A direct-to-disk unit is essentially a DV camera add-on that is both a portable hard disk and an instant-capture device all in one. Higher-end versions similar to these have been around for a while [for an introduction to the technology, the market, and current products, see Stephen Nathans' "Going Tapeless with DV," July, pp. 12-19]. What distinguishes this new round is their smaller size, lower cost, and more universal application.
I first encountered direct-to-disk technology for DV at DV Expo 2002 in L.A., where nNovia was introducing their first QuickCapture unit. Since then, other vendors also entered the field, including those profiled here: Shining Technology (makers of that delightful Beetle DV unit mentioned in our NAB coverage) with their CitiDISK DV and MCE Technologies with their QuickStream DV unit. (FOCUS Enhancements, an ever-dominant player with its omnipresent FireStore-3 and GY-DV5000, will take on the little guys in early 2005 with its new FS-4, but didn't have an eval unit available at press time. See sidebar, "Looking 4Ward.") Each of these vendors has a slightly different take on how to answer the needs of videographers, which should become clear as we continue our review. However, in many ways, these units are quite similar.
One only has to do a quick scan of online DV discussion groups to realize that there is a challenge to rapidly adopting a direct-to-disk system in-house. This focuses on reliability. For many videographers, the DV tape technology that is the heart of contemporary DV cameras is proven and so isn't one to throw away lightly. It is rugged, time-tested, and familiar.
It's clear that a working studio can use any of these recorders as a primary acquisition tool. After living with these units for several months, we found that, if treated much like cameras, they stored and retrieved files with aplomb. But just as workstations and servers need backup, so do direct-to-disk systems. The in-camera recorded tape can serve as the archive backup and fail-safe just in case.
Another question that arose in testing was whether the units would deliver similar quality video compared to raw DV from a tape. We found that all three do so; so in this critical aspect, they are alike.
All three also record native NLE file formats (AVI and MOV), so there's no difficulty in working with Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere, for example. Our review here, then, will look at ease of use, ergonomics, and other important issues, rather than just, "Which unit delivers the best DV recording?"
Each of the DV recorders relies on a hard disk to store video content. Because DV files weigh in at 12.9GB per hour of video, each disk's capacity—ranging from 20-80GB—has a specific correlation in terms of how many minutes of video it can hold. A 20GB drive theoretically can hold just over 90 minutes of DV, but you're likely to see it spec'd at 80 minutes given reasonable adjustments for differences in engineering vs. marketing definitions of gigabytes (based on factors of 1024 vs. factors of 1000), "overhead" from accumulation of files, and conservative estimates designed to save you from losing footage when you push a hard drive all the way to the limit during a live shoot. Likewise, 30GB drives are spec'd at 120 minutes, 40GB units at 160, 60GB models at 240, and 80GB drives at 320.
All three units reviewed here are available in various capacities in this range, although that's probably the most in-flux aspect of this technology. In fact, these capacities change as hard drives of all stripes continue to increase in capacity while dropping in cost.
The critical distinguishing factor among these drives, then, is not overall capacity, but battery life. Both the QuickStream and the CitiDISK use lithium-ion polymer rechargeable batteries with an estimated non-stop recording life of 80 minutes (MCE claims 90 minutes). Our tests showed that both units operated within 10% of the 80-minute figure—around 70-75 minutes. This means that both the QuickStream and the CitiDISK would be good for recording about the same length of time as a standard DV tape before recharging, assuming you've got a comparable amount of juice in the camera itself.
The QuickStream does offer an additional plug-in battery pack as an extra-cost option. This provides up to a claimed 3.5 hours of recording time—making a theoretical total of five hours of non-stop operation. Although we weren't able to test this, we should note that this battery actually daisychains with the unit's internal one. So the external pack can charge up the internal one, then be removed during a break in taping.
MCE has conveniently included a 12-volt cigarette-lighter connection to allow recharging of the external pack in the car. In effect, then, the QuickStream could be used up to its full capacity on battery power with at most a second charge on the external pack. We particularly liked how the external pack also had indicator lights to show remaining life. This would allow timing of the exchange to better coincide with breaks in recording.
Not to be outdone, Shining offers an additional battery option for the CitiDISK, too. This daisychains with the internal battery so the CitiDISK can continue running with the now-exhausted external pack removed. In fact, the Shining solution goes one better, since it uses readily available G or V Mount batteries in a special chassis. The drawbacks to this approach are that it only works with cameras using G or V Mounts and it significantly enlarges the size of the compact CitiDISK, whose remarkably compact footprint is arguably its greatest strength.
But having the external battery seems critical when working with the CitiDISK. In our tests, the CitiDISK unit seemed inordinately sensitive to the power drop as the internal batteries discharged. In fact, within ten minutes or so of full discharge, the unit would respond erratically if attached to a workstation. Reading or writing files to the drive would fail. Attempting to eject the drive from the Mac desktop would appear to work, only to have the error message "Failed to properly eject drive" pop up after disconnecting the FireWire connection. Fully charging the unit up would restore this functionality.
Of course, all three units can run for an unlimited time with their battery rechargers plugged in and attached to a wall outlet, but this limits the range and versatility in recording and is anything but practical on a location shoot.
All three units use the Microsoft FAT 32 hard disk format—kind of a universal lowest common denominator—so both Windows and Macintosh systems can readily access them as an external device, although that versatility has its downside: given the file-size limitation of FAT 32 (as opposed to NTFS, which has read/write support in Windows XP but only read support on OS X), the disks won't store files larger than 2GB. So during lengthy recording sessions, these drives break up the session into consecutively marked clips roughly 10 minutes in length. There are not dropped frames, just separate files. Although this wouldn't apply if you were using either platform exclusively (with an ordinary Windows hard drive, you can choose NTFS for unlimited file sizes), the fact that these drives aim to be compatible with both OSs means that the limitation stays even in Mac- or Windows-only situations. (This holds true with all hard disk DV recorders, up to and including the FireStore line from FOCUS Enhancements.)
All three support FireWire 400, so throughput is not an issue for the 3.6MBps sustained data transfer rate that DV requires. Of course, many older Windows PCs will need to be upgraded to include a FireWire/1394 connector, but if you're trying to do DV without FireWire, not being able to run a DV disk recorder is the least of your problems.
Sadly, all three of our tested systems shipped with lean if not quite non-existent documentation. There is simply no reason that a contemporary product aimed at the prosumer market should come with almost no explanation of how to use it. It is particularly disappointing here because all three units are ostensibly hard drives, so they could easily carry additional well-illustrated manuals as PDF files onboard at no additional cost (if printing is an issue).
All three could benefit from instructions on remedying error conditions. For example, the nNovia manual simply states that the unit will be "instantly recognized" by NLE programs when in VTR mode. However, ours wasn't. Their tech support was wonderful in resolving this, but were there any troubleshooting steps we could have taken prior to calling support? Leaving even the simplest questions to tech support is hardly a cost-efficient way to do business.
The CitiDISK documentation (both online and in print) was particularly difficult. It appears as if a non-English speaker translated the Japanese manual. For example, "set eyes on the front panel" is simply awkward, but "all the files inside ‘media' folder are subject to be erased" is not only grammatically incorrect but far too vague, and does not explain if the Quick Erase will or just might erase the contents of the "media" folder.
In this group, the nNovia manual is a standout, having been written by someone who understood both the product and its intended audience. However, it could use more illustrations such as a menu flowchart for the LCD screen. It could be more detailed as well, allowing the QuickCapture to be used by newcomers as well as old pros to the field.