In the Field: Maxell iVDR VC102
Posted Nov 29, 2010

As the owner and regular user of a tape-based HDV camcorder, I appreciate the ability to shoot and produce a 13GB archive of what I shot for $2. That’s the storage capacity of one MiniDV tape at a price that has yet to be beaten by any other media. But today, it’s not just about archivability, it’s about immediate access, and that’s where tape loses considerable ground to flash and hard drive-based systems. I previously reviewed Datavideo’s DN-60 Compact Flash adapter. Today, I have Maxell’s iVDR VC102 system.

The System
I call the iVDR a “system” because it’s the first on-camera, modular, hard drive-based solution that I have seen. There are other systems that use removable hard drives, but the device that the hard drive goes into is considerably larger, or even rackmounted. Yes, there are small flash media recorders. Yes, you can take compact flash (CF) cards out of a CF recorder so, in effect, that system is modular. But what you don’t get with CF cards is 250GB and 500GB of contiguous storage.

The key component of Maxell’s iVDR system is the VC102 interface bracket that goes on the camcorder. It’s clearly labeled with the CitiDISK logo, indicating that the core disk and recording technologies come from CitiDISK. However, the Maxell system offers professionals two key differences from CitiDISK’s other products: an LCD screen for settings and removable media.

Typically, hard drive-based systems—such as the segment pioneer Focus Enhancements’ FireStore—are “all in one” devices. So while you’re dumping footage, you can’t be recording. Maxell breaks the hard drive out into a ruggedized iVDR EX cartridge that pads and isolates the drive from shock. Even the data connector uses a ribbon cable to connect to the drive so it has no direct contact with the outside world. The EX cartridge locks into the VC102 with two physical locks at the head of the cartridge. All the activity lights and interactivity occurs on the VC102 (below).

Maxell iVDR

The cartridge is just a media bay, like a compact flash card. But if you’re shooting lectures or a live event, you don’t want a 16GB CF card to end in 1.1 hours or a 32GB card to force you to stop and change media in 2.2 hours. With a 250GB HDD, you can shoot for about 19 hours. I can’t think of a single example when you’d ever have to worry about how much media space is left. If you have a 19-hour shot, you’re working some seriously long hours.

To put it another way, you can designate one media pack for a particular client and shoot all their various projects on that one media pack. After you ingest and edit, you can keep the media pack as an archive, like raw tape. But this is a 19-hour raw tape on which you can also put finished videos, music, sound effects, project timelines, artwork, and other resources. Then, you label it and put it on the shelf.

The last part of the system is the iVDR-X adapter that can sit by your computer (below). Think of it like a “deck” that you stick your media cartridge into, but it’s considerably cheaper and faster than a deck. It has both USB and FW800 ports for universal usability and speed, respectively. Though the iVDR-X is an option, having the iVDR-X adapter is key to really treating the cartridge like flash media. Without it, you have to use the VC102 camcorder interface to copy the media to your computer because there is no direct access to the drive in the cartridge. Then, the iVDR is pretty much the same as a FireStore.

Maxell iVDR-X

Usage
As with any external hard drive recorder, mounting it to your camcorder is really a matter of preference. It’ll be a challenge in terms of balance and design no matter where you put it. The system comes with both a handle clamp and a hot-shoe adapter. I wanted to use the handle clamp, but the handle of my camcorder was too big. So I was forced to use the hot-shoe adapter, which put the iVDR right over the front of the lens. This could be an advantage because I was able to see the display while shooting.

Maxell iVDR and Sony Z1U

However, I was disappointed to find that, unlike the Datavideo DN-60’s display, which gives copious information about what it is doing, the LCD display on the iVDR is far less informative. There is a small dot (•) that appears on the lower right of the LCD display to indicate recording, but it’s nowhere near as visible as the red LED on the face that merely indicates power is on. The LCD tells me the name of the clip I’m recording. A counter appears, but it does not change to indicate record time.

Maxell iVDR LCD

I was simultaneously rolling tape, so I had a counter on the camcorder. But if you’re not rolling tape, then you have nothing that tells you the duration of the shot. Tap the menu navigator on the side, and it toggles the display to indicate how many minutes are left. This display does change and count down, but only minute by minute. If you’re used to seconds and frames whizzing by, you’ll be disappointed.

