Review: FOCUS Enhancements FireStore FS-4 - Editor's Choice
Posted Sep 1, 1999

The FS-4 sets a new standard for digital disk recorders, combining the FireStore line's peerless feature set with a competitive price point and a compact form factor that makes it a good match for top prosumer handheld camcorders from Canon, Sony, and Panasonic. The unit captured DV streams flawlessly in testing and transitioned effortlessly into hard disk mode for instant DV ingestion into popular NLEs like Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro. With an HDV upgrade for current users just over the horizon, the FS-4 looks well-nigh irresistible.

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).

The Fire This Time
The keystone features of any DDR are battery life (at just under 80 minutes, the FS-4 is solidly competitive in this department), disk capacity (40-80GB is also standard), and speed (the FS-4's 5400RPM is plenty to support DV acquisition and 400Mbps data transfer), effective integration into and acceleration of the post-production workflow, and how the unit behaves on a live shoot. This behavioral issue encompasses several factors: reliably capturing the DV stream, low- or no-maintenance operation when the camera is actually shooting new footage, and how effectively the DDR acts as either the secondary acquisition medium, the primary one, or both.

One area in which the FS-4 immediately distinguishes itself is its operational feature set. Using a 14-character, seven-line backlit LCD, three function keys just below it, a Select button surrounded by four directional arrows, and playback control buttons including record and fast and slow back/forward search and index, shooters can manage all the operations and features of the unit. During recording, the LCD will indicate timecode, recording time remaining (until the hard disk is full), battery life, and recording status.

In some respects the FS-4 is plug-and-play; connect it to your camera, fumble around a bit with the buttons, and you can probably start recording directly to the device in sync mode without much difficulty. But what you're able to accomplish with it in an actual shoot will improve significantly if you take a bit of time to master the menu system and customize your settings before you take the FS-4 out into the field.

One of the shortcomings of the FS-4's competitors, as we learned in Doering's "Tapeless Storage Shootout" article, was the dearth of documentation for every product he assessed in that review except for nNovia's QuickCapture A2D. Not only does the FS-4 come with a 57-page User's Guide that seems to be just the right length for this type of product (it's not as if we're looking at the feature set of After Effects or LightWave 3D), it's well-organized and well-written, too, with lots of screens and ample callouts illustrating each aspect of the FS-4's functionality.

You access the many settings menus for the FS-4 using the arrow keys adjacent to the Power On button, using the right and left arrows to move from one menu to another and the up and down arrows to move between different items in a given menu. First up is the Record menu, where the FS-4 submitted for review offered two options: Normal and Retro Cache. Retro Cache gives you six seconds of buffered record-ahead for every clip; you can't customize the duration on the FS-4—only on the FS-4 Pro can you set the value anywhere from 1 to 10, according to the User's Guide—and it doesn't work if you have only a minute's-worth (or less) of hard disk space left. One recording limitation that the FS-4 shares with its FOCUS stablemates and other products in this space is its use of the FAT 32 filesystem, which confines the length of individual clips to 2GB, or about 10 minutes.

In the Set Up menu, you'll quickly dispense with setting time and date and move on to more pressing matters in the same menu such as ensuring that the FS-4 alerts you when disk space or battery power is low (the default) and determining how timecode information will be recorded when the FS-4 stops acquiring video and starts again.

In the DV Format screen you'll have an opportunity to choose which DV format you'll use for recording; options include Raw DV, Canopus AVI, Matrox AVI, AVI Type 1, and AVI Type 2, which is the default. With camcorders like the Panasonic AG-DVX100 and the forthcoming JVC GY-HD100U that support 24p, you can also choose DV-24p (via QuickTime or AVI); presumably, with the HDV version, MPEG-2 HDV or some equivalent will show up in the DV format screen as well.

In the Functions menu you determine whether you'll start and stop the unit independent of your camera's recording status or sync camera/DDR start and stop. The Tapeless option enables wave-of-the-future tapeless recording if your camera supports it. Sync (a.k.a. Syncro Slave) produced the best results here, proven by a flawless tape-disk comparison after capture/ingestion. The Function menu correlates to the control menu in this respect, enforcing changes there between Local, AV/C, Syncro Slave, and Tapeless modes.

A Utilities menu lets you rename files; check system status and temperature; and format/erase individual clips or the entire disk, which eliminates fragmentation for more efficient disk use. The Utilities menu is also where you administer firmware upgrades (such as the forthcoming HDV capability) with the FS-4 connected to your PC or Mac and running in DD mode.

You also can choose among three HDD Modes: DV recorder, for live DV stream recording; DD drive, which lets you use the FS-4 as an external FireWire hard disk and video file source; and Use Ext FS-4, which enables the daisychaining function if you have multiple FS-4 units.

Fire Plugged
Once you've got your settings where you want them—especially if you've chosen Sync mode—you're free to shoot and let the FS-4 do its work with minimal monitoring and maintenance required from you until hard disk space or battery power start to run low. Of course it ups the weight of the camera by nearly a pound and a half with the mounting bracket et al., and one off-device factor you'll have to sort out in advance is how to keep that pesky FireWire cable out of your way. But all in all FS-4 operation is remarkably hands-off.

Naturally, the results don't really reveal themselves until it's time to ingest the video. This is a three-step process: first you switch into DD Drive mode; then you disconnect the 6-to-4 FireWire cable from the Camera I/O jack on the FS-4 and on the camera itself; then you reconnect the 6-pin end to the Computer I/O jack on the FS-4 and attach the 4-pin end to your computer.

If you've never used a DDR to ingest DV before, you'll be rubbing your eyes in disbelief when you see how it works—unless you happen to blink and miss it entirely. It's that big of a difference from traditional capture. There are two ways to get at the video on the drive: one is to transfer it to another hard disk on your system, which takes about as long as you'd expect a FireWire transfer from a 5400RPM hard disk to take—not instantaneous with multiple 2GB video files, but nothing like the real-time doldrums of DV capture. Either way, the magic begins when you plug in the drive (your PC will probably need to make a quick search for the appropriate driver) and it shows up as a standard external FireWire volume.

There's an even more tantalizing option than transferring the video to an on-board hard disk: you can access the files on the FS-4 directly from your NLE, which is the approach that will really blow your mind. This strategy worked admirably in testing. My first file import in Premiere, consisting of about 6.5GB of AVI files (more than 30 minutes of video), with full timecode intact, took less than five seconds (almost too quick to take a screen shot).

With either approach, once you import the video into your NLE, it behaves exactly like any other ingested DV stream. I tested performance on two platforms, Premiere Pro on the Alienware MJ-12, and Final Cut Pro on the G5. In each case, the result was the same: the FS-4-acquired footage looked, sounded, and behaved just like any other DV material.

With one big difference: I didn't have to sit through real-time capture or worry about dropping frames. I hate to use the phrase, but I know a paradigm shift when I see one and this certainly has all the earmarks. Price point is certainly a barrier; the FS-4's $799 base price probably isn't the magic entry point for most videographers to get into the DDR game. But if you're operating at capacity and leaving jobs on the table, a DDR like the FS-4 will increase that capacity, and justify the investment.

And with HDV capability just over the horizon, it's more tantalizing than ever. It's no surprise JVC is downplaying the DV angle on its new ProHD camcorder and pushing its FS-4 Pro HD compatibility. We all know HDV's heyday is coming soon; thanks to the FS-4 Pro HD, it may get here even faster.

System Requirements

• Windows 98SE/Me/ 2000/XP or Mac OS 9/X; FireWire I/O; FAT 32 filesystem support.