A few months ago, TUAW posted about the new turbo.264 USB h.264 encoder from Elgato. Recently, I've had the opportunity to test out the t.264 and metaphorically kick its tires. Here's a quick summary of what I found.
What is it? The turbo.264 is a graphics co-processor in the form of a USB dongle. You connect it to a spare USB port and use it to speed up video conversions to h.264 files. The t.264 produces h.264 video optimized for iPod, Apple TV and PSP.
How fast is it? It's pretty fast. However, newer Macintoshes are also pretty fast. It took about 3 hours to rip my copy of Serenity using t.264. It took Handbrake about 5 hours on my 1.66 GHz Intel Core Duo Mac Mini with 1 GB memory. Keep in mind that QuickTime conversion to h.264 is notoriously slow. Handbrake and MPEG Streamclip provide much faster results but the off-loaded t.264 encoder beat them handily and freed up a large chunk of the main Mac's CPU cycles.
Will it make Handbrake faster? The accelerator only speeds up exports from QuickTime compatible applications. Handbrake doesn't export using QuickTime so it can't take advantage of t.264
What about other QuickTime-compatible apps? Any QuickTime application that lets you select one of the export components installed by the Turbo.264 software into /Library/QuickTime/Elgato Turbo.component can take advantage of the t.264 coprocessor. The components on offer are "Movie to Apple TV (Elgato Turbo.264)", "Movie to iPod (Elgato Turbo.264)", and "Movie to PSP (Elgato Turbo.264)". Further, the iPod export allows you to select from 640x480 and 320x240.
Can I use it to rip DVDs? Not directly. You'll need another program, like Mac the Ripper, to handle the removal of CSS, however you can use t.264 to convert unencrypted VOB files.
Can I use it with EyeTV? Yes. When installed, EyeTV automatically uses the turbo.264 unit to compress data rather than normal (and sloooow) QuickTime export.
I compress everything overnight anyway, so why use t.264? For some people with older machines, a 2-hour movie isn't an overnight task, it's a multi-day task. It's not a matter of whether everything finishes at 2 AM or 5 AM but rather will it get done while I'm away so I can use my computer when I get back?
Is it reliable? The first few software updates had some issues, but Elgato has been responsive to user problems and issuing bug fixes. The biggest problem that remains is the t.264's unwillingness to work on the same USB bus as some external USB hard drives. Elgato continues working on this problem.
How much does it cost? The t.264 costs $99.95.
Who should buy it? Anyone with an older, slower Mac (especially laptop users) might be able to take advantage of the t.264 speed advantage. It's particularly a good match for anyone who does a lot of video editing of short YouTube-like projects and wants to get from the edited product to the finish line as quickly as possible.