Attention video hobbyists: Hold onto your hats!

Hey, all you people out there who have devoted countless hours and dollars to turning your off-the-shelf PC into a video workstation: Get ready for a new world. If you make your own videos, or if you’ve ever wanted to, or if you post video to Facebook or YouTube or any of a zillion video sharing services on the Web, be advised that a new day has dawned. Your life is about to change, and you’re going to like the difference.

I’ve spent more than a decade using all kinds of media production tools, striving to get professional results whether the software came bundled with the PC or cost four figures and needed specialized, expensive third-party hardware. So when Intel announced the latest Core processors — originally codenamed Sandy Bridge — and a bevy of affordable video-editing apps designed to take advantage of the new CPUs’ media processing features, I knew that upgrading to a PC with a second-generation Intel Core family processor would make everything right in the world. Okay, that might be overstating things. But what’s not to like about highly multithreaded, multicore processors with massively increased throughput and integrated media processing, all on a single 32nm chip?

From a video perspective, these new CPUs deliver incredible performance gains over previous generations. I’ve heard the gains described as “orders of magnitude faster” and “game-changing.” What makes these chips so great? A big part of it comes from two new features: Intel Clear Video HD and Intel Quick Sync Video (QSV), which provide hardware-accelerated encoding and decoding, respectively, of video codecs like H.264/AVC, VC-1, and MPEG-2.

Pardon my jargon! In plain English, this means the new chips make it way easier to work with the HD video formats that things like camcorders, DSLRs, cell phones, and Blu-ray Disc players rely on. And when you’re converting footage to a format suited to viewing on equipment other than what you shot or edited it on — a process known as transcoding — Intel QSV greatly speeds things up.

Just as intriguing, video-editing software by companies including ArcSoft, Corel, CyberLink, Pinnacle, and Roxio have been revised to make use of all that hardware-accelerated, multithreaded performance. These programs now boast capabilities typically associated with higher-end industry staples like Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro, and Avid Media Composer, yet they are easy to use and, I presume, less pricey.

For example, all the aforementioned programs can smoothly play back and edit HD footage, and add Hollywood-style transitions and effects as well as professional-quality soundtracks. CyberLink MediaEspresso and Roxio Video Copy & Convert perform background batch encoding when converting files from one format to another, which is handy when uploading an HD movie you shot on a camcorder or DSLR to YouTube or Facebook. CyberLink PowerDVD even lets users play back homebrew stereoscopic 3D content over HDMI 4.1-connected S3D-capable monitors and TV sets.

Many of those capabilities were technically possible using previous generation hardware and software, but the latest Intel processors let you perform in minutes tasks that once took hours. And the new versions of these apps make it easier than ever to make great-looking videos at home using off-the-shelf PCs.

Will high-end users hang up their copies of Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere Pro to switch to CyberLink PowerDirector or Corel VideoStudio Pro? Probably not. But for serious enthusiasts and prosumers who don’t want to spend an arm, three toes, and a spleen on high-end video editing gear, these affordable and easy-to-use tools let just about anybody make pro-quality HD movies and share them on CDs, DVDs, smartphones, tablets, YouTube, Facebook, and elsewhere.

With the advent of Sandy Bridge, consumer video has reached a new level — and that’s what this blog is all about. In coming installments, we’ll get up close and personal with some of these apps, peripherals, and accessories and look at ways to get the most out of them.

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