One for the Road
PV-DV910 Mini DV Camcorder
Panasonic Consumer Electronics
One Panasonic Way
Secaucus, NJ 07094
Now that the newness of the Mini DV videotape format has begun to wear off, camcorder manufacturers have begun to offer models that are more sedate, sensible and affordable. And why shouldn’t they? There isn’t any reason why a weekend video warrior can’t enjoy the benefits of the new format. It doesn’t cost substantially more for a manufacturer to produce DV camcorders than, say, an 8mm or Hi8 model.
The Panasonic PV-DV910 is a case in point. Though it certainly does pack quite a number of powerful features, it is undoubtedly aimed at the beginning-to-intermediate-level home camcorder enthusiast. Its compact size, ergonomic design and point-and-shoot operation recommend it for the video beginner, while the existence of an external microphone jack and DV IEEE 1394 digital input/output leave room for growth in the craft. Add a 3-inch flip-out LCD monitor, and you’ve got a consumer-level camcorder that’s packed with popular, useful and powerful features.
Though the PV-DV910 is a powerful and feature-packed camera, this reviewer must admit a few reservations about some of its modes of operation. Let’s take a closer look.
Zoom to the Moon
When you first slip the PV-DV910 into the palm of your hand, the immediate impression you get is one of comfort and easy access to controls. The large zoom rocker sits under the index and middle finger, while the power and record switches sit directly under the thumb. This may seem an insignificant point; after all, how many people buy camcorders based on how they feel in the palm of your hand? Nonetheless, once you’ve shot for three or four hours with a poorly designed camcorder, and your hand is cramped ten ways to Tuesday, you’ll probably begin to appreciate the benefits of a good ergonomic design.
Some of the controls–notably, those that the designers intended the user to operate with his or her left hand–are a little bit difficult to operate while shooting. The Menu button was especially annoying while shooting with the viewfinder instead of the LCD monitor. This is due mainly to the fact that you have to reach across your face to press the button, which is extremely awkward. The manual focus control, likewise, was a little difficult to manage due to its position directly below the lens. Once you get your finger on it, however, the manual focus wheel gives a good, smooth response that somewhat makes up for its awkward positioning on the camera.
The zoom control on the PV-DV910 offers an 18:1 optical range, which, selecting one of two digital zoom modes, boosts the zoom range to 36:1 or an incredible 300:1. At 36:1, images appear somewhat jagged-edged and noisy, but still usable for most hobbyist work. Above 36:1, the noise and pixellation increasingly break up the image. At 300:1, the picture is an absurd mess of blotchy, noisy pixels whose only perceivable use is as a special effect of some sort. This is normal for digital zoom on any model that more than double the image size. The reason Panasonic chose to increase the zoom to an unwatchable 300:1 is beyond our comprehension.
Audio (and More)
Audio recorded with the PV-DV910 came through crisp and clean in both the 12-bit and the 16-bit modes. The on-board stereo microphone was quite sensitive, but the inclusion of an external microphone jack really boosted the PV-DV910’s potential. This is especially true when you use the camera’s audio dub function, which (when recording in 12-bit mode) allows you to overlay narration or possibly even a musical background onto your videos.
One last annoying point about the design of the PV-DV910: the orientation of the tape eject system (the bottom of the camera). This makes it necessary to remove the camera from a tripod or from your hand before you can eject the tape. We could not even access the tape eject button without removing the tripod quick release plate. The reason for this probably was to decrease the overall camera size, but we’d guess that most people would rather have a slightly larger camera than one that makes it so difficult to eject the tape.
All in all, the PV-DV910 is a good choice for the beginning videographer who wants an easy-to-operate camcorder that will travel well and give plenty of room to grow in the craft. Prosumers might find themselves wishing for more resolution or perhaps a manual exposure control. The still-image capture function is a boon for Web enthusiasts and those who want to send pictures of the family via e-mail. In short, it’s a good choice for hobbyists. –JMc
SCL150 8mm Camcorder
105 Challenger Road
Ridgefield Park, NJ 7660-0511
With the rise of DV and the subsequent lowering of the going prices of Hi8 camcorders, you might think that the regular 8mm video market has seen some hard times. Not so–in fact, market pressures have created a situation in which a decent 8mm camcorder has become the camera of choice for the low-budget videographer. Samsung, a proponent of both new and old formats, has hung tight in the low-budget camcorder market with models like the SCL150, their latest top-of-the-line 8mm model.
Sporting a 3-inch LCD monitor as well as a black and white CRT viewfinder, digital picture effects, 64:1 digital zoom and all-automatic point-and-shoot controls for focus and exposure, the SCL150 targets beginning videographers. Its boxy appearance is reminiscent of earlier Samsung 8mm and Hi8 models. The company might do well in the future to upgrade the overall design of its cameras; their look and feel are a little outdated. Still, operation of the camera’s basic functions was simple, if a bit awkward.
