Tapeless Storage Shootout
Posted Sep 29, 2004

Time is money, as they say. So when various vendors began introducing direct-to-disk systems in 2003, studios were bound to notice. After all, any product that promises to eliminate the time-consuming log-and-capture process carries definite value.

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?"

Recording Capacity
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.

These issues introduced, we'll now look at each unit individually to understand how they differ and how they answer specific needs in the production process.

Meet CitiDISK DV
The delightfully diminutive CitiDISK DV is a great introduction to direct-to-disk recording at low cost. It comes with a vinyl pouch with belt clip, a 3-foot, 6-to-4 pin FireWire/1394 cable, battery charger, and a CD of software utilities. The unit itself is small, about 3" x 5.5" and 1" high. The case is a high-impact plastic with function controls at one end and a top indicator for drive activity. It is light—about ten ounces—so it could possibly even be velcro'd to the outside of the camera if need be. However, given that it is an external hard drive with a relatively thin case, it should be handled with some care to avoid sharp impacts.

Our 40GB test unit supports about 2.5 hours of DV video on its internal drive. The file format is user-definable: Raw DV, QuickTime MOV, and Windows or Canopus AVI. Choosing a format is a convoluted process involving a sequence of blinking lights, but you'll probably have to do it only once, right after you buy the unit. Unfortunately, the unit doesn't support timecodes at this point.

Powering Up
The CitiDISK includes not one but two power switches. One is a large button on the rear of the unit, the other a tiny, unlabeled slide switch almost invisible next to the FireWire connector. The larger one powers up the internal hard disk; the tiny one apparently keeps the internal circuitry awake. Both have to be on for the drive to work, but it is easy to miss the slide switch, particularly as the "On" position isn't clearly marked. (In fact, it's a small white dot almost hidden in the crack between the two case halves which we at first took to be a bit of stray paint on the unit. We wouldn't have even thought of this as an "On" indicator except for the manual saying so. Unfortunately, the dot isn't at all visible in the equally tiny illustration.)

As we mentioned earlier, the unit's internal battery lasted about 75 minutes in our test. Shining has an ingenious solution for extending this life significantly. They insert the drive into a caddy between a G or V Mount battery and a camera body. The CitiDISK then shares this battery with the camera. Although we didn't have one to test, this should provide ample power for a typical two-hour shoot.

However, for cameras like the Panasonic AG-DVX100 or Canon XL1, the only option is to record for an hour, then recharge the unit. Unfortunately, the CitiDISK's compact design doesn't allow room for indicators for Recording Time Remaining or Battery Life, so you'll have to note usage manually to stay on top of it. (When the unit runs out of juice or space, it closes down the last clip and powers off.)

Using the CitiDISK
We found the FireWire cable connectors tight on both the camera and the drive. This is important, as the extra cable length dangled and left room for possibly snagging it with an elbow or hand while moving about during recording. (We didn't want to pull out the cable during shooting.) Shining recommends looping the cable through the camera's hand strap to help with this.

The CitiDISK includes an undocumented "Qplay" button on the rear. When pressed, this button will display the contents of the last recorded clip into the camera's viewfinder if the camera is in VTR mode. The unit does not otherwise provide a way to view other clips, nor can it fast-forward or rewind.

Our two test systems—Windows XP and Mac OS 10.3.3—both immediately recognized the CitiDISK. We could copy or open both AVI and MOV-formatted files from the drive into Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere. The one caveat is that if the CitiDISK is nearing the end of its battery life, communications with the drive become erratic. (Even plugging the drive into the charger is not enough; it needs a charged battery to keep communications flowing.)

The CitiDISK ships with a CD-ROM of utilities and documentation. Unfortunately, the Mac utilities are for Mac OS 9 and not OS X. But this isn't a great loss, as there is only one function in the utility for the Mac in any case—Drive Setup—which re-formats the drive. (Not a common requirement, one would hope.)

Windows users get a bit more—Archive, DiskCopy—but these seem like tools for using CitiDISK as a hard drive rather than a live-recording DV device. Also, it's worth noting that the native OS X Disk Utility can see and report on the drive, but Verify and Repair functions don't work.

