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Tapeless cameras and formats compared

Ahh the tapeless revolution. Just like high definition it would change the video world as we know it. So, has it? In a manner of speaking yes, it has. For those that have used a tapeless camera system going back to tape is a painful idea. The trouble is that while more and more stations are buying into tapeless acquisition, for the freelancer investing in one of these cameras can still be a dicey business. If however you are a closed shop, hired to produce and edit programmes in house before delivery then investing in a tapeless camera system makes very good sense indeed. If you choose the one that is right for you!

There is a myriad of choice out there at the moment, and more systems are being developed as I write this. So I thought I would give you all a rundown of the current players, or will be in the running very soon. Yes, I know I will receive a hundred emails or so asking why I haven't included Red in this. Frankly there are a couple of issues that I am waiting to be sorted out with it before I even consider putting it on the list. I won't say any more than that.

Right on with the show. The two major players at the moment in the tapeless war are Sony's XDCAM and Panasonic's P2 system. As anyone who hasn't been living under a rock for the past 4 years knows XDCAM records to an optical disc while P2 records to a solid state card much like a digital stills camera. Another new player on the block is Grass Valley with their Infinity system. This one has been on the cards for a while now and has suffered a number of delays. Originally scheduled to ship in 2006, the Infinity camera is now available.

XDCAM (disc based)

This is perhaps the most well known system, and indeed the one that I use personally. The XDCAM system was launched late 2003, and was made available for sale in early 2004. Footage is recorded to a dust sealed optical disc. Current discs are 23GB single layer and 50GB dual layer in capacity. The drive unit inside the XDCAM camera is mounted on a shock damped mount, as well as being equipped with a large memory cache. The effectiveness of this system is now well known, and as users will testify it is nigh on impossible to cause a dropout of any kind. In fact the XDCAM cameras have kept on going in situations where tape based cameras have become unthreaded due to the forces involved.

The discs themselves are 12cm in diameter and are held within a dust sealed cartridge. The surface of the actual disc is highly durable, and in the case of the TDK discs is harder than diamond. This means that scratching the disc surface is highly unlikely (if not impossible!). If for some reason the surface of the disc did become damaged, the XDCAM system incorporates highly sophisticated error correction. If anything untoward happens this error correction will attempt to recover all of your footage. If this fails it will attempt to recover all footage that is not on the damaged area of the disc.

The XDCAM series is available in both standard definition and high definition variants. The PDW-510 and the PDW-530 are the standard definition cameras in the range. These are 2/3" 16:9 CCD true progressive scan capable. The 510 is the base camera, recording to the DVCAM codec. SDI out is available as an option for 4:2:2 10-bit recording to an external device if required. When recording to the disc the 510 can record up to 85mins of footage. The 530 records to the IMX MPEG format as well as DVCAM. MPEG IMX is an intraframe variant of MPEG2 recording at up to 50Mb/sec enabling around 45mins of footage per disc at the highest quality setting.

For the high definition range there is the PDW-F330, the PDW-F350, the PDW-335 and the PDW-F355, all using 1440x1080 interline transfer 1/2" CCD's. Soon to be available is the PDW-700 422 variation using 2/3" progressive scan CCD's. All of these high definition versions record to MPEG Long GOP codecs. The 1/2" series records at a 18Mb/sec variable bitrate, 25Mb/sec constant bitrate, and a maximum of 35Mb/sec using variable bitrate encoding with 4:2:0 colour sampling, giving around 60mins of footage per disc at the highest quality setting. while the forthcoming PDW-700 will record to a maximum of 50Mb/sec constant bit rate with 4:2:2 colour sampling. The PDW-F355 and the 422 camerasl use a new faster drive system that is capable of transferring footage at almost twice the current datarates. Although this capability may not be functional when first released.

The PDW-F350 and the PDW-F355 both have variable framerate abilities. Framerates can be selected in single frame increments from 4-50 or 60fps (depending on whether the camera is in 50hz or 60hz mode). In camera speed ramping is not possible, and framerates above the base rate drop resolution by half. This drop in resolution, while noticeable, still cuts in very well without any unwanted effects within the full 1080 resolution footage recorded with the camera.