Any camcorder that offers no way for the videographer to manually control the exposure or focus had better have an impressive autoexposure and autofocus system. In both regards, the SCL150 provides adequate performance. Slowly panning from a brightly-lit window scene to a poorly-lit interior shot, the SCL150 hunted only briefly for its setting before resolving a crisp scene. One very useful button found on the side of the SCL150 is the Focus Lock button, which will turn off the camera’s automatic focus system, effectively locking the current focal length into place. This is a nice feature, a taste of manual control in an otherwise point-and-shoot camera.
The SCL150 does include one limited way to control the exposure: a five-position Program AE dial, with settings for Sports, Portrait, Spotlight, Sand & Snow and Automatic. These settings significantly alter the appearance of the image while shooting; Portrait mode, for example, shortens the depth of field enough to throw the background out of focus, and Sports mode kicks up the shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second.
One of the first things you notice when you open the SCL150’s LCD monitor and begin shooting is that the image on the screen leaves a lot to be desired. Even the slightest camera movement leaves bright trails behind any lightly-colored object, and complex, colorful patterns look pixellated and choppy. For many shooting situations, the black-and-white CRT viewfinder might be a better choice.
Once the LCD is open, you might also notice that several of the camera’s controls become inaccessible when you place the monitor in its normal shooting position. The button that will probably cause the most grief is the picture effect button; to press it while shooting, you have to rotate the LCD monitor out about 30 degrees. In general, buttons and controls on the camera body are a little difficult to operate; the buttons in particular need a good hard push to get them to perform.
The picture effects themselves are an improvement over many earlier Samsung models. Available on the SCL150 are Mirror, Cinema (16:9 Letterbox) and Negative, whereas earlier Samsung 8mm models included only several types of Solarize-style effects.
When calculating the cost of purchasing the SCL150, factor in the price of an extra battery. The slim nickel-cadmium battery included in the box will operate the camera for about 20 minutes tops–less if you use the LCD screen frequently.
On the Bright Side
Images shot on the SCL150 have a warm overall tone, with minimal noise appearing in the darker portions of the scene. Resolution is average for a current-model 8mm camcorder–in other words, not very good. The capabilities of the 8mm format are much greater than what’s available in the average 8mm camcorder today. Manufacturers as a whole seem to have contented themselves with a "good-enough" approach for their latest 8mm camcorders, which is a shame.
Those who don’t anticipate a need or desire to adjust the focus or exposure themselves might be satisfied with the SCL150. Its main attraction is its low price, especially for a camera with an LCD monitor. Its main flaws are in it’s overall design and ease of use.
Short but Sweet
MCE 86 N(C)S Short Shotgun Microphone
56 Central Ave.
Farmingdale, NY 11735
We’ve said it many times before in the pages of this magazine: if you want to increase the production value of your videos, you’ve got to get yourself an external microphone. Of all the microphone types you can use with video, perhaps the most all-around useful variety is the shotgun microphone, because you can use it on a camera mount, on a fishpole or even hand-held with excellent results.
Beyerdynamic offers a "short" shotgun condenser microphone designed for the rigors of studio and on-location video and film production, the MCE 86 N(C)S. Targeted primarily at people who shoot video for a living, it offers battery power, light weight, rugged construction and a series of accessory mounting adapters for simple attachment to cameras, fishpoles or pistol grips.
The rugged physical construction of the MCE 86 N(C)S is one of the first things you notice when you take the microphone out of the box. Its aluminum body and Nextel finish give a feeling of security while shooting in adverse conditions (including those adverse conditions caused by fumble-fingered fishpole operators). Though Beyerdynamic did build the MCE 86 N(C)S with solid, reliable materials, it’s still quite light. Mounted on top of a camcorder, the MCE 86 N(C)S added very little to overall shooting weight, and it’s quite forgiving on those long sessions holding a microphone out over the talent in the studio.
The MCE 86 N(C)S has a balanced XLR-style connector, which means that you can use long cable throws without fear of increasing the noise caused by interference (if, of course, you plug it into a balanced input adapter).
The main reasons why videographers tend to prefer shotgun microphones over the standard hand-held variety are twofold: first, they have a highly directional (hypercardioid) pickup pattern, which means you can aim them at a subject several yards away and pick up only the audio coming from them, rejecting most of the environmental noise to the sides. Second, they tend to be very sensitive–which, combined with the directional pickup pattern, makes for an excellent solution when the microphone cannot be near the talent.
The MCE 86 N(C)S performs very admirably in these regards, picking up a clear audio signal from three to four yards away from the talent. When shooting on the sidewalk of a busy street, the microphone effectively reduced the sounds of the traffic zooming by to a dull murmur, as long as the videographer kept it pointed about 120 degrees away from the street.
