- Sharp VL-H550U Hi8 Viewcam
- Videomaker’s Nickel-cadmium Battery Test
- Studio 1 Productions Dual Proc Amp
- Apple Macintosh Performa 6400 with Avid Cinema Nonlinear Editor
- CrystalGraphics 3D Vortex Plug-in Transitions
VL-H550U Hi8 Viewcam
Mahwah, NJ 07656
As the originator of the built-in LCD monitor concept, Sharp Corporation has established itself as an innovator in the field of consumer camcorder design. Since its inception a few years back, Sharp’s concept has caught on in a big way, and now every major consumer camcorder manufacturer offers LCD monitors on their cameras.
In the field of consumer electronics, those who come up with new ideas aren’t necessarily the ones who reap the biggest benefits from them in the end. Sharp Corporation now finds itself in just such a predicament: since the LCD monitor is no longer a Sharp-only feature, Sharp’s Viewcams must deliver outstanding performance to remain competitive with other LCD-monitor camcorders.
This is the market reality into which the latest Hi8 Viewcam, the VL-H550U, has been introduced. With its state-of-the-art 4″ LCD, 30:1 digital zoom, built-in speaker, mike and headphone jacks, simple controls and a handful of digital effects, it offers plenty of what videographers are looking for in a quality consumer-grade Hi8 camcorder. But does it have what it takes to hold its own in a market full of built-in LCD monitors? Let’s take a closer look.
Plenty to Offer
One of the first things you’ll notice when you turn on the VL-H550U for the first time is the quality of the
LCD display. Those who have experience with portable LCD monitors know that they don’t often perform
as well as you would like them to, especially in brightly lit rooms or in direct sunlight. To a certain extent,
this is to be expected from any LCD monitor; it’s simply a limitation of the current technology.
A quick look at the VL-H550U’s display shows brighter colors and finer resolution than earlier LCD
displays found on camcorders. Even when shooting outdoors at noon, the Viewcam’s display is bright,
clear and easy to read. This is a welcome trend in the industry, and Sharp’s research laboratories are to be
commended for their efforts in this direction.
Those who are familiar with the controls of earlier Viewcams will be able to navigate the VL-H550U
with ease. Here’s how it works: located on the upper left corner of the LCD monitor is a pair of buttons–
one labeled Mode Display, the other labeled Menu. Pressing the Mode Display button toggles the menu
system on or off; the Menu button toggles between available menus.
When the menus are on, four rectangular boxes appear at the top, bottom, left and right of the LCD
screen (but not on the recorded footage). Each of these boxes contains an abbreviated command, such as
Focus, DIS (digital image stabilization) or Exposure. A four-way rocker switch, found below the Mode
Display and Menu buttons, allows you to toggle each of these boxes to activate its effects. If you wanted to
turn on the unit’s DIS system, for example, you’d first have to hit the Mode Display button, then press
Menu to toggle through the available screens. Once the blue box labeled DIS appeared on the right,
pressing the rocker switch to the right would activate the unit’s image stabilization system.
Other CCD controls that you’ll find on the menu system include manual shutter speed and white
balance, auto fade, snapshot (for capturing five-second still images), strobe, backlight compensation and
extended digital zoom.
Other user-friendly features of the VL-H550U include a pair of highly visible, easy-to-read icons
showing current levels of battery power and tape remaining; a handy low-light warning, which flashes on
whenever you try to shoot in poorly lit conditions; a fluorescent lamp that provides a nice backlight for the
LCD display; and an excellent, well-written manual that covers all aspects of operation clearly and
Just the Specs, Ma’am
When we cabled the VL-H550U to a monitor to check its performance on a resolution chart, we were
satisfied with the resulting 320 lines of resolution produced by the unit. Likewise, the audio recorded from
the built-in mike was crisp and clear.
Even so, the VL-H550U has its faults. Like many other camcorders that offer recording in the 16:9
format, this Viewcam simply puts a solid black bar over the top and the bottom of the screen to give the
viewing area a “letterboxed” 16:9 look. While this certainly does change the aspect ratio of the recorded
video to 16:9, it won’t do anything for people who own 16:9 television monitors; it just records a pair of
black bars on the top and bottom of the screen.
