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Lights! Action! Camcorders!

Constantly improving video cameras offer all the options, from super-high definition to instant DVDs
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Emeril Lagasse, Sept/Oct 2005

(continued from page 1)

Unless, of course, you're itching for something more—specifically, a high-definition camcorder. High-definition television (HDTV) is growing rapidly, with an ever-increasing variety of high-def shows available on network, cable and satellite systems driving sales of new sets. The appeal of HDTV is obvious the minute you look at a set broadcasting your favorite sporting event or movie in digitally precise wide-screen format, with every blade of grass, bead of sweat and bustier lace crisply defined. Standard TV uses 480 horizontal lines to draw a picture. HDTV comes in two formats, one with 720 lines, the other 1,080. Making the switch to HD is mathematically inevitable.

So if you're going to watch your favorite shows in glorious high definition, why not enjoy videos of your daughter's birthday party and your trip to Lake Wobegon with the same superb clarity? Sony came out with a groundbreaking $3,700 high-definition camcorder, the HDR-FX1, able to shoot in the highest-res 1080i HDTV format. With its three-sensor imaging system, the video I shot with this rig is nothing short of amazing. Much as I love the results, it's tough to recommend that you buy one. Sony bills the HDR-FX1 as a "consumer" camcorder, but, weighing in at more than four pounds and requiring two-handed operation, it's really designed for the would-be film-festival crowd. When I carried it to a local softball game, people looked at me as if I were filming a documentary on parental sports insanity (my Michael Moore waistline may have fueled that idea). Didn't stop them from cursing a blue streak when an eight-year-old muffed a catch, though...and it was still uncomfortable.

Fortunately, Sony has recently followed up with a more petite but still potent high-def contender, the HDR-HC1. The new model is significantly smaller at 7.4'' x 3.7'' x 2.8'' and 1.5 pounds—you can lug it along without exceptional effort. While the price is still high at $2,000, it's a whole lot less than the FX1. Unfortunately, I can't vouch for the video quality just yet, since Sony didn't have review samples in time for this article. We do know the HC1 will shoot in wide-screen 1080i format (and can be throttled back to shoot standard-definition video, too), with a 10x zoom lens and an optical image stabilization system to minimize camera jiggle. However, the new model uses a single-sensor system instead of the triple sensor of its much larger brand cousin, so it's impossible to make image quality assumptions. By the time you read this, though, the HC1 will be on store shelves and, if you walk in waving your gold card, you'll be able to take one for a test drive.

Price isn't the only caveat when considering a high-def camcorder purchase. This is early-adopter technology, with few product choices and the certainty of improvements down the line. Unlike with standard-definition camcorders, you don't have many options for high-def video editing software (full credit goes to Apple for seizing the high ground here with HD-friendly versions of both its low-end iMovie software and its more pro-oriented Final Cut programs). The first high-definition DVD player/recorders, due sometime in the next few months, introduce another new tech-nology with attendant complications, which are made even more complex by the likelihood that two competing and incompatible formats (Blu-ray and HD-DVD) will make it to store shelves.

Still, if you have the requisite budget, you have to consider an HD camcorder very seriously, either now or soon. If you haven't already bought an HDTV set, you probably will before long. High-def DVD players will be widely available within the next year or two, along with the ability to record your own discs from high-def footage you've shot. Sony has been smart about handling the HD transition period. It offers the option to view standard-definition versions of your high-def footage on regular TV and even allows you to upload standard-def files to your computer for editing. Most important, though, you only get one shot at shooting video, and a lifetime to linger over the results. Can't go back to your kid's soccer game five years from now when you finally spring for a great camcorder and ask for a do-over, more's the pity.

Beyond Videotape
At some point, we're going to stop using tape to capture video—it's inevitable. Tape wears out, it snags, it requires you to zip forward and backward to find the section you want to play back. Just as audio 8-track and cassette tapes gave way to CDs and DVD recorders increasingly muscle VCRs out of our living rooms, videotape camcorders will be phased out. However, after fiddling with several current alternatives, I'm not predicting it will happen soon.

When it comes to watching movies at home, we all know that DVD delivers much better video and audio quality than VHS tape. It seems only natural, then, that one of the new camcorders that record directly to DVD discs must be a better choice than a tape-based camcorder, right?

Not so fast, my technophilic friend. The sticking point is that all DVDs are not created equal.

While discs created on DVD camcorders are just as cleanly digital as commercial DVDs, and play back on the same DVD players, they're not recorded to the same quality standards. When a computer (whether at a commercial video production company or your own home) compresses digital video to record onto a DVD, it can take its own sweet time, optimizing each frame to create a high-

resolution video image. Inside a DVD camcorder, on the other hand, those images must be compressed and burned onto the disc as fast as they're received, and the only way to accomplish that is by lowering video quality substantially.


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