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iPad 2 mirroring: Capturing video in higher definition

Co-blogger Steve Sande and I have been collaborating on our attempts to find a solid solution that allows iPad 2 owners to use the screen mirroring feature in tandem with a computer video capture tool; this would simplify screencasting, training, recording and scores of other things. Steve was looking for a way to integrate his iPad's screen into his TUAW TV Live shows. I need to create videos for demonstrations, reviews and tutorials.

While this would be relatively straightforward if Apple's mirroring support included the older Composite AV and Component AV adapters for the iPad, sadly it does not. Only the HDMI-sporting Digital AV adapter and the VGA adapter are permitted to work with the mirroring option, which helps close the analog hole for purchased/rented digital video, but it doesn't make the job of DIY iPad recording any easier.

Steve recently blogged about our first solution, a quick and dirty approach that offered a "barely enough" 480p standard-definition video feed. As Steve pointed out, this basic setup is not a high resolution answer to our video capture needs. Text is barely readable, screens fuzzy -- not ideal for either product demonstrations or how-to-videos.

We were determined to nudge quality up. To do that, I turned to Elgato, who graciously provided an EyeTV HD unit (normally retails for $199), which allows Macintoshes to capture HD video from component sources. (Our original solution was built around composite video.)

Sewell Direct, manufacturers of the $40 PC to TV converter Steve bought, provided a SW-4280 unit (retails for $79.95) that offers plug-and-play VGA-to-Component conversion at 720p (60fps) and 720i (30fps) as well as 480p.

Using Apple's $29 VGA adapter, I connected from my iPad to the SW-4280 (a male-to-male VGA cable is included with the unit), and from there, I used component cables (included with EyeTV) to connect to the EyeTV HD.

In order to bring sound into the equation, I had to track down a standard 1/8" male-to-male audio plug cable. I had one on-hand, but you can buy one at Amazon for about two bucks shipped. The SW-4280 has an audio line-in jack, and I used the device's RCA output jacks to connect to the EyeTV. (The stereo RCA cable was also included with the EyeTV HD.)

The EyeTV unit runs off a standard USB 2.0 jack, pulling its power from that connection. You'll need a standard power outlet for the converter box, but the SW-4280's plug uses a nice sideways design and is very low profile.

Ergonomically, this setup is (as with all cable-driven solutions) a nightmare. I have used Apple's composite cable, VGA connector and new HDMI connector, and they are all very, very awkward, especially if you plan on manipulating your iPad in any way whatsoever, such as from landscape to portrait.

Both the iPad's audio and VGA out are connected to the SW-4280, which in turn is connected to the EyeTV HD unit, and from there to the computer and Elgato's EyeTV video capture software. A rubber band secures the VGA connector from falling out.

The problem is that the weight of the connector itself or, more usually, the cables attached to that connector, keep dragging the connector out of its socket. And, trust me, there's almost always a lot of cable weight involved. You can force the connector to stay in place with the use of rubber bands, but they do interfere with a significant portion of your touchscreen. I'd heard the suggestion of taping a loop of the VGA cable to the back of the iPad to reduce the strain, and I tried it, but it didn't work well -- unless you have gaffer's tape or another strong but residue-free option, I wouldn't recommend it.

Add in a sound connector on the other side (unlike the iPod touch, the iPad places the audio jack at the top left of the unit, a la the iPhone), you have cables coming out from everywhere. Prepare to use a good iPad stand, preferably using landscape orientation.

As you'd expect, capture worked better in landscape than in portrait, as the source ratio better matched the destination. More pixels simply offer a better image. But also, when you have cables sticking out of both the top and bottom of the unit, landscape becomes the only practical solution for keeping the iPad still so the cables won't fall out.

So how good was the capture? Not only were there obvious compression artifacts, as you would expect with any pixel-to-TV rendering, but as the screenshots at the top of this post show, there is definitely an aspect ratio issue. You can see the same problems in the embedded video that follows.

Expect audio delays as the EyeTV digitizes your feed. You may want to introduce a splitter and listen in on separate headphones while giving demonstrations that involve audio, a la the GarageBand demo in the video. It was nearly impossible to create any kind of rhythm while waiting for audio feedback to take place.


All in all, I'm really pretty happy with the quality of the captured video, even with the aspect ratio issue. The "No Signal" issue I show at the end of the video is easily solved by messing with the Picture button on the SW-4280. I had simply forgotten to do so during that video capture segment.

I still think we can do better though. I'm planning on trying out an HDMI-to-Component solution next. The big advantage of doing so is this: one cable. HDMI carries audio as well as video, so you don't need cables coming out of two ends of your unit. I still expect to experience the connector port's inexplicable need to automatically disconnect itself from its attached cable, but I suspect it will be far easier to work with.

Stay tuned.



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iPad

Co-blogger Steve Sande and I have been collaborating on our attempts to find a solid solution that allows iPad 2 owners to use the...