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What's going on with consumer hi-def camcorders?

by Bob Crabtree on 22 August 2006, 08:50

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Video analyst John Ferrick of DVdoctor Inc wonders what on earth is going on at the consumer end of the high-definition camcorder market?

July saw a flurry of product announcements about consumer high-definition camcorders. But why is there all this concentrated activity and what's it all leading to?
At the outset, it needs to be understood that high-definition TV is taking off in a big way, and for main two reasons.

First, people are seeing large home displays as being trendy and, since most are hung on the wall, they don’t cause major interior-designer hysterics.

Second, as people are deciding to upgrade by replacing their home TV sets, they are also aware of the apparent availability of HD content covering sports and movies.

But many purchasers don't understand all the finer points of HD. Most sets on sale don't natively display the highest possible quality - 1920 x1080 progressive (1080p) - and the same is true even for 1080 interlaced (1080i). Yet sets that can't natively show either of these higher resolutions are not only being offered for sale but being bought in large numbers.

Okay, just about all sets do have built in scalers to convert various input resolutions to display resolutions – either upscaling or down - but that's somewhat beside the point.

Purchasers don't fully appreciate the options or realise what they're passing up. They tend to concentrate on the size of the display and its having some sort of HD ability but don't understand exactly what flavour of HD they are purchasing or could have purchased.
In the USA, from a broadcast point of view, there are two main flavours, one is 1080i the other is 720p - with ESPN on the sports side being the major 720p player as far as content goes.

It appears that the UK may be spared some of this. Sky's broadcasts are all in 1080i while Telewest supports 720p and 1080i and broadcasts in the format programmes are received in. And most of the displays can support 1080i, even those that can only show 720p inputs, so the user is not totally aware of the difference.

One factor that keeps coming up and is bound to cause quite a bit of controversy, is how well the average HD viewer can tell the difference between an HD source and an SD sourced that's been upscaled.

To the trained eye, the difference might be obvious but to almost everyone else, SD up-converted for viewing on large HD displays does look pretty good.

Bear in mind that for years the projectors in high-end home theatre systems at the very top of the market were using extremely expensive scalers to make the SD content look good. Companies such as Focus Enhancements, Faroujda and others were selling devices priced from $1,000 and far upwards that "improved" the display "quality" of the image.

Now let's consider how the consumer displays footage in HD, whether purchased or home-generated.

Here is where the multiple approaches are starting to make things complicated.

Purchased pre-recorded content (high-definition DVDs) clearly are divided into two camps as Blu-ray and HD DVD prepare to do battle.

The problem with this war is that we don't actually need the new-generation hardware or their differing disc formats to watch HD content on optical disc. Few people realise but current DVD technology used with more advanced Codecs is totally able to display HD.

Who actually needs the new-generation of DVDs is the content owners – the Hollywood studios and the TV companies – because they want the easy copying of DVDs to stop. Consequently, they are forcing Blu-ray and HD DVD on us for digital-rights reasons not because of any genuinely massive technical superiority.

Worse still, movies in the new formats are costly and the new hardware is hugely more expensive than the kit we now have under our TV sets and inside our PCs. Toshiba's price for its cheapest HD DVD set-top player is $500. Blu-ray Disc equivalents are more expensive still - $1,000 from Samsung, a company renowned for its competitive pricing.

So, we have a situation where some people simply can’t tell the difference between HD and up-converted SD and others who, even if they can tell the difference, don't think it's sufficiently large to pay such big premiums for new players and discs in the new formats.

As a result, while the TV market for HD is taking off, the player market at this point certainly is not and probably wouldn't do even if there were a wide range of hardware and movies to choose from – not at these price points or with the on-going confusion over the two competing formats.

Next, let's consider camcorders. Up until very recently, the one and only HD format for consumers was HDV, an advanced version of MPEG-2.

This is able to compress HD via a long Group of Pictures into a data stream that can, very cleverly, be recorded using the same tape mechanism and cassettes as standard-definition DV camcorders, and even records for exactly the same time, too.

To the trained eye, the 25Mbs compressed HD signal doesn't offer the same very high quality as the HD formats that pros use but it is massively better looking than DV when shown on an HD TV set.

