Hands up those of you who think that you can’t do high quality 30 fps video on a 200 MHz PowerPC 604e … yup, that’s what I thought… pretty much all of you. I thought so too. I was wrong.
When I first started experimenting with video and video calling back in 2004, it was on 1+ GHz computers with 1+ GB of RAM. Even then, video was a pretty shaky experience. Connectivity may have been the major culprit, but the video was slow and blocky, calls dropped more than they stayed up, and both image and voice distortion were the rule, not the exception. Skype was a relative newcomer, having debuted in August of 2003, and Yahoo! Messenger and MSN Messenger ruled the day.
Recently, while looking through some Connectix items on eBay, I came across an old Connectix QuickCam webcam, dating from the late 1990s. This got me looking farther and I gradually unearthed a whole family of Logitech QuickCams (Logitech purchased QuickCam from Connectix in 1998), culminating in the QuickCam Pro 3000, the last member of the family to be supported by Mac OS 9. Now I just happen to have Mac OS 9.1 running on my Power Macintosh 7300/200. Could I really do high quality video on such an old and (relatively) slow platform? What about video calling? I had to try it and find out.
I purchased the QuickCam Pro 3000 on eBay and received a “new in box” time capsule from the year 2000. Of critical importance in this “new in box” experience was the inclusion of the supporting software, which was delivered for both Windows and Mac OS 9.x, and included as well versions of MGI’s PhotoSuite image manipulation software for both platforms. So far, so good.
Installation was straightforward if a little non-intuitive. The instructions said to install the software and then follow the on screen instructions, so I popped the CD into the tray and executed the installer. It ran to completion successfully and then prompted for a restart, a request to which I complied. Having installed QuickCam software on many Windows PCs “back in the day”, and given the “follow the on screen instructions” directive, I expected the installer to pop up again after the restart and prompt me to connect the webcam and complete the setup. Instead, there was nothing. The restart completed successfully and I was left staring at a fully booted but otherwise unoccupied Mac OS 9.1 desktop.
Following my nose, I plugged the webcam into the computer’s USB port (I had added a Sonnet USB and Firewire card to my Power Macintosh 7300/200 some time ago) and waited expectantly. Again, nothing. So, I hunted through the Applications folder on the Mac and found a folder called Logitech QuickCam. Opening it, I launched the QuickCam item inside. I was greeted with the below window, but no onscreen indication that it had found or could work with the webcam. HOWEVER, the green light on the webcam did come on, indicating that something was accessing it, so this was progress.
Making the obvious guess, I clicked the large “Create Pictures and Videos” activity button on the upper left and voila! I was greeted with a window showing a live view from the webcam! It was working!
I clicked the little tools icon in the window and was able to adjust the resolution (up to a max of 640×480) and the frame rate (up to a max of 30 fps). At this maximum resolution and frame rate however, the image was laggy, and did not even come close to following my hand motions in real time.
I closed the program and navigated back to the Applications folder for Logitech QuickCam. I opened the folder and selected the QuickCam item within. Control clicking that item, I brought up the Memory context selection and increased the memory allocated to QuickCam to 84M. There was little more than inspired guessing behind this choice. The default was around 8.4M, and I simply increased that by an order of magnitude, reasoning that it would probably perform better with a lot more RAM.
I was right. With its new and more generous allocation of RAM, the live image window in the QuickCam program now responded almost fluidly, tracking my motions in nearly real time.
Before progressing to the challenge of video calling, I decided to try my hand at simply recording and playing back video local to the Macintosh itself. Logitech’s QuickCam program will record video, and it did, but the results were not stellar. Perhaps this was inherent to the machine? Perhaps it was just too much to expect a 200 MHz CPU to record 30 fps at 640×480 and do it well? Perhaps, however, it was just Logitech’s software. I remember that the Windows versions of the QuickCam software from that time were less than excellent. To test whether 30 fps, 640×480 video was simply too taxing for the 200 MHz CPU, or whether the Logitech software was simply not optimized for high performance, I went hunting for another program that might record and play back video.
I started with what I thought was the obvious choice – iMovie. iMovie was supported up to version 2.1.2 by Mac OS 9.x, and so I loaded it and gave it a whirl. It ran just fine, but would not even acknowledge the existence of the webcam. A little research on the web revealed that this is a long standing issue with iMovie. It simply refuses to record from USB-based webcams. It WILL record from Firewire-based Apple iSight cameras, at least on my PowerMac G5 under Mac OS X 10.4.11 Tiger, but this was not an option on my Power Macintosh 7300. So much for iMovie!
Moving on, I found BTVPro at the Macintosh Garden (www.macintoshgarden.org). BTVPro readily acknowledged the webcam, recorded from it, and played back the results, all with quality and performance levels far above those achieved by the Logitech software (so, as remembered, Logitech’s QuickCam software was not nearly optimized enough).
There was a hitch though. There was no audio. Nothing I could do would persuade BTVPro to record audio along with the video. Turning back to the web for more insight (what DID we do before the web?), I discovered that BTVPro needed at least QuickTime 5 in order to record USB audio along with USB video. Hmmm… that sounded dangerous. I had QuickTime 4.x installed on my Power Macintosh 7300/200. I remember that the last time I tried upgrading QuickTime on this class of Macintosh, I nearly “bricked” the machine – nothing worked afterwards, and it was only through the mechanism of an emergency “no extensions” reboot that I was able to recover it.
Still, but with no small amount of trepidation, I proceeded. I found QuickTime 6.0.3 in my own archive of older Macintosh software and ran the installer. Much to my relief, everything worked like a charm and Mac OS 9.1 booted cleanly, only now with QuickTime 6.0.3 ticking away at its heart, instead of the earlier QuickTime 4.x. So far, so good. Now, what about BTVPro? Would it now deliver both video AND audio?
The quick answer? Yes! In fact, it delivered rather too much audio actually. BTVPro defaults to playing audio back while it is recording, which leads to an annoying echo during recording and playback. Once I disabled that in BTVPro’s preferences however, all was well.
Finally, onto video calling. Not a pretty picture. To date, I have not been able to find anything supported under Mac OS 9.1 that is still able to connect to the host servers of today. That includes Skype, Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, AOL Messenger and a variety of others. I fear that video calling is a lost cause on the platforms of yesteryear. However, at least we have demonstrated that video recording and playback on the platforms of yesteryear is not even remotely a lost cause! Quite the inverse in fact… very functional, if perhaps requiring of a bit of dogged determination and stick-with-it-ness to get it going.
So, back to the question I opened this post with: Can you do high quality 30 fps video on a 200 MHz PowerPC 604? The answer is a resounding, and surprising, “Yes!”. Never underestimate the power of a 200 MHz machine!