The Shining Technology CitiDISK DV is a cost-effective, straightforward direct-to-disk drive. It is so easily portable that it invites use. It also holds significant value in its time-saving ability even if it doesn't include all the features of the other models we looked at here.

Shining also appears to be energetically supporting it, given the consistent flow of updates and improvements it has incorporated via downloads from its Web site. This is important when considering a product to bank future business on.

Meet QuickStream DV
Everything about MCE Technologies' QuickStream DV suggests that the designer works as a videographer. The 1/4-20 screw attachment is positively brilliant—allowing the unit to connect immediately with many existing professional pieces of equipment. The retractable FireWire cable (which came with our test unit) worked fine and kept the connection out of the way, helping avoid accidentally jerking out a FireWire connector during shooting with an elbow or hand.

The ruggedized case (MCE likes to call it "armor") should take any of the typical abuse in production environments and location shoots (although, even with the armor, the QuickStream doesn't seem to weigh much more than the CitiDISK). It exudes a sense of robust professionalism and looks like it means business. Although the basic chassis of the QuickStream looks remarkably like that of Shining's CitiDISK, it is clear that MCE has generously enhanced the drive unit to further meet production needs.

For example, while we struggled with the CitiDISK's tiny On/Off switch, the QuickStream version instead has a large "Master" label as well as the word "ON" in the appropriate spot.

What surprised us, however, was the "one-off" feel of some of the pieces. The machined hot-shoe mount is one example. Although it appears square, our tested mount actually would only slide easily from one direction onto the Panasonic AG-DVX100's hotshoe. Otherwise, the mount would have taken a rubber mallet to slide in—something we didn't want to contemplate with our loaner camera. A metal file would fix this, but why should this be necessary? (For those not concerned with camera-mountability, the unit ships with a screw-in belt clip.)

Adding to the amateur-hour ethic was the power cable, which appeared to have been wrapped with tape by hand. The cable worked great, but it had a sort of do-it-yourself feel quite distinct from the overall nice fit-and-finish of the QuickStream.

Using QuickStream
We particularly liked the QuickStream's six-second pre-roll recording. The unit automatically appends six seconds of video to the start of the clip that normally would go unrecorded while the camera's motors powered up and the tape started rolling. This is a marvelous feature to have when you are "live" and gives another good reason to upgrade.

Curiously, the QuickStream also seemed to stop about six seconds prior to when the tape stopped recording. We don't know if this is simply a function of how cameras work or if it is that QuickStream is so fast in responding to the Stop Recording command. It is easy enough to get in the habit of recording five or ten seconds more as a kind of "follower" (the opposite of leader) to catch this.

The QuickStream also can record tape-less. So long as the camera is on, you can press the unit's record button and it will record the feed. (We did have occasional problems with the Panasonic camera, which would automatically power off for inactivity.)

The QuickStream does provide timecodes in the stream that are visible if you are using Final Cut Pro or Express on the Mac. However, when we tested the unit for a one hour-long recording session, the timecodes would reset at the start of each new clip. With about a dozen clips to the hour, it reduces the value of having timecodes if they reset every five minutes or so.

External Battery
As mentioned earlier, MCE offers an optional add-on lithium-ion polymer battery pack for longer shoots. It conveniently screws into the base of the QuickStream as well as having its own 1/4-20 socket for attaching to a camera. We found that an hour-long session only partially drained the pack (as shown on the indicators), so we anticipate that it would achieve its promised three-and-a-half hour runtime.

The QuickStream also includes its own tool—StreamManager—which is essentially a Finder/Windows Explorer file manager. We didn't find it particularly useful and relied instead on our NLE or desktop OS for copying, moving, etc. The biggest benefit is that it shows you the remaining recording time on the unit. So if you have a FireWire-equipped laptop handy, you can check on this in the field.

The QuickStream is almost the ideal for direct-to-disk systems. The robust case, easy attachment, preview option, tapeless recording, and six-second pre-roll all make it an outstanding product for studios and videographers.

If there are limitations, it is the lack of Recording Time Remaining and Battery Life indicators and a real internal timecode generator. Otherwise, the QuickStream DV is a killer enhancement to video production.