So all the usual suspects - Sony, Panasonic, JVC and Canon - offer product. Based on the various price-points, I probably should describe HDV as a prosumer product, rather than just consumer.

One of the factors that I believe really helped DV to be very successful (likewise its more professional variants) was the fact that there was a high degree of compatibility and a wide selection of products.

A good while after Sony kicked off the DV camcorder revolution, the next big development in standard-definition camcorders was models used mini DVDs, rather than tape.

These 8cm discs can be played in any set top DVD player or drive except those that are slot-loading – which is a bit of a black mark against many Apple Mac computers.

In a more quiet fashion, Sony started to offer hard drive camcorders – the DCR-SR40, 60 and 80 - with 30GB and 60GB capacities.
One of the problems that DVD camcorders have to a certain degree (and the hard-drive camcorders have to a major degree), is how to move the footage over to larger 12cm DVDs for storage, home viewing and distribution.

So Sony decided to introduce the DVDirect line. But, in my view, although this is a product family that begins to address the 8cm>12cm issue, it really falls short of what the user needs and wants.

Sony pitched DVDirect as a "you don’t need a PC product". So, looking at it from this perspective, you'll see the obvious advantages of connecting the camcorder via analogue or FireWire or USB and then just pushing a button to create a DVD.

But there is a possible and better alternative – the DVD set-top recorder. Such machines offer analogue inputs and some also have FireWire, though none I know of has a USB connection for input.

Granted DVD set-top recorders don’t have one-button DVD creation from camcorder sources but, in compensation, most have some basic editing ability that is missing from DVDirect. They let you divide the recording, shorten it, title it and create some basic menus.

DVDirect has another major problem in my view – its limited display capabilities. The hardware has a small LCD panel, but no ability to use a TV set as a monitor.

In contrast, DVD set-top recorders have no LCD monitor panel built in but can connect to TV set and that gives you are far better idea of what's going on than a tiny LCD panel.

If Sony has looked at the market as carefully as, perhaps, it should have done, then, logically, it would have put on larger-size LCDs, so that it was practical to look at the footage and read menus or, preferably (or in addition), added the ability to output the video for monitoring.

Look at the other use of DVDirect  - as part of a PC system – and that, too, comes up short. The DVDirect hardware can function as an external DVD writer but a major element is missing.
Without adding additional capture hardware, there's no way to take analogue input, convert and capture it to the PC and then write it back to the DVDirect drive. By leaving out the analogue-to-digital converter that's standard on set-top DVD recorders, Sony has missed a vital trick.

It is clear that Sony is keen to take the technology its been using at the lower end of the camcorder market - with DVD and hard drives – and move it over into high-definition.

But there is a basic problem, especially with camcorders based on DVD. Sony, I believe, was hoping that Blu-ray Disc would have been further along on the price curve, and was expecting this would let it introduce high-def camcorders that could carry Blu-ray writers.

But Blu-ray has been delayed and prices remain very high. Additionally, there is some concern about the practicality of writing to Blu-ray Discs in a moving camcorder.

If you are familiar with some of the CD-based digital cameras, you'll remember that Sony cautioned that you should stand the unit on a flat, vibration-free surface for initialising and finalizing. And this was only for standard CD. 

Sony and Panasonic decided to look at a more advanced Codec as a way of getting an acceptable length of high-definition onto conventional 8cm DVDs. As a result, we now have AVCHD, though with the recording-length issue addressed more fully by the recent addition to the spec of hard-disc recording.

AVCHD uses a compression system that has the capability to provide - in theory - higher quality images than the HDV's MPEG-2 technology. Sadly, Sony seems to be artificially limiting this quality by offering only a 12mbs data rate on the DVD version and 15mbs on the hard-drive version.

While I can see the problems that Sony was facing over storage and data rates with HDV, the problem now is that we have two totally different HD standards in the consumer/prosumer space.

The maddening thing about it is that if Sony had gone for high-efficiency Codecs in the first place, we might have seen red-laser DVD drives and players that were able to fully support HD content.

