Will the new crop of pro AVCHD-based camcorders ultimately help consumers?

One of the reasons I still like DV tape-based video cameras is that the DV codec is well supported in video editing programmes.  And as much as I considered to move to a hard drive based video camera, battery life as well as the AVCHD format kept me away: David sums this view up in his post on new Pro-AVCHD cameras at NAB… 

“What’s not to like [about AVCHD]? The editing workflow. Quite simply it sucks. First of all, to get video out of it, you have to ensure that it is plugged into its charger, then connect it to your computer and copy the files over.” 

Also, see George Ou’s post on zdnet over the loss of video detail in the AVCHD format…

HDV uses the older MPEG-2 format at 25 mbps… actual AVCHD implementation only uses 13 to 17 mbps MPEG4-AVC for compatibility with cheaper storage devices and it completely sunk when I read this excellent in-depth review from”

In the examples he cites from the Camcorderinfo review, you can see the quality loss in AVCHD vs. HDV: to be fair, the average consumer may not notice the lower video quality of AVC when watching video on the television.

But back to workflow.

Another difficulty with digital video (and particularly th enew AVC format) is editing. 

Yes, I know, many people never bother to edit their home video files, leaving the tapes to languish alone in a shoe box at the back of a storage closet or in your home office drawer.  And not everyone has the time to dedicate to capturing and editing videos – it is truly an art form, not to mention a time sink.  In a recent session, using MPEG-2 files from our old Panasonic handheld, pocket-sized SD camcorder (records on SD cards – I love it), I spent the better part of of two hours on a 20 minute video clip from our last vacation, including the time I waited for the transcode to WMV and burning to DVD.  For video tapes from our DV camcorder, add an hour for digitizing the tape.

And if you do have the time and inclination to edit and produce your latest blockbuster video, you’ll need a suitable editing software application.  For me, Windows Vista Movie Maker meets most of my needs, spending 10-15 percent of my time on Adobe Premiere Pro, with most of my content coming from MPEG-2 and DV files.  As Lori Grunin posted on the CNET gadget blog

“…you can’t simply play the files on a computer, much less send them to your friends, without down-converting to SD (which defeats the purpose of spending the extra $500 or so for an HD camcorder). After a few days of retracing the Web tracks I made last year, I decided to share the current state of AVCHD support with all you potential buyers.”

… and updated recently with…

“I was beginning to mellow, and even predicted that 2008 would be the year that AVCHD was finally ready for the mass market. Then I began my attempts to open 1,920×1080 videos shot with the Panasonic HDC-SD9. In short, every application I and our Labs’ tester tried–iMovie, Pinnacle Studio, Ulead Video Studio, Sony Vegas and Avid Liquid–at best could open but barely play some clips, and more often simply hung or crashed. Panasonic’s tech support wanted me to use HD Writer, the horrible home-grown application Panasonic ships with the camcorder. I finally got InterVideo WinDVD to consistently play clips, albeit not very smoothly.

“Updated 4/2/08: Per drj444‘s comments, I revisited VideoStudio and realized I hadn’t upgraded to 11.5. I did and tried again. The clips came in okay, but the software crashed soon after I’d imported them. Sigh.

AVC is not as widely supported in popular video editing applications as DV and MPEG-2 format.  With more and more cameras supporting the format, perhaps that will change.  See Lori’s post for more on Playback solutions and Editors that support AVCHD, but she notes that Adobe Premiere Pro CS3 still does not AVCHD editing. There are a few that do: see the AVCHD wiki listing on software titles

Overall, I think back to ten (yes, ten!) years ago when we launched the Pinnacle DV500 DV video editing solution… at that time with an SRP nearing $1,000.  This was a time when we saw the IEEE-1394 format catching on an DV ports just starting to emerge on PCs, and few software editing applications.  Native-DV editing wasn’t constrained to just on DV format, but several: consumer DV, DVCPRO, DVCAM, and even Sony’s Digital-8 (DV on the Hi8 tape format). 

But within a couple of years of launch, DV became widely accepted and proliferated, even though relatively small hard disk sizes prevented uncompressed capture of the DV file from tape.  That’s one of the main reasons I like the format: tapes were (and are) relatively inexpensive and held an incredible amount of data, up to 20GB on a single tape.  (on a related topic, see my post The “Great HD Shoot Out” review picks the Canon HV20 as top HD camcorder.)

It is amazing that two years after its introduction, the AVCHD format hasn’t seen the same level of support, which I think can be attributed somewhat to a lack of simple storage options, ones that we are just now beginning to see come on line (with more PC-based editing applications and playback support).  Considering that transferring AVCHD files from your HDD-based camcorder (via USB 2.0) is up to ten times faster than transferring DV-based footage connection (5 to 30 MB/s vs. HDV at normal video playback speeds of 3.5 MB/s).

And though it’s noted that “developers have pledged their support but it may still take some time for the implementation,” we’re seeing more integrated support for AVCHD as noted in the AVCHD wiki

“Windows XP Windows Movie Maker for example doesn’t even support HDV capture and Windows Vista only offers this capability on Premium or Ultimate editions. Windows Movie Maker in Vista while it supports HDV format still doesn’t permit selective recording and forces you to download the entire tape from the beginning. By contrast, AVCHD files simply need to be copied over using standard file copy/move operations making it far more user friendly.”

In support of the HD tape format, there is a long list of editing software applications that support HDV

In addition to the memory and PC horsepower requirements to capture, edit and publish AVCHD-based video content, consumers will face another challenge with AVCHD: the archival of the footage. 

With DV and MPEG-2, I find that it’s easier to import clips from the tape and SD card respectively on to our PC, and then archive working files to DVD-R or DVD+RW discs.  (I prefer DVD+RW if I anticipate coming back to a project: the format supports multiple writes and edits, allowing me to store the editing file session along with the video clips.)  Most often, I have multiple video sessions from different days on a single tape, and often the video clips that make up the sessions are less than the size of a DVD or two. 

If I run into a situation where I have multiple tapes for a video project (say, a family vacation) I find that the cost of an external hard drive allows for an inexpensive and immediately available archive: a quick scan of the Sunday paper ads finds external, portable hard drives for fifty cents a GB, and larger models such as the Western Digital My Book Studio External Hard Drive series (offering USB 2.0, IEEE 1394a/b and eSATA connections) on sale for under 35 cents per gigabyte.  A recent ad on NewEgg promoted the 320GB model for under US$110: that size will store a year’s worth of our family’s raw digital video, if not two.

AVCHD is gaining momentum, and I’ll wager that in a few years tape will ceed to SD and memory cards as capacity increases.  You’ll ultimately have to eventually put that AVCHD content somewhere, and recordable disc formats will certainly increase in size from the current mainstream 4.7GB DVDs.  So consider which format is right for you.  Go to the store, look at the camcorders, read the reviews and pick out which one is right for you.  Whichever of these two formats you choose, chances are that your video will be widely supported, and the video quality will be better than anything else you’ve experienced in recent years. 

Tags: video, DV, AVCHD, digital video.


New Pro-AVCHD Cameras (David Sayed’s Microsoft Blog)

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