Lack of time code and edit control protocols also might affect some people’s buying decisions–
especially those who plan to use their camcorder as a source deck for editing. This, and the placement of all
AV inputs and outputs (both composite and Y/C) on a separate, detachable unit, marks the VL-H550U as a
camcorder that excels as an acquisition device, but isn’t designed for double duty as an editing
Aside from these few points, we found the VL-H550U to be an excellent performer, one that will hold
up well in the ever-expanding LCD-monitor camcorder market. Its high price might scare some away, but
those who are willing to pay a little more will be pleased with its style and performance.
Tech Specs: Sharp VL-H550U Viewcam
- 12:1 optical zoom (30:1 digital), 4.2-50.4mm focal length, variable-speed zoom, f/1.8,
inner focus, telemacro
- Image sensor
- 1/4-inch, 410,000-pixel CCD
- 4-inch color LCD monitor
- TTL auto, manual
- Maximum shutter speed
- 1/10000th of a second
- Auto, 4 program AE modes, backlight compensation (BLC), gain up
- White balance
- Auto, manual
- Digital effects
- Strobe, still
- AFM stereo
- Camera body: external microphone (1/8-inch mini phone plug)
Docking station: composite video (RCA-style), stereo audio (RCA-style), S-video
- Camera body: headphones (1/8-inch mini phone plug)
- Docking station or optional A/V pack: composite video (RCA-style), stereo audio (RCA-style), S-
- Edit interface
- Other features
- Snapshot 5-second still, fade to/from white, digital image stabilization, 16:9
recording, quick return, edit search, built-in speaker, stereo microphone
- 7.5 (width) by 4.6 (height) by 3.7 (depth) inches
- Weight (sans tape and battery)
- 1.8 pounds
- Video Performance (approx.)
- Horizontal resolution (camera)
- 400 lines
- Horizontal resolution (playback)
- 320 lines
- Performance Times
- Pause to Record
- 0.5 second
- Power-up to Record
- 4 seconds
- Fast Forward/Rewind
- (30 min. tape)
- 1 minute, 30 seconds
- Microphone and headphone jacks; Bright, clear LCD display; Digital image
- No edit jack
- With quality cameras like this one, Sharp will continue to be a contender in the LCD-
Results of the Videomaker Nickel-cadmium Battery Tests
It’s a subject you’ve seen discussed regularly in the pages of Videomaker: the dreaded (so-
called) memory effect, which plagues the Nickel-cadmium batteries sold with most consumer
The problem, in a nutshell: a videographer uses his batteries only occasionally, leaving them on the
charger the rest of the time. Then, when he’s out on the shoot, his batteries behave strangely. They act as if
the juice has run out after only a short time, when in fact they’ve still got plenty of charge left. Needless to
say, this can be very frustrating, and downright bad for business if you’re a professional videographer.
Various theories exist to explain why this happens. The one that gives the memory effect its dubious
name comes from NASA, where Nickel-cadmium batteries used in satellites are repeatedly discharged for
exactly the same amount of time, then charged up to the top again. When you do this enough times, the
batteries begin to somehow “remember” this specific point in their discharge cycle, refusing to deliver
adequate voltage from that point forward.
Camcorder users, however, are not likely to put their batteries through such regular cycles of charging
and discharging. NASA’s memory theory, therefore, simply doesn’t apply to camcorder batteries.
As you might well imagine, this has caused no end of strife between vendors of “memory-free”
camcorder batteries and those who claim that such a beast cannot exist, because camcorder battery memory
Whatever the claims of battery manufacturers and consumer watchdogs, this so-called memory effect is
a very real thing, and there are plenty of disfunctional batteries out there to prove it. If battery memory
isn’t the culprit, then what’s causing all this premature battery death? And how can we prevent this effect,
if not resurrect the corpses of our dear departed cells?
