The Digital Journalist
High Def Musings

by Steven Trent Smith

Going to NAB has never been my thing. Sacrilegious though it may sound, Las Vegas holds no charm for me. And being among a crowd of 130,000 video people is just plain overwhelming. So I sit here in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains and glean information from those who did attend the great show. In a sense, it gives me a more global perspective on changes within the industry. And it provides an opportunity to reflect upon the impressions of others.

Dirck Halstead has shared his impressions of NAB 2005. He was downright enthusiastic about the prospects for affordable high-definition video production. He had a chance to see two new, quite different and quite exciting entries - the Panasonic AG-HVX-200 and JVC GY-HD100U.

The HVX-200 promises to be an amazing camcorder when it hits the market later this year. For less than $6,000 you can have a camera that will shoot: 1080/60i, 1080/24p, 1080/30p, 720/60p, 720/24p, 720/30p, 480/60i, 480/24p, 480/30p. Depending upon the resolution, the HX-200 records DVCPro 25, 50 and 100Mbps HD. This last feature is the most fascinating thing about the Panasonic. It means the camcorder does not record mini-HDV at 25mbps, like its competitors, but full-blown 4:2:2 high definition, like its big brother, the $65,000 AJ-HDC-27F Varicam. Indeed, like its pricey sibling, the little HVX-200 can even record at variable frame rates (albeit when in 720p HD).

While the 200's sensors are native 16:9, it's unfortunate that neither the viewfinder nor the LCD screen are 16:9. They are 4:3 and show widescreen in a letterbox.

Over the past year Panasonic officials have been touting the advantages of their P2 recording system. These high performance SD cards are the wave of the future, so they're telling us. No moving parts, resistant to shock, can be reused thousands of time. That's the line. To me, switching to P2 brings disadvantages as well, not the least of which is the cost. At this writing the largest-capacity P2 card is 4Gb, with a sticker price of $1,750. Panasonic showed an 8Gb version at NAB. We all know media costs are dropping, so let's say these new cards are the same price as the 4's. How many do you need to maintain continuity in your "workflow?" If you're shooting at DVCPro 25, a single 8Gb chip will record 64 minutes. But, if you're shooting 720p/24, that same P2 card will record only 8 minutes. The HVX-200 has two slots, so you can have on-board a total of 16 minutes of record time. In the chaos of reality shooting, that's not much.

When I'm shooting a documentary I usually figure on going through 2-4 hours of tape a day. It wouldn't be unusual for a single interview to consume a whole 60-minute tape or two by itself (at $5 a cassette). However, if I were shooting 720p/24 high def in the same situation, P2 would require 15 cards. At $1,750 each, I'd need over $26,000 in media. Great, I can reuse the cards, but that's still an awful lot of money. Put another way, that $26k would buy me over 5,000 DV tapes - arguably a lifetime supply.

Panasonic is going to offer an external hard-drive unit into which you can download your P2 files. The HDD holds 60Gb. My two hours of HD material needs 120Gb. Even if there was enough space on the drive, am I going to have the time to stop shooting and spend an hour downloading, at 4 minutes per P2, to clear the cards for more recording? I don't think real life is quite that forgiving.

One possible solution is a high-capacity (i.e., 80Gb-plus) external hard drive. You'd still need a couple of these, but priced in the mid-hundreds, they are relatively cheap. I just don't know if the HVX will output its 100Mbps HD onto one of these units.

My bottom line? The HVX-200 promises to be one heck of a camcorder, BUT when you're working in HD it's going to impose some stringent limitations on your shooting style. Ironically, the 200 does accept tapes, but only for recording DV at 25Mbps.

JVC's HD100 reminds me of a cross between a Canon XL and a Sony DSR-250 - being more of a shoulder camera than a handheld. Its biggest feature is interchangeable lenses. As Dirck mentioned, two will be available: a 16:1 and a wide-angle 13:1. With an optional adapter, you can even use lenses designed for 1/2" CCD cameras. Like the Panasonic, this camera shoots true 24 frames, so transfer to film is easy. The basic format of the 100 is the HDV standard, like the Sony Z1, except that it's 720p, not 1080i. Look for availability this summer with a list price of $6,300.

JVC introduced another camera at NAB that really caught my eye. The GY-HD7000U is a full-blown "big" camera, using 2/3" sensors. Not CCDs, but CMOS imagers. I think that's a first. As a 2/3" camera, the HD7000 will use standard B4 mount lenses and accessories. It accepts large- shell DV tapes, so you can record up to 276 minutes of HD (or SD). And 720p is standard, but if you use an outboard "Direct-to-Edit" HDD unit you can also record 1080i.

JVC has not locked in on the final design, but they are aiming for a $27,000 price tag. That's pretty steep compared to the other new HD entrants, but still a fraction of what the truly high-end High Def cameras go for. No information on a release date.

As usual, none of these new guys is the "perfect" camera. Each one has compromises. Manufacturers listen up! Here is Steve Smith's ideal miniHD camcorder, the Pavanacsonon HDVZY-1200U:

- Records 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p in 24, 25, 30, 50 and 60 frame modes, preferably in 4:2:2.

- Has interchangeable lenses with a true wide-angle starting at 3mm.

- Has 16:9 viewfinder and LCD screen.

- Has variable record speeds to capture slow-motion and "fast-motion."

- Has an internal "always on" memory cache so that even if you trigger the camera late, you'll still record the Big Moment.

- Has a built-in SDI output.

- Is about the same size as the Sony Z1U.

- Has a price tag of less than $7,000.

Is all that asking for too much? Given the sophistication of today's cameras, I don't think so.

Like I've said before, this HDV thing is rapidly changing the way digital journalists approach their work. It gives us exciting choices we've never had before. It's putting the FUN back into shooting.


I'm amused by the recent proliferation of "catch sayings" and new nomenclature. In the old days (i.e., up until last year) we went out to shoot, then edited. Today everybody's talking about "workflow." Huh? I read in one of the press releases about "progressive HD migration," and in another, "future-proof migration to HD." Where exactly is HD migrating to? Tasmania? JVC calls its line "Affordable HD," and says in one of its releases, "JVC is fulfilling the promise of Affordable HD, with affordable high definition products." Double Huh?

Welcome to the Brave New World of HD video.

© Steven Trent Smith