Tape vs. hard drive vs. card, and AVCHD

Planning to buy some video cameras for online journalism students to use, I’m doing buyer’s research.

I had been feeling confident about the Canon HV20 — under $1,000, with both microphone and headphone inputs. But some new information has interceded. If any of you have some advice to offer, please do.

First, a lot of people (and Web sites) have been talking about the move away from tape (goin’ tapeless!). I learned to shoot on Mini DV tapes, and I’m used to capturing from tape, but I do appreciate the convenience of copying a file (from a hard drive or memory card). It’s faster.

Second, I had a chat with Chet Rhodes, assistant managing editor for news video at washingtonpost.com, and he showed me a new camera he’s testing, the Sony CX7. It records to the Sony Memory Stick PRO Duo format memory card. Chet likes the idea that a reporter can drop the card into an envelope and overnight-mail it back to Washington. Can’t do that with a hard drive. He also likes the cool Bluetooth microphone from Sony. Unlike the typical “wireless” lavalier mic, this one really has NO wires.

Third, I started reading reviews of the Canon HG10, which records to a built-in hard drive. The price is a bit higher than the HV20, but if the hard drive is going to make life easier for the students, it would be worth it.

However, there’s a fourth point: A new video format, AVCHD.

From a review of the HG10:

Editing AVCHD footage is not impossible anymore, but it’s certainly no joy. Two programs have emerged that offer a decent array of editing tools for unconverted AVCHD files (.m2t extension for PCs): Ulead Video Studio 11 Plus and Sony Vegas Movie Studio 8. There are lots of other tools out there that allow you to convert AVCHD files to MPEG2 or whatever you need, and probably a few programs we don’t even know about, but these are the big two. Unfortunately, Vegas is only available with Sony AVCHD camcorders, not Panasonic or Canon. So we’re left with Ulead.

There are further constraints. Software engineers were tearing their hair out for awhile trying to create efficient ways to deal with the tightly woven algorithms. Working with AVCHD is taxing on your computer, and you’re going to need a powerhouse processor and memory to do it with any expediency.

Well, as you might imagine, it’s not as if I can guarantee that each student will have access to “a powerhouse processor” and giant stacks of memory.

Now, back to Chet, who was kind enough to answer a couple of questions about AVCHD (which the Sony CX7 also uses). Currently his people are using the CX7 in SD mode — so they are recording in an MPEG format, not AVCHD. “Once more editing software supports AVCHD, then we might move that way,” he wrote in an e-mail.

From what I can tell at the Canon site, the HG10 records in ACVHD (MPEG-4 AVCH/H.264: 5/7/9/15 Mbps) only. So unless I’m mistaken, we don’t have the ability to edit the footage in our computer labs, because of the limitations of our hardware and software.

A PC World article from 2006 explains the AVCHD format and its limitations pretty well.

In the meantime, iMovie ’08 reportedly does support the HG10’s flavor of AVCHD. Final Cut Pro 6.0.1 offers support for AVCHD, with some limitations (such as no Firewire). I can’t find any evidence that Windows Movie Maker supports AVCHD at this time.

So I was getting all excited about tapeless video, but now it seems that with the limitations of university computer labs to contend with, I might be buying those Canon HV20 cameras after all.

Update (Feb. 23, 2008): We did buy four of the HV20 cameras, and so far, they are working out very well. One of the benefits to using tape with students is that I can make them hand in the tapes so I can grade (or at least critique) their raw footage. You’ll want to figure out how many tapes each student will need in the semester and charge a lab fee to cover the costs; buying tape in boxes of 50 or 100 is much cheaper than buying a three-pack at Best Buy.

29 Comments on “Tape vs. hard drive vs. card, and AVCHD

  1. Although the prospect of going tapeless is always exciting, much the way going from CF cards was with still photography, I find that tape is still the way to go. From an educational standpoint, learning tape won’t limit an individual in anyway. It seems that there are still a great number of agencies that still use tape, including some that even still do tape-to-tape editing! Although I shoot still photos primarily, I started delving into video over last summer. After much discussion with my professor about a new HD cam, the price and the need to learn tape editing (due to the market) put me behind the Canon XHA1. So, sticking to tape is not a bad idea and when HD or solid state systems start becoming more common, the switch should be fairly easy for anybody and will require few, if any, new skills.

  2. In my opinion, it’s too early to jump into the AVCHD market if you’re trying to equip and teach an entire staff or class. I am convinced that busy newspaper reporters won’t shoot video if they have to juggle tapes and sit through capturing, so I purchased the HG10 to see if it would be viable for us. We, too, would have to upgrade a number of computers and software packages to work with the new format, which would cancel out any time-saving advantages. (Reporters would have fewer editing stations to choose from.) Movie Maker and Adobe Premiere, which our reporters use on their PCs, don’t support the format yet, and Pinnacle Studio 11, which does, doesn’t export in .mov, as Adobe does. That export option is useful if you’re trying to go back and forth from PCs to Macs. I think we’ll stay with tape for the time being.

