November 2007 | Main | January 2008

December 18, 2007

A tale of two cameras: Panasonic SD5 versus Sanyo Xacti HD1000

This review has been a long time coming. Now that the students are safely nestled away in their bunks, I can turn my attention to what really matters. The duel of the century. The battle to end all battles. The moderately-priced supposedly-hd direct-to-memory camcorder showdown! It's the Panasonic HDC-SD5 versus the Sanyo Xacti HD1000.

Dsc04527

Read on for the inside scoop.

In many ways, these cameras are very similar. Both record 1080i images to SD memory cards using an H.264 derivative. Both have full raster 1920x1080 imagers.

Let's look at some differentiating factors then.

Dsc04528

Form Factor
This is a pretty clear difference. Sanyo has gone with the pistol-grip form factor common to their entire Xacti line, while Panasonic has stuck with a more traditional (if very, very small) camcorder form factor.

I've got to say, this one is a hands down win for the Sanyo. I find the Panasonic to be very uncomfortable, difficult to pocket, and awkward to use. In comparison, the Sanyo - while not quite as nice as some of the lesser Xacti products due to the giant lens - is a joy to use. You can easily transition from chest level shooting to eye-level shooting, something that just isn't possible with the Panasonic.

Controls and Feedback
Controls and user-interface are areas in which I give both cameras a fail. Neither has an intuitive menu system, both take far too many clicks to accomplish basic tasks, and even after a few weeks of using them, I'm still getting hung up.

Both have decent, good-sized screens, with the Panasonic being slightly better saturated than the Sanyo. The Panasonic has an integrated, automatic lens cap, which is very nice (until it gets full of sand and stops working). The Sanyo is a traditional cap.

Dsc04531

Dsc04532 Dsc04533

Image Quality
Both of these cameras shoot 1920x1080 images. But there's a big difference. The Sanyo uses a single CMOS sensor, while the Panasonic has three CCDs. The result is that the Panasonic images tend to be slightly more detailed and less noisy. The Panasonic does particularly well in low-light, at least compared to the very, very noisy Sanyo.

The truth is that both cameras are let down by their compression scheme, so it's difficult to evaluate. I imagine both are capable of far better quality than is seen on the computer screen.

Workflow
While both cameras use an H.264 derived compression scheme, there are many differences. The Panasonic uses the AVC-HD standard, which in theory means it will be compatible with many modern NLEs. Indeed, I had good success with both iMovie 08 and Final Cut Pro 6.0.2.

The Sanyo is a different story. They make no claims about AVC-HD compatibility, and the result is a bit of a mess. The files it produces in 1080i60 mode are unreadable by Quicktime, VLC and pretty much every other player. Apparently things are slightly better in the Windows world, but not much. The 720p files it produces play fine, but at that point, why not buy the less expensive Xacti HD2? Sanyo doesn't have much in the way of support, so one wonders how they expect end users to deal with discovering that their footage is unviewable.

Because of this, I ended up doing some resolution tests with the Panasonic running in 1920x1080 mode, and the Sanyo in 720p60 mode. The results were very interesting. Even though the Sanyo was running at a lower resolution, it seemed to be the clear victor. It easily hit 700 lines both vertically and horizontally, while the Panasonic struggled to reach 600. Clearly though, the Panasonic was being let down by the compression scheme.

Sd5 Resolution
Panasonic resolution

Sanyo 30P Resolution Chart
Sanyo Resolution

(Ignore the white balance difference, both had difficulties under studio lighting)

The truth is, neither is going to challenge any of the HDV cameras on the market. While they're probably fine for casual use, or for web-delivered content, both exhibit such severe compression artifacts as to make their HD clains a bit of a stretch.

Other features and accessories
Both cameras include an assortment of accessories. In the case of the Sanyo, it's a rather nice docking station with HDMI output, power and USB connectivity. For the Panasonic, it's a rather odd DVD-burner attachment. The DVD burner can be used to burn the contents of the SD memory card to a DVD, though not in any viewable format. It's strictly for archive - so that you can make room on your SD card to shoot more, without having to connect to a computer. It's very clunky to use, slow to burn and I have trouble imagining its use in the field.

