Elgato Systems Turbo.264 Review

In case you haven't heard of it, the Elgato Systems Turbo.264 is an outboard h.264 video compression accelerator designed for use with Apple Macintosh computer systems. The device itself is a simple self contained unit that plugs into a USB 2.0 port on your computer. (USB 1.1 would probably also work, though I suspect you will see a severe performance penalty and negation of any performance gains the device could offer.)

The idea behind the product is to free your computer's processor from the tedious task of encoding video in the h.264 format. So the question I set out to answer was simple--does the turbo.264 really do what it says? Is it worth the roughly $100 price of admission?

The shortest answer to that question is yes. However, I do recommend you read the rest of the review, so you will be as informed about the device as possible.

Setup and Installation

Getting started with the turbo.264 could not be much easier. Elgato provides everything you will need in the box, except possibly a user's manual. There's a CD, the turbo.264 itself and a USB extender cable that might come in handy if you have to plug the unit in to a USB port that is near other USB ports with things also plugged into them--or if you have only a little bit of space to work with near your USB ports.

The turbo.264 requires Mac OS X 10.4 or 10.5. Both Intel and PowerPC G4/G5 platforms are supported. (As an interesting aside, PCs running Windows do not appear to be supported.)

Once you've connected the hardware to your Macintosh, all you have to do to get the software installed is to insert the CD, and drag the program on it to your Applications folder. That's all there is to it. Elgato's software asks you if you'd like to register and receive their newsletter. You can skip the registration if you desire (at least as of December 2008 when this was written).


Using the turbo.264 is only a little more complicated than installing it. Basically, you would get started by running the turbo.264 program and dragging video files to its main window. You can choose presets for video conversion, which is handy if you are converting to an iPod Touch, AppleTV or any of the other devices that are available.

If the presets don't suit, you can use any of them as a jumping off point to defining your own custom setting. The software lets you save your custom settings and there does not seem to be any practical limit to the number of these you can have.

Once you've gone and dropped all your video files into the program window--and set your conversion preferences for each one, you're ready to get started. Videos by default are placed into your iTunes video collection area, although this did not work for me. iTunes 8 came up after the conversion, but no videos showed up. I still managed to find the files, and with a quick change to the preferences, I had them placed elsewhere after conversion.

It is worth noting that the turbo.264 can only be used by software that uses QuickTime to do conversions, or by software that is explicitly aware of the turbo.264 hardware. At this time, some of the most popular tools used to convert video using the system CPU don't support or know about the turbo.264 hardware. This means that you have to use Elgato's application in most cases. What you can do, however, is convert any video format to h.264 that QuickTime knows how to read. Since that is a lot of video file types, the device is pretty flexible in terms of what kind of input it can accept.

However, output is in only one format. The turbo.264 is a one-trick pony. It provides hardware assistance only when you're using the h.264 format, and only when you're using a program that can take advantage of the device.

Elgato's turbo.264 software is simplistic in its operation, which is good for new users, as well as those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of video compression. Even more familiar users really won't need more--and if they do, they should consider the option of making the changes to the source video and letting them trickle through to the turbo.264 software.

So now that we've got the software installed and a pretty good idea of how to get started using it, let's talk about...

Performance Boost

The turbo.264 boasts that it can provide an impressive speed boost--sometimes many times over what the system CPU can manage--when it is busy encoding h.264 video.

That depends a lot on what you're asking it to do, as well as what sort of CPU you have in your computer.

Simply put, if you ask the turbo.264 to encode some video to a format suitable for something like the iPod Touch or iPhone, it flies through the task, oftentimes achieving a 70-75 frames per second conversion rate. But if you ask the device to output a fairly high custom resolution (over 640x480) or to a higher resolution device like the Apple TV, well, the speed boost is not as great. At times I noticed the device could just keep up with a conversion rate of 29-37 frames per second. Whether that is a limit of the processing hardware used in the turbo.264 device or a limit of the USB 2.0 bus it should be connected to, I am not sure. It is worth considering this speed drop, especially if your h.264 video encoding tasks demand a high resolution result.

As I said above, your system CPU is also a factor, though not necessarily for the reasons you would think. Today's CPUs are very powerful, and it's quite possible that your Macintosh has a CPU in it that is powerful enough to do real time h.264 compression or better. To see this, all a person has to do is switch over to utilities such as the Handbrake program that do all their h.264 encoding on the system CPU.

