Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Real vs. Vapor

I had a chance to spend time at Sony and Red on the NAB show floor today, along with a return visit to Panasonic. Here are a few thoughts on what I saw:

  • Red: If the Red booth had been a conference room in a hotel, the Fire Marshall would have closed it down. Attendees were packed in like sardines. The Red One is definitely real; there were several being demonstrated, and many satisfied customers were in attendance. On the other hand, the Scarlet, Epic and Red Ray were vapor; each product was in a glass case, and none of them was functional in the least.

  • Sony: Unlike previous NABs, Sony came with a full suite of real (or nearly real) cameras. In my opinion, the PMW-EX3, which will ship this summer, is the real deal. It adds several features to the EX1, the most important of which is interchangeable lenses (which perhaps means not as much as it might, since Sony is introducing its own proprietary lens mount, although an adapter will allow some 2/3" lenses to be used with the 1/2" EX3.) The other huge thing that Sony has addressed is ergonomics; the EX1 was widely reported to be highly uncomfortable to hold for any length of time. The EX3 is designed to be very easily shoulder-mounted. There were several operational EX3s in the booth, configured for handheld, studio and cinematography applications.

  • Panasonic: The company's hot new announcement, the AVCHD HMC150, was a non-functioning mockup made to look like it was operating. (A product manager explained that "...it isn't shipping for six months," to explain why it looked like it was working when it wasn't.) I asked him about the relative performance problems to date with AVCHD vs. HDV--it's been widely reported that while under ideal conditions, the two formats look very similar, but when things get suboptimal, such as low lighting and motion, HDV still looks better. The product manager challenged my statement, and asked me to "find the artifacts" in a perfectly lit video with little motion. I told him that I couldn't find any, but I didn't expect to.
He then whipped out a chip with what he told me were many samples of AVCHD footage that would disprove my contention. The first (and only) clip that he showed me was of a backyard barbeque, again with lots of light and, for the most part, little motion. He told me how wonderful the footage looked, ignoring the motion artifacts visible when the camera moved. However, when I asked him if he had any low-light footage, he took his chip out and put it away, telling me that "low light is a problem with the camera, not the compression." I rest my case.

Now, I have no doubt that Panasonic will eventually deliver the camera (let's not forget that the first P2 prototypes shown at NAB were made of balsa wood, but they delivered cameras in time for the next year's show.) However, I'll still take a strong "show-me" position on AVCHD. I'd love it to be as good as (or preferably better than) HDV, but I'll believe it when I see it.
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