The Sanyo has one extra feature that deserves special note - external audio input. While it's only a mini-jack, it means you can hook up a real microphone and use the Sanyo for basic sit down interviews and the like.

Overall
Truth is, neither of these cameras blew me away. The Panasonic in particular, was a huge disappointment. It wasn't any fun to shoot with, the quality was subpar and there are loads of 'quirks' which made it a hassle. The Sanyo would do better if they'd stuck to a standard for their files. However, I was a big fan of the Xacti HD1A, and I hope they continue with the product line.

The redeeming value is the microphone input. If you're looking for something to produce decent 'talking head' footage for the web, it may suit your needs.

Both cameras are available now - figure around $700 for the Sanyo, and closer to $900 for the Panasonic.

Sample Footage
I'm not sure how I'm going to handle footage for this yet, as it's difficult to compare the 720p Sanyo footage to the 1080i Panasonic. Maybe I'll just compare them both at a scaled down baseline. Check back for more.

Posted by at 12:25 PM

Quicktime 7.3.1 ruins Christmas for many

So. There were some serious security issues with Flash support in Quicktime. Apple released 7.3.1 to fix them. Unfortunately, they fixed them by disabling Flash support.

Let us step back for a moment. Quicktime plays Flash files? Yup, Quicktime will playback SWF files that are compatible with Flash version 5 or earlier. They can also be embedded as tracks within other quicktime files. Many content producers take advantage of this to add interactivity to Quicktime movies.

Needless to say, an update suddenly removing that capability has created some serious issues for a number of users. No warning, no downgrade path and no comments about workarounds. Sounds like classic Apple to me. Jerks.

Posted by at 9:37 AM

December 14, 2007

Resolving the XDCam EX

While doing the exposure tests, I also shot a resolution chart. Unfortunately, the only chart I could find maxed out at 800 lines, but you still get a nice idea of the quality of this camera.

Click for a full raster TGA. These are shot at an exposure of F8.

XDcam Ex 60i
XDcam Ex 24p

Posted by at 1:47 PM

Indecent Exposure - Camera Roundup

A few folks have asked about the low-light performance of the XDcam EX. I decided to spend some time pitting it against a few of the other cameras that I've got on hand.

Read on for a full breakdown. The short summary? It does damn good.

To start with, I put an exposure chart in the studio with a single 2k instrument hitting it from the grid. Cameras were lined up side by side. I grabbed sample frames, and then brought them into ScopeBox to pull the waveform data. Then I dimmed the light to 10% and took another round of shots. I left the cameras on auto-iris, because part of what I was interested in was their ability to maximize their dynamic range. The studio camera was manually shaded.

The contenders are: XDCam EX, Canon XL-H1 and a Sony DXC-D50WSL (SD) studio camera. I did shoot frames with a Sanyo Xacti HD1000, Sony HVR-A1U and Panasonic HDC-SD5 as well, but because those cameras roll in gain automatically, it's difficult to do a comparison.

First off, let's look at some images under proper lighting. Click for a larger image.

Xdcam Exposure
XDcam EX (60i HQ)

Xlh1 Exposure
XL-H1 (60i)

They all did a decent job of taking advantage of the full range available. The XDCam pushed the whites a bit hotter than the XL-H1, but otherwise those two cameras tracked almost identically. What you can't see in the pictures is that the XDCam captured that image at an F8, while the XL-H1 was at an F5.6. The other cameras don't record F-stop numbers, so I can't clue you in on those. The studio camera was also running around an F8 for this shot, though I seem to have lost that still frame.

Not surprisingly then, with 2000 watts of light hitting a chart, the cameras did ok. But now let us see what happens when we dim that light to 10%.

Xdcam Low Light
XDCam

Xlh1 Low Light
XL-H1

D50 Low Light
Sony D50

I found this test to be pretty interesting. The XDCam continues to hold a significant advantage over the XL-H1. All the cameras were wide open at this point. The D50 blew them both away, owing to its 2/3" chips and a lens that costs more than all the other cameras in this test.

So, if low light is important, I think the old rules hold true - buy the biggest chips and the best lens you can afford. That sure makes the XDcam EX look like a great value.

Posted by at 1:43 PM

December 11, 2007

Sony does it right? My review of the XDCam EX

Normally, I'm rather mean to Sony. Usually, they deserve it. Prepare to have your collective internet minds blown.

