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Chris Llana, Editor


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New Inexpensive HD Camcorders Prompting Sea Change

August 2, 2006

And maybe quickening the transistion to high-definition widescreen programming.

The new camcorders are certainly shooting down at least one excuse that broadcasters might have used for not making the switch.

That's not having a camera that is both affordable and capable of capturing video of high enough quality to cut in with video from far more expensive studio cameras.

These new $5K to $10K cameras are surprising a lot of professionals used to shooting with HD cameras costing ten times more. Maybe they're not quite as good, but good enough to cause some embarrassment.

Canon XLH1

Canon XL H1 HD Camcorder - $9000

And getting better all the time.

JVC pioneered the small/affordable HD camcorder genre early in 2003 with a "prosumer" model that used a recording format called HDV. It recorded to the familiar Mini-DV cassette and cost a mere $3000.
Sony HVR-Z1U

With pro features added to Sony's original HD-CAM, HVR-Z1U camcorders have recently been used to shoot episodic TV - $6000

The camera didn't take hold with professionals, but the HDV recording format did after Sony introduced its 3-chip, 1080i HDR-FX1. It cost $4000, a bargain compared to professional HD cameras.

By the beginning of 2005, the viability of the Sony as a broadcast production tool had been demonstrated by the airing of an HD feature by a network affiliate.

The HDV cameras had another advantage: their small size made it possible to go into places and situations where a larger


camera would have drawn too much attention to the video production unit. Which in the case of HDV camera, could now be one person.

The small cameras' affordability made them attractive early on to independent filmmakers and producers shooting documentaries, which are often made on a shoestring. And even if there was a budget for a more expensive camera, the shooting environment can often be too risky (war or the usual trials by fire and water, etc.).

Now that Good Morning America is being broadcast in high-definition, the producers of that show have been considering HDV camcorders for use in the field (where cost is a factor). Hooking viewers on stunning high-def images depends on getting video from around the world that will provide a better match with the show's high-end studio HD cameras. For now standard-definition cameras are still the mainstay of most newsgathering organizations.

Canon XHA1

New Canon HD 3-chip camcorders available this fall: XHA1 - $4000, and XHG1 - $7000 with HD-SDI and SMPTE

For awhile it looked like HDV would be the de facto compression protocol for small HD cameras. Editing HDV initially posed some challenges, but most professional editing suites have adapted solutions for handling HDV's long-GOP (multi-frame) compressed video stream.

HDV is an MPEG-2 compression protocol. It can be in two forms: progressive (called HDV1) used by JVC and others, at 720p; and HDV2, which is the interlaced form, adopted by Sony (1080i).

But it's not the only game in town.

There's also more "professional" codecs, eg. Sony's XDCAM (MPEG-4, Part 2), and Panasonic's DVCPRO HD.

The impressive Panasonic AG-HVX200 is being used by The Weather Channel for general coverage and for its shows Evening Edition, Storm Stories, and Forecast Earth. The HVX200 uses DVCPRO HD (and not HDV) and records to P2 memory cards, while also incorporating a Mini-DV drive.
HVX200

Panasonic AG-HVX200 acquires video at 1080/60p but records at standard HD and SD formats - $6000 (or $10K with two P2 8 Gb memory cards)

The Weather Channel is shooting everything for its feature series in HD in anticipation of switching over to high-def broadcasts. For now, what you see is all downconverted to standard-definition.

Earlier this year, Sony and Pansonic rolled out a new video format called "AVCHD." The "HD" part is clear; the "AVC" part is a compression protocol that stands for Advanced Video Codec, a.k.a. H.264, a.k.a MPEG-4, Part 10.

The big advantage of AVC over MPEG-2 and some other MPEG-4 compression protocols is that it's about twice as efficient. That translates to better quality at a lower bit rate, or if the AVCHD bit rate is increased, the potential video quality is back in pro territory.

AVCHD will initially be used in consumer-grade camcorders (such as the $1400 Sony HDR-UX1), but that was also the case for HDV. Instead of recording to tape, it will record either to small (8 cm) red-laser optical disks or to solid-state SD-memory cards. (The recorded DVDs will not play back on regular DVD players; a Blu-ray Disc player or possibly an HD-DVD player will work.)

Sony HDRUX1

Sony HDR-UX1 AVCHD DVD Handycam Camcorder - $1400 (available October 2006)

In a move that opens the door for professional adoption of AVCHD, Panasonic has allowed for its new (available early next year) AJ-HPC2000 P2 HD camcorder to optionally acquire video via AVCHD. This has the advantage of using half the bandwidth of DVCPRO HD, thereby doubling recording time for the same picture quality. And at $27,000 a pop, nobody's going to mistake this 2/3"-chip camcorder for a consumer machine.

So, with all of these cool HD camcorders on the market and out in the field, can it be long before we start seeing a lot more HD on the tube? Something's gotta happen.