With all the small HD camcorders introduced over the last few months, Government Video Expo in Washington, D.C., provided an opportunity to get my hands on several of them.
I appreciated that JVC had no fewer than six different configurations of their GY-HD100U HDV camcorder on display. Most of these camcorders were outfitted with very sturdy battery mounts for Anton/Bauer and V-lock batteries. It was clear that these mounts were part of the design. Part of the mount slides in to power the camcorder like a small lithium ion battery, and locks into place. Another part attaches to the top rear of the camcorder with two screw mounts. Altogether, this provides a very solid way of outfitting the camcorder with serious power and a place for accessories.
One of these very handy accessories on display was Focus Enhancements FireStore mounted-on panel that comes off side of the battery mount and then can perch behind the battery. One rig set out for people to handle was set up with a small AB battery and the FireStore mounted behind the camcorder body.
I was very pleased to put the rig on my shoulder and find it perfectly balanced, front to back. All the weight was on the shoulder, where it should be. While this may have been designed to be perfect for the demo, we all have microphones and other accessories that can be used in lieu of the FireStore and achieve the same weight balance.
I spoke with the JVC engineers for some time about the camera, the HDV codec, and interoperability. Thinking back to the dawn of DV, we had various interoperability issues with both formulations of DV tape and with the additional variants of DV recording (DVCAM, DVCPRO). It seems we may be in for another round of trouble, as JVC confirmed that their ProHD decks will not play back Sony's 1080i HDV. They said that there is now HDV1 and HDV2, with variations on the way the HDV is recorded on tape. Because the various DV decks can now play each other's tapes, you'd think that the manufacturers would have learned that interoperability is a key feature and built it into their HDV decks from the outset. We can only hope they'll get it right soon.
In terms of usability, the color LCD viewfinder is a little rough for critical focus. To address this issue, JVC has designed Focus Assist. There is a Focus Assist button in two places on the camcorder. One is easy to reach with my thumb while my fingers are focusing. The JVC rep explained that the monitor goes to black and white and shows peaking in color. The important part is that the peaking detail you see in the viewfinder is based on the HD information, not the normal viewfinder feed. This assures you that the HD focus is where you want it to be. I found it very easy to activate, use, and turn off.
The color viewfinder's eyepiece does not open up like that of most pro camcorders. The camera features a swing-out LCD which offers a very convenient way to monitor the camera's activity from farther away. For instance, audio meters can be put on the screen full-time, not just when audio is in a manual mode, like on the Sony FX1.
For the icing on the cake, the JVC has a little speaker right next to your ear when you are shouldering the camcorder. This is a real "pro" touch. Even though I found the speaker a little small, it has a mount and basic 1/8" jack connection that allows it to be replaced by better third-party products with ease. There's even a second headphone jack under the jack for the earphone. This camera just oozes with well thought-out little touches like this.
The reps explained that the stock lens can be replaced with a T13x35, which is a $13,000 piece of glass. "The camera is absolutely able to make better images with the better lens," says JVC regional sales engineer Ken Freed. Considering that it makes some pretty nice 720p images right out of the box, you're good to go here.
Over in the Canon booth, they were showing off footage from their new XL-H1. I have to give them credit because they were not using footage acquired by the camera and recorded on a better HDTV format using the Canon's HD-SDI output. They were playing back HDV tape in the camcorder itself. However, the footage was shot elsewhere and featured many locked-off shots of buildings, streets, etc., little video postcards that looked great on a small 17" LCD. They took the HD-SDI output of the H1 through an Aja converter to the DVI input of the LCD display. It looked very pretty.
I was disappointed that the video demo lacked motion--cars going by, trees blowing, water—i.e., stuff that would stress the codec and demonstrate the camera's ability to create pretty pictures "under load." I look forward to seeing more of this camera and the footage it creates to see if they made the jump to HDV as solidly as they could have, considering this is now the fourth-generation XL camcorder. The camera's pretty 20x lens produced some decent images (with no adjustments) on the show floor. The long optical zoom shined and, in the hand, at that zoom range, the image stabilization really helped produce usable images. The viewfinder is basically unchanged and has the convenient flip-up eyepiece in front of the color LCD.