The Sony XDcam EX is the best camera you can buy for less than $15,000. It's my new favorite camera. It's the first camera in years that I've actually wanted to own personally. Read on to find out why. Thanks very much to Pat Hart at AVI Systems for making this camera available to me.

SANY0009.JPG

First impressions do a lot to dictate a camera's place within the industry. Is it amazing "out-of-the-box," or do you need to work hard to extract the joy? There is no clearer example of this than the Panasonic HVX-200. It shoots absolutely beautiful imagery from the moment you power it on. While a Canon XL-H1 will look desaturated and overly sharpened, video from an HVX-200 will be rich and smooth. I think Sony must understand that, because my out of the box impressions of the EX were excellent. I didn't feel the need to immediately dive into the many 'picture profiles' to customize the image. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Body
Let's start by looking at the physical shape and form factor. The EX is heavy, but not too heavy - around 5lbs. The size is similar to the HVX-200, though it's less of a fatty. The front half the camera is dedicated to the lens. With no tape drive, the rear half is much more compact than the Panasonic, and only a bit chunkier than a Sony Z1U.

The screen flips out from under the microphone, which puts it pretty far forward on the body. This is an excellent placement, as it means the camera can be braced against your shoulder without making you cross-eyed. The screen itself is incredibly crisp.

The button layout is one area that disappoints slightly. With apologies to Clarkson, it looks a bit like someone stuffed all of the buttons up their nose and then sneezed on the camera. Things are very spread out, and the scroll/click wheel for the menus is difficult to use without a lot of concentration.

The hand grip on the right side of the camera is a thing of genius. By pushing a release with your thumb, it rotates through a full 120 degrees, from parallel to the ground, past perpendicular. This means you can shoot down low, and move up high, without changing your grip. This is a great sign of the thought that Sony put into this camera.

Around back, there's an HD-SDI output, covered by a far-too-easy-to-lose rubber cap. All the other video outputs are on the side, under a cover, and are fed via Sony mini-connectors for composite/component. I don't mind this too much - it's the 21st century folks. Go HD-SDI or give up.

Below are some stills of the camera, followed by a video tour of the body.

SANY0005.JPG SANY0006.JPG
SANY0007.JPG SANY0008.JPG



Optics
The lens is claimed to be by Fujinon, and is a very, very nice bit of kit. It's essentially a standard professional lens that's been glued to the body. So you get full manual ring control of aperture, zoom and focus, with stops and scales and everything. All of the controls can also be set to servo-controlled auto, with manual override on the focus.

Perhaps I just had a particularly good sample, but I've found the lens to have less chromatic aberration and distortion than any other HD camera I've tested, including more expensive lenses on other XDcam-family cameras. There's a very slight amount of vingetting, though I found it to be barely noticeable. Breathing was moderate, and about in line with what I'd expect.

There are two physical ND filters which can be rolled in via a switch on the body. When you're running auto-iris, the screen will prompt you to add or remove filters as necessary.

The imagers are three 1/2" 'Exmor' 1920x1080 CMOS chips. You read that right - full raster HD. There's definitely some rolling shutter artifacts present in shaky footage, as you'll see later on, but it's not nearly so bad as lower end CMOS cameras.

Workflow
Tape is dead. I finally believe that for real. The P2 workflow was good, but the storage density wasn't there. The XDcam disc workflow had good density, but meant the cameras were big and clunky. XDCam EX changes everything. Take 35mbit XDCam HD footage (essentially HDV with VBR and less aggressive quantization tables), write it to an 8 or 16gig Expresscard/34 card. When you're done, pop it in the Expresscard slot on your MacbookPro or other modern laptop. Click. Drag. Done.

Pricing is still a sore spot for flash memory-based acquisition, and Sony hasn't solved that issue quite yet. An 8gig card will record about 30 minutes and set you back around $500. A 16gig card will run $900.

But there's a big asterisk here. Sony has promised, repeatedly, a firmware update that will allow the camera to take advantage of third-party memory cards. These cards currently retail for well under half the cost of the Sony cards. Sony has also discussed the possibility of a validation process, so that you'd know the card would be able to keep up with the camera. If they follow through on their word, that'll be a huge step forward.

