Buying HD video cameras...

I've been thinking about video.

As a long standing photographer, I've always looked askance at video. You only have to look at Youtube to know why. Video is even easier to do badly than photography. Bad zooming, wobbly handheld pictures, the loud voice of the operator from off camera, no attention to lighting. In addition, it's very easy to slip over the fine line from participating in something to simply recording it. For these and other reasons I've always resisted. Last year, we bought a cheap video camera, and the results were sufficiently bad to confirm me in my scepticism of the medium.

Then machinima came into my life. Not gently, either. One minute I had this normal life, and the next I was spending hours and hours doing screen capture from Second Life and trying to edit it, and on tight deadlines too!

In a considerable hurry, I suddenly had to understand a whole lot of things about video - not least because the Apple video editing products I used (iMovie 6 and later Final Cut Express HD v3.5) only edit video formats. If it's not PAL, NTSC, 720p or 1080i, those tools aren't interested in it, and furthermore it takes hours and hours to convert captures into these formats from others. So I learned about video, and I learned how to edit video.

Given all this new experience, plus a certain amount of motivation generated by the imminent advent of the next Smith, I have decided to buy another video camera. I want it to be at least half decent, I want it to be HD, and we're prepared to pay (some) more money than last time. So I started looking into it, and I've discovered that the world of consumer HD video is much more complex than I'd anticipated. I've ended up trying to decide between two very different cameras. These are the Panasonic HDC-SD1, which records video in AVCHD format to SDHC flash memory, and the Canon HV20, which records video in HDV format to tape. They both produce 1080i video, although the Canon has a 24p option that produces 1080p output at 24fps for a more film-like effect.

I should say, at this point, that while I've looked all over the Internet, the side that has generated the most credibility with me on this whole topic has been camcorderinfo.com. A lot of what I have learned has come from there.

The main consideration by a huge margin is format. At one time, consumer level HD cameras recorded to tape, using the HDV format. This is widely supported by editing tools, including the two Apple tools that I have access to. However, recording to hard disk or flash memory has now become a very practical alternative and for HD the manufacturers are starting to push the new AVCHD format, developed by Sony and Panasonic.

AVCHD is much less widely supported in editing tools - iMovie '08 and Final Cut Studio 2 support it, but (importantly to me) Final Cut Express doesn't as yet. To compound the problems, there's some doubt about AVCHD support on PowerPC Macs - Final Cut Studio definitely doesn't support it on PowerPC, but I can't find any hard info about iMovie '08. At any rate, such support for AVCHD as exists was introduced following the recent refreshes of Final Cut Studio and iMovie - it's my uninformed guess that a refresh of Final Cut Express is in the pipeline and that this that will provide AVCHD support for that too. For the interim, there's a $30 tool called Voltaic which will convert the AVCHD into Apple Intermediate Codec for editing in FCE.

AVCHD is based on H.264 compression and while it supports bitrates of up to 24Mbps, the HDC-SD1 can only output up to 13Mbps. HDV is based on mpeg-2 compression, and for 1080i video, the bitrate is 25Mbps. As H.264 is a far more modern and advanced compression algorithm, one might expect better results from it, but it turns out that in the comparison done by the folks at camcorderinfo.com, the Canon outperforms the Panasonic on picture quality maybe due to the lower 13Mbps bitrate cap.

So, based on the information I could find online, I produced the following comparison table to help me decide whether to go for tried and tested HDV to tape, or bleeding edge AVCHD to flash memory. It is weighted to reflect the particular things I care about.

Apple Numbers spreadsheet

[Google Spreadsheet version]

As can be seen, there's really not a lot in it. I think this reflects the timing of the purchase. We're in an uncomfortable transition period between tape and flash memory. Unfortunately, flash memory systems aren't quite there yet, in terms of software support and hardware throughput, but tape is definitely on the way out. In a couple of years, I expect to see AVCHD cameras that beat the HDV stuff hands down. However, in many important ways the tape based HV20 has the edge.

Ultimately, though, I decided to opt for the shiny future - there are lots of very enthusiastic reviews of the SD1, as well as the more scientific and reserved commentary from the likes of camcorderinfo.com. In fact Steve Jobs enthused specifically about this camera during his recent presentation announcing the '08 versions of iLife and iWork.

What has really tipped it for me, though, is the personal element - I know myself, and I'm more likely to use it if it's smaller and more portable, and much more likely to use it if it's all new and sexy.

Watch this space...

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