  3. So far I’ve been very happy with the performance of the Canon HV20. The tapes and camera are compact, the video transfers are fast, the files are extremely easy to edit using iMovie ’06, and it has some nice features like the external mic/headphone jacks (an external mic is a must btw). I’ve edited on both an older 12″ G4 Powerbook and a new G5 iMac and it’s not a problem on either. It’s a bonus not to have to upgrade your system and to know you can edit video in your car if you’re running a deadline. I read somewhere transfering the AVCHD format to an editable file can be very time consuming so, if true, that will hurt working with a tight media schedule. With MiniDV and firewire the transfer is very quick and you can fast forward/rewind to what you need on the tape while viewing it.

    In HDV mode the video captures are stunning but it will eat up your hard drive space (1 hr tape=approx 30 gigs). Using DV mode will save space and the quality is more then enough for web use. The tapes are pretty cheap too so if needed you can label and archive them easily.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Curtis and Kathy. Tape is the way to go for now.

  4. Hello from India.
    We run a weekly English community newspaper and are testing a small web site for the area. We are keen to also have video reportage on it.
    We were wondering how best we could do it without having to shoot on tape (we own a Panasonic 3CCD cam) and spend time looking at the tape and editing it.

    It wld be great to have a cam with a hard disc which oould plug into a USB port and start editing . . .

    In India we still dont get the latest cams but we would appreciate some great suggestions as we move fwd . . .


  5. I think newspapers, especially smaller ones, would be well advised to stick with tape for the immediate future. The cameras are less expensive (so you should be able to get better lenses and features in lieu of that hard drive) the tape tech is proven and simple and in general is less demanding of your editing suite.
    I run an inhouse web and digital training centre for a Canadian newspaper chain that runs from small weeklies to a 100,000 circ daily and while we have a broad range of equipment (from very high end to very basic)our recommendation to papers just getting their feet wet is to keep it simple and cheap. You can always upgrade. We’ve prepared a guide for our papers “Going Digital Without Going Broke” that you’re welcome to read at http://tinyurl.com/26k5kk (which connects to the Guide on The Idea Factory, our blog).
    Thanks for info here, I find it very useful!

  6. Thanks, Bill — that’s a GREAT guide. It’s wonderful that you have made it available to all.

    I am pretty well convinced that we will have fewer headaches in spring 2008 if we just go ahead and buy the HV20s. There are plenty of adds-on already proven to work with these, and you are right, tape does simplify a lot of things — especially in a student environment, where the students do not own the cameras.

    (The Star, in Toronto, is producing some excellent video!)

  7. A note on tape..always stick with the same brand of tape….the tape lube use are not the same in each brand and will gum up the inerds very quickly and the cost of repair is high…and long….a good source is Costco in quanity

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  9. For educational purposes I still think that tape is the way to go. The HD digital formats bring up a extra problem of how you go about archiving your raw tape and edited materials. With a tape format you just shelve the tapes at the end of the process. In a digital HD world, you have to spend the extra time to archive your material on a (now) not too cheap Blu Ray DVD which eats up time and $$$s or on pro Digital tape (also $$$$). I would suggest that you would get the best bang for your buck going with any of the HDV products out there (I personally like the Sony Z1U) at least until the cost of flash chips drop to the about the same cost as Mini DV tapes. Being able to archive on flash chips would be fine with me if they were cheaper media. The only down side being to that would be that they are so small, they would be even harder to lable that mini DV tapes are today.

    Best of Luck

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  12. If one is willing to settle for non-HD video to upload on the internet, there is a way to get the HD video from your Canon HG10 video camera converted so that it can be loaded into Windows Movie Maker. The camera comes with the software you need to do this with. Doing it is not all that clear. I’ve provided a free tutorial on how to do this:


  13. We just bought a Canon HG-10. Love the camera. It captures a great picture with very good quality for the money. We bought it because it had the line in port for a microphone and because it was tapeless.

    We did not understand the proprietary nature of AVCHD until after the camera arrived.

    First, it’s a hard-drive sucking monster. 6 minutes of “tape” (what do we call it when there’s no tape?) will eat 600 megs when you transfer it to your hard drive.

    Elecard makes an inexpensive transcoder that will turn your AVCHD into either mpeg or avi files (and the avi files will be twice the size of the AVCHDs) easily, though slowly. From there, you can convert to Flash video or import into an editor.

    If we had known how long it would take to deal with AVCHD files, we might have done something else. That said, the HG-10’s a wonderful camera and we’re using it regularly now.

    We think the tools will catch up with the problem eventually.

