Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sandisk V-Mate

The Sandisk V-Mate has been around for a couple of years now, but not only has it been discontinued, but no replacement device seems to exist that replicates the V-Mates' functionality.

The concept behind the V-Mate is simple: take a video source and encode it directly to memory card in mpeg4 format, without using a computer. The mini- and micro-SD slots on the unit mean that you could encode something for direct viewing on a mobile phone. There's a MS Pro Slot that takes Duo cards without an adapter, so encoding directly to PSP cards is straightforward too. 

In addition to standard SD cards, the V-Mate accepts SDHC, MMC and RSMMC. It's a comprehensive list but so far I've only been able to try the unit with standard SD cards. Partly this is due to not having spare cards to hand, and partly due to mistrust of the V-Mates' ability not to corrupt cards from other devices.

I say this, because my first attempt at recording resulted in a SD card that could no longer be read by my camera (although the Mac could see it) - a format sorted it - but the V-Mate had done something to the FAT on the card to render it unusable by the camera.

Now, I only have one high capacity MS-Pro Duo card and that's in the PSP and carries a fair mixture of game saves, some music , pictures and config files. I'd rather the V-Mate didn't muck it up - so I've not yet tried direct to PSP recording. (Yes I know I can backup the card... but I don't have time for that...).

The V-Mate packs a couple of extra features in addition to recording video. Tied to the core function is a scheduler set much like a VCR - this in turn drives an IR blaster to change channels on a set top box. I've not tried this because it's not how I intend to use the device (clue: I have a TiVo). A mini USB port allows connection to a PC or Mac and allows the V-Mate to double as a multi-format card reader. Remember that, unlike the bulk of card readers, this handles those pesky micro and mini-SD cards.

Now, all this is packaged in a compact form that looks a little lost even next to an Apple TV. Video to and from the unit is a simple composite signal, together with left/right audio channels. Most video devices put out this signal, but they're usually part of the Scart socketry instead of a discrete, dedicated socket. So, a switchable Scart adapter (from eBay) is required to start using the V-Mate.

Ah. Using the V-Mate. This is where concept meets real-world and the result is a train wreck. Ok, I'm being a bit harsh. The main problem is the unresponsive remote. The annoying bubble-texture buttons, when prodded, don't do anything... most of the time. Sometimes, the unit buffers two remote operations, by which time you've pressed the buttons a few times more to be sure and the interface ends up where you don't want it.

The result makes using the V-Mate thoroughly unenjoyable, which is a pity because I really like the idea.

Recordings can be made in various resolutions, to match the intended playback device. One problem is that resulting mpeg4 files are in the 4:3 aspect ratio. Most TV in the UK is broadcast in 16:9. V-Mate will still record this, but the result is squashed and unwatchable. A solution is to re-encode the video, adjusting the aspect ratio along the way. This scheme works but the overall time and effort required to process even 1 hour of television leaves me asking the question: is it worth it? The answer depends on how important it is to get the video onto the computer. This process is something I'll describe in a future article.

I like the V-Mate. It has an appealingly unique function. The operation of the device could be better, but it does what it sets out to do and the results are not too shabby. I got mine cheap on eBay and despite the gripes, this is quite a cool bit of kit.