with Stephen Muratore, Chuck Peters, Tony Kilcollins and Charles Fulton
Throughout the course of a year we have a unique opportunity to see, play with, test and review all of the latest and greatest video toys. At the end of each year, we take a step back to look at the whole and publish a list of our favorites. Selecting winners is a fun but challenging process. The editors compared, contrasted, discussed, debated and defended their recommendations. When the dust settled, we had this list of winners. Here they are: Videomaker‘s Best Products of the Year.
Best Products Award Criterion
For a product to qualify for an award, it must have shipped in the 2003 calendar year, and it must have passed through Videomaker headquarters for examination by our editors. From there, we judged products based on the following seven criteria:
How effective the product is at helping videographers be more effective at video production.
Ease of Operation:
How user-friendly it is.
The product must provide a good value for the price.
It must be put together well, durable and show excellence in its category.
It should have some inventive or original features.
It needs to be able to endure the rigors of active video production.
It must work consistently and effectively.
Best Mini DV Camcorder Over $3,000
Panasonic AG-DVC80 ($2,995)
Last year, we gave the buzz-bait Panasonic 24p camera our top honors with the reservation that we weren’t terribly excited about the 24p part of the camera. Well, the AG-DVC80 is just about perfect then: great optical system, professional audio, full-manual controls and no 24p. All this for $500 less than the DVX100 and you have a winner.
Best Mini DV Camcorder $2,000-$3,000
Sony DSR-PDX10 ($2,395)
The Sony DSR-PDX10 is just about as small a camera as you can make and still have XLR audio with gain control. It also has a superbly sharp, typically-Sony image and an electronic, but truly anamorphic, 16:9 mode. If you need an ultra-portable 3-CCD camera with features a professional will appreciate, it’s tough to beat the price on this winner.
Best Mini DV Camcorder $1,200-$2,000
Canon Optura Xi ($1,700)
The single-CCD Canon Optura Xi is one of the most balanced cameras of the bunch. The two Megapixel still images were nice and anamorphic 16:9 video is a real treat, but the real killer features are the zebra stripes for exposure and manual audio gain control. The Optura Xi is the smallest, least expensive camcorder on the market with these professional capabilities.
Best Mini DV Camcorder Under $1,200M
Sharp VL-Z7U ($900)
The VL-Z7U was one of the most pleasant cameras we used this past year, with comfortable controls at a comfortable price. The quality of both the video and the stills (1.33 megapixel) were quite remarkable and we wouldn’t have given this camera the award without that. Don’t expect to find this camera in stores at $900: you should be able to find it for considerably less, making it quite a bargain.
Most Innovative Camcorder
JVC GR-HD1 ($3,500)
There is no question that High Definition (HD) is the future of television. Sure, the pros have been shooting HD for year using $50K cams, but who’d a thunk us lowly consumers could get our hands on it in 2003? While this particular camera is for a rather select market (specifically, home video enthusiasts with HD televisions and another $3,500 to spare), the technical innovation of HD on Mini DV tape in a consumer product absolutely blew us away. Way to go, JVC!
Best Value Camcorder
Samsung SCL810 ($250)
In this digital world you might think analog won’t cut it, but Hi8 resolution exceeds what our televisions can display. And for $250, what’s not to like? The 22x optical zoom and onboard video light mean that this is a camera for all situations. This is small point-and-shoot first camera or a great second cam that you won’t need to worry about.
Best Tapeless Camcorder
Hitachi DZ-MV380A ($1,100)
We created a new category this year for what we expect will become a very large product class over the next few years: tapeless camcorders. Next year, we may divide the category further into disc-based and solid-state, but this year, the DZ-MV230A wins our award. Hitachi’s leadership in DVD camcorders is apparent and we were impressed with both the video and still image quality as well as the compact size of the camera. For point-shoot-share convenience, this is a really fun camcorder. We expect blank media prices to come down as more competitors enter the market and the popularity of these devices increases.
Best Turnkey Editing System Over $5,000
Canopus RES-100 ($5,000)
Certified out of the box editing power is what the Canopus RES-100 is all about. Based around the reliable technology of the DVStorm2 real-time hardware-assist card, this is the machine to get for Adobe Premiere 6.5 users. Analog video capture, MPEG-2 hardware transcoding and hardware accelerated effects make this an all-in-one solution that truly is plug in, turn key and edit.
Best Turnkey Editing System Less Than $5,000
DVS Direct Liquid Edition ($2,995)
DVS Direct has partnered up with Pinnacle Systems to bring their Liquid Edition hardware/software solution out at a very reasonable price. We certainly liked this machine, with the great Pinnacle BoB and decent hardware-assisted effects (courtesy of the ATI Radeon 8500 AGP card), but we were also very favorably impressed with the personalized service of DVS Direct as a turnkey vendor.
Best Real Time Hardware
Matrox Parhelia ($399)
We’ve wondered out loud in these pages about whether "real time" hardware-assisted rendering cards were really necessary anymore in this age of super-fast computers, but we have never wondered about whether multiple monitors are a good idea. Matrox changes everything with a hardware-assist card that does multiple monitors like no one else. The Parhelia can span three monitors, giving you more screen real estate than ever before. Better still, how about two computer monitors plus NTSC television out and hardware assisted rendering all in one? This was an easy award to make: the Parhelia is our favorite display card for video editing.
