Tenacious HD: Apple, Sony, Panasonic, Adobe, Avid Highlight Early NAB 2005 Announcements
NAB starts on different days for different people. For vendors and expo attendees, the real action kicks off on Monday. If you're a journalist, most of the high drama has already passed by the time the expo floor opens. If you're in town to hear the latest from heavy hitters such as Apple, Panasonic, Sony, Avid, and Adobe, the big news hits on Sunday with a string of press events presenting many of the key announcements of the show.
Apple's event struck the most high notes this year; although they didn't have a single new product release that will rattle walls across the Mac world, they did deliver upgrades all down the line of their key postproduction models, which should produce noticeable tremors for just about anyone who's doing video or audio editing, graphics production, or DVD authoring on the Mac platform.
The big-picture announcement from the Apple camp was the much-anticipated public debut of "Tiger," the new version of OS X. And while it's easy to deride the pep rally atmosphere of any trade show Mac demo, there's no denying that Tiger looks mighty cool. A new search function called Spotlight is well-nigh mindblowing in action; it's a real time application which actually starts delivering results as soon as you start punching in your search terms—and those results encompass your entire hard drive, by all appearances. Also new in Tiger are dashboard "widgets"; the idea here is that you click on your Dashboard icon (which looks a bit like a panel of taichometers, speedometers, odometers etc. on an automobile dashboard) while you're working in FCP and Tiger instantly opens a variety of "widgets" like Web sites reporting weather info and the like. I'm not real sure what's the point here, but the demo certainly drew its share of applause.
With Tiger also comes the debut of the H.264-based QuickTime 7, which has two instantly apparent strengths: the ability to deliver HD-quality video at 8.5Mbps, and its implementation in a new, OS-based videoconferencing utility called iChat AV. Frank Casanova's demo highlighted the advantages of iChat AV for real-time digital daily review in disparate cutting rooms—the effect of which, at least in the demo, was nothing short of awesome.
Also coming into focus in Apple's big picture was the heartily welcomed Final Cut Studio, a new four-application digital video and audio postproduction suite in the tradition of the Adobe Video Collection and Avid Xpress Studio. Just as remarkable as the notion that there now is such a thing as a Final Cut suite is the fact that all the applications found therein are full-step upgrades. First and foremost is Final Cut Pro 5, which boasts a host of new features and a catchy rallying cry: "Edit anything, wait for nothing." They've dropped the HD from its name but upped the ante for native HD support in the product. The three standout features, from where I was sitting, are the following:
- native support for Long-GOP MPEG-2 HDV (with "true" IBP editing)
- a new "Dynamic RT Extreme" capability that, according to Apple, automatically scales preview quality based on the complexity of the clip and the abilities of the host Mac
- a dazzling new multi-camera interface that offers on-the-fly editing during playback of—get this—up to 128 sources, with available for up to 16 sources
First runner-up behind the big three is multichannel audio support; Apple now promises 24-bit/96KHz support, one-pass multi-channel capture, and 24-channel audio I/O.
During the FCP demo, Apple shared the stage with some powerful friends—not just Sony, whose contributions to the recent insurgence of prosumer HD via HDV are well-documented, but also Panasonic, who shocked more than a few attendees by introducing a new HD camcorder that is not the $2,500 HDV version of the DVX-100A that many had anticipated. Panasonic's new entry, the AG-HVX200, which may prove the signature announcement of the show, actually aims a little higher—uncompressed HD—for $5,995. The camera, which is due to ship in Q4 2005, actually supports a range of formats, including DV, DVCPro, DVCPro 50, DVCPro HD, and the gamut of interlaced and non-interlaced SD and HD video resolutions and frame rates. The 1/3", native 16:9, three-chip camera records to P2 memory (another big push for Panasonic at this show) and DV tape.