With a PowerPC G4 CPU clocked at 1.25GHz in a Mac mini, the latest version (again, as of December 2008) of Handbrake on Mac OS 10.4.11 can manage about 7-15 frames per second when converting video directly from a DVD. Older versions of Handbrake did somewhat better on PowerPC, sometimes getting near to the real-time 30 frames per second conversion rate. You can grow old waiting for the process to complete.

On an Intel-based Macintosh--in this case, my 2006-era first generation Macbook running Mac OS X 10.5.6--the latest release of Handbrake does a lot better, pulling 37-50 frames per second constantly at high resolutions (720x480), even with deinterlacing running.

The turbo.264 hardware can't match that performance when encoding a high resolution video file, and newer Intel Macintosh computers with their higher clock speeds, faster memory, faster disk storage and more cores to play with will probably do even better.

What This All Means

The conclusion I've come to is that the turbo.264 hardware is pointed mainly at users who are still on PowerPC Macintosh hardware and want to convert video to the h.264 format. On these systems, with the possible exception of the fastest late model PowerPC G5 systems, the turbo.264 hardware will provide a considerable performance boost. That is especially true if you want to multitask while you are encoding video.

On Intel-based Macintosh hardware, the boost is far less impressive. Unless you're working your Intel Macintosh to the bone, the Turbo.264 just isn't going to give you much if any performance boost when you go to encode h.264 video. You'd do better to spend the money on something like more memory or a fast external hard disk.

The turbo.264 hardware is currently priced at $100 USD or so. I think it's a hard sell at that price. PowerPC Macintosh users who could benefit the most from the hardware assist might do better to simply save the money toward the purchase of a new or faster used Macintosh. Intel Macintosh users can just use software that does the encoding on the main system CPU and have plenty of computing power left over for almost any other task.

The good news is--if you want one--bargains do exist. The turbo.264 has been out for a while, and refurbished units show up for a lot less money than a new one. I bought a refurbished one from the nice folks at Other World Computing for $60, and you couldn't tell it was anything less than new. At that price, it looks a lot more attractive. You'd have to save $60 several times over to have enough for a faster used Mac, and even more times for a baseline new system. Elgato must still be making some money at that price, so my (admittedly completely uninformed, worth what you paid to hear it and perhaps incorrect) recommendation would be to just drop the price of the unit to the $60 level. I'm sure they'd sell more of them, and the value would be much better for the money.

With all that said, there's really only one more question I wanted to answer.

What's Inside The Darn Thing?

Or, here is the turbo.264 take apart guide!

I like to know what is inside the devices I use...what makes them tick and how the designers put them together.

The turbo.264 has been out for a while now (mine has date codes inside that pin its manufacture date to sometime around the end of 2006!) and of all the legions of people on the Internet, I could not find a single solitary soul that has actually broken out the screwdrivers and looked to see what is inside a turbo.264's black plastic casing. How exceptionally disappointing to find that once again I have to pick up the screwdrivers and selflessly bring you this information by risking the health and well-being of my own turbo.264 device.

It's not like it's hard to open the thing--the top cover (the one that says "elgato turbo.264") slides back away from the USB connector end with only minimal force to reveal the magic within.

There's not much to see. The main functional parts are a Cypress CY768013A EZ-USB IC, some RAM, a 24.00MHz clock crystal and of course, the heart of the thing: a Mobilygen MG1264 h.264 and AAC encoder/decoder IC. (No, I don't know how you pronounce "mobilygen" either.) The Mobilygen IC is, surprisingly enough, one of the smallest parts of the unit, and is a complete system-on-chip less RAM that dedicates itself to performing the task of not only encoding but also decoding h.264 video and AAC audio streams. Mobilygen says the part supports bitrates between 63kbps and 10Mbps, with resolution support covering 720x480, 720x420, 352x480 and 352x240 or 352x288. It also happens to support smooth fast forward and reverse, slow play, and well as video zoom during playback. During encoding, the part only consumes 185mW of power. But perhaps most interestingly of all, it is said to only cost $10 per unit when purchased in quantity....

There's something to keep in mind before you plunk down your $100.

So there you have the complete story about the Elgato turbo.264 hardware.

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Copyright ©2008 William R. Walsh. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce this work in its entirety with all copyright notices intact. No fee may be charged for access to this information, other than to cover any duplicating, media, or connect-time costs. Portions of this work may be used for other projects, provided credit is given for the portions of this work that you use and that such works are for non-profit distribution or information purposes.