New HD camcorder format explained

Some would say that we need another camcorder format like we need a hole in the head -- enough different formats out there confuse buyers already. Camcorder manufacturers seem to disagree, though: Panasonic, Sony, and others have recently announced a new format for high-definition camcorders called AVCHD.

So what does this new format mean?

High definition in small spaces

The new AVCHD format (the acronym doesn't seem to stand for anything) records high-definition 1080i or 720p video to a DVD, a hard drive, or a flash memory card (the manufacturer chooses which media type it wants to use for each different model).

Sony was the first company to announce actual products supporting AVCHD. The company just released details of two new camcorders that record high-definition video in the new format. One camcorder (the US$1,400 HDR-UX1) records to DVDs, while the other (the US$1,500 HDR-SR1) records video to a 30GB hard drive.

The video is compressed using the MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 standard, which greatly compresses the video without losing much in the way of quality. The audio is compressed using the Dolby Digital AC-3 or the Linear PCM (Pulse Coded Modulation) standard -- each standard allows for up to eight channels of surround sound, while also keeping the file size small.

Sharp-eyed readers will notice that these are the same compression methods used for movies on Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD; it's obvious that the designers have decided to share technologies. You'll find more technical details about the format on the AVCHD Web site.

What's the catch?

This all sounds good so far: We've got high-def video and high-quality sound in a format that doesn't take up much space. But it does take more space than standard-definition video. According to Sony, the maximum amount of sound and video you'll be able to fit on a single-layer DVD using the DCR-UX1 at the maximum quality setting is a meager 15 minutes. Standard-def DVD camcorders can hold around 20 minutes at their maximum quality. You'll be able to increase that to an hour on the Sony HDR-UX1 by lowering the quality and using the recently announced double-layer 8cm DVD discs, but how well the quality holds up at the lower-quality settings remains to be seen.

Another wrinkle comes when you want to do something with the video: The new format is incompatible with existing high-definition camcorders and editing systems. At the moment, most software will be unable to read the discs or files that the new camcorders produce.

That limitation will ease, though: A number of video software companies have signed up to support the AVCHD format, including Adobe, Sonic, and Ulead. They will offer programs that support the new format (and will perhaps update their existing products to do the same), though none have released details about when this will happen. Sony Japan will include a basic video editing program with the new camcorders, and one hopes Sony US will do the same.

So for the first generation of products, the video editing choices are going to be limited; however, options will appear down the line.

Sony also claims that you'll be able to watch footage recorded on an AVCHD camcorder to DVD on both Blu-ray Disc players and the forthcoming PlayStation 3. The discs won't be compatible with older DVD players, though -- most won't have the processing power to decompress the MPEG-4 video. Both Panasonic and Sony are planning to license the technology, however; so we will probably see AVCHD-compatible DVD players from them and other manufacturers shortly.

One major advantage of the new format is that you won't need an expensive Blu-ray Disc or HD DVD burner to use it: Because you can store the video on the same standard DVDs you already use, you can use the same DVD burner. All you'll need is the new software to write the video out in the correct format and an AVCHD-compatible player.

Future features

So what does the future hold for AVCHD? Well, it depends on how widespread the support is for the new format. People won't buy the new camcorders if they can't watch and edit the video they shoot, so the companies behind AVCHD have to make sure that the players and software are available, as well as the camcorders.

Sony's two new models are scheduled to arrive this fall -- September for the DVD-based UX1, and October for the hard-drive-based SR1 -- which doesn't leave much time for the pieces to fall into place. Until they do, the new AVCHD camcorders will be for early adopters only.

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Richard Baguley

PC World
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