Best Advanced Editing Software
Sony Vegas 4.0 ($699)
The one-upsmanship in video editing software is remarkable. Vegas was first on the scene with many important features, including scalable, realtime software previews. The 4.0 version (which was released more than a year ago) added professional features (such as color correction) that only FCP and Avid users used to have access to. And although the competition has vastly improved audio tools, they are still only almost-as-good-as Vegas, which was originally forged from audio electrons in a sonic foundry.
Best Music Creation Software
SmartSound SonicFire Pro 3.0 ($499)
SmartSound SonicFire Pro 3.0 is one of the most straight-ahead software products we’ve ever seen. The marketing claims from SmartSound are, as one would expect, glowing, but, quite honestly, the product does what they say it does. You get the quality of fully realized buyout music and it can be completely customized, right down to the second, to fit your video projects precisely. It sounds good and it is easy to use: what more can we say?
Best Advanced DVD Authoring Software
Adobe Encore DVD ($549)
Tight integration with Adobe Photoshop is the real reason to go with Encore DVD. You will definitely have both programs open when designing your disc, and switching between the two apps is seamless. Perhaps best of all, your design staff probably won’t have to learn a new piece of software. Even as a standalone application, Encore DVD’s no-nonsense interface and project management tools would still be enough to win this award.
Best Introductory DVD Authoring Software
Sonic MyDVD 5.0 Deluxe ($79)
By a healthy margin, MyDVD 5 is the easiest and fastest DVD authoring software we’ve seen (and we’ve seen em all). The competition in the $50-$100 DVD authoring software category is fierce, but when you consider the total disc-burning package (including RecordNow! 6.5 and stereo AC3 encoding), $79 is a pretty good deal. For those of you who just want to burn a disc and be done, MyDVD is the way to go.
Best Production Accessory
Smith-Victor K77 Light Kit ($899)
You may be thinking "What new camera should I get to improve my video?" but a better question would be "What lights should I get to improve my video?" One very fine answer is the Smith-Victor K77 Light Kit. This affordable 3-light package will allow you to light great-looking video without breaking the bank. It may seem minor, but we really appreciated the included lighting guide, which diagramed 20 different possible lighting setups.
Best Post-Production Accessory
Bella DV Keyboard ($110)
We like the intuitive feel of a jog/shuttle dial for video editing, but, more than anything else, the use of shortcut keys are the mark of a professional editor, so it is not surprising that we really liked the inexpensive Bella DV Keyboard. This keyboard, jog/shuttle dial and shortcut key sticker sets will improve your productivity in the edit bay. And it is really quite fun to use as well.
Best External Disc Burner
TDK IndiDVD ($400)
DVD burner technology changes so fast that by the time you read this award, there are already much better/faster/cheaper burners on the market. Still, the USB 2.0 and FireWire interface on this burner, as well as flawless reliability and high-sustained speeds were worthy of an award. While past performance is not a guarantee of future products, together with TDK’s reputation and brand name, it is a pretty good indicator.
Best 3D Titling
Ulead COOL 3D Studio ($119)
Ulead COOL 3D Studio, is, without a doubt, the easiest way to get 3D text into your video. We’ve always loved the easy to use templates, simple text input screen and wiggly, jiggly, dancing and exploding preset animations, but the new Studio version goes one step further. New video-centric features and a vastly improved interface (including a great animation timeline) make this an all-around winner and undisputed champion.
Best Multimedia Video Suite
Adobe Video Collection ($1,499)
Video editing (Premiere), loop-based music creation (Audition), professional compositing (After Effects Pro), image editing (Photoshop) and DVD authoring (Encore) all for $1,500? Last year, $1,500 would have gotten you only After Effects Pro for that price. What more can we say? The more interesting question for us is: How will the competition respond to this breathtakingly aggressive and comprehensive package?
Most Innovative Product
Serious Magic Visual Communicator Pro ($400)
It’s a teleprompter. It’s a virtual studio. It’s software. It defies categorization. We’ve been following this innovative product for a while now, but what really got us excited was the inclusion of FireWire support with this versions. If your bread and butter is talking head-style video, then Visual Communicator Pro is a product that will transform your projects from "shoot and edit" to simply "shoot."
Best Editing Value
Apple Final Cut Express ($300)
If you are ready for serious editing, but you aren’t ready to go professional, Apple Final Cut Express is quite remarkable. Based entirely on the amazing Final Cut Pro, this package will easily allow you to do 99% of what any professional production requires and, better still, you’ll do it exactly the way the pros do. So, when you’re ready to quit your day job, buy the professional FCP4 and edit full time, you won’t even notice the difference.
Congratulations to our winners. Without a doubt, the products that we see get better and better each year, making the selection of winners more and more difficult. We were pleased to see such close competition in many of this year’s categories. 2003 was clearly a great year for video producers and video production tools. We eagerly anticipate another exciting year filled with new and interesting developments. Look for in-depth reviews each month in our Test Bench section of the magazine, and look for a list of our favorites of 2004 next February.