Many users are put off by the use of 1/2" sensors in this range of cameras. However it must be noted that the real world performance is actually somewhere between a 1/2" and a 2/3" camera. This is due to the way that Sony have managed to increase the usuable area of the CCD's much further to the edges than was previously possible.

If there are any doubts as to the quality and acceptance of 1/2" XDCAM footage look no further than the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, both of which have approved the cameras for unrestricted acquisition for many types of programming after torture testing the footage throughout post grading and the broadcast chain. 

General features of all XDCAM cameras include the ability to playback clips instantly with a press of a button, delete bad takes straight after recording, add shotmarks for interesting events, as well as the ability to precisely name individual clips. Alongside the full resolution clips, the XDCAM system simultaneously creates low resolution proxy files. These enable faster transfer to an editing system for an 'offline' edit or logging before conforming, and are small enough to be either emailed, or placed on a DVD for edit previews. In some circumstances they could also be broadcast for a breaking news story.

XDCAM is supported directly by all the major NLE manufacturers and XDCAM equipment can be connected via Firewire (iLink) in File Access Mode, which makes the device behave like an external drive, by Ethernet, or in the latest cameras via USB2.

Each XDCAM disc has 500MB reserved for general files, although Sony has always maintained in its white papers that a data variation of XDCAM is on the cards. Thus once a project is completed the final EDL's and graphics etc used in the project can be backed up to the XDCAM disc alongside the original footage if required. If a data variation ever sees the day it will mean that there will be a solid way to back up all types of footage and files for all types of usage.

Recently Sony will released the PDW-U1 drive unit. This is a stand alone external XDCAM drive that will accept all XDCAM formats. The U1 uses the same ultra fast drive system as the PDW-355 and PDW-700 cameras and provides a compact, portable way for production houses that are not equipped with XDCAM equipment to edit footage from this system. The drive will also make it easy for existing 1/2" XDCAM operators to edit footage from the PDW-700 should they need to hire one in for an individual job. 

Pros

  • Inexpensive recording media.
  • Extremely robust and reliable.
  • Easy to use and intuitive.
  • Easy to keep the original footage.
  • Format is widely supported.
  • Multiple manufacturers of XDCAM discs mean that the prices of the recording media keep on falling.
  • Thoroughly proven in the field. 

Cons

  • Slower transfer speed than solid state.
  • Loss of resolution in variable framerate overcrank modes on the 1/2" cameras.
  • Fairly high power draw.
  • 1/2" mount on some models limits lens choice.

XDCAM (solid state)

Another recent development for XDCAM has been the EX system. This is the first in a new series of XDCAM cameras that records to solid state SxS Express Cards. The EX  is Sony's first foray into the world of solid state recording.

Using a form factor similar to the Z1 the EX not only records to solid state memory cards, but it also features a truly manual lens. Until now cameras of this type have been equipped with servo driven lenses. This is fine for hobbiests who may prefer to use the auto functions on such cameras. However one of the EX's main jobs will be to function as a B-camera to existing XDCAM setups. As such the type of professional who will be using this camera demands the use of a real manual lens, with focus and zoom markings and stops, as well as compatibility with focus pulling units. And this is exactly what Sony have given the camera.

The first camera in the EX lineup, the PMW-EX1 can record to two SxS cards. One single 8Gb card can hold up to 28 minutes of 35Mbps VBR footage. Although the price differential between SxS and P2 cards is not huge, a lot more footage can be stored on SxS albeit with higher compression.

The PMW-EX1 uses 3 1/2" CMOS sensors giving the camera a performance level that is equivilent, and in some cases better than the full size 1/2" disc based cameras. The EX1 also records to a full 1920x1080 resolution compared to 1440x1080 on the disc cameras. In addition the EX1 does not lose resolution in progressive scan modes, and can record variable framerate footage at 720p.

