferation of such conversion programs online. Do a quick search for them on the Mac App Store and you'll be faced with too many to make a reliable decision on, which is why we've decided to test six of the most high-profile apps (be they available on the Mac App Store or elsewhere) and see which one is the best when it comes to ease of use, available options, speed of encoding and output quality.
Those six apps are Apple's own Compressor, the venerable Squared5's MPEG Streamclip, HandBrake, Systemic's Smart Converter, Elgato's Turbo.264 HD and Wondershare's Video Converter.
Test one: Ease of use
Having many options is not always a good thing
The programs we've tested that are available through the Mac App Store have the easiest interfaces. Surely a testament to Apple's design leadership?
Although, interestingly enough, Apple's own Compressor is actually the most complex one - but that's because it also offers the most options.
The two packages available as web downloads - MPEG Streamclip and HandBrake - are also feature-rich and, as a consequence, end up looking a little complicated to the uninitiated. But they both try hard to simplify the available options by offering presets (for HandBrake) and extensive menus (for MPEG Streamclip). Try as they might, they can't beat the simplicity of just dragging a file and clicking on 'Start'.
There's actually more than one app designed with simplicity as its motto: Turbo.264 HD and Smart Converter take the crown here for a clean interface and easy options to choose from to select the right file format for your needs.
Test two: Available options
How easy is it for the user to tweak their app?
Not surprisingly, the simplest programs are the ones who offer the fewest options. Take Smart- Converter for instance: aside from the row of icons at the bottom, you have no customisation features available to you.
Video Converter looks simple, but you can modify each preset. You can also crop your footage, trim it and apply simple effects to your clip - although this may be that program's least-used feature as you'd most likely be applying effects with your video-editing package.
Turbo.264 HD's option may appear limited, but select the Edit command and you'll be graced with numerous options, even embedding subtitles to your converted file (as long as they were present in the original).
HandBrake is incredibly flexible: you have access to either basic parameters to improve the quality or speed up the conversion, preserve chapter markers or subtitles, but if this isn't enough, there's also an Advanced tab.
Test three: Encoding speed
If you've got a lot of work on, speed is of the essence
For our tests, we've used a 34-minute Flash video and transformed it into a file that can be played back on an iPad. We've chosen the standard settings when available, then used each converter in turn on the same hardware (a 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro with 4GB or RAM) to see which one came out on top.
Some apps have a system so when a file is finished, it'll start another. Turbo.264 HD and Video Converter allow you to do this prior to the start of a conversion, but HandBrake and Compressor let you add, reorder and remove files as they're encoding.
The fastest was Smart Converter at just over a minute, but that's because it was clever enough to recognise that the embedded content within the Flash file was already formatted as H.264, which is compatible with the iPad, so it simply updated the audio and it was good to go. None of the others figured this out.
Test four: Output quality
After the conversions, how good did the results look?
Speed may be an important factor when judging a video converter, but if the resulting file looks awful, then you've just wasted your time and your Mac's processing power.
In order to test this fairly, we've had SmartConverter process a different type of file since it cleverly avoided altering the video in the previous test. In this test, we did our best to compare the original with its copy and see if we could discern any imperfection.
The conversions made with MPEG Streamclip and Video Converter were quite blocky when having to render large sections of the same or similar colour. Smart Converter's results were disappointingly poor, which means that app may be best suited to turn H.264-based Flash videos into proper H.264 ones.
HandBrake's encoding was outstanding and even bested others whose converted files were twice as large, which means that the program's compression algorithms are truly excellent.
The winner: HandBrake is king
Despite its odd choice of name and the mysteries around the pineapple and cocktail as its choice of icon, HandBrake is the best video converter on the market. It's one of the fastest available, and its quality, even when using presets, is remarkable.
But what makes this program stand out from the crowd is the sheer number of options at your disposal, which helps you create even smaller-sized files while preserving the quality as much as possible (even at half the standard quality, the results were still impressive).
It has a powerful queuing system so you can set up a series of files and let HandBrake work through the night for you, it can convert non-copy protected DVDs, and, best of all, it's free.