Be cautioned about one thing, though: when you attach the MCE 86 N(C)S (or any other shotgun microphone) to a small camcorder (we used a mid-level DV camcorder), you may have to be careful when you shoot wide-angle shots, because the microphone tends to show up in the top of the frame. This is easy enough to remedy if you use Beyerdynamic’s EA 86 elastic suspension mount, which allows you to slide the microphone backward or forward. The EA 86 elastic suspension mount, which is supplied with the mike, also effectively cancels hand noise from the camera. One minor problem with the mount, however: it had a tendency to slide loose from the camera’s accessory shoe, requiring a small piece of wood or paper to be inserted as a shim to keep it in place. This problem, of course, might also depend on the camcorder’s shoe mount.
On the whole, the performance of the MCE 86 N(C)S was very good. The tonal quality of voices it recorded was crisp, clean and true to life. The price might seem high, but bear in mind that shotgun microphones of this quality don’t ever come cheap. Those who strive for professionalism in their video productions might consider a purchase like the MCE 86 N(C)S a good investment that’s sure to pay dividends–especially when you consider that it’s rugged enough to outlive a number of lesser quality microphones.
Another Performer from FAST
DVMaster Pro DV Capture Board
15029 Woodinville-Redmond Rd.
Woodinville, WA 98072
Back in September of 1997, Videomaker published a review of the FAST DV Master. At the time, it was the only DV video capture board on the market; since then, the DV capture marketplace has grown, and the DV Master has gone through several software upgrades.
In this issue, we’ll take a fresh look at the DV Master Pro, FAST’s latest incarnation of its top-of-the-line DV capture product. Targeted primarily at advanced hobbyists and video professionals, the DV Master Pro’s main selling point is the inclusion of the Sony DVBK-1 hardware codec on the board. This explains the price discrepancy between it and several other inexpensive DV/FireWire capture boards. With the hardware codec, it’s possible to digitize analog video from Hi8, S-VHS or virtually any other analog source, compress it using the DV codec and output the results via FireWire to DV tape. Another benefit of the hardware DV codec: significantly shorter rendering times.
Out of the box, the DV Master Pro appears identical to the earlier version of the hardware. The only difference between the DV Master Pro and the DV Master is in the software that comes with the board. Most impressive among the new software is in:sync’s Speed Razor DV nonlinear editing package, which has the unique advantage of being able to work in the native DV file format instead of converting the DV files to Video for Windows files for editing.
Installation of the DV Master Pro was very simple. Everything worked perfectly on the first try, and the instructions in the manual were straightforward and easy to understand.
The installation software places a handful of programs into their own folder on the Start menu. The most important among these is DV Manager, a very useful tool that includes controls for viewing, capturing, recording and arranging clips. Also included in DV Manager is FireWire-based device control, which allows the user to control all of the transport functions of the DV device connected to the board. One of the more interesting controls gives you the ability to place an index mark on the tape that’s in your deck or camcorder, then return to that mark at any time. This simplifies the capturing of clips almost–but not quite–as much as a batch-capturing system.
A curious thing about the DV Manager interface is the Edit pull-down menu, which at the time of this review contained nothing whatsoever. The DV Master Pro manual states that this menu is reserved for future upgrades of the software; might we see a full-blown edit control for hybrid editing capabilities? The possibilities are intriguing. As it is, the DV Manager allows you to perform a very simple form of cuts-only editing by capturing a handful of clips, re-arranging their order, then recording the sequence back to tape via FireWire. When the clips on this playback list are ready to go, the DV Manager offers the option of preparing a RAM cache for seamless playback–a nice option that ensures glitch-free operation. If your hard drive can sustain a 4-megabyte-per-second playback rate, then this option will rarely (if ever) be necessary, but it’s nice to know it’s there in case you need it.
Render That Timeline
Our Benchmarks test computer–133MHz Pentium, 32MB RAM, Wide SCSI-2 Seagate Cheetah capture drive–is the bare-bones minimum system that FAST claims is necessary to run the DV Master Pro. More often than not, the minimum system requirements recommended by video capture board manufacturers is actually a little bit below what’s actually required; not so for the DV Master Pro. Our test system operated flawlessly with the DV Master Pro installed. It never crashed or dropped a frame, and even offered decent render times. Rendering a simple wipe, for example, required roughly two seconds per frame (about a minute for a one-second transition). Titles took a bit longer, requiring closer to four seconds per frame to render. Naturally, systems with faster processors and more RAM will perform much better, but even our minimal system produced workable results.
