When Will Hard Drive Camcorders Become Viable for Independent Producers?

This year JVC released a line of consumer camcorders that record to hard drives instead of tape. There’s even a higher-end prosumer version that has 3 CCDs. It’s a great idea, since in theory it should eliminate the need to import video in real time to an editing PC by playing it out via firewire. Also, since a miniDV tape only holds 13 GB of data for one hour of video, a hard drive cam with a capcity of 40 GB or more can hold 3 hours.

Unfortunately, reviewers have found that the JVC hard drive cams in the Everio series don’t fully exploit the hard drive, reporting that it’s difficult to transfer video off the cam, and once transferred it’s difficult to edit aside from using JVC’s own rudimentary editing package. The main problem is that the Everios use MPEG-2 compression, which crams more video into less memory than DV, but was not designed for editing like DV was.

Now Sony has announed its first hard drive comcorder, containing a 30 GB drive. Camcorderinfo notes that the Sony uses MPEG-2 as well, but supposedly with a more cross-compatible file format.


Yet, in my experience, doing real editing of MPEG-2 footage in any major non-linear editing application requires transcoding your footage into DV or another format that the NLE handles more natively.

Frankly, from its specs, the new Sony doesn’t seem to hit the mark as a camcorder that will be useful for any serious videographer who wants to edit her footage. Like the JVC Everios, the Sony seems best suited for someone who wants to be able to shoot a lot of footage without having to mess with tapes. The Sony cam is including a way to easily export to DVDs using Sony laptops, which is probably what would be most useful for typical home users who are recording soccer games and graduations.

What a hard drive camcorder needs in order to be useful to any serious amateur or professional videographer is to save video to DV or HDV files which can be edited in any major NLE. The tradeoff with that approach is that you really need a bigger hard drive, say 60 GB or more, that can sustain data rates about 3x higher than the current generation hard drive cams.

Many of us working daily with DV camcorders have instead jumped into either capturing a DV stream straight into a laptop via firewire, or using a dedicated DV harddrive. Both methods require carrying around extra equipment with extra cables, and so are less handy for shooting on the go — although, the dedicated DV drives are small enough to clip to your belt, if you don’t mind having a 1 lb. box hanging there.

The biggest innovation of the now ten-year-old DV standard is that it was designed for editing from the start, even if the majority of DV camcorder users never actually edit what they shoot. Every camcorder video format that makes editing more difficult or requires more steps without offering something like higher quality is really a step backwards.

That said, hard drive (and solid state memory) camcorders are a new technology, and my bet is we’ll see some of these problems sorted out when manufacturers are ready to start offering true prosumer cams (with hi-def).







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