At the booth, I also asked about another unique aspect of this camcorder: four-channel audio in HDV. Chris Hurd, whom any XL user should know from his online watchdog Web sites, was staffing the Canon booth and explained that the Canon records four channels of 16-bit 48k audio. Admittedly, it's compressed as part of the HDV stream, but this offers higher quality than DV's 12-bit 32k and the convenience of digitizing all four channels at the same time as the video.
If you are shooting events and not thinking about acquiring more than just mono or stereo sound, it's time to step up your game. This camcorder makes it easier. Now, they just need to put four audio meters on there.
Sony did not have the XDCAM SR camera they showed at IDX in Europe, but they did have HDV onsite in force with the FX1, Z1U, the HVR-M10U deck and the diminutive HVR-A1U. The A1U is the single-chip, CMOS-based HDV camcorder based on the consumer HC1. It was difficult to assess both the Z1U and the A1U side by side due to their placement in Sony's lengthy booth, but the A1U looks like it could be a solid, inexpensive "B" camera for multi-camera event shoots.
Sony's M10U deck is much smaller than you would think if you only saw it in pictures--only slightly larger than Sony's DSR-11 DVCAM deck. When put next to Sony's half/rack DSR-45 DVCAM deck, the M10U HDV deck looks like a baby. However, it piles on the features¬ from that nice-sized screen, with multiple settings for both DV and HDV. Unfortunately, it only holds a MiniDV cassette so it offers no more record time than any of the HDV camcorders.
Across the aisle, however, JVC's BR-HD50U HDV deck features both small and large shell-cassette recording. Despite the JVC deck's larger size (more akin to the Sony DSR-45 than the M10U), it lacks the built-in LCD monitor. The deck appears to be the next generation of JVC's half-rack DV deck. With large shell-cassette capability, and using a DVCAM 184, you can get about four and a half hours of HDV on one $30 cassette. For longer events, this is currently the only game in town.
Panasonic still had their HVX200 P2-based camcorder under glass. The multi-format capability is a very exciting opportunity that has many shooters energized. From 720p DVCPRO HD to 1080i HD and DVCPRO 50 SD and even DV, there doesn't really appear to be a single format that was left out. It has true 24p and can even under- and over-crank like a film camera.
The part that has most of us concerned is the limitation to P2 media, which currently costs more than $2,000 for an 8GB card that records just 8 minutes of 1080i, according to Panasonic's Web site. While the cards are reusable, and proponents like to talk about the cards' durability, one would have to wonder about the camera's durability withstanding any shock that the card could handle. I've not had a problem dropping my $3 DV cassette and continuing to use it, so the value of spending for the durability of a $2,000 P2 card is lost on me. Plus, I wonder about wear and tear from the increased rate of insertions and removals of media in the PC card mount on the camcorder.
Some talked about treating the P2 media like a film workflow, constantly switching out media to a "loader" who copies the footage off the P2 media to a hard drive or a laptop. These are some of the hidden costs associated with P2--additional crew and the additional gear that would enable a single person to keep shooting during an event as cards are swapped in and out every few minutes. These are also problems that tape does not have.
Thankfully, Focus Enhancements has partnered with Panasonic to offer a hard drive solution for the HVX200: the FS-100. I wouldn't care if it were more expensive than P2 media given the time and effort it saves by recording right to a hard drive--it's worth it. You can acquire hours of footage to the FS-100, and edit right from the drive. Then consider the FS-100, which will ship in March, has an MSRP lower than the street price for one 8GB P2 card. You have to wonder why Panasonic didn't provide such a simple, functional, and capable solution in the first place.
Part of the P2 system is that the camera also provides lower-resolution proxy clips and it looks like the hard drive recorder will get all this extra data too. This is the way partnerships should work. The FireStore makes the HVX200 into what it should have been in the first place. Unfortunately, it also means we are now back to a two-piece camcorder system, which I thought we left behind over a decade ago.
That's my view from the GV Expo floor. The JVC looks like a real winner. The Canon looks like it is coming on strong, while Sony maintains its early lead with the FX1 and Z1U. Panasonic has an amazing camera hobbled by flash media, while Focus Enhancements' DTE add-on may actually make it usable.