Blank Media Buyers' Guide

Sure, you can head to online forums or cruise the Internet for reviews, but what you’re likely to find will make you even less certain about a right choice.

“What are the best media I can buy?”

Second only to “where are the bathrooms?” it is the one of the most common questions we hear from attendees at Videomaker workshops. If there really were a definitive answer to this question, we’d tell you. Honest! But it remains an excellent question, one we hope to help you answer here.

Tape

Who thought that in 2007 we’d still be using an uncompromisingly linear media format like tape, in our increasingly non-linear world? Well, we are, because it’s dependable, it holds gobs of data and it’s cheap. Formats used back in the days of analog camcorders, such as the various flavors of VHS and 8mm, are all but extinct, but Mini DV tape is still the predominant format for consumer and semi-professional SD and HDV camcorders.

Many factors in the production process influence the cost and performance of tape. It is made of microscopic magnetic particles, affixed to a base layer and covered with a protective coating. Manufacturers grade their tape from low to high quality (sometimes called Pro), and prices commonly range from $2.50 to $15. So, what do you get if you pay more? Usually, the tape will use special metals instead of the common iron oxide used on cheaper tape. Also, advanced manufacturing processes, strict quality control and special formulations that reduce friction, improve tape-to-head contact and reduce static electricity, will mean the tape has fewer dropouts, will last longer and will withstand more use. A common by-product of using better tape is usually cleaner heads.

Beware of prices that seem too good to be true. You may find you are actually buying used or “evaluated” tape, or tape that has been rejected by more reputable manufacturers. While this may be marginally acceptable for duplication of promo videos, don’t stick one of these in your camcorder. New formulations that claim to be specially designed for HD acquisition may be part hype, but they should perform at least as well as or better than most Pro-grade stock. Remember, even if you use the most expensive tape, it still remains the least expensive way to store magnetic information.

Optical

DVDs are a truly versatile type of media. Like VHS used to, they can serve as both an acquisition and a distribution format. Manufacturers introduced a slew of new camcorders in 2007, mostly designed for casual shooters, which use the smaller 8cm disc. Besides the two disc sizes, there are five different disc types: -R/RW, +R/RW and DVD-RAM. There are also single- and dual-layer versions that extend the normal 4.7GB capacity to 8.5GB. While each requires a unique encoding process, nearly all newer DVD players can play most of them (with the exception of DVD-RAM).

Prices range from twenty-five cents each for 50-packs of single-layer DVDs to about $3.50 each for premium dual-layer discs. As with tape, when you pay more, you can expect increased durability, data integrity, longevity and consistency from disc to disc. Better discs will be made of high-quality substrate material to form the actual disc and superior dyes to form the reflective coating. This reflective coating and its application largely determine the disc’s longevity. Higher-quality discs will also tend to have higher write speeds.

The epic battle continues between incompatible HD formats Blu-ray and HD DVD, and it is still too early to predict a winner. Recent price drops have put HD DVD in the lead for standalone players, but more Hollywood studios continue to back Blu-ray. Burners are now available for both formats, but both hardware and media remain very pricey and slow, and their compatibility with current players remains to be seen. Current Blu-ray discs can hold up to 25GB of data (50GB on dual-layer). You can cram 15GB of data on an HD DVD disc (30GB on dual-layer). Toshiba recently announced triple-layer technology, extending HD-DVD capacity to more than 50GB, but no production date has been set.

Solid State

The capacity and speed of flash memory cards continue to increase, while prices plummet. Demand for this type of media, largely fueled by the breakneck pace of adoption of high-resolution digital still cameras, is set only to increase. While formats such as Memory Stick, compact flash, SmartMedia and XD capture limited video, the camcorders we commonly use have the tiny SD and newer SDHC cards. Panasonic has its own brand of solid-state media called P2, but it reserves this primarily for its own high-end camcorders.

With SD cards, capacity and sustained write speeds are chief considerations. SD cards are now reaching capacities of 8GB. Write speed is measured as with CD/DVDs, in terms of a multiple of real-time performance, 1x equaling 150kbps. Current speeds are at 133x or 20MB/sec. Several new HD camcorders use SDHC. They are more expensive than SD cards and, in many cases, are not interchangeable. If you have a camcorder designed specifically for SDHC, it’s best to stick with that format.

There have also been compatibility issues with card readers and some production lots of cards from a few manufacturers. These problems have largely been resolved, but it is worth considering using readers from the manufacturer whose cards you use.


Archival?

The best thing you can do to ensure your tapes, disks and solid-state media are around for years to come is to strictly regulate your storage environment. Ideally, that means not letting the temperature swing much below 60 degrees Fahrenheit and not above 75. Also, keeping the relative humidity below 30% (but not so dry that static electricity becomes an issue) will greatly extend the integrity of the data on your media. The best location for all media is in a windowless room on grounded metal racks. Store tapes on edge, not lying flat. Avoid adhesive labels and non-water-based markers for optical discs. Hard discs and solid-state media should always be stored in anti-static bags or containers.

Setting aside manufacturer claims of “archival quality,” some touting 300-year durability, you may have heard more practical estimates of 5 to 10 years for tapes and discs, and even a larger window for solid-state and hard discs. But these are still guesses, and we really can’t say for sure. If you need to ensure that your data remains intact for the long haul, re-record your material every few years and stick to that schedule.

Some people have become religious about using particular media, based on their experience or the strong recommendation of a trusted colleague. If you are new to video, or you have a new camcorder that uses a different type of media, you may simply need to experiment with brands. Certainly start with any recommendations from your camcorder manufacturer, but then try other brands with similar or improved characteristics. Soon, you’ll be able to answer the question, “what are the best media?” for yourself.

Manufacturer’s list

To download PDF of Manufacturer’s list click here.

Side Bar: External HDDs

While they are not considered traditional “media,” there are several types of portable hard drives that are designed to record the signal directly from your camcorder. These have become popular with videographers shooting both HD and SD video. For those camcorders that use only tape, this can be a great way to save time transferring your shots to your computer: simply edit directly from the hard drive. If you also roll tape at the same time, you have an instant backup of your raw footage. And, if your new camcorder records to solid-state or optical media, these external HDDs can greatly expand the length of your recording time.

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