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HD For The Holidays: Formats, Formats Everywhere!

The signs of a high-definition season are all about us. Last weekend, according to Amazon, was the last weekend one could order an HDTV from the online retailer and have guaranteed delivery by Christmas. Go into any major appliance or technology store and you’re sure to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices in monitors ("HD," "TrueHD," "Really TrueHD"), cameras, video players, and all sorts of other goodies that herald the coming of an HD nation.

With Adobe, On2 and others getting into the game of HD streaming, I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching, creating, and testing HD workflows that the average consumer or content producer can replicate for quality HD streaming. But one of the biggest issues I’ve faced is maintaining quality from the camera to the transcoding engine, and that starts with the capture format on the given video camera.

Without giving away too much detail (a white paper on this topic should be out in early 2008), let’s explore the major consumer formats for HD.

Last Christmas season saw the advent of the AVCHD format, a new 1080i video format jointly created by JVC and Sony that is approximately 25% better than HDV in terms of recording bitrate (18Mbps vs HDV’s 25Mbps). Sony has been especially aggressive with the AVCHD format, rolling out both 30GB hard-drive and miniDVD models last year and bumping those up to 60GB models this year. The cameras are the typical HandyCam size, and the video is relatively decent, although I’ve yet to see an AVCHD camera that matches the quality of an HDV tape-based camera. But its solid-state and non-linear recording—whether by drive, disk, or flash memory—is sure to win the hearts of anyone looking for instant-on shooting capabilities.

AVCHD is also now supported in Adobe’s Premiere Pro via a third-party workaround and Apple’s Final Cut Pro, iMovie 08 and Final Cut Epxress, although the latter two use an intermediate codec (AIC) that has quality issues, in my opinion. Since AVCHD uses H.264 as its primary video compression, it is also able to be seamlessly transferred to HD-DVD or Blu-ray discs. The H.264 heritage also means it can be—with modification—streamed via Flash Player or QuickTime.

Speaking of H.264, there are several cameras out there now that capture full 1080i video on a disc or flash-based memory using a H.264 codec. One of the better ones is Hitachi’s Hitachi DZ-BD7HA, which has the claim of being the first camcorder to output video to the Blu-ray disc format. Capturing in the H.264 codec, Hitachi’s version is true H.264 and, as a result, is incompatible with software that can read AVCHD but can be read by QuickTime and several other MPEG-based transcoding tools.

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