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CICIORA’S CORNER: HD camcorder adventures

Thu, 07/31/2008 - 8:10pm
Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

I’ve always felt that those who work in television should have direct experience in television. Years ago, when I worked for a manufacturer of set-top boxes, I strongly urged my colleagues to be cable subscribers. Surprisingly, this wasn’t obvious to a few of them. Later, when I worked for a cable company, I encouraged my colleagues there to visit consumer electronics retailers several times a year, ask questions, and even pretend to know nothing about the subject, Walter S. Ciciorajust to see what our subscribers would be told. In particular, I suggested that they ask about how to use these products with a cable system both with and without a set-top box. Most shocking, one of the higher-up employees in the Cable Television Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission proudly declared that he didn’t subscribe to cable. There was disdain in his telling of this sad fact.

Experience with a camcorder can be very educational for someone engaged in television. My first home experience in 1982 was with a borrowed two-piece unit. The recorder hung from a shoulder strap while connected by a cable to the camera. Each time the unit was turned on, it had to be pointed at a white area to set “white balance”. The recorder used the Beta format. A couple of years ago, I had difficulty finding a way to play that tape and convert it to a more modern format. Next, I had a heavy VHS camcorder that rested on the shoulder. That was followed by an 8 mm tape format camcorder. A higher quality Hi-8 model came next. Then I bought a Digital 8 format camcorder. About a decade ago, a couple of digital DV camcorders were obtained. Late last year, I bought a high definition camcorder which records the 1080i format to premium DV tapes.

When choosing the HD camcorder, I thought through several issues. Perhaps the most important decision concerned the recording medium. There were three choices: hard disc, optical disc and tape. Since I have experienced several hard disc crashes in computers, I was not eager to take on that risk. One of the main motivations for getting a new laptop in the past has been the need for more hard disc space. I realized that when the camcorder’s hard disc was filled, there would be three unpleasant choices to consider. The first would be to have brought along a computer with sufficient hard disc space to copy over the video. And that would take time. Another unpleasant alternative would be to delete some of the previously-recorded video. A third alternative would be to simply stop taking video. None of these alternatives were appealing. The old saw about “once burned, twice cautious” motivated me away from a camcorder with a hard drive.

Because I eventually convert my videos to DVDs anyway, wouldn’t it make sense to do that directly? Shouldn’t I get a DVD-burning camcorder? There again, past experience turned me away. I have had a large number of failed DVD recordings. While the situation has improved greatly in the last couple of years, I still get an occasional error message as the DVD recorder sticks out its tongue at me and spits out the ruined disc. It’s one thing to have a failed DVD recording when copying a tape to DVD or taking a TV program off of the TiVo to make space for more shows that will never be watched. Frustrating as this is, the recording can be repeated, and only a little time is lost. If I had a failed DVD recording in the camcorder, there may be no recovery of that kind of failure.

Then there is the issue of “finalizing” the disc. I assume that camcorder discs also have to be “finalized” before they can be played on other DVD devices. That certainly is the case with the DVD burners I have been using. The finalize process takes a few minutes. Meanwhile, the camcorder would be out of action. It may be possible to finalize later after a stack of discs have been recorded, but that is subject to remembering to do that. And, the mini-DVD used in camcorders doesn’t record an hour’s time at “full resolution.” Permanence – or more precisely, longevity – is another concern. How long will these discs last? Will their life be as long as that of video tape? The next point is that the bit rate recorded on a DVD is considerably less than the bit rate recorded on a digital tape. Finally, how available is blank media when traveling?

I settled on a tape-based HD format camcorder. The tapes record a couple of minutes longer than an hour. They can be changed quickly and the camera is ready to go. Since the HD camcorder can record in standard definition mode, in a pinch, those tapes can be used.

In the past, I have encouraged cable technologists to experience video first-hand with a camcorder. I’m now upgrading that recommendation to the HD level. The cost, while not trivial, is surprisingly affordable.

wciciora@ieee.org

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