Even on my FireStore FS4, timecode from an HDV camcorder updates every half second or so. So dealing with HDV is indeed difficult, but not impossible. When I checked with Maxell about this, a rep said the company is still working to resolve this issue, but it does not have an immediate time frame for a workaround.

All the other status indicators are on the top edge of the display, as they are with any of CitiDISK’s own hard drive recording systems. A big green LED says power is on. One big red LED says it’s recording. A second small flickering red LED indicates disk activity. A second small green LED tells me battery strength. Another small LED, when illuminated, tells me HDD space is less than 50%. So, this is actually far more informative than the LCD, once you know what the different LEDs are indicating.

Maxell iVDR LEDs

When you fire up the iVDR, it takes about 30 seconds to boot up and do some housekeeping and caching before it says “Success.” I always waited until it was ready to begin recording, so I don’t know if it can handle a rush situation and start recording quickly.

Navigating the iVDR menus was more intuitive than with the DN-60. The VC102 features a sidemounted rocker that navigates up and down. You press to enter, just as I suggested in my review of the DN-60. To navigate back up one level, press and hold. Because the device is CitiDISK-based, changing formats can be done the CitiDISK way, by pressing and holding the LED backlit buttons on the VC102, or more convieniently via the LCD/menu system.

Content
I was easily able to mount the cartridge on my MacBook Pro using USB, FireWire 800 via the iVDR-X adapter, and FireWire 400 using the VC102. Using the iVDR-X adapter, the computer powered the system either way, and I was able to perform some speed tests. When you use the VC102 to host the media cartridge, the VC102's internal battery powers the system unless you have a powered 6-pin FireWire port on your computer.

With USB, I achieved read and write speeds of 38MB/sec and 27MB/sec. With FW 400, I achieved 35MB/sec and 25MB/sec. And with FW 800, I achieved 68MB/sec and 57MB/sec. This tells me that, in terms of dumping hours of footage, you’ll likely want to double your read speed with the FW 800 iVDR-X adapter. Interestingly, we know well that the internal SATA drive is capable of considerably faster performance. Checking my results with Maxell confirmed my figures, but I was told, “It’s really about which interface can maintain a more consistent or sustained average throughput. This is where FireWire shines."

The HDV files I shot were recorded as M2T, just as the manual says. The manual mentions a future QuickTime upgrade, but when I contacted Maxell about this, I was told there is no current time frame for QuickTime HDV files. This affects only the ability to double-click to view files. I had no problem, on a Mac, opening and viewing the M2T files with the VLC media player. There are various software packages that can convert the M2T files to other editable codecs.

I didn’t test the DV recording functions because SD is less important these days, and the iVDR system primarily touts ruggedness and a swappable media cartridge, not SD prerecord or time lapse like competing products.

Conclusion
I recently tested Datavideo’s DN-60 compact flash recorder, I own a Focus Enhancements FS-4 Pro HD, and I’m now testing Maxell’s iVDR system. Each has certain strengths: The DN-60 records to fast, tiny CF cards, but your recording duration is limited by your media size. You can swap media to keep the camera recording after a short break. The feature-rich FS-4 has an internal hard drive that offers much longer record times, but the hard drive is not removable so the entire system is bulkier, and offloading footage means you can’t be recording—unless you have a second complete system. The FireStore is the only product of the three that easily records HDV to QuickTime.

Maxell’s iVDR system gives you advantages from each system. You have the long record time of hard drives but with removable media packs, so you can swap them out and keep the camera crews shooting. The media packs are ruggedized with internal isolation. Maxell touts operating shock tolerance of 350 Gs—something generally only possible with flash media. Plus, with the iVDR-X adapter, you get faster access to your footage than the FW 400-based FireStore or a USB 2.0 connection to anything.

If these features meet your specific needs, then Maxell has a product just for you. Even if you feel you’d need these specific advantages only from time to time, the price is not out of line with competing products, so there’s not much of a price premium for the commingling-of-products advantages that the Maxell iVDR system offers.

Anthony Burokas (VidPro at ieba.com) of IEBA Communications has shot award-winning corporate video internationally and recorded events since the days of 3/4" tape. He is currently technical director for the PBS series Flavors of America and resides just outside of Dallas.