Meet QuickCapture A2D
The nNovia QuickCapture A2D is an incomparable gem for video production in mixed environments. While the QuickStream may be ergonomically superior and the CitiDISK more portable, the QuickCapture should be the video professional's top choice in the prosumer market. While there's a premium to pay (the A2D starts at $1400 MSRP), it also has everything: Direct-to-disk recording for both analog and digital sources (when you consider the alternatives—not just capture but pricey capture/converter cards and boxes—it's a lifesaver on the analog side); output to both analog and digital tools; VTR controls; LCD readout with Timecode, Time Remaining, and Battery Life; and a six-hour battery. It also feels husky—like a Hummer for the videographer. 

We don't know of another choice out there for both analog and digital work, especially at this price. While the exterior isn't pretty, it's clear that the engineers at nNovia have spent all their time working out the internals on this product—and gotten them right. 

Outside, it is big in comparison with the CitiDISK—4" x 6" x 2" rectangular industrial box. (We can only hope that future models might become as attractive as either the CitiDISK or QuickStream.) Given its solid steel construction and external NiMH battery pack, it weighs in at around three to four pounds total. So it is primarily intended to go into the provided belt pouch rather than weighing down a camera (or a shooter's arm). 

But thanks to that added weight, we had a full five hours of battery life on the unit without recharging. (Since we were testing a 40GB version, which gives 160 minutes of recording, this allowed us to both record a full 2.5 hours of content plus edit and transfer time on the same charge. Thanks, nNovia!) 

The QuickCapture system comes in two models—a FireWire digital I/O only version and the unit we tested, the A2D (which stands for Analog-to-Digital), which provides both FireWire and Analog I/O. The rear of the unit provides a FireWire jack, analog pigtail connector, and the battery connection. There's just one switch for powering up the unit, either as a hard drive or as a VTR. Recording is done in VTR mode; the hard disk mode is for extracting the content once at your NLE. 

We also liked the cut-outs in the belt pouch, which allow the cable connections to enter from the bottom (both the analog pigtail and the FireWire). We found it much less likely we would accidentally pull a connector out this way, even with standard-length cables. However, it takes some familiarity with the system to know which direction to move the switch to turn the unit on, as the switch is also on the bottom. With the pouch secured to the belt, it isn't easy to twist it up. 

The Front Panel
Unlike the other drives, the QuickCapture A2D incorporates an LCD screen and several familiar buttons for VTR operation, as well as two "soft key" buttons for menu selection. The LCD screen is easily readable even in daylight with dark characters on a light background. The VTR controls have the familiar icons embossed on them for Play, Record, and Stop. (This means that the A2D lets you browse through and play back any or all the recorded clips.) 

The LCD screen, as mentioned before, also includes Remaining Battery Life, Remaining Recording Time, and Timecode readouts. This makes it a quick glance to verify where you are, rather than trusting to memory or a note for the other systems. 

The screen and buttons face upward and toward you when in the pouch, but under a protective flap. This means an occasional hassle in each recording session to lift the stiff flap blocking the view of the screen. 

Another difference with the A2D is that it always records in Raw DV. It creates the AVI or MOV files only after you select the "Make Media Files" option in the menu. This process takes only a few seconds, but it is an extra step the other systems don't require.

Analog I/O
The A2D ships with a convenient, less-likely-to-lose single pigtail for all analog connections (inputs are blue, while outputs are black). Supported I/O options include BNC SMPTE Timecode, RCA Left/ Right Unbalanced Audio, and Composite Video (S-Video and BNC).

If you aren't using the analog functions, you can remove the connector and run the device from the FireWire/1394 cable.

Using the A2D
We salute the engineers at nNovia, because in testing, the actual recording and playback of clips (both analog and digital) proved trouble-free. In fact, we were impressed that when we ran the unit in VTR mode, both Windows XP and OS X saw it without our installing drivers. (Needless to say, in Hard Disk Mode, both Windows and OS X could mount the drive.)

We feel that the QuickCapture's value can't be overstated for its ability to record AVI or MOV files from analog sources, or to replay those on existing analog equipment. All too often technology advances mean a "forklift" replacement of everything in the shop because the new stuff simply won't play with the old. Not so here.

