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New Generation Camcorders

Camcorders have undergone major changes in the last year or two, perhaps more than at any time since their introduction in the late 1970s. These changes affect higher end professional models and even the affordable three-CCD (charged coupled device), with DV models costing only a few thousand US dollars. The changes reduce weight, lower cost, improve quality and implement new recording media. Camcorders now record on hard disks, optical disks, DVD disks, several kinds of videotape, of course, and even solid state memory cards.

New Recording Media

Portable hard disks can connect to many camcorders via IEEE 1394 (Firewire) connections. The video photographer can carry one of these units on a shoulder tethered to a camera, or some models are integrated in the camcorder. These Firewire connections were most common on the consumer DV camcorders including the three-chip models, but an increasing number of higher end camcorders now offer Firewire, too.

The less expensive portable hard disks, however, may lack the quality and reliability needed for rugged use in news gathering. Some third-party vendors such as Focus Enhancements make rugged hard disks that mount firmly on the battery mount. JVC has a similar hard disk recorder (DR-DV5000) for its GY-5000U professional DV camcorder. Ikegami's DNR-20 hard disk recorder can mount on a camera body, too. The Ikegami Editcam II integrates the Fieldpack2 hard disk into the camcorder.

Beyond the hard disk camcorders are those that record on removable media that can be reused hundreds of times. Sony's Blue Laser optical disks are the heart of Sony's new XDCAM Professional disc system. The disks, encased in a cartridge for protection, record about 23 GB, which translates into about 90 minutes of Sony DVCAM or 75 minutes of the higher quality but more proprietary Sony IMX MPEG video.

The Sony optical system can transfer an hour of proxy video in as little as a minute. Proxy video is a lower resolution but frame accurate version, so editors can begin logging and editing without waiting for the full quality video to reach the newsroom.

Hitachi offers the Z-3000 camcorders that record about an hour of MPEG-2 video on a standard DVD-RAM or DVD-R disk with a capacity of 4.7 GB.

The new Panasonic DVCPRO P2 camcorders use no videotape, no disks, no moving recording parts at all-just memory cards. Card dimensions are those of a PCMCIA card; the cards plug into wide local area network slot (WLAN). However, the biggest storage capacity of these cards is just 4GB, which holds 16 minutes of DVCPRO or eight minutes of DVCPRO50. Panasonic expects cards with much more capacity to be available soon.

JVC offers an optional network pack to use memory cards for its GY-DV5000U camcorder. So JVC says it can take full sized DV, Mini-DV, hard disk, or memory cards in the appropriate configuration, but the memory cards are not for primary broadcast quality video. They record MPEG-4 for video streaming on the Web while simultaneously recording on videotape.

The new disk and memory card camcorders almost eliminate delay of capture time, the biggest television news objection to nonlinear editing. The memory cards or disks can be directly connected to or inserted into a computer making the digital video immediately available. Some of the new recorders actually reduce format chaos by recording a variety of formats such as DV, DVCPRO, and Avid OMF files. Some also offer loop recording for those situations when the photographer waits for an expected brief event such as the launch of a rocket or artillery fire. The camcorder continually stores video into a buffer or on a hard disk, so the photographer doesn't waste precious seconds waiting for the camcorder to start when he needs to shoot quickly.

Nevertheless, there may be perils in the new systems. Most are just coming on the market this year, so there is limited unbiased testimony from the field based on long-term experience.

Two issues include the cost of the recording medium and its resistance to shock. The removable optical disks and DVDs are inexpensive, but a memory card or a hard drive that mounts on a camcorder costs one to two thousand US dollars or more. Then there's the impact of shock on the disk recordings. Manufacturers have anticipated the problem creating shock protection and protective memory buffers, but the real test comes over time in the field.

Nevertheless, choices are growing among the new disk and memory card camcorders at competitive prices. For example, Panasonic's memory card DVCPRO camcorder starts at less than $20,000 US as does Sony's optical disk DVCAM, while the higher quality Sony MPEG IMX/DVCAM camcorder PDW-150 is $34,000.

Low End Camcorders Move Up Scale

Although they still use videotape, for only a few thousand US dollars, there are many new choices among the three-chip, quasi-professional DV camcorders. They lack the ruggedness and quality lenses of more expensive professional camcorders, but they rival Betacam SP in quality in most respects. They're especially attractive for situations that pose a high risk to equipment such as covering war. The three-chip DV camcorders are also good for backups, bureaus, stringers and jobs that require the videographer to keep a low profile. The DV video quality is close to some of the higher digital formats as long as you don't try special effects and manipulations. With Firewire (IEEE 1394) interfaces, you can edit video from these camcorders on many off-the-shelf desktop or laptop computers using inexpensive software. Most of these camcorders shoot wide screen and progressive scan images. Two are even high definition.

Several years ago the Canon XL-1 set off a storm of low-end production as one of the first three-chip, Mini DV camcorders. Its high quality, low price, interchangeable lens capability, IEEE 1394 interface, and film-like features even attracted the attention of producers who usually worked with higher end equipment. XL-1 found its way into a few newsrooms as a less obtrusive tool for certain stories.

Now XL-2 (US $4,999) has features such as dual aspect ratios, a selection of frame rates, gamma and skin detail controls, presets, digital signal processing, image stability circuits, XLR audio connections with phantom power, and a lock to prevent exposure changes when using an automatic iris. Resolution has improved to 720 x 480 effective pixels for the 4:3 aspect ratio (345,600 pixels per CCD for a total of 1,036,800) and 960 x 480 for 16:9 (460,800 pixels per CCD for a total of 1,382,400).

Although hand held, Panasonic's AGDVX-100 ($3995) has been especially popular with its XLR audio inputs and many electronic, film like features including wide screen, progressive scan and a selection of 24 frames per second.

For nearly two years JVC has had a hand-held high definition camcorder, the JD-HY10U, for less than $5,000 US. Its highest quality resolution is 720 lines progressively scanned. JVC promises an ENG shoulder-style HDV camcorder but has not indicated when.

Recently Sony introduced what it calls the first HDV-the new high definition DV format-camcorder, the HDR-FX1 Handycam ($3700 US). Its highest quality is 1080 lines of interlaced scanning. Sony is marketing the model as a consumer camcorder, but resolution is 1440 pixels by 1080 lines with an aspect ratio of 16:9. The model has three, 1/3-inch, one-megapixel CCDs. Resolution of the viewfinder is often an issue with these camcorders, but Sony says the precariously perched, 3.5-inch LCD SwivelScreen with 250,000 pixels offers the highest resolution of any consumer camcorder.







About Michael Murrie

Michael Murrie is a professor in the Communication Division of Pepperdine University.

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