The most common reason for premature battery failure in consumer camcorders is overcharging. When
you leave a Nickel-cadmium battery on a charger after it’s fully charged, the charger continues to send it a
slow trickle of current. Over time, this slowly changes the crystalline structure of the battery’s Nickelic
Hydroxide from its beta to its gamma form, the latter of which discharges at a lower voltage. Thus, when
you discharge the battery, it first delivers the higher voltage from the beta crystals, then drops down to a
slightly lower voltage when it delivers the juice from the gamma crystals. Since your camcorder requires a
steady flow at a given voltage to operate at all, this “voltage depression” causes the camcorder to shut off
At least that’s what we’ve been told by people who should know (industry professionals, battery
engineers and the like). Not content to take their word for it, we at Videomaker decided to
perform our own tests, under our own conditions, so that we could provide you with a firsthand account of
voltage depression in a variety of different battery types.
The Nickel-cadmium batteries we tested included models by Sony, NRG, Maxell and Sunpak. All were
charged to full capacity, then discharged under identical conditions on the same camcorder (set to record
with an active 3″ LCD monitor). Noting the amount of time each camcorder ran before it shut down, we
then placed the batteries on identical chargers typical of those included with a camcorder purchase.
This is where the real test began. After gathering these data, we left the batteries on the chargers for three
full months. We then repeated the initial procedure, discharging each on the same camcorder under
identical conditions, and noting the amount of time that the camcorder ran before it shut down for lack of
Figure 1 shows our findings in summary. Each battery had lost a significant portion of its total discharge
time by the end of the test–a sure indicator that leaving batteries on their chargers will reduce their overall
efficiency by a significant amount.
A quick glance at the chart shows that third-party batteries specifically marketed as memory-free didn’t
perform as well as the standard long-lasting battery sold as an accessory by the camcorder manufacturer.
It’s also worth noting that our test didn’t provide any conclusive evidence that the size of the battery (in
hours) made any difference in the final results.
These figures represent a relatively small amount of time on the chargers, and therefore only a small
amount of damage to the batteries themselves. For those who use their camcorders regularly and have a
habit of leaving the batteries on the chargers, the problem could be much worse.
Fortunately, there is a cure for this problem. Battery “refreshers” (products that discharge a battery
down to a low voltage, then charge them back up again) can actually re-condition your cells, changing the
gamma crystals back to their original form.
As any doctor will tell you, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Simply put, don’t leave
your batteries on the charger after you’ve finished charging them. Fill them up, then take them off the
charger for long-term storage. When it’s time to shoot, top them off, use them, then charge them up again
when the shoot is over. Follow these simple guidelines and your Nickel-cadmium batteries should continue
to render faithful service for years to come.
Dual Proc Amp
Studio 1 Productions
1524 County Line Rd.
York Springs, PA 17372
If you’ve ever wished you could reach in and grab the video signal as it ran through the cables, then change
the individual levels of color, black and sync to your liking, the product you’ve wished for is a proc amp.
Designed to give video professionals a way to manipulate the various parts of the video signal, proc amps
(processing amplifiers) offer precise control for those who need it.
And who needs it? Anyone who edits less-than-perfect video footage from time to time, footage that
includes faded colors, brightness problems, backlit scenes, color bleed, lousy flesh tones, poor white
In most cases, you’ll find a proc amp on a TBC (time base corrector), where it will help in the overall
process of cleaning up the video signal and establishing a fresh sync. Many videographers, however, have
need of an inexpensive separate unit that holds the proc amp controls alone. For these people, Studio 1
Productions makes the Dual Proc Amp.
Priced well below the cost of most broadcast TBCs, the Dual Proc Amp is aimed at the prosumer
videographer who wants more control over the video signal, but doesn’t want to pay an arm and a leg for
The reason for putting two proc amps in a single box is simple: because A/B-roll editing systems have two
record decks, each of which should have its own proc amp if either is to have one. If you don’t have an
A/B-roll system, then you probably want to look at Studio 1’s Single Proc Amp ($499), which is exactly
the same as one of the proc amps on the Dual unit.