For the consumer, that would have meant that the personal distribution of HD content could have been further along.

Currently the consumer getting one of these new AVCHD camcorders with a DVD drive is in an 'interesting' situation.

What he or she wants, I believe, is to be able to put personal HD content onto a DVD that can be played on a variety of devices – including the set-top DVD players that so many of us already own.

But I don’t think the option of saying, as Sony does, "just down-convert and produce a standard DVD", is the way that the consumer wants to go.

There are all sorts of arguments about capturing at the best quality and these are valid. But what typical consumers with high-def camcorders and high-def TV sets are likely to want isn't just to have the best source. 

They'll also want the best output – by watching footage at the highest possible resolution on an HD TV set, and they're unlikely to be happy if the only way they can do this is to connect the camcorder to the TV set every time.

Things are actually worse for those who have high-def camcorders that are hard-disk-based. That's because the one and only playback option is to connect the camcorder directly to the TV set – and that's more than a bit limiting.
The situation is somewhat better for those who buy DVD-based AVCHD camcorders and want to watch at the highest possible resolution. In addition to direct playback from camcorder to TV set, they'll have three other choices.

One is to wait until Sony launches Playstation 3, which we're now promised will play AVCHD DVDs.

Another is to play the discs on a PC. Trouble is, until there's been some serious independent testing, we simply don't how well AVCHD DVDs will play on PCs.

What we do know already, though, is that playback of Microsoft  HD WMV files, especially 1080 files, does require a PC with a pretty decent graphics card and, for best results, a powerful CPU, too.

The last option is to buy a Blu-ray Disc player. Like the Blu-ray-equipped PS 3, these will handle AVCHD DVDs, according to Sony.

Oh, and though Sony might never tell you this, we kind of suspect that there is going to be support for AVCHD DVDs on the players from the competing HD DVD camp.

So let's get back to DVDirect and any forthcoming high-def versions. Here, a monitor output will be even more crucial - and with it, the consumer would be able to view content on a HD TV set and have a basic creation and playback system.

Even ignoring Sony's desire to major on Blu-ray Disc, there are a few reasons why the company might choose not to do this. The main one is that it might simply be impossible right now. AVCHD is a very processor-intensive Codec and, until some affordable GPU chips are readily available that can do the bulk of the decoding, there might be no realistic way of handling the AVCHD footage.

It is clear that looking inside the current Toshiba set-top HD DVD player that this contains, in effect, a personal computer - and we don't think things are going to be any different inside a Blu-ray Disc set-top unit.

An additional frustration with the new AVCHD camcorders is that there is no analogue audio input.

Even though there is a lot of talk about the Dolby AC-3 5.1 surround sound, this is only created via the built in mic system, which really is nothing more than a gimmick.

So what are we left with?

We now have two major systems - Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD - competing for the distribution of commercial HD content. They will need to battle it out and that messy fight is going to mean that a lot of consumers will sit on the fence waiting to see which way to jump.

Alongside, we now have two systems for consumer-orientated HD content creation. HDV is aimed at the higher end and AVCHD, though apparently better spec'd,  is targeted at the low end.

Strange but true.

And, no less strange, among those HDV camcorders aimed at the higher end of the market, none has the benefit of a hard drive and none is able to capture AC-3 5.1 audio.

With AVCHD, we have a new family and a list of companies that have signed up to the standard but, in my opinion, camcorders in this format are all going to struggle with the problems of content distribution, storage and display.

And, perversely, even though they're recording to DVD using red lasers, we're being told that the only set-top playback options involve blue laser systems – Blu-ray Disc for sure and HD DVD possibly.

Usually new products come along and offer clear choices that benefit consumers. But with high-definition camcorders and high-definition DVD players and recorders, people are understandably confused.

Until these various families are better put together and offer what  users need and want, rather than just what the makers are willing to give them, the logical response from a large number of potential buyers (and that's almost everyone who's already bought into HD TV or is considering doing so) is to take a wait-and-see attitude, rather than reach for their plastic.

So what are your thoughts on what's going on with consumer HD - camcorders and DVD? Let us know in the DVdoctor news forum.

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