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HD video

Affordable new cameras take high-definition mainstream

April 23, 2007

High Definition basically means a sharper picture, delivered as a result of a higher-resolution video image. The format has been something of a television novelty since the 1980s, but there was no commercially available gear on which to record or watch HD video until the late 1990s.

The era of high-definition home movies has truly arrived.

Decima Research estimates that in 2007 the number of Canadian households viewing high-definition (HD) television will climb by about 30 per cent, from 650,000 to more than 850,000. But HD isn't just for watching anymore — now anyone with about $1,200 bucks and an artistic vision can make their own HD movies.

Until recently, High Definition video cameras were strictly for professionals. The low end of the price range in 2004 was around $75,000 — a tad steep for the average home videographer looking to document toddlers' birthday parties. However, manufacturers are now marketing HD camcorders designed specifically for the consumer market, and while there's still a premium to be paid, today there are several reasonably priced HD options for the casual moviemaker. They're popular, too, both with early adopters who want the latest, greatest thing, and with those who just want to make sure their videos will still look good when they watch them on an HDTV set 10 years from now.

Quote

'People are futureproofing their video by archiving in HD.'
- Fred Conkin, Vistek Camera

Fred Conkin, video sales manager at Vistek Camera in Toronto, says that HD camcorders are selling "very, very, briskly. People are futureproofing their video by archiving in HD."

What is High Definition?

High Definition basically means a sharper picture, delivered as a result of a higher-resolution video image. The format has been around as something of a television novelty since the 1980s, but there was no commercially available gear on which to record or watch HD video until the late 1990s.

There are several variants on the HD format, all of which are viewed in 16:9 aspect ratio, the rectangular format popularly known as "widescreen." The common variations include 1,080 progressively scanned lines of resolution (1080p), 1,080 interlaced lines (1080i), or 720 progressive (720p) lines.

In general, the more lines of resolution on a screen, the better the picture will look (standard definition TV in North America typically has just 480 lines of resolution).

Right now the low end for consumer HD camcorders is around $1,200 and you can spend up to $2,000 or so before getting into more sophisticated and costly "prosumer" gear.

Television works by continually updating the screen with new images far too quickly for the human eye to see the intervening gaps. It's here that the difference between interlaced and progressive scan comes into play. Interlaced means that only half the lines on the screen change whenever the screen is refreshed. With a progressive scan, the entire screen is updated with each refresh, providing an even clearer picture but also requiring more storage space, transmission bandwidth and video-processing horsepower.

At the moment, there are no consumer-level HD camcorders on the market that shoot in 1080p - 1,080 lines of resolution refreshed with a progressive scan. Although there are relatively low-priced HD offerings that shoot in 720p and deliver a very good image, 1080i represents the highest quality available in both consumer display screens and cameras at the moment. Buyers may want to look at the various devices that shoot in 1080i if they want to get the highest possible quality from their investment over the long term.

HD Formats

The first consumer HD cameras used a format called HDV (short for High Definition Video), which was jointly developed by JVC and Sony and is supported by other manufacturers, notably Canon. HDV records compressed HD video onto the same mini-DV tape that's used by standard mini-DV cams.

In the past year however, several cameras have been released by Sony and Panasonic using a newer format called AVCHD (Advanced Video Codec High Definition), which records onto hard drives, DVD, or SD and Memory Stick Pro storage cards.

The main advantage of the non-tape formats is that the user has instant access to any part of the recording, and is spared the inconvenience of having to fast-forward or rewind tape to find specific scenes. It's also quicker to download from a hard-drive-based camera to a computer hard drive than it is to transfer recordings off a tape to a PC.

The main advantage of the non-tape formats is that the user has instant access to any part of the recording, and is spared the inconvenience of having to fast-forward or rewind tape to find specific scenes.

The downside is that if you're planning to do any serious video editing, none of the popular computer video editing and special effects software — such as Avid, Final Cut or Pinnacle — are yet compatible with AVCHD. Editing has to be done either on the camera, or using whatever software is provided by the manufacturer, meaning that you'll be far more limited in terms of how fancy you can make your videos if you record in this format.

While several editing software companies have promised AVCHD-ready upgrades in the near future, as yet no dates have been announced. On the other hand, most consumer video-editing software already supports the HDV format (although you should always check before you buy a particular package).

At present Sony has consumer HD camera models in both HDV and AVCHD formats. Canon offers only HDV, and Panasonic only AVCHD.

System requirements for editing on a PC

If editing your video on a computer is important to you, be aware that HD takes a lot more computing power to edit — and a lot more hard drive space to store — than standard-definition video. Experts suggest a dual-core processor with two gigabytes of RAM, a graphics card with at least 128 megabytes of memory, and a 200GB or bigger hard drive. If your machine is more than two years old, you'd probably be wise to invest in a new computer or some serious upgrades before trying to edit HD footage at home.

Can you afford it?

Right now the low end for consumer HD camcorders is around $1,200 and you can spend up to $2,000 or so before getting into more sophisticated and costly "prosumer" gear. That represents a premium of anywhere from $500 to $1,000 over standard-definition camcorders with comparable features.

HD results

Is the higher-quality picture worth the extra cost? Well, every camera is different, but in a word I'd say yes. If you're going to be watching your videos on a High Definition set, you'll notice a huge difference in image quality if your movies are recorded in HD rather than the standard-definition format. The difference is so noticeable that most camera stores that sell consumer HD camcorders will have a camera and monitor set up for viewing so that you can make up your own mind as to whether the difference is worth the extra outlay of cash.

It's a virtual certainty that the technology will continue to catch on, and within a few years, HD will likely become the standard for all camcorders. For the time being, however, it's up to each individual to decide whether it's worth some inconvenience and additional cost in order to be an early adopter of the technology. It looks great, but the cost of cameras will almost certainly come down even more in the coming months.

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