The front of the Dual Proc Amp holds two identical sets of controls and a pair of video/black level LED
meters. The meters are a nice feature of the Dual Proc Amp, especially for those who won’t be using the
unit in conjunction with a waveform monitor to check levels. Without meters or a waveform monitor,
you’d have to rely on your eye–and your monitor–to tell you what looks best. This is dangerous, because
what plays well on your monitor might have problems on someone’s home television. For this reason, it’s
best to stay within the broadcast standards of 7.5 IRE black level and 100 IRE video level, both of which
are clearly labeled on the front of the unit. (An IRE, which stands for Institute of Radio Engineers, is a unit
of measurement used to standardize broadcast transmissions of audio and video signals.)
Controls for each proc amp are divided into two separate sets of four controls each. The first, and larger,
set includes two rotary knobs for luminance (Black and Gain) and two for chroma (Saturation and Hue).
All four have a set of reference marks located around the perimeter and a central “Unity” position at 12:00.
(When a knob is in the Unity position, the Dual Proc Amp simply passes that particular portion of the
signal to the outputs without modification.)
The second set of controls includes four buttons, labeled Unity, Split, Mono and Sync. When you push
in the Unity button, the video signal bypasses all proc amp controls and sets the video output identical to
the video input. This is handy for quickly viewing versions of the signal before and after you’ve made
changes. The Split button displays a split screen on your monitor, with the uncorrected (“Unity”) screen on
the right and the manipulated screen on the left. The Mono button suppresses the color burst in the signal,
producing a monochrome (black-and-white) picture. Finally, the Sync button ensures that the output sync
is always set to the broadcast standard -40 IRE (as long as the input sync is less than -30 IRE).
The Dual Proc Amp does everything it claims it will do, including passing signal at tight broadcast
specifications (better than 68dB signal-to-noise ratio, including hum and noise). Its simple, logical controls,
rugged aluminum casing and excellent output quality make it a rare find in today’s world of high-priced
video gear: a genuine bargain, and worthy of any prosumer’s editing bay.
Tech Specs: Studio 1 Productions Dual Proc Amp
- Composite video (RCA-style) x2; S-Video x2
- Composite video (RCA-style) x2; S-Video x2
- 800 lines (at no more than 1.0dB down)
- Signal-to-noise ratio
- Split screen, luminance black, luminance gain, chroma saturation, chroma hue, mono
mode, unity mode, sync level
- 9.2 (width) by 4.2 (height) by 6.9 (depth) inches
- Tight specs; Rugged construction
- A great buy for videographers who are ready to take control of their video
Apple Macintosh Performa 6400 with Avid Cinema
Apple Computing, Inc.
One Infinite Loop
Cupertino, CA 95014
If you’re a video hobbyist who’s always wanted to get into nonlinear editing, but couldn’t afford the
money, time or hassle involved in setting up your own system, here’s some good news: the latest trends in
desktop video are simplicity and affordability. Spearheading a new pack of true plug-and-play solutions is
Avid’s Cinema, an under-$500 hardware/software combination that’s bound to make some waves in the
desktop video world.
Developed by Avid but marketed by Apple Computing, Cinema is currently shipping bundled with the
new Macintosh Performa 6400 Video Editing computer, which costs $2699–about three hundred dollars
more than the step-down version. For those who already have a Macintosh system that meets the minimum
requirements, it’s also available as a PCI card and software for $459. In either case, what you get is a
video-production system that requires only a camcorder and a VCR to edit your videos with music, still
images, narration, titles and transition effects.
Ready to Wear
When you first boot up the Performa 6400 Video Editing Edition, the Avid Cinema icon already sits
waiting on the desktop. Running the program puts you into one of the simplest user interfaces we’ve ever
seen. If this is your first Cinema movie, for example, and you want to plan everything from scratch with a
minimum of effort, you can use one of the built-in Storyboard templates to help you with your project.