As an indication of the performance of the EX1 compared to the 1/2" disc based HD cameras, the EX1 can resolve a full 1000 TV lines as shot on a high grade resolution chart, while the best the 1/2" disc based HD cameras can manage in progressive scan with the shutter turned on is 800 TV lines.

When the forthcoming PDW-U1 drive is write enabled after the first firmware update there will be an established and reliable way to backup footage recorded with the EX onto dual layer XDCAM discs, and thus an easy way to hand over footage to clients.

Pros

  • No moving parts.
  • Extremely robust and reliable.
  • MPEG compression allows high recording times.
  • 1/2" chips are a first for this level of camera.

Cons.

  • Backup of footage still an issue, but this will change in 2008.
  • Expensive initial media costs.

Panasonic P2

P2 is the main rival to XDCAM, and was the first tapeless solid state recording system to market. Using SD type memory technology in proprietry form P2 suffered on first release due to high initial ownership costs. Panasonic have made efforts to redress this balance recently with the introduction of its AVCintra 10-bit colour codec which doubles the recording time available on the cards for compatible cameras.

P2 was first released in 2004, the same time as XDCAM. The first camera in the P2 range was the standard definition AJ-SPX800, which recorded to both DVCPRO 50/25. other cameras such as the AJ-SPC700 followed before the P2 line too went high definition, first with the Prosumer AG-HVX200 and then the AJ-HPX2000.

Because solid state recording contains no moving parts there is even less probability of recording errors than disc based systems. The only disadvantage with a purely solid state system is when it comes to backup and archive, so these factors should be considered.

All of Panasonics full size P2 camcorders are based around 2/3" CCD chips. In 2007 they released the AG-HPX500 which was designed as an entry level shoulder mount camera. It too uses 2/3" CCD's using pixel shifting on both the x and y axis to achieve 1080 resolution.

P2 does not appear to have the same logging and clip naming abilities as XDCAM. Instead the P2 system behaves more like a traditional digital photography workflow. Although Panasonic will surely develop things as time goes on.

The biggest difference between XDCAM and P2, aside from disc vs solid state, is that XDCAM is a workflow system while P2 is a data transfer system. Both systems have their merits and the ultimate choice comes down to how you prefer to work. My personal feeling is that while both systems are suited to large organisations with structures in place, XDCAM is more suited to independents and freelancers by virtue of its disposable recording media. P2 is more suited for larger organisations who may be using centralised networked servers.

Pros

  • No moving parts.
  • Extremely robust and reliable.
  • Field proven.
  • Potential for low power consumption.
  • 2/3" across the professional range increases lens choice at native focal lengths.
  • Widely supported.

Cons.

  • No standard workflow routine.
  • Expensive initial media costs.
  • Not as manageable for independents and freelancers.
  • Backup and archive cost.

Grass Valley Infinity

The DMC-1000 Digital Media Camcorder is Grass Valley's foray into the world of tapeless. The 1000 is their first untethered EFP style camcorder.

The Infinity series records to both solid state Compact Flash cards, as well as to Iomega RevPro drives. The latter are designed to be two-part hard drives designed in such a way that they can take an incredible amount of punishment without causing data errors.

While the Infinity cannot record to both media types simultaneously, the footage can be copied between them after recording. The use of Compact Flash is an interesting one since such cards are relatively inexpensive in comparison to both SxS and P2 systems. Similarly RevPro cartridges also compare well, presently being roughly twice the cost of an XDCAM disc.

The DMC-1000 camcorder is based around three 2/3" 'Xensium' CMOS sensors capable of a full 1920x1080 resolution. The camera can record to DV25, MPEG long GOP (by way of an option board), and importantly, to 10-bit 4:2:2 100Mbps JPEG2000 wavelett compression. It is capable of recording standard definition, 720p and 1080i. Interestingly Grass Valley have designed the camera to be able to take new compression codecs via expansion boards in the future. This promises a lot of versatility.

Connectivity includes USB2, Firewire, and Ethernet. Another addition is an HDMI port which will open up lots of possibilities for inexpensive on-set monitoring.

