It's All About Speed: Mac Pros, Comcast and Turbo.264 HD

Today's topic is speed. Speed is the lifeline of any computer system. When your Mac slows to a crawl, everything you do becomes a problem. When your machine zips along, the sun is almost always shining.

I recently got a much needed speed boost when I purchased a new quad-core Mac Pro. It was a replacement for my increasingly creaky and cranky Power Mac G5, acquired back in 2004.

Talk about speed.

The new Mac Pro is blazingly fast, even for someone like myself who doesn't do much processor intensive stuff. Everything, from startup time to opening applications to copying files, takes significantly less time. As a bonus, the Pro is also much quieter than my old Mac. Of course, my old G5 was the one with a built-in "radiator"; the Mac that ran so hot that preventing a meltdown required a fluid-cooled system and a series of fans that mimicked the sound of a 747 on take-off.

With my new Mac happily purring under my desk, I turned my attention to another speed bump that had been irritating me for months.

Have a Blast! with Comcast? I connect to the Internet via Comcast. I had been using their standard (6 Mbps) service. For $10 a month more, I decided to upgrade to their Blast! level (which supposedly averages about 16 Mbps). I didn't really expect to see Web pages open at more than twice their prior speed, but I did expect to see a significant improvement. What actually happened was something different.

To confirm that I was truly getting a faster service from Comcast, I ran bandwidth tests from several Web sites (PC Pitstop, Speakeasy, and Speedtest). At first, they all confirmed that my upload and (especially) my download speeds were significantly better than before. Typical download speeds before the upgrade had been around 2.4 Mbps (which was lower than I was supposed to be getting, and should have set off alarms bells all along). After the upgrade took hold, my speeds immediately spiked to levels I had never seen. Download test results went as high as 33 Mbps (much higher than what Comcast had promised!).

Unfortunately, the party was over almost as soon as it started. Over the next few hours, performance levels dropped and then began to swing wildly all over the map. Speeds shifted depending upon the time of day and the server testing location —but mostly (from my perspective) due to no discernible cause whatsoever. Download speeds ranged from as low as 3.2 Mbps to as high as the initial peak of about 33 Mbps. Such swings often occurred within minutes of each other.

When test results indicated that speed levels were at their best, my real-world performance confirmed the test numbers. Web pages opened at an astonishing rate, almost popping onto my screen instantaneously. At the low end, pages loaded no faster than before. If anything, my subjective experience was that things were actually slower.

Unfortunately, Comcast's Blast! has been spending almost all of its time closer to the basement than the attic. Overall, the upgrade has clearly not been worth it.

I began to wonder whether there was might be some other bottleneck gumming up the works. I became suspicious of my aging Motorola modem. So I exchanged it for a new one. Similar to what happened immediately after the Burst! upgrade, there was a huge spike in speed after shifting to the new modem. For a moment, I was convinced I had solved the problem. Alas, within a hour, things returned to the prior dismal state.

If I was paranoid, I would say that Comcast is monitoring my computer and throttling down the speed when it notices that it goes too high ("No way that we can let a customer have that much bandwidth; our complaint department would have to start laying people off.")

In the end, I contacted Comcast tech support to complain. They acknowledged that I was not getting what I was paying for, and "opened a ticket" to look into what was going on. I should be seeing an improvement within the next day or so. Or so they said. I'm not holding my breath. My next tactic is to offer to pay them the same percentage of their bill that matches the percentage of the promised speed that they deliver. We'll see how that goes over.

Save time with Turbo.264 HD? I had an opportunity for a different sort of speed boost when Elgato sent me one of their new Turbo.264 HD ($150) H.264 encoder/accelerators for review. This device reduces the time needed for one of the most time-consuming tasks that a typical Mac user faces: converting video files to a different format (such as converting movies taken with your HD camcorder to a format that will play on your iPhone).

I have been a satisfied customer of Elgato's original Turbo.264 for the past couple of years (see this article for details). So I was eager to test out the new unit. Before I tell you the speed results, it's worth noting that there are several worthy new features in this upgrade that are not speed-related:

  • As suggested by its name, Turbo.264 HD can convert files to H.264 format in virtually any resolution, including 1080p HD. It can even convert files to a YouTube compatible format and directly upload files to the YouTube site —all in one step.
  • The new unit works with AVCHD camcorders. With your camcorder (or the appropriate memory card and card reader) connected to to your Mac, an Add Camcorder option appears. Click it and you will almost immediately see a list of all the clips contained on camcorder card. You can convert the clips to a selected format directly from the card.
  • You can view and minimally edit files from within Turbo.264 HD, using controls that work similarly to the ones in Elgato's EyeTV.
  • If you have a series of clips loaded, you can choose to have Turbo.264 HD combine them into one longer movie as part of the conversion process.

The only negative is that the new unit requires an Intel Mac. The older version worked both with Intel and PowerPC Macs.

Okay, back to the big question: How fast is it?

That depends. For starters, a lot depends upon the speed of your Mac and the size of the file. If you have a very fast Mac (such as my new Mac Pro), the savings will be less than with a slower Mac (as the Mac Pro is quite capable of doing a great job all on its own). Similarly, for very small files (such as a movie trailer), savings will be minimal, as the startup time for the Turbo.264 tends to cancel out any subsequent time-saving during the actual conversion. In one case, I found that QuickTime Player Pro converted a 2 minute HD movie trailer to the iPhone format in less time than the Turbo.264 HD unit (43 seconds vs. 30 seconds). Bad news for Elgato's device.

Still, with longer files, the Turbo.264 HD redeemed itself, prevailing even when tested on my speedy Mac Pro. A conversion that took 5 minutes and 41 seconds with QuickTime Player Pro (sans the Turbo.264) took only 3 minutes and 37 seconds with the Turbo.264 HD — about a 36% savings. For me, that's good enough to justify having the Turbo.264 HD around.

The real surprise was when I tested my original Turbo.264 with my new Mac Pro. It took slightly over 12 minutes for the iPhone format conversion — or more than twice as long as without any Turbo unit at all! Apparently, at least with recent Mac models, if you want any speed benefit from a Turbo.264, you need the new HD model. The original model just doesn't cut it.

[Note: The Mac Observer will soon be posting John Martellaro's full review of the Turbo.264 HD.]