HD Today: My Dream HD Camcorder, Part 2
Posted Nov 28, 2007

Since my September column (My Dream HD Camcorder), I’ve received great feedback about additional features we need. This month, let’s explore them in a dream shoulder-mount HD cam.

A reader asked about 1/8" audio plugs getting yanked out while shooting. To avoid this problem, audio plugs can be locked in with either threaded jacks and plugs (already standard on many wireless mics) or internal locking mechanisms, which have been used with 1/4" jacks for decades. These internal locking systems are push-button simple and require no specialized cables.

The shoulder-mount camcorder would have enough room on the back for four XLR jacks, plus the 4-pin power port. But let’s replace those expensive, specialized Hirose power jacks with low-cost locking power plugs that have been used in professional video for decades.

In September I asked for full 25Mbps recording, all the time. But what if the camera supported AVCHD, which compresses video twice as efficiently as HDV’s MPEG-2 codec? Since AVCHD supports data rates up to 25Mbps, let’s stop cheating AVCHD users and make an AVCHD camcorder that uses the maximum data rate—25Mbps, the same as DV and HDV. We could also use the inexpensive 25Mbps storage system we’re already using: DV tape.

I also said I wanted individual level controls that I can divine by touch in the dark. A reader asked why the controls couldn’t be backlit like the buttons in a car or a cell phone. Great idea. A couple of LEDs and some plastic fibers could illuminate every button and knob.

Another feature of my dream HD camcorder was a manual iris and Panasonic’s DVC30 smooth zoom. But a reader pointed out that we need all-camera control—especially focus. Bebob’s Foxi and Varizoom already focus Panasonic’s DVX100B and HVX200 with just a 1/8" jack. They sell for $200 to $500. That’s one-half to one-quarter the cost of controls for manual pro glass. If more camcorders offer remote focus and iris, more competition with more products can bring the accessory prices down.

Previously I asked for a large 4" LCD with no overscan. Let me expand on this concept. Digital still cameras already have tilt-swivel LCDs that fold flat into the back of the body. They can swing out to the side and face forward, upward, or downward. This feature would be especially useful for studio work. Shoulder-mount camcorders are big enough that the LCD could be built into a mount that fits between the big battery and the camcorder. With this flexibility, the LCD could be made bigger. Would you like a 7" LCD that can fold up? You can also position LCDs in more comfortable viewing positions, instead of straining your neck staring at the CRT high on top of the camera for an all-day shoot.

Sony’s FX1 displays the full 16:9 frame even when shooting 4:3 square. You get to see what’s outside the frame and react before it enters the "active" recording area, a feature that film cameras have had for decades. With consumer camcorders using multi-megapixel sensors, why can’t pros get the same thing, where we "see" the overscan that isn’t in the actively recorded area? Because the new sensors have so much extra resolution, you could do this even when shooting full 1080HD. Follow that logic to get extra zoom. Digital still cameras let you step down the recorded resolution and "zoom in" on the chips. Instead of throwing away most of the data from HD chips when shooting DV, the camera could look at smaller "active" image areas—down to the pixels that would be used if you were using an SD imager from a year ago. This can give you 6x or higher zoom, with no loss in quality because you still have all of the active pixels for DV. No digital zoom—just less oversampling.

Small camcorders have been skimping on basic analog jacks but offering FireWire, USB, HDMI, and specialized component jacks. With shoulder-mount models, there is space to put useful analog jacks back in. In addition to the obligatory TC in/TC out and Genlock, let’s also see video out, monitor out, S-Video out, and maybe component out with the same RGB jacks that easily connect to every LCD and plasma screen out there, and without a special $50 cable. Sony just did this with its HD-1000U.

Last time I mentioned hard drive recording. Ikegami may be going in the right direction with its Iomega REV hard disk cartridge, but we’d be better off skipping proprietary systems altogether. Fast Forward Video already makes hard drive recorders that use off-the-shelf 2.5" SATA drives. They pop in and out of the recorder as fast as cassette tapes. SATA offers data rates approaching 100MB/sec, allowing you to edit all of your media as soon as the drive mounts. Why shoot video to flash media that you’ll end up trasnferring to hard disk, when you could shoot to fast hard drives in the first place?

A shoulder-mount camcorder can provide internal "accessory" slots for wireless mics, hard drive recorders, and more. Looking at the tape mechanisms from the diminutive decks and the 3-chip blocks and lenses from the handhelds, we realize there’s a lot of extra usable space available in a shoulder-mount camcorder—the manufacturers just need to start using it.

Anthony Burokas of IEBA Communications has been an event videographer for almost 20 years, and is technical director of the PBS series Flavors of America.