Matrox MXO2-Mini review for VJs. Uncompressed HD mixing laptop to laptop. from vade on Vimeo.

Enough of low-resolution hardware mixing. Our friend Anton aka vade has dreamed for some time of doing full, uncompressed HD mixing of two laptops. And he means laptops — not luggable towers or anything like that.

It’s a common enough scenario. These days, most visualists practice their art on computers. To collaborate, that means mixing those visuals together. But by the time you plug in an Edirol V-4 or even our beloved Vixid – love that hardware as we do – you lose a significant amount of resolution. For some material, that’s fine, and we’re all for limitations. But depending on the source, it can be disastrous.

Enter the Matrox MXO2-Mini. It works on Windows and Mac. (No Linux as near as I can tell.) It plugs into laptops with ExpressCard. It doesn’t cost a fortune. If you’ve already got two laptops, it can bring them together affordably and effectively.

So… does it actually work? Here are Anton’s thoughts so far:

In April, we reported on the MXO2 Mini, one of the new products announced at NAB. The MXO2 Mini is essentially a laptop-friendly HD digitizer. It lets you ingest uncompressed HD video formats (1080i, 720p) and standard-def (NTSC, PAL) via common interfaces like composite, S-Video, and HDMI via a standard ExpressCard34 breakout cable. The Mini box costs US$450.

Matrox confirmed that the Mini supports HDMI 1.3, which gives it the capability of digitizing from RGB sources. Why is this significant? It means we can digitize the DVI output of another computer into our laptop – at full HD resolution, uncompressed, no compromises. It works, albeit with a few gotchas.

I recently picked up a Matrox MXO2 Mini and did some testing with my trusty 2.33GHz MacBook Pro. Bear with me; it’s a touch long, but I’ll summarize for those who don’t want to watch me nerd out and generally make a fool of myself. (Alternatively, skip to the 10 minute mark to see the hot laptop-on-laptop action.)

The Mini works as advertised, but has some touchiness that make it a bit hard to trust in run and gun, ‘guerrilla’ situations.

You can capture in 8-bit 1080i, 720p, or NTSC/PAL from an RGB DVI Source (and of course your traditional analog sources, as well). It gives you 5-frame latency. It works with QuickTime capture, which all major apps support. (I’ve tested VDMX, Modul8, Resolume Avenue, Quartz Composer, and Max/MSP/Jitter-based apps, etc. All just work.)

The issues with the MXO2 Mini are twofold – at least on OS X. The current drivers (1.5.1 as of the video) seem to require that the card be plugged in when the machine is powered up. The ExpressCard adapter also does not like to be powered off, ejected, and re-connected on an running system. The Mini remains an available input source, but you can’t get any video in unless you reboot. This is a huge issue: anytime you need to unplug the Express 34 adapter, or if it becomes accidentally disconnected (a common occurrence on the MacBook Pro), you will have to reboot. Not cool. (Ed.: I’ve noted lots of folks having issues with ExpressCard connections and unwanted disconnections, seemingly regardless of vendor. -PK)

The second issue – not seen in the video – is that the MXO2 Mini would sometimes see the DVI->HDMI input as YUV, also requiring a reboot. In short, the thing is touchy, and that makes it hard to trust for real gigs when things can’t go wrong. When initially setting this up, it happened quite a few times.

On top of this, processing true HD textures on the GPU + your other normal video clips and any compositing, mixing, masks or effects can reduce framerate unless you have a high-end GPU. Unfortunately, OS X users are limited to only the 17″ Mac Book Pro if they want a new machine capable of using the MXO2 Mini in a mobile form factor. This annoys me. %$@! SD card reader. Seriously?

I’m honestly very torn about this. My gut tells me some of these things can be fixed with software driver updates, but the sensitivity of the Express Card interface is worrisome. On the other hand, mobile laptop-to-laptop HD mixing is a realization, and it doubles as a mini (har) post-production editing tool. Awesome.

We’d love to hear from Windows users experiences with the MXO2 Mini with VJ apps, compatibility and general usage, and in a real performance scenarios. Let us know. Thanks!

I’ll try connecting my own PC to Anton’s box when we’ve got a chance, but we do welcome those reports. Send them in. -Peter