Watching DV on a PC

Bob writes, "I have a Canon Digital Video camera & a COMPAQ Presario laptop. Using a FireWire cable (4 pin) from camera to laptop I want to watch the video as my camera plays a tape. Can this be done & with what program? I use Pinnacle Studio 8 for video capture & editing, but I can only watch the video on a very small screen."

Windows XP natively supports video playback through Windows Explorer, which is achieved by connecting your camera and PC, clicking on the icon for your DV cam in Windows Explorer and pressing play on the DV cam. This delivers a similarly tiny image. Watching video played back from your camera prior to importing is something many video editing apps completely ignore. Almost every app offers a preview window during capture. A smaller subset, like Pinnacle Studio 8 and Windows Movie Maker support playback without capture by looking at that same tiny 320x240 (or smaller) preview pane. To get a bigger image you need to look outside of the video editing apps optimized for capturing footage from a DV cam and seek out an alternative solution.

One of the free solutions for doing this is based directly on source code Microsoft makes available to developers looking for ways to incorporate audio and video capture into third party applications. Microsoft uses something called DirectShow for much of the audio and video capability of Windows. As part of the functionality of DirectShow, they've exposed an application programming interface (API) to allow software developers to extend and make use of built-in DirectShow functionality. To give developers a head start, they also released the source code for some sample applications.

An independent developer compiled two of these sample apps and makes them available on his site for free download. The more limited of the two apps, DVApp, automatically detects the presence of a DV cam when launched and supports file playback in a window is virtually fullscreen at 800x600 resolution. A second more fully featured solution called AMCap supports true fullscreen playback at any screen resolution, with the requisite picture distortion if your video footage is of lower resolution than the monitor. Both apps include onscreen DV cam controls so you won't need to use the buttons on the DV cam. These apps do the trick, but don't offer a particularly elegant interface.

At the moment, I'm only aware of one other alternative that plays back DV directly from a digital video camera. The app PlayDV from River Past offers a clean user interface and is generally more reliable in it's playback of video from DV cams. PlayDV supports a variety of video playback sizes including fullscreen. Like DVApp and AMCap, PlayDV automatically detects your digital video camera when the application is launched, assuming you have the DV cam powered on and in playback mode. On screen controls provide record, play, pause, fast forward, stop and rewind. PlayDV isn't free, but is reasonably priced at $19.99. A trial version of the app allows you to test all features but nags you to register after clicking any of the onscreen buttons.

Based on my own usage of the three options mentioned here, PlayDV offers the most consistent experience. AMCap and DVApp work, but sometimes flake out during the process of controlling the digital video camera from onscreen controls. A newer version of AMCap is supposedly on the way, so this may change in the near future. In the meantime, if you're willing to put up with a few hiccups now and then, go with one of the free solutions. If you have a few spare dollars to spend, PlayDV may be worth the improved UI and generally enhanced experience.