But we digress. The other elements of the Final Cut Pro Studio suite are Motion 2 (whose big news is the ability to map behaviors to a MIDI keyboard for animating to a beat or soundtrack), Soundtrack Pro (a dramatically revamped application that now boasts 5,000+ cinematic effects and Apple loops, and features round-trip audio editing of clips from the FCP timeline), and DVD Studio Pro 4. Like DVD Studio 3, DVD SP 4 is not the spruced-up, breakthrough upgrade that DVD SP 2 was, but it has some cool new features, including support for "HD-DVD" authoring using H.264 and optical flow image analysis for improved format conversions.
Pricing for the Studio suite and its components breaks down as follows: $999 for FCP 5, same as always; $299 for Motion 2; $299 for Soundtrack Pro; $499 for DVD SP 4; and $1,299 for the full Final Cut Studio suite. Registered users of FCP HD or earlier can upgrade to the entire suite for $699; if they also have Motion or Soundtrack, the upgrade price drops to $499. Apple says Tiger will be available on April 29; Final Cut Studio and all its individual applications are currently promised for shipping sometime in May.
Sony's Sunday press event, a meandering trip down "The HD Highway," wasn't quite so eventful. We learned that a lot of second-tier broadcast execs like Sony, as repeated testimonials amply demonstrated. The biggest Sony announcement was the company's new XDCAM HD camcorder, which uses a pro optical disc format (Sony's XDCAM Pro Disc media) for storage that's very similar to the forthcoming Blu-ray; TDK will also provide media for the camera.
Sony's other significant NAB introductions are Vegas 6 (see Vegas story) and the VRDVC20, the new version of the Editor's Choice-winning DVDirect. Essential new features (filling the two important gaps in the original) are FireWire I/O and support for recording to DVD-R/RW.
Avid kicked off its event with a brief exposition on the biggest events at Avid that they can't really talk about yet: the Pinnacle acquisition that won't be final until sometime this summer. According to Avid CEO David Krall, "Pinnacle is the Number One consumer video company in the world," and called the Avid-Pinnacle union "a great combination for the industry." While acknowledging that most consumer editors—who have largely gravitated to Pinnacle Studio—rarely become pro editors, by the same token, he argued, "The pros who enter the field in five years are experimenting with consumer software now."
Many of Avid's announcements, not surprisingly, focused primarily on the broadcast space, where the company is apparently working assiduously "to create an ecosystem for our customer," according to VP and general manager for Avid Video Chas Smith. Besides an intriguing new offering called iNews Instinct, which attempts to move news cutting away from the NLE paradigm into a realm more appropriate to the journalist mindset (words and pictures rather than audio and video), the primary thrust of Avid's announcements concerned the implementation of HD across their product line.
In our space, that meant the long-awaited HD-ification of the Avid Xpress Studio suite, which has now added "HD" to its name. The suite includes Xpress Pro HD (with newly added real-time multicam support), plus ProTools, Avid's 3D tool, the titling and compositing tool AvidFX, and the Sonic-developed Avid DVD. The full suite (Avid Xpress Studio HD Complete) now lists for $5,995 (a $1,000 price drop). The Xpress Pro Power Pack (which includes FX, 3D, and DVD) goes for $2,495), and Xpress Pro flies solo for $1,695. Avid also announced a noteworthy price drop on Xpress DV, which now goes for $495 (formerly $695), which puts it squarely in the Pinnacle Liquid Edition zone. Time will tell what, if anything, that will mean to Avid, Pinnacle, and Pinnacle users.
Adobe closed out the night with a stylish soiree at the new PURE nightclub at Caesar's Palace that was long on socializing and short on announcements (a welcome change, by that point). The main topic on the table was OpenHD, a new initiative created in partnership with HP, Intel, Microsoft, and Dell to help those manufacturers to optimize their systems for HDV and HD postproduction. The result will be OpenHD certified solutions which will meet Adobe accreditation standards and bundle the full Adobe Video Collection (Premiere, After Effects, Audition, and Encore DVD).
Another company making big announcements at our self-imposed late-Sunday filing deadline is Serious Magic, which will be unveiling ULTRA 2, a full-step upgrade to its pro chromakey software, and an HDV add-on for the Editor's Choice-winning DV Rack. ULTRA 2 also adds HDV support, along with 16:9 and 24p.