The DV Master Pro still retains most of the minor flaws it had when we reviewed its predecessor over a year ago. The fact that FAST chose to use +-inch phone jacks for headphones and audio may be inconvenient for the consumer. (At least they were good enough to include the required adapters for the more common RCA-style and 1/8-inch jacks.) One significant flaw, however, which has been remedied since the earlier review is the price. We’re very glad to see that the competition in the marketplace has brought the price of the DV Master and DV Master Pro down to more reasonable levels. To anyone who is looking for a high-quality nonlinear DV editing solution, we give the DV Master Pro an enthusiastic recommendation.
What’s the Buz?
Buz Multimedia Producer Video Capture Board
($199 PC, $299 Macintosh)
1821 West Iomega Way
Roy, UT 84067
As technology advances, the average price of video capture boards continues to drop. While just two years ago it was hard to find a full-frame, full-speed capture board for under $1,000, today you can find them for under $300. Iomega, a company best known for its popular removable media products, has jumped into the low-cost digital video capture board market with the introduction of the Buz Multimedia Producer for the PC and the Macintosh G3.
The Buz Multimedia Producer is a good, low-cost nonlinear editing system for the video hobbyist or home movie producer. Buz consists of a PCI capture board with an onboard MJPEG codec. The capture board also has a high-performance Ultra-SCSI host adapter ideally suited for Iomega’s Jaz and Zip drives. The system includes a video and audio breakout box, called the Buz Box, that moves the audio and video input and output connections around to the front of the computer where they are easier to reach. The Buz comes bundled with MGI’s VideoWave software, but any video editing software should work fine.
The Buzz About Buz
The Buz Box has composite video, S-video and stereo audio inputs and outputs. Although the audio input and output is handled through the Buz Box, the system uses the host computer’s sound card to process the audio. The Buz Box connects to the sound card with two mini stereo plugs. The plug for the Buz Box’s audio output is a pass-through connector. To install the Buz Box, you remove the speaker plug from the sound card and plug it into the Buz Box pass-through connector. You then plug the other end of the pass-through connector into the audio output of the sound card. The pass-through connector allows both the sound card output and the Buz Box audio output to go to the computer’s speakers.
Installation of the Buz software was an easy matter, taking just under five minutes. After the software installation was complete, the program played a short video that demonstrated, step-by-step, how to install the hardware. This made hardware installation very simple. One caveat: if you intend to use the Buz SCSI controller for your capture drive, you will need two free IRQs.
On the Bench
We tested the Buz on a Pentium 133MHz CPU with 32MB of RAM and a Matrox Mystique video display board with 4MB of video memory. Our test video source was the S-VHS output of a Mini DV camcorder, and the capture drive we used was Iomega’s own Jaz drive, which is a drive Iomega recommends using. The Buz will work with other faster and larger SCSI drives and the quality should only improve.
The Buz worked almost seamlessly with the bundled VideoWave software for capture, editing and playback. To begin our test, we accessed the capture options menu and set the capture size to 720×480 at a 30fps (frame per second) rate. There were eight preview choices available with varying settings for previewing the footage on the VGA monitor as it’s captured. Our first attempt at using the Buz board produced no output to NTSC through the S-VHS or composite outputs. After a little experimenting, we changed the preview setting to overlay mode and got NTSC output (both S-VHS and composite) to our video monitor and full-speed monitoring in a small window of the computer’s VGA screen during playback. The VGA preview was sharp and full-speed. We captured two minutes of footage onto the Jaz drive and it didn’t drop any frames. The playback was good quality about equal to VHS. We did notice some digital artifacts in the images. Some of the diagonal lines were slightly jagged and tight patterns in clothing developed mild distortion.
To remedy this, we decided to change the compression ratio. We checked the board’s capture settings and found that compression is set by changing the data size-per-frame (spf) adjustment. The lower settings had less data per frame (more compression) and the larger settings had more data per frame (less compression). We tried capturing several files of the same footage at different size-per-frame settings. The test footage included patterns (in clothing), lines (in furniture) and fast camera movements (pans). We noticed that at low spf settings the captures footage had much smoother movements with normal-looking fast pans, but the lines looked jagged and patterns were distorted. At higher size-per-frame levels, the lines didn’t look as jagged and the clothing patterns were not distorted. The Buz also had problems with fast pans at very high spf settings (low compression). During fast pans, the images would distort slightly, and the Buz would drop some frames. The Buz also started dropping an occasional frame when the spf was set very high. There is enough variation in the spf settings (from 30 to 100) to allow users to find what works best for the footage they’re capturing. Over all, the quality of the footage was about the same as VHS or S-VHS depending on the spf setting.
The Iomega Buz is a great, low-cost video capture board that will help many users make the step to nonlinear video. Using the Buz together with the Jaz drive is a great way to keep projects separate and archive your digitized footage. With its basic editing software, low cost and easy installation, the Buz is ideally suited for the beginning nonlinear editor.