What must go into your camcorder or burner before your video can come out.
In the olden days, it was either analog Beta or VHS (tape, that is), then along came the ultra-portable cassette tapes: 8mm and VHS-C. Today, the range of media to record to is more confusing than ever, but it’s nearly all digital. While certain media formats are all but dead (anyone out there remember ¾-inch U-matic tapes?), there seems to be a new one added everyday. (Hello flash media and hard drives!)
Analog and Digital 8
It used to be that VHS, although not the sharpest format in the bunch, was at least the one that was universal. VHS is hanging in there but not by much. VHS tapes are still easy to come by; most grocery, drug, and variety stores still stock VHS, S-VHS, VHS-C and 8mm tapes. And VHS still has its uses. If you need to dash off a quick copy of your work, it can be faster to simply output to VHS rather than convert the work to MPEG-2 and burn it to a DVD. True, your work won’t look as nice, but if you’re just submitting a rough draft for comments, it should be fine.
8mm, Hi8 and Digital 8 are also on their way out. They’re still around, for folks with old camcorders, but few companies are manufacturing camcorders that support these formats anymore. Most likely, this is the last article in Videomaker magazine that you will read that mentions these formats in any detail. However, you will be reading a lot more about memory sticks, cards and drives.
While DVD discs are the new cool acquisition format (until hard drives and storage cards take over), digital tape still has much to offer. For one thing, it can hold more data. A DVD disc uses a format called MPEG-2 that compresses in a way that makes individual frames dependent on other frames. Mini DV’s format makes each frame’s information independent. As a result, it is easier to edit footage shot on Mini DV (although newer editing programs can, for the most part, compensate for this). Mini DV tape is also the format of choice for the new HDV camcorders (though HDV also makes certain individual frames dependent on information from other frames). It is possible to buy Mini DV in bulk (actually as few as five tapes) for about $3 per tape.
DVD Blank Media + and –
DVD is the new VHS. Of course, the broadcast quality of DVDR Media + and -, about 720 horizontal lines of resolution, is much higher than even S-VHS (about 410) could ever be, and the discs are a lot cheaper to mail. Plus, though digital, tape can’t give you menus that let you randomly access your favorite segments. Newer DVD players have fewer problems with different DVD formats such as DVD-RW, DVD+RW or even DVD-R or DVD+R. Incidentally, the DVD movies you buy are created by stamping pits into the disc rather than "burning." This is not a practical method to do at home (too expensive and too complicated), but if you need to crank out a couple hundred thousand discs, it makes sense. These discs also do not have the compatibility problems the burned discs do.
DVDR Media + and – discs will only let you record on them once. Still, they are the best option for cheap DVD duplication: in some instances, just 30 cents a disc, and they burn the fastest.
Formats such as DVDRRW, will, as the initials imply, let you use the same disc to record over again, but they cost more and have more compatibility problems (although less so with each new DVD player) and burn slower.
You can now get dual layer discs that let you record twice the 4.7 gigabytes of standard blank DVD media. These blank dual layer discs must be burned on a Dual layer DVD drive. Unfortunately, twice the storage can come at more than ten times the cost, but even at $2 per disc, that’s about what a VHS tape would cost you (and less than an S-VHS tape) and they’re still a lot cheaper to mail.
If you need to showcase your DVD, there are professional-looking ink jet printable and LightScribe DVD-R and DVD+R printable discs. The former lets you run the optical media though a compatible ink jet printer; the later requires a LightScribe DVD burner and uses the DVD’s laser to etch a "label" onto your disc. Either can be useful, because putting a paper label on your DVD is a no-no. DVD discs spin fast and the slightly off-center paper label or accompanying glue can throw them off track, potentially damaging your player and/or ruining your disc. Again, these blank DVD LightScribe discs will come at a premium, generally a bit more than $1 per disc.
If you are worried about your disc’s safety and longevity, there is something for you too. Some manufacturers have gold-plated discs. The logic here is similar to that of gold-plated connectors for your audio/video equipment. Unlike other metals, gold does not tarnish and has a strong resistance to the elements; therefore your disc will supposedly last for many more years. There may be something to this, except that no one really knows how long regular discs last and given how fast we move from format to format, what will you play the disc on in one hundred years? These discs cost about $2-$3, about the same as a VHS tape. Some manufacturers offer discs with a tougher hide to resist scratches and wear; again they cost more, but your video is well protected.
Then there are the mini DVD-R and +R, measuring 80mm or about three inches. These smaller discs will work in your DVD camcorder and can hold close to 20 minutes of video at your camcorder’s highest setting. Smaller discs do not mean smaller costs (just the opposite for now), but as the format grows in popularity, the prices will drop.
Blu-ray & HD DVD
Finally, we have the new kids on the block. While they are the size of a standard DVD, an HD DVD disc can hold 15 gigabytes while a Blu-ray can hold 25GB on single-sided blank media. Both want to be the standard for high-definition consumption, but neither can play in each other’s player. For now, both the media and the machines they record on are expensive and harder to find than other formats, but both will come down in price and become more available.
An increasingly large part of the video workflow can now be handled using flash memory, from still image management to recording video clips without too much hassle. Therefore, we think it’s worth mentioning a few of the more popular flash formats and applications.
Most Mini DV camcorders have an SD Card slot (unless you’ve got a Sony or a Samsung, then it will probably have a Memory Stick slot instead). These card slots are meant primarily for capturing still images, although the Canon XL2 can also write a file onto an SD Card that contains all of its settings, so that you can set another XL2 to behave exactly the same way.
There is also the occasional Mini DV camcorder that will allow you to capture compressed video directly to a flash memory card, although an entire range of camcorders exists that shoot exclusively to SD cards.
Other flash memory card formats, such as SmartMedia, CompactFlash and XD, have not gained much traction in the world of camcorders. However, we believe they are worth mentioning if you are importing still images from someone else’s memory card. It’s become increasingly easy to justify having a multi-format card reader on hand for all of the times when you need to bring in someone’s stills on short notice (and if you haven’t yet, you will).
The versatility of USB flash memory drives (call them thumb drives, keychain drives, lanyard drives, what have you) also can’t be overemphasized. The USB 2.0 versions are fast enough for light video work, although you probably wouldn’t want to edit your footage directly onto them. They are best used for sharing short video clips.
What You Use Is What You Get
When choosing a camcorder, it’s good to think about the recording format you will be using to record your projects with. Then, when choosing your media, consider its ultimate use, too.
If you’re recording or burning to media for archiving, consider how long you expect that tape or disc will sit in storage. If you plan to pass on a project that needs to look clean and professional, consider printable discs, but remember that they cost more and require special printers or burners, which can go down when you need them most. If you’re burning throwaway promotional discs, for instance, the cheaper and quicker the better. So keep your final finished project in mind before you take your first step, and choose the format that best suits you.
Charles Gross is the host of a show that covers the Broadway and Off-Broadway Theatre.
Sidebar: Stacking: Is It Worth It?
Although buying 50 DVDs on a spindle is economical, do you really save anything if you have to buy your own case? The answer is yes. I recently priced a stack of DVDs on sale at 30 cents a disc. I also noticed jewel cases for another 30 cents, costing me 60 cents for both disc and case. At the same store, discs with cases were going for $1.60 per disc. I also saw some DVDs with cases online for $1.10. The bottom line? Stack and save.