Divided into Home, School and Office categories, these twenty-odd templates detail every shot for a
simple production, including camera angles, shot lengths, editing tips and suggestions for directors. It’s
more a shot list than a storyboard, lacking any way to use graphical elements to plan your program;
nonetheless, it does provide a useful tool for both pre-production brainstorming and on-location
Moving from the Storyboard screen to any of the other three sections of the program–Bring Video In,
Edit Movie and Send Video Out–is as simple as clicking the appropriate tab at the top of the screen. The
Bring Video In tab handles all digitizing chores simply and elegantly, using the Storyboard to prompt you
for necessary clips in the order they appear on the shot list.
While watching your video play through a small window on the Bring Video In page, pressing the
Record button starts and stops the capture process. Clips are recorded to the hard drive at 320×240 (1/4-
screen) resolution, compressed via MJPEG at a 6:1 ratio. This combination of small screen size and 6:1
compression actually results in the equivalent of 24:1 compression when you play it back interpolated to
640×480 (normal NTSC resolution). The resulting data rate is roughly .75 MB/sec., which places it on the
low end of VHS-quality video (more about playback below).
Near the top of the Edit Movie screen, you’ll find five more tabs labeled Viewer, Effects, Titles, Sound and
Library. These give you access to various editing tools, including 26 transitions, scrolling titles in any of
the fonts loaded into the Performa’s Fonts folder and a Viewer for playback of all or parts of your project.
At the bottom of the screen are tracks for video, titles, narration and music.
Working in the Cinema environment is very simple and intuitive. If you want to change the order of
your clips, just grab a clip from the timeline and drag it to its desired position. If you want to add narration,
just click on the Sound tab, run the video, hit the Record button and speak into the Macintosh microphone.
Transition effects? Place the Position Bar between two clips on the timeline, then choose your desired
effect from the list under the Effects tab. And if you like working from a centralized batch of clips, still
images and sound files, the Library screen displays a list of all elements imported into your production for
easy cutting and pasting into the timeline.
Titles are handled in an equally simple manner. Four buttons–font, size, color and scroll–give you
control over a wide range of possible effects. On screen, the titles have a crisp, anti-aliased look with
When the whole thing’s finished, you can output your program to tape, or save it to the hard disk in one
of five formats: Internet/WWW, 2x CD-ROM, 4x CD-ROM, Avid Cinema and Presentation Software. The
project is then rendered and saved as a QuickTime movie, which then becomes available for use by other
QuickTime-based software applications (such as Adobe Premiere).
Cinema movies, when recorded to tape, will display some visible artifacts in the form of jagged lines
and pronounced color bleed; they are, however, good enough for most hobbyist work and certainly good
enough for high-quality WWW, presentation or CD-ROM multimedia. If producing programs for
distribution on VHS tape is how you earn your bread, then Cinema wasn’t designed for you. Instead, it’s a
system that fits squarely in the emerging hobbyist and education nonlinear market–a market it will
undoubtedly help to create.
Avid’s Cinema is a system that’s excellent for introducing video beginners to the world of nonlinear
editing. The omission of unnecessary complexity is what makes it one of the first truly user-friendly
nonlinear editing systems; it’s also what limits its usefulness for professionals, who have come to expect
and need that complexity.
In the near future, we foresee a very positive role for the Cinema and other low-cost turnkey nonlinear
editors. Complexity and cost were once the two most limiting factors in earlier nonlinear systems; with the
introduction of Cinema, Avid–producer of the Media Composer, an industry-standard broadcast nonlinear
system–changes the rules, bringing the toys of the priveleged few down to reasonable consumer-price
levels. If you’ve followed these pages in the past, you’ll know that we at Videomaker find this to
be a very welcome trend in the industry.
Tech Specs: Apple Macintosh Performa 6400 with Avid Cinema
- Bundled software
- Cinema nonlinear editor
- Video inputs and outputs
- S-video, composite (RCA)
- Audio inputs and outputs
- Composite (RCA) x2
- Video capture rate
- 0.75 MB/sec (fixed)
- Video capture resolution
- 320×240 pixels (1/4-screen)
- Minimum System Requirements
- Operating system
- Macintosh system software version 7.5.3 or later (system software version
- CPU and motherboard
- A PowerPC-based Apple Macintosh Performa or Power Macintosh
computer with a PCI expansion slot (such as the 5400 or 6400 series) and the Apple Video System,
or an Apple Power Macintosh computer with built-in composite or S-video input and a PCI
expansion slot (such as the 7500, 7600, or 8500 series)
- 24MB system RAM
- 24-bit (16.8 million colors)
- Hard drive
- 1GB SCSI-2
- Other requirements
- QuickTime 2.5 or later software (QuickTime 2.5 included)
- Very easy to use
- No easy upgrade path
Visible compression artifacts
- A great learning/communication tool for home, school or office use, but not for
serious professional video applications.
