Price: $799 (FS-4); $1,195 (FS-4 PRO 40GB); $1,695 (FS-4 PRO 80GB)
As significant as the shift from film to video and analog to digital in audio-visual content production has been the dramatic reduction in the size of the cameras and other equipment required to do professional work. While many filmmakers and broadcast operations are still employing some fairly big rigs, most videographers I know shoot with cameras that fall into the "handheld" category.
Of course, "handheld" describes cameras of quite a few sizes; in EventDV we tend to speak not so much of cameras you can hold in your hand as cameras you can support with your hand. The top three vote-getters in our first annual Reader's Choice Awards give some indication of where our readers' sympathies lie: Sony's HDR-FX1, Canon's XL2, and Panasonic's AG-DVX100, three high-end, DV-oriented handheld units.
The primary vessel for the video these cameras capture is MiniDV tape. As a digital storage medium, it's aesthetically interchangeable from any other container that can carry the same content; ones and zeroes don't look or sound any better on one physical medium than another. Thus DV tape must answer for its practical limitations, which include durability, reliability, and the debilitating waiting game of real-time capture.
Enter the direct disk recorder (DDR), a variably compact dedicated hard drive specifically designed to record a DV stream to disk as you shoot it. We surveyed the range of DDR options in two 2004 articles, my own July cover story "Going Tapeless with DV" (pp. 12-19) and David Doering's "Tapeless Storage Shootout," which ran in October (pp. 16-23). There are a number of companies competing in this space, among them nNovia (QuickCapture A2D), Shining Technologies (CitiDISK), MCE (QuickStream DV), Sony (DSR-DU1), and FOCUS Enhancements (FireStore line). FOCUS is the name that turns the most heads; they've been at it the longest and have attracted the leading DDR pioneers. So it should come as no surprise that FOCUS' latest, the FS-4, the first FireStore model designed specifically for "handheld" cameras, is arguably the most eagerly anticipated release in the brief history of DDR technology.
The Fire Brand
The FS-4 combines the best-known features of the previous FireStore models (FOCUS' patented Direct to Edit acquisition technology, and—in the FS-4 Pro model—customizable retro and lapse record features and on-disk, live scene-marking) with the more compact form factor of QuickCapture and QuickStream. It mounts easily on cameras and adds little weight for such a valuable accessory.
And make no mistake that a DDR is an accessory, albeit one that straddles the worlds of production and post-production. (And at $799 for the base FS-4 it's a pricey one, although it's price-competitive with any model in the market.) The whole point of a product like this is to streamline your existing workflow, not force you to redefine your existing setup to accommodate it. So an easy fit is paramount. I tested the FS-4 with a camera that should be within reach of most pro event shooters: Canon's solid, 3-chip GL2. For post, I evaluated the FS-4 with Adobe Premiere Pro, and Apple Final Cut Pro. The testbed system used for the Windows side of review was our in-house PC powerhouse, Alienware's MJ-12 3.2GHz dual-processor laptop. On the Mac side, we tested on a dual 2.0 G5.
I tested the FS-4 in two configurations. Primarily, I worked with it mounted on the accessory shoe atop the GL2's on-camera mic using its hot-shoe mounting bracket (a $129 add-on); after a couple minutes of simple loosenings and tightenings, I had it securely attached and properly angled for easy LCD viewing and button access. You also can attach it to your belt using a handy black belt clip that comes in the package. Either way, you connect it to your camcorder via the 6-to-4 FireWire cable that also ships with the unit. Naturally, it's easier to follow the action on the LCD and access the buttons in the mounted configuration.
The FS-4 has some notable differences from the FS-3 besides its size. The biggest difference is that the FS-3 boasts removable hard disks for added capacity. You can increase FS-4 storage from the basic 40GB (about three hours of DV) by buying the 80GB (6-hour) version of the FS-4 Pro; you can expand the capacity of the FS-4 (standard or Pro) by daisychaining multiple units. At $1,195 (40GB) or $1,695 (80GB) for the FS-4 Pro and $799 for the FS-4, it all depends on how badly you want that additional storage. The unit submitted for review was a preproduction FS-4 (standard), and I had only one of them, so I was unable to test the daisychaining feature, nor did I have the opportunity to test any of the FS-4 Pro-specific features in this evaluation.
Though hard disk storage is fixed, batteries are changeable, which is a crucial feature for any DDR. Since DDR batteries tend to last about 70-80 minutes (the FS-4's clocked out just under 80), if you plan to push disk capacity even on the 40GB version, you'll need to have a charged backup battery on hand. The battery swap is quick and painless; if you're operating camera-mounted, you'll need to remove the FS-4 from the mounting bracket, but you can leave the bracket attached to the camera.
One feature that's unique to the FS-4 (standard and Pro), with no parallel elsewhere in FOCUS' line or anyone else's: it's software-upgradeable to HDV. While the technology isn't available yet—FOCUS expects to roll it out sometime this summer—anyone who buys the FS-4 before April 30 can upgrade an existing unit to HDV for $99 (after that, it's $299).