The A2D means that the years of experience and skills with some great analog tools (as well as all the investment in those) can now continue to contribute to the bottom line while still upgrading to a full digital workflow.

We don't have a one-size-fits-all winner in this category. (In fact, we could see how having all three could be useful.)

They all deliver on render-free content. For portability, the tiny CitiDISK wins out. For rugged, ergonomic perfection, the QuickStream takes the gold. For instant integration of analog and digital shops, the QuickCapture A2D is the professional's clear and compelling choice.

Sidebar 1: Where We Tested: The Digital Generation

"It's all about skipping the capture process," says videographer Brandon Storrs, in describing direct-to-disk solutions, "and being able to capture at a moment's notice." Storrs is keenly aware of the cost of capture time. Storrs is president of The Digital Generation (www.dgvid.com), an Orem, Utah-based event videography outfit now in its fifth year, and Storrs (and his studio) served as the de facto testing lab for this article. It's easy for Storrs to see the advantages of direct-to-disk devices; he sees saving those endless log-and-capture hours as a critical benefit for his three-person, three-camera studio.

In particular, newlywed clients often want the edited video of the morning's ceremonies to be ready for the evening reception. That puts quite a bit of pressure on Storrs and his team to do a competent and artistic edit let alone take the time to do the capturing. "With a direct-to-disk system," he says, "we can move right into the edit process."

He also notes that couples are becoming much more educated about DV technology. "They'll often ask me about what type of equipment I'll be using, what camera, and how I'll deliver their video," says Storrs. "So it's important to me to have the best contemporary system—not only for making my job simpler, but also for staying competitive with what other studios offer." Storrs is no stranger to digital work. Before he started The Digital Generation, he worked in audio production, a field that convinced him the future of video was in DV. "I did do some work with analog equipment, but it was quite clear to me that if audio was moving completely to digital, the best way to do video also would be digital."

Sidebar 2: Looking 4Ward: FOCUS Enhancements' FireStore 4

As magazine editors, we'd always like to see companies come out with competing products at exactly the same time, as that would make it easiest for us to corral and compare the latest and the greatest from all the leaders in the field. FOCUS Enhancements (www.focusinfo.com), a leading player in the tapeless storage space, claimed (justifiably) a great deal of ink in July's "Going Tapeless with DV" article, particularly as the article profiled two videographers who work exclusively with the JVC camcorder-mounted version of FOCUS' FireStore FS-3.

When we did the testing for this article, FOCUS Enhancements was on the verge of announcing the latest addition to its FireStore line of live DV recorders, the FS-4, which is scheduled to ship in December. Though the product was not available for review at press time, its positioning—it's designed specifically for handheld prosumer camcorders—means it merits some mention here. What we have on the unit are manufacturers' specs, so none of this should be compared directly with the tried and tested data gathered in this article.

The Firestore FS-4 is a tapeless video acquisition device available in two models, the FS-4 and FS-4 Pro, both of which are designed to connect to any FireWire-equipped PC. Supported file types for live recording include Raw DV, DV-AVI Types 1 and 2, AVI Type 2 24p, Matrox AVI, Canopus AVI, QuickTime, and QuickTime 24p. The FS-4 Pro model also supports MXF, Pinnacle AVI, and Avid DV-OMF, according to FOCUS.

FireStore FS-4 weighs less than one pound, including the battery, and is 1.5" thick. You can mount the device directly to a compatible camcorder using the optional hot shoe adapter (a list of supported camcorders is available on the FOCUS Enhancements Web site), or clip the FS-4 directly to your belt. The FS-4 comes standard with a 40GB hard drive while FS-4 Pro is available with either 40GB or 80GB capacity. Two FS-4 units can be daisychained to double recording time. Both FS-4 models also feature removable battery packs or can be optionally powered via a wall outlet.

Both FS-4 models feature a backlit display, menu system, and buttons for control and management. FS-4 Pro also includes retro-record mode; Scene Marking, which allows clips to be categorized into pre-named folders on disk while you shoot; user-definable time lapse; and loop playback modes. MSRPs for the FS-4 and FS-4 Pro are $1195 and $1695, respectively.

-Stephen F. Nathans