  14. I am staggered at the way the manufacturers have dropped external mic and headphone sockets from their cheaper ranges. Sound is so crucial to shooting decent video… It feels like there’s some kind of cartel there making people trade up to higher spec models… Anyone know of a camcorder for $500 to $700 that DOES feature mic and headphone sockets? Forget 700x digital zoom and still photo and all that guff… I’d just like half decent sound…

  15. Canon HV20 is $800 at B&H — has both mic and headphone jacks — MiniDV tape.

  16. Hi Mindy

    Wish I could get one for USD 800 here in the UK… it still retails for near to GBP600 here – that’s more or less USD1200!

    Hmmm. I might just have to bite the bullet… but my hunch is we’ll all be using hard drive camcorders within 18 months… that’s certainly the way the manufacturers seem headed right now at this end of the market.

  17. I have a miniDV SD camcorder and use import mode from IMovie to capture the movie on PC. Obviously, this means that transfer to PC equals the exact time of playing the complete footage. Can’t this approach be used with AVCHD camcorders? Couldn’t I simply import the footage from an AVCHD camera in the same way? This method (importing footage) is independant of storage format, I assumed.

  18. @David K – I don’t know, but one of the reasons you buy a tapeless video camera is so you can simply copy the file over, and not spend the time doing what you have described.

    If you’re going to do it the long way, you might as well buy a MiniDV camera, and not AVCHD.

  19. Just got my HDR SR11 – the video captured, when played on a high-def TV looks good. But I was very surprised that getting the AVCHD into my Apple eMac is not easily done – I am still looking for a way.

  20. Eventually it will surely become easier to work with AVCHD. But right now, it is giving a lot of people gray hairs!

  21. what brand of tape is best for the canon hv20

  22. As an outdoor enthusiast and technology addict, I have to agree that Tape (HDV, especially) will be around for many years to come, and in my opinion, is superior to any HDD camera. Hard drives do save you some time when transferring, but can limit you in the amount of footage you can take in the field. When I travel internationally, it is great to know that I am only limited by the number of DV tapes I have (or can buy). The 5 to 6 hours of recording on hard drive cameras can go pretty fast in your 2 week trip to africa. With DVs, I can simply pop in a new tape. Plus, I never have to worry about a hard drive breaking, say on the ride home. Hard drives are inherently going to fail. One of the best summaries on this topic I have found is on the website http://www.modernmom.org – the author points out that the compression rate to HDD (at least, for now) can never be as good as tape because a hard drive is limited to writing at 18mb/sec, where has tape is 25mb/sec.

    Check out the review at: http://www.modernmom.org/main/Articles/Articles.html


  23. I bought a Cannon HF100 recently. Records onto a SDHC card. One card 16GB holds over 2HRS in AVCHD. I have two differant Editing programs, Pinnacle Ultimate Plus 12 and Cyberlink Power Director 7. They are both pretty cool to use. It took me a bit to figure out what setting to use when importing my video to the program and then what setting to use when producing to disk. It has a setting called HDVD. Its High resolution DVD. It burns to a regular DVD and is 1080i resolution I believe. The format is some sort of MPEG2. The DVD when finished looks far better than standard video even when displayed on my 40 lcd 1080p tv. Optional idea if not wanting to always burn your media to Blu-ray yet keep your resolution for an HD TV. It letter boxes on a standard TV but on a HD TV fills the screen. New to AVCHD format but learning. It took me like 3.5 Hrs to render 20 minutes of video after editing. Then another 20 minutes or so to rip it too DVD. Oh ya make sure that your import video settings are compatible with the video format you intend to burn. Otherwise 3.5 hours are wasted when your rendered video will not rip to a DVD. Then your back to step one all over. LOL! Learning like I said.

  24. There is an inexpensive piece of software that you can download called Voltaic (http://mac.softpedia.com/get/Video/Voltaic.shtml) that will convert AVCHD to a Mac-friendly format, such as MOV. I received a good deal of AVCHD footage from a field photographer some months back and was not equipped at the time with the latest version of FCPro which included AVCHD support, so downloaded Voltaic and used the free trial to convert all of the video [3 hours worth] into HD 720p MOVs… Of course, editing the HD content will tax your machine if you don’t have a good combination of sufficient RAM, processor speed, and video card capability, but Voltaic does offer another method to deal with AVCHD files for those who are in a pinch…

  25. Just had an Ah Ha! moment. The Sony Vegas/Sound Forge editing suites all handle HD video natively in .m2t format. That’s why it actually takes LESS hard drive space to work in HD with the Vegas products than it does to work in standard def. I was working in Vegas a lot 12 months ago, recording live video directly to the hard drive in the studio. I couldn’t transfer .m2t files directly into Final Cut at the time and couldn’t figure out why Sony was so committed to the format. With the emergence of AVCHD video using hard drives and SD cards I now know the answer.

  26. On the Mac, I’ve heard that Toast 9 can covert AVCHD files to a more editable codec.

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