Sunday, July 23, 2006

HD Power to the People (Part 1)

Last week, Sony announced five new camcorders, two of which comply with the new AVCHD standard for high definition video recording that I wrote about a few months ago. The Sony HDR-UX1, which will sell for approximately $1,400 and ship in September, uses 8cm single- and dual-layer DVDs to allow as much as 30 minutes of recording at the highest quality (12Mbits or 15Mbits/second, depending on which part of the Sony specifications you read.) The HDR-SR1, which will be priced at approx. $1,500 when it ships in October, is essentially the same camcorder, except that it records video and audio on a 30GB hard drive instead of a DVD. The HDR-SR1’s recording time at maximum quality is 4 hours.

Both camcorders can record 1080i video using MPEG4 AVC/H.264 compression. No software video editor vendors have yet announced versions that will support the AVCHD format, but Sony, Adobe, Sonic Systems and Ulead have all announced corporate support for the format. Apple is not yet part of the AVCHD group, but Final Cut Pro can already edit H.264 video. (Panasonic will probably be in the market with a flash memory-based AVCHD camcorder by or shortly after Christmas 2006. Apple and Panasonic are close collaborators on video editing, so I’d expect the companies to announce their AVCHD-compatible products together.)

AVCHD mini-DVDs will be playable on Blu-Ray players, but since the DVDs themselves are readable by existing DVD drives, PCs with DVD drives will only need a player software upgrade in order to be able to play AVCHD discs. (Owners of standalone DVD (and, probably, HD DVD) players are out of luck.)

$1,400 to $1,500 is far from cheap for consumer camcorders (and video pros who got a sneak preview of Sony’s new camcorders say that they’re clearly consumer, not “prosumer”, products.) However, these are the first products in a new format, which means that they’re going to be at the high end of future pricing. Canon, Pioneer, Samsung and Sharp have also signed on to support AVCHD, so I expect to see camcorders with similar specs to the ones announced by Sony to be available for around $1,000 or less by Christmas 2007.

Until the first reviews of actual shipping hardware are out, it’s impossible to say with certainty what compromises AVCHD users will have to wrestle with. Image quality is a real question, because AVC/H.264 encoders have required a lot of computing power—will the UX1 and SR1 have the horsepower to do the job? What about HDV? Until the announcement of AVCHD, HDV was clearly the de facto consumer HD camcorder standard. (In fact, the first two members of the HDR family, the HC1 and HC3, are tape-based HDV camcorders.) Will Sony reserve HDV for more expensive prosumer and professional camcorders? (Panasonic doesn’t support HDV, so AVCHD doesn’t present a conflict, but Canon is one of the leading HDV camcorder suppliers.) How about editing? It took a while for good HDV editing software to become widely available, and the MPEG2 compression used in HDV is much easier to edit than MPEG4.

Whatever the answers are to these questions, AVCHD appears to be the vehicle that Sony, Panasonic and others will use to drive HD camcorder prices down to the Wal-Mart/Target level. However, there’s a lot more to making good videos than just HD, so in part 2 of this article, I’ll discuss what else is needed for the next golden age of consumer video.

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