An innovative PDA wireless connection is available meaning that the camera can be set up, as well as footage logged, by a third party, even while the camera is recording.

Power consumption on the DMC-1000 is high (49w while recording and 40w on standby), and it is known to take a long time to be ready for recording after it has been switched on for the first time. However the DMC-1000 does have an attractive price point.

Pros

  • Inexpensive recording media.
  • Potentially robust and reliable recording media.
  • Easy to use and intuitive.
  • Easy to keep the original footage.
  • Versatile recording formats with the potential to add more in the future.
  • 10-bit recording ability.

Cons

  • Not totally field proven, yet.
  • High power draw.
  • No 24p mode, yet.
  • No definite CMOS specifications, could be using pixel shift from 1280x720 sensors to achieve 1920x1080.

Initial conclusions

This is in no way an exhaustive comparison, and was intended mainly as a way to compare recording systems and workflows rather than cameras. However it is clear that tapeless recording video systems have a long way to go. The XDCAM system is by far the most mature as witnessed by the sheer choice of equipment. The system will develop further in 2008 to encompass new recording methods on the full size cameras, thus giving both the EX and standard XDCAM systems complete interoperability.

P2 on the other hand, as I mentioned, is more of a data storage and transfer system. Most new developments in this system come from new cameras rather than new workflow abilities. This is not a slight on P2, but just a side effect of what it is and what Panasonic are trying to achieve with it.

The Grass Valley Infinity series is as yet unproven across the board. While there are a few broadcasters buying into the system, it will be a while before we hear feedback from operators. Although Scott Billups appraisal of a pre-production model was very favourable indeed.

One of the drawbacks of the XDCAM system, for people performing freelance work that is, has always been whether the client can take the discs and ingest the footage. If the freelancer is also editing then there is no problem. However there have been a lot of cases whereby the XDCAM owner has had to transfer footage to another format so that their client can take the footage home with them.

The P2 system suffers from a similar problem, but in a different way. While footage can be kept safe on an XDCAM disc, with P2 either the client has to supply the cards to the freelancer, or the freelancer has to transfer footage during or at the end of the day. In other words, just like XDCAM, for freelancers the conundrum is the same. Can the client take my footage?

Grass Valley's system has the potential to solve this problem because RevPro drives are so inexpensive. The RevPro cartridges are also fairly cheap too. So it would not be too much of an expense for production houses to purchase a RevPro drive for when they work with the Infinity system.

Sony's solution for XDCAM is the PDW-U1 external drive. This has a lot of potential, but it is still, in my opinion, overpriced for what it is, and for what it is trying to achieve. Granted, the U1 is far, far cheaper than any deck, but I still feel that it could do with a price drop to help adoption, especially when newer features are announced in the coming weeks and months.

I think though that it would be pretty safe to invest in any of these formats. The XDCAM and P2 systems have been around since 2004 and are very widely supported. Even if both companies stopped manufacturing this equipment tomorrow there would still be wide support for a very long time afterwards because they are now so deeply entrenched.

Infinity may be slightly more precarious though. It is a bit early to tell how sales will go, and whether the camera will find success in the rigors of day to day shooting.

It is worth mentioning that these three systems are not the only players in town. On the consumer side there are AVCHD cameras, as well as Sony's new range of HDV cameras that are capable of recording to Compact Flash cards. On the professional side Ikegami have their Editcam system as well as their brand new GFCAM system that records to NAND Flash Memory and is based around a SATA interface. This system may be one to look out for as Ikegami have always done well outside of Europe. Unfortunately this system will never be avaialble in the UK for various reasons, which is a shame. Ikegami have always produced top notch equipment at attractive prices. Ikegami are promising to show a new archiving system to holographic media at NAB 2008. This system will utilise 300GB cartridges. If priced correctly these could provide a revolution for footage backup and archive.

The Flash Memory for the GFCAM system has a pretty neat feature of a small LCD remaining capacity guage on each card, as well as heavy error correction technology. No word yet on prices, although Ikegami claim that up to 128 minutes of footage can be stored on the current highest capacity 32GB card.

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