Synopsis: If you don't need an LCD that provides constant feedback, the CitiDISK can be a handy tool for speeding up the access to acquired footage, compared to digitizing hours of tape in real time.
Price: $899 (100GB HDD as reviewed)
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Faster-than-real-time video ingestion is not new. But only with the ready availability of today's portable hard disk systems has tapeless acquisition become cost-effective to the average event videographer.
The CitiDISK HDV is one such cost-effective disk-based system. It's a diminutive, hard drive-based device. It uses a familiar, rounded-corner 2.5" hard drive case but packs in a battery pack and the entire controller system. At just an inch thick, it fit in the side pocket of my tux jacket with ease when tested on a Bat Mitzvah shoot and stood high enough for me to access the CitiDISK's buttons with ease.
Installation and Operation
Unpacking the system, you find the CitiDISK HDV, a 4-pin to 6-pin FireWire cable, a pouch that will fit on a belt, an AC power supply, a thin user's guide, and a disc with installer software. Being the typical gadget guy, I ignored the software and popped open the user's guide to set the CitiDISK to record MOV files for my Mac. This was completed with ease. I also read through the few other pages to make sure I had a clue as to what the unit could do—not a great mystery, as there are only three buttons.
Power turns the unit on and off. QPlay quickly (hence the Q) plays the last recorded clip out the unit's FireWire port. Rec starts and stops recording. Since I still have clients who have ordered events to be shot and delivered in SD, I used the CitiDISK to record HDV clips for future demos. I tested with the Sony FX1, although it's worth noting that the FX1 and Z1U are functionally identical, and the CitiDISK will work with both (Shining says is also supports JVC and Canon HDV models). To gather HDV clips alongside SD DV footage, I switched the FX1 between DV and HDV, and then manually toggled recording on the CitiDISK with the Rec button. This approach enables me to gather HDV without putting the client's tape at any risk.
In addition, the CitiDISK also properly handles parallel recording on both the tape and the hard drive at the same time. Many camcorders now feature the ability to control external recorders, including decks and hard drive units like the CitiDISK. The CitiDISK started and stopped each time I hit the Record button on my FX1.
Every time I switched from DV to HDV on the camcorder, the CitiDISK's lights would flash and blink and eventually the power would shine a steady green. The transition time varies in proportion to the amount of hard drive space the unit has. I am told the 120GB models take about 15 seconds.
After this short delay it is OK to capture on the CitiDISK. I believe I was a bit too fast in switching formats and kicking the CitiDISK into record because I ended up with a couple of HD clips that were not playable back in the studio. Clips before and after those played perfectly.
The CitiDISK charges up via FireWire when connected to a powered 6-pin port on a computer. If you have a computer with an unpowered 4-pin port, you can still use the CitiDISK as long as the internal battery lasts, or you can use the included AC adapter to both use and charge the CitiDISK. I found it easiest to use 6-pin FireWire. Because it's self-powered, you can use the CitiDISK as an external data drive on laptops that do not have 6-pin FireWire ports.
I used the included 4-6-pin cable to connect the 4-pin jack of my Sony HDV camcorder to the 6-pin jack of the CitiDISK. Data flowed well and I experienced no problems with the unit in the field. I tested a few clips in the field by switching the camcorder to VTR and hitting the QPlay button on the CitiDISK. I was greeted instantly with the video and audio I had just captured.
There has been some discussion online about whether the CitiDISK can play back HDV clips to a connected camcorder. My unit could not. It could only play back DV clips via QPlay. While not as capable as the FireStore FS-4 Pro HDV, and lacking the interactive data screen, the CitiDISK HDV 100GB is currently about $700 cheaper than an 80GB FS-4 Pro HDV model.
The manual states that the internal battery will last for 90 minutes. A typical event shoot will need a lot more battery capacity. They make an optional 3-hour external battery pack that fits inside a small pocket on the included belt pouch. A Shining engineer told me that plugging or unplugging the external battery pack will not interrupt recording, and that the system automatically switches to wherever there is voltage, so leaving both batteries plugged in gives you more than four hours of record time.