If you don't have an appropriate laptop, you can connect the camera directly via USB, or get a USB expresscard reader. The expresscard slots are hotswappable, so you can offload one card while recording to another, and then swap them back.

For those still living in the dark ages, there camera also has a firewire (err iLink) port. When recording in "standard quality" mode, the camera will output a normal 25mbit HDV signal over firewire, so you could use this camera with an older NLE or with a Firestore or similar device. But really, if you're going to do that, just buy a lesser camera.

Quality
Now that we've covered the physical characteristics and workflow - how does the image actually look? Damn good. I'm going to do some resolution tests later this week, but suffice to say it's incredibly crisp.

The camera has a wide range of configurable features. You can do multiple custom settings for image controls, gamma curves, etc. You can choose 1080i60, 1080p30, 1080p24, 720p60, 720p30 and 720p24. In the 720 settings, you can overcrank up to 60fps, for true slow motion.

The samples section at the end of this review has a number of high-resolution videos to help you gather just how good the camera looks.

Negatives
As a cynic, I can't do a review without mentioning some negatives. As I noted earlier, the menu scroll-wheel is difficult to operate. The menus are also laid out in an awkward fashion. If you're shooting 1080p24, and suddenly decide you want to shoot some slow motion, you need to dig into the 'others' menu to set the resolution to 720p24, then go into another menu branch to set the overcrank. The 'video format' menu option is also right above the 'format media' menu option, which has more than once gotten me close to accidentally wiping my memory card.

The white balance control gives you a switch between preset, a or b. However, the preset is always fixed to 3200K. I wish they'd gone the Panasonic route on this one and let you toggle between 3200 and 5600 on the preset.

The power switch is difficult to operate, particularly when wearing gloves, though I understand this is to make it more difficult to accidentally turn it off.

Startup times are rather slow - around 10 seconds from power on to being able to start recording. Why does it take so long, when there aren't physical tape heads to engage?

Battery life isn't stellar - I was expecting amazing runtimes, thanks to the lack of moving parts. However, I'm seeing more like 2 hours of 'real world' use on a charge with the included battery.

The CMOS sensors inevitably lead to some rolling shutter issues, though they're not terrible.

That's about it. In all honesty, the negatives are easy to work around and are far outweighed by the positives.

Overall
I love this camera. It is everything I have dreamt of in a video camera. This, for me, is the new top-dog. $6699? A bargain.

Sample Footage
Thanks to an abundance of bandwidth here at the University, I'm able to host files that other reviewers can't. So here goes.

For each clip, I've posted a web-sized flash version, a 720p quicktime vesion, and the original XDCam file. You'll need Final Cut Pro 6.0.2 installed to view the XDCam files.

1080p24 - Child Walking in the Snow


720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

720p24 - Overcranked at 60 - Snow on Bricks


720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

720p24 - Overcranked at 60 - Slow Motion walker. Note some rolling shutter distortion due to the snow (or not? see this thread)



720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

720p24 - Overcranked at 60 - Dude walking.



720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

1080p24 - Failed Diet Coke Fountain. Notice the way the CMOS sensors handle the light bloom. Wouldn't want to do this with a CCD.


720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

1080p24 - Long zoom at the train museum - very low light shot, with 6db of gain


720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

1080p24 - Trains undercranked at 6fps


720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

1080p24 - 16 frame 'frame accumulation' shot


720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

1080p24 - On the set of TechTalk


720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

1080p24 - On the set again, spinning around


720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

Posted by at 4:55 PM

Get paid to post on Youtube

Youtube has expanded their previously very limited program of cutting content producers in on ad revenue. This is good for folks who are already planning to post their content on Youtube, though it's probably not your path to web2.0 riches.

Posted by at 2:28 PM

December 4, 2007

Flash with files from Compressor

Ok, first discovery - Flash doesn't seem to support compressed headers on Quicktime H264 files. Just choose 'fast start' and you'll be all set.

Posted by at 12:26 PM

Adobe sends down some love

Adobe released Flash Player 9 Update 3 today, which includes official support for H264 video and AAC audio. That's about the nicest thing I've heard all week. OK world: upgrade now. On2 be damned.

Posted by at 11:18 AM