Play Snappy 3.0
ArcSoft ZipShot
Two similar framegrabbing products are just different enough
Snappy 3.0

It's been said that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. In 1995, the good folks at Play did just that: they created the Snappy, a pocket-sized frame grabber that plugged into a PC's parallel port and made capturing images simple and fun--all for the then-low price of $299. The path-beating then began in earnest (Play claims the Snappy is "the best-selling video add-on of all time").

Since then, Play have been busy. They released Snappy 2.0 about a year later, and, more recently, Snappy 3.0, dropping the price as they went along. In each case, they didn't so much redesign the mousetrap as change the flavor of the cheese: the hardware remained the same, but the software was updated significantly, and the included third-party software spiffed up ever so slightly.

I reflected on this whole mousetrap analogy as I installed the Snappy 3.0 software. Snappy 2.0 had been something of a disappointment; I don't know what I was expecting, but what I got--essentially the same software with some design changes--didn't do much for me. After I ran Snappy 3.0, I had a similar feeling.

The interface is now a scenery-chewing graphic reminiscent of something out of Men in Black; one can almost feel the lovingly-rendered chrome surface and elliptical buttons. It's very pretty. It's also annoying. Maybe I'm getting crotchety in my old age, but a certain simplicity of design is missing here. Snappy 1.0 wasn't perfect, but it had a logical and easy-to-follow layout. While Snappy 3.0 doesn't require a degree in rocket science, it does have its ambiguities and extraneous mouse twitching. A few items will undoubtedly require a brief trip to the manual--something that was completely unnecessary with 1.0.

Interface issues aside, the resulting frame grabs are still stellar (since the Snappy hardware is unchanged, this is no surprise). There is one improvement: a High Definition button on the Snappy 3.0 interface. The High Definition feature uses interpolation to smooth the jaggies out of high-resolution images. The results aren't film quality--this is NTSC video, after all--but they're much clearer than you'd expect.

Other mousetrap makers have been busy, and one of the contenders is ArcSoft's ZipShot. Like the Snappy, this is a compact frame grabber that plugs into the parallel port.

Depending on how you look at it, the ZipShot looks a lot like the Snappy--or it doesn't look like it at all. The ZipShot is less rounded and less colorful than the Snappy (though I prefer its richer purple), but if you put it next to a Snappy there's no question that they're both designed for the same purpose.

This theme of being the same yet different runs through all aspects of the ZipShot. It's like being a new Windows 95 user and comparing its interface to the Mac OS: at first, you really notice the obvious similarities, and the word "plagiarism" rings in your head for a while... then you begin to notice the little touches, where they've had the luxury of building on what's come before.

For starters, just take a closer look at the two grabbers. The ZipShot has a Y/C (otherwise known as S-Video) input, which many Snappy owners have clamored for since its release. (The ZipShot can also handle SECAM and three flavors of PAL right out of the box; you'd have to buy a separate Snappy for PAL, and it doesn't do SECAM at all.)

The ZipShot also goes for a more environmentally-friendly approach than Snappy's 9-volt battery; it draws its power from a keyboard or bus port. Finally, it also has a parallel port pass-through, a godsend in this era of easy-to-install parallel-port devices. Eventually, the USB spec is supposed to solve problems like this; until then, it's a point for ArcSoft.

When it was time to start grabbing images, I took one look at the ZipShot interface (like the Snappy, the ZipShot uses a TWAIN driver) and instantly fell in love. Here was the elegant, uncluttered interface I desired! O joy! O rapture! Just about all the functions of the Snappy (there are no individual red, green, and blue controls) were there, in a visually appealing layout.

Also a pleasure: the preview window updates a little closer to real-time; you can also reduce the preview image size if you need to squeeze a few more frames per second out of it.

Capturing an image, of course, is as easy as blinking: after choosing your settings, push the red button marked "capture".

The ZipShot's image quality is comparable with the Snappy's; I set them both on their highest quality setting for a still image, and grabbed a 640x480 image from a laserdisc. Both produced identical crisp images. At higher resolutions, however, the ZipShot loses. The ZipShot has a maximum resolution of 1600x1200, compared to the Snappy's 1500x1125--but without an interpolation feature like Snappy's High Definition button, the extra pixels don't help all that much.

If it were simply a matter of grabbing still images, the High Definition feature would sway me toward recommending the Snappy over the ZipShot (unless you plan on using an S-Video or non-NTSC source). However, it's not that easy; the ZipShot comes with some extras which may make you reconsider.

First is a time-lapse feature, which automatically grabs images at a set interval (up to 10 frames a minute for up to 24 hours) and automatically saves them to disk. This is very easy to use, but suffers from two flaws. First, the feature can't be activated from the TWAIN driver; in order to use it, you must activate the ZipShot capture software from the included PhotoImpression program. Second, the image resolution is limited to 640x480.

The other nifty feature is the ability to capture full-motion video as an AVI file--up to 5 minutes, 59 seconds, at a maximum resolution of 320x240. (You may need to download a patch from ArcSoft's Web site to capture audio.) This must be done from within PhotoImpression as well.

Now, here's the rub: all of this can be done with the Snappy as well, but only if you get the Snappy 3.0 Deluxe package ($199, or $39.95 US to upgrade from any previous Snappy release). It seems strange that a company as hip and consumer-friendly as Play would charge extra for a feature that other companies have been including for some time now. I hope they rectify this by dropping the prices further, or at least promising to include these features in Snappy 4.0--which, if they're true to form, will be out around the end of the year. In the meantime, the two devices are neck and neck, differing in just enough features to make deciding between the two a minor headache. You'll just have to decide what kind of mouse you want to trap.

Originally printed in The Computer Paper (July 1998)