The FireStore FS-4 comes with a removable battery that is also rated for 90 minutes. Thus, it has the same power/runtime issue.
In the Field and In the Edit Bay
Recording a Bat Mitzvah ceremony in SD recently with the CitiDISK (tape rolling), I found it effortless to work with. The files copied to the computer's hard drive much faster than digitizing tape. I dragged the files into FCP, trimmed the first couple of clips to put in dissolves, and exported to DVD.
Overall, the experience was pretty painless. I walked away from the computer—rendering to burn the DVD—in less time than it would have taken to digitize the first tape.
Because the CitiDISK uses the FAT32 filesystem that enables cross-platform connectivity, the video is automatically chopped up into 988.5MB files that are about four-and-a-half minutes long (the FireStore models use the same system but allow 2GB filesizes of 10 minutes of 25Mbps DV or 1080i HD2; you'll get a couple more minutes from 19Gbps 720p HD1).
This file-chopping necessity results in a plethora of numerically sequential names that are created automatically. There is no "pre-naming" in case you need to shoot multiple projects on the same drive. You will work with CLIP0106, CLIP0107, etc. It will change to the next hundredth digit (0201, 0301, etc.) on its own and not based on any natural turnover, camera action, or time of day that I can discern. In the end, though, the clips are sequential, and a drag-and-drop into the timeline should order them properly from beginning to end.
Interestingly, the CitiDISK actually starts recording faster than the tape in the camcorder. I had used the camcorder's built-in "fade" function to fade up from black in the camera while recording on tape. The tape is seamless, with black lead-in and then fading from black to the exterior of the temple. The CitiDISK actually recorded 2-3 frames of video before the camera cuts the video to black, and then fades from black to my shot. I was surprised to find that the CitiDISK reacts that quickly.
Another curious situation arises when dragging all the clips into an FCP bin. They all appear as clips that have lost their link with the source files. Selecting them all and then relinking them takes a few seconds. It doesn't happen if I use the menu to "import" the folder of clips—only when I drag all of them together from the Finder.
I do have an issue with the clips acquired on the CitiDISK. I set it to record MOV files for FCP, but the files recorded appear with 16-bit, 38Kbps audio as opposed to the 16-bit, 48Kbps audio that they should have. FCP can play a single layer of these, transcoding the audio on the fly, but it is not able to mix multiple layers of stereo audio on the fly as it can with 16-bit, 48Kbps audio.
I spoke to Shining and they are looking into the issue. The CitiDISK should record the file as set by the camcorder. However, there is no 16-bit, 32Kbps setting on the camcorder, only 12-bit, 32Kbps, which I was not using. They say they will likely have a firmware update by the time you read this. I do not know if it affects clips recorded for Windows.
I had another videographer run into problems with the CitiDISK. She had the camcorder set to anamorphic (16:9) DV. While it appears that the CitiDISK recorded all the files properly, there are three clips that I could not open at all. I do not know the exact procedure the other videographer used with the CitiDISK. Two clips were very small, obviously not important files, but one was the opening of the show. No amount of futzing could get it to open, and I went back and digitized the video from the tape that was rolled in the camcorder.
All in All
All in all, the CitiDISK HDV is a welcome asset to the event videographer's arsenal for acquiring demo footage and parallel recording. That said, it has certain issues that prevent me from saying that you don't have to roll tape simultaneously. In fact, with tapes costing about $3 an hour, I can't see why you wouldn't roll tape as an inexpensive backup to any hard disk recording system. Even though the CitiDISK features no informative LCD display like that found on the FireStore, the video files that it acquires end up being about the same. If you don't need an LCD that provides constant feedback, the CitiDISK can be a handy tool for speeding up the access to acquired footage, compared to digitizing hours of tape in real time.