Crystal 3D Vortex, Volume One
3350 Scott Blvd. Bldg. 14
Santa Clara, CA 95054
Last month, we tested Take32, Synergy’s impressive set of plug-in transitions from their larger, more
powerful Hollywood F/X product. This month, we take a look at a similar title, produced by a company
that’s earned a name for itself as the creator of Flying Fonts, a popular 3D titling program for home
Volume One of CrystalGraphics’ 3D Vortex includes 26 32-bit transitions that plug directly into Adobe
Premiere 4.2, Ulead’s MediaStudio 2.5 or FAST’s VM-Studio PLUS. Once there, they provide a quick and
easy way to jazz up your nonlinear productions with professional-looking 3D effects.
From the Inside
After installing 3D Vortex, you’ll find all 26 new transitions wherever the host program displays
them–in Premiere’s Transition window, for example. True to its name, each 3D Vortex transition
incorporates high-quality 3D imagery in some way or another. One, for example, places the outgoing clip
on a slab, which falls backward at an angle before flying away to reveal the incoming clip. Another flies
the outgoing clip around a spinning globe, changing the image while it’s on the other side of the world.
One even allows you to place your own company logo on the side of a spinning slab.
Also part of the 3D Vortex package are a handful of separate programs and files that show up on
Windows95’s Start menu. The most important of these is the Crystal 3D Vortex Settings program, in which
you can change a number of global and individual settings for the transitions. Under the Global Settings
tab, controls exist for Auto Preview dimensions, Background Color (or Image) and overall Quality of the
rendered transitions. When you press the Change Color button, you’re presented with 48 pre-set colors and
a full range of RGB tones for selecting your own palette. If you prefer, you can set the transition
background to an image you’ve created; 3D Vortex will import any image saved in .tga, .tif, .bmp, .pcx,
.jpg or .gif format.
If you only want to change the background of a certain class of transitions, you can do so by clicking on
the Individual tab in the Settings program. This gives you similar options to those found in the Global
settings, but changes made here only affect one type of effect (Blocks, Slabs, Stretches, etc.).
In all transitions, the quality of the rendered 3D imagery is superb, especially when the output is set to
High on the Global Settings screen. The image mapping on the sides of the 3D slabs has a look of highly
polished stone or hardwood. User-controlled settings for shadows, ray tracing and light placement help you
design the effect you’re looking for, and add an extra bit of realism as well.
All this attention to detail means you can expect your rendering to take quite a bit longer than most 2D
transitions. Using VHS-quality, 60-field-per-second clips, our Benchmarks test computer (Pentium 133,
32MB of RAM, SCSI-2 hard drive) took between 20 and 30 minutes to render a four-second transition.
Those who need quality effects, however, will find that 3D Vortex is worth the wait. It’s powerful
enough for local broadcasters and prosumer videographers, yet affordable enough for hobbyists and WWW
Tech Specs: Crystal 3D Vortex, Volume One
- PC or Mac
- Minimum System Requirements
- Operating system
- Windows 95 or Windows NT
- 256-color (8-bit) display adaptor
- Nonlinear software
- Adobe Premiere 4.2, FAST VM-Studio PLUS or Ulead MediaStudio Pro
- Recommended System
- Pentium or Pentium Pro
- Hard Drive
- 2GB Fast Wide SCSI-2
- 24-bit, 3D-accelerated display adapter
- Very high quality 3D effects
Relatively low rendering times
- Big computer and lots of RAM required for any high-quality effects
- An excellent choice for prosumers, small TV stations or producers of local