Posted Oct 3, 2005

As I write this, IBC in Europe has just passed and the number of HDV choices has grown significantly. HDV started in 2003 as a two-horse race that barely got out of the gate, with two camcorders from the same manufacturer, JVC, that failed to make a significant impact in the market. Late 2004 brought the prosumer Sony HDR-FX1, which ushered in the real HDV market, and NAB 2005 brought a more professional Sony HDV model, the HVR-Z1U, and the promise of a few more options later this year.

Now that we have a genuinely reshaped HDV landscape, with most of the major manufacturers accounted for, here's an updated look at the various HDV—and accessibly priced "true" HD--camcorder options that are currently available.

Sony HVR-Z1U
Sony's Z1U, now listed at $4,600, has three 1/3" CCDs in 16:9 Wide Aspect Ratio. If you delve into the details, you'll find out that each chip only has 960x1080 pixels and it offsets the chips (like Canon's "Pixel Shift" technology) to get the detail needed to record HDV's 1440x1080i spec. The Z1U has good low light capability but no longer has the variable prism technology for image stabilization that the PD-150/170 had. Sony's specs are notably quiet on the issue. It has good low-light capability. The Pro version adds a XLR adapter, audio and image controls and more menu options.

Panasonic HVX-200
Panasonic's HVX-200 was introduced at NAB 2005 and is slated to ship by year's end. It offers multiple flavors of SD and HD including 720p (24 or 60), 1080p24, and 1080i30, as well as DV and DVCPro 50. This camcorder also uses pixel-shift technology and three lower-resolution CCD imagers to give us HD. As far as I can discern, Panasonic is positioning this camera as a "true" HD camcorder and will record true 24p HD onto the P2 cards, whereas the tape mechanism is limited to DV.

This is not an actual HDV camcorder, but it's worth noting here because Panasonic has promised a price point ("sub-$10,000") that makes it competitive at the high end of the HDV space. Also worth noting here is that Panasonic has partnered with Focus Enhancements for direct-to-hard disk recording. DV goes to tape, and everything else to P2 cards or direct to disk via a FireStore DDR. Panasonic says to get a few P2 cards and offload them to a portable hard drive device Panasonic makes, but this can be expensive. John Baisley, president of Panasonic Broadcast, said, "We have selected the FOCUS FireStore `Direct To Edit' solution as a way of offering economical long-duration DVCPro, DVCPro 50, or DVCPro HD recording to the event production market."

Currently, hard drives are more economical than P2 cards/readers. At 40-80GB, DDRs also allow far longer record times than the two 8GB P2 cards in the HVX-200.

Sony HVR-A1U
Sony's new A1U is an unusual bird. It is a CMOS-based, 1/3", 3MP, single-chip camcorder that records 1440x1080i HDV, DVCAM, and DV for less than $3,000. Sony's HVR-A1U is the "prosumer" version of the Sony HDR-HC1, a single-chip model that goes for about $1,800. As with the FX1 and the Z1U, the main difference between the consumer and prosumer models is the XLR adapter and some menu changes.

 This is a very small, bottom-loading, consumer camcorder that produces good pictures and may have decent low-light capability. Possibly a good "B" camera for HDV shooters who already have an FX1 or Z1U. The camera's CMOS imager does not "tear" vertically on a very bright light. So candles, the reflection of the sun, etc., do not affect the CMOS image they way they affect a CCD. However, there has not been a mass-production CMOS-based camcorder for the pro market yet so it remains to be seen what the limitations are.

We look forward to getting our hands on one of these to test. Given that the A1U is one of the smallest camcorders in today's prosumer HD/HDV market, you'll need some sort of shoulder harness or brace to attach most anything to it--wireless, light battery, etc. This limits the A1U's size advantages if you intended to use it as an "A" camera. It also uses a touch screen to access almost every function of the camera, which tends to yield more camera-shake than dedicated buttons.

The GY-HD100, for about $5,400, is JVC's newest "ProHD" Camcorder. It uses three 1/3" CCDs, has a 1280x720-pixel resolution, and a professional, interchangeable lens. I still call this a prosumer camcorder because of its small size, but it does offer a lot of true pro-camera feel. For instance, it has a speaker you can hear while you shoot, which no other prosumer camcorder (except the DSR-250) has. It was clearly designed from the ground up to be what it is: a hybrid of consumer-based HDV technology and professional lenses, viewfinder, on-shoulder style, and capability. There is no consumer version.

