Are HD camcorders ready?

Making HD movies is rather different than watching them, and there are several good reasons why it might still be too soon to go high def for your home movies.

The Sony HDR-HC1 has been a big seller since it was launched in July 2005. If you're planning on buying a new camcorder, you're probably considering it, even though it's expensive (US$1,600 to US$2,000, depending on where you buy). It shoots video in the same high-definition 1080i resolution that you get from an HD cable or satellite TV service. It records that video using a new format called High Definition Video, or HDV, which can store video at up to 1080i resolution on the same MiniDV tapes that standard-definition MiniDV camcorders use.

Normally I'm all in favor of embracing new technologies, but HD video is, if you'll excuse the pun, part of a bigger picture. Going from a standard-definition camcorder to a high-definition model involves some factors that you should understand before you take the plunge. I'm not saying that you shouldn't buy an HD camcorder, but you need to know that making HD home movies involves more than just buying a fancy new video camera.

Equipment costs

HD video is still a new technology, and the camcorders that shoot it aren't cheap. The Sony HDR-HC1 is the least expensive, but that's not saying a whole lot. If you want to go pro, you could invest US$9,000 in a Canon XL H1, a high-end camcorder that offers the sort of features that professionals use, like variable frame rates, a huge range of shooting modes, and much more control over how the image is recorded than you get from a consumer camcorder. Those prices look even higher when you consider that you can pick up a decent standard-definition MiniDV camcorder like the Canon Elura 80 for well under US$500.

Editing HD video

Working with the video that camcorders like the Sony HDR-HC1 produce can be a serious business: HD video contains four times the number of pixels that standard-definition video does, and it's much more heavily compressed. You need a powerful computer with plenty of memory to deal with this extra data and compression. For example, Pinnacle recommends a minimum of 512MB of system memory and a graphics card with 128MB of RAM for standard-resolution video, but that goes up to 1GB of system memory and a 256MB graphics card for working with 1080i HD video. That's a minimum requirement--the more memory, the merrier. And you'll need a speedy PC to edit HD video: I wouldn't touch it on anything less than a 2-GHz or faster machine, and the new dual-core chips from Advanced Micro Devices and Intel make a big difference.

There is plenty of software that supports editing high-def video, though. For example, the latest versions of Pinnacle Studio and Ulead MediaStudio Pro 8 can both import and edit files in HDV format. (Adobe's consumer-level video editing app Premiere Elements does not support editing HD video at the moment.)

But, to be fair, the HDR-HC1 can convert the footage you record from high definition to standard definition when you play it back, so if your computer can't handle HD video, you can record it in HD on the camcorder, then capture and edit it at standard definition, preserving the high-definition version for the future when you have a computer that's fast enough to work with it.

Playback time

Although the high-definition video that these camcorders produce looks great when you play it back on an HDTV, at present there is no way to store HD video on a DVD. The only way to store HD video for playback is on your PC or on the same media that you used in your HD camcorder.

A new generation of high-definition optical media formats are coming soon. Products based on the HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc formats are very expensive, however, and will remain so for the near future. HD-DVD players were announced at CES that will cost US$499 and up; they'll be available in March. But you'll also need a new rewritable HD-DVD drive to write to the discs, which will cost you as much again. The story is the same with Blu-ray Disc: The players and recorders are going to be expensive for the time being.

There is one other option, though: KiSS recently announced a DVD player (the DP-600) that can play back high-definition files that have been compressed to Microsoft's Windows Media 9 format, so that could at least provide a stop-gap until the price of the HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc players and writers fall to a reasonable level. And you can always play back the recorded video through the camcorder itself: Just don't expect to be able to write it out to disc with current equipment and preserve its quality.

The bottom line

HD camcorders are still cutting-edge technology: Some of the pieces of the puzzle are not yet in place. And making HD movies is about more than just pointing an HDV camcorder at your subject and shouting "action!" It involves big changes to the way you shoot, edit, and play back videos, and you should understand these before you start shooting.

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Richard Baguley

PC World
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