Flash based Camcorders, where it all started

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I'm on the edge of ordering 2 flash based camcorders for our team. Like all things in the BBC, we have to justify why were spending money on these cameras over other cameras we may already have access to. So why would we choose to buy flash based camcorders over miniDV or even DVCam/DVCpro. Well he're some public justification.

DV Tapes/technology is very old hat, painful and time consuming. The file sizes generated by the DV codec video and audio are stupid, there too big and problemanic for editing footage meant for the web, sharing and generally anything not for broadcast. DV relies on hardware which understands it and without it – its just a pain to use. Its not even like working with Mpeg2 which is more efficient (higher resolution at much lowe bit rates) or Mpeg4 which is extremely efficient. I mean a consistent 25mbit/sec no matter what is happening in the scene is pretty insane.

Some of you maybe saying but its huge file sizes for quality reasons. Well i'm not buying it sorry. DV is not a lossless format its based on DCT compression just like JPEG!

So a camcorder which doesn't use DV compression or/and tapes? DVD-RAM and DVD-R camcorders fell out with the general public years ago. HDD camcorders seemed like a good idea but for the most part they record to DV or Mpeg2. No its 2008, the big kid on the block is Mpeg4 and now with the h.264 codec you can quality which puts the pro DV stuff to shame. Yes it requires higher processing power but nothing a dualcore processor could not handle. The advantage is once your done editing, you just need to get the correct size, bitrate and framerate. No transcoding across formats needed.

So with that in mind, if the camera also supported Mpeg4, you could shoot, edit and upload in a matter of minutes rather that hours. Also the equipment is much smaller and portable. No more looking for a 6 to 4 DV cable and having to record it all in real time to a computer and huge drive.

Flash is the way forward and things are getting better and better.

I remember the first time I heard about a flash based camcorder (i'm pretty sure it was the worlds first) Panasonic Dsnap SDAV10. It could shoot 320×240 at 15 frames of second but a rare thing for the time, shoot as long as you had space on the card. It was amazing for its time (late 2002). The SD-AV20 and AV30 improved on the quality but Sanyo hit the market with there Xacti range of camcorders which shot up to VGA quality (640×480). They became the ones to get for the longest time, they even hit the market with the very first flash based HD camcorder. Since then there have been 1080p flash based records, upgrade of codec to h.264 at higher bit rates and serious challenges from Canon, Panasonic (3CCDs), JVC, Samsung and even Sony (which seems to be best you can buy right now).

Some people have been talking about the Flip, don't get me wrong it was a consideration but its too low quality and for the same price you can pick up a decent Sanyo Xacti C6 or even the Toshiba Camileo Pro

Rain uploaded videos from the Edinburgh Interactive Festival, which is exactly the justification for the flash based cameras. We do a lot of this type of interviews and I expect we'll be doing more in the future. We need to be able to edit quickly and upload files quickly. We also need to keep a reasonable quality version for future use, but it doesn't need to be huge files or tapes. I remember at Thinking digital I was able to record and copy files off the camera within the 2 min break between speakers and upload the footage to the web while the next speaker was talking. This meant by the time the conference was over, I was also done. No having to go back to the hotel to edit the footage or digitise huge files. I've also been thinking about paying Blip.tv to put a preroll (top) and outroll (tail) of the backstage logo sequence on all footage we upload. Which means we won't need to do much editing of the footage ever again. Makes sense right?

Flash camcorders are great and are really worth considering if your shooting for web content. Just make sure you get one which does capture to standard formats like Mpeg4 or Mpeg2. Avoid the cameras which shoot straight to Flash (swf) or even divx. They maybe great but a pain to edit. Also make sure you can read the flash card directly, aka can you eject the SD card and put it into a computer and read the files? If not run away! Most of the flash camcorders support USB connections but you should be able to swap cards around and read the data. Look for things like microphone inputs, stand mount and audio output which can be useful. For example my HD1 won't let you plug in a power cable and stand at the same time unless you use a special mount. I would also pick the biggest filming rez, because you can always squeeze a 1080p picture down to a nice SD broadcast quality picture IMHO. Lastly get backup batteries, the cameras eat power specially when using the higher rez's.

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Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.