We look forward to testing one of these, as it may prove to be the wedding and event shooter's affordable HDV dream camera. It's also the only camcorder at this price point to offer both a professional viewfinder which makes it easy to focus, and a color LCD which many like to have as a color confidence monitor. When it ships, it will likely duke it out with the Canon XL-H1 (see below) for the event videographer's dollar.

In 2004, JVC also teased us with an HDV version of their GY-DV5000U pro camcorder. At the time they indicated that it was one of the many directions they were going with HDV, but it had no model number or price. It may still be in the works, with bigger chips, better image processing and true, pro functionality. Only time will tell. Just don't hold your breath.

Canon XL-H1
The Canon XL-H1 is a direct descendant of the XL2. It maintains almost all the same features while delivering 1080i HD resolution (with pixel shift), along with selectable frame rates of 60i, 30F, and 24F. It comes with a very nice 20x optically stabilized lens and a long enough body that by adding a plate over the XLR inputs and a big battery for camera/light power, you can begin to pull the weight of the camcorder back over your shoulder.

It also uses the improved Canon LCD viewfinder from the XL-2 It looks to ship in November for about $9,000, a price that seems a bit high compared to JVC's offering and current XL2 prices. It gives us 1080i resolution with three native 16:9 CCD's recording at 60i, 30F, and 24F. We'll need to wait and see what method they use for 24fps before rendering any judgments on that. It also records DV.

Canon offers straight (pre-compression) HD-SDI and SD-SDI output which is unique at this price point. This enables shooters to use a pro HD deck or go right to the computer with an uncompressed HD signal. This feature is sure to affect the sales of higher-end camcorders.

Grass Valley Infinity
Grass Valley, through a partnership with Iomega, has shown their "Infinity" Digital Media Camcorder offering both HD and SD multi-format support for under $20,000. This is a true professional camcorder. Here are the manufacturer's specs: 1080i50/60, 720p50/60 , 625i50 (PAL), 525i60 (NTSC), DV25, JPEG 2000, and MPEG-2 compression. It will record to, and play back from, Iomega's integrated REV PRO and professional-grade CompactFlash media. This is the latest hard drive-based camcorder. As long as it's compatible with systems without undue hassle, hard drive recording can really speed up the post production process.

If it follows the FireStore FS-3's ease of use, they may have a hit on their hands. Other special features include internal Gigabit Ethernet. We'll see how useful they make that when the camera and decks are scheduled to ship, sometime in 2006.

Though it is not slated for an official introduction until NAB 2006, Sony has already started showing their XDCAM HD and SR. This Blu-ray optical disc-based XDCAM camcorder may go for about $16,000. It will likely support 1080i 50 and 60, as well as 1080p 24, 25, and 30, which pretty much covers all the bases. It is also supposed to offer four channels of audio, though I have yet to see a camcorder offer four full-quality channels of audio since broadcast Betacam.

The CCD's are 1/2" with a 1440x1080 resolution. Images I have seen showed an autofocus lens as well as a very nice color LCD below the probably standard B & W CRT viewfinder. If anything, this is a very high-end--and expensive--DSR-250 replacement. This camcorder uses standard XDCAM discs and there are already decks available. Footage can be transferred via FireWire or built-in Ethernet. XDCAM also touts simultaneous recording of "offline" proxies and picture frames for super-fast "offlining" of your work. The discs can also be used to hold edit files and more. The ability to archive an entire wedding--from source to edited master--on a single Blu-ray disc would be a very useful capability of the XDCAM system. The camera has analog component and composite video out.

The long-GOP MPEG recording has a bit rate of 35Mbps max, but has the same structure as HDV. This is a nice revision to the HDV concept, offering more data for the heavily compressed HDV video at a rate that's still heavily compressed. However, who knows which edit systems will support this new and unique Sony standard. Can anyone say Memory Stick or MicroMV?

So these are the choices that I see now. I see the main competition between the stock Canon XL-H1 and the JVC HD-100. Many videographers have already chosen Sony's FX1 or Z1U but really, that was because Sony had no real—i.e., shipping--competition. By the time you read this, that will have changed. I think both the Grass Valley Infinity and the Sony XDCAM SR offer some real production-speed boosts compared to tape-based systems. They also offer far more HD recording capability than Panasonic's limited P2 recording in the HVX-200. As always, assess what is important to you and make your decision accordingly. Decide based on true usability rather than any "wow" factor and you'll have a camcorder that will serve you for many years to come.