Thursday, August 28, 2008


I downloaded the trial for VoltaicHD to see whether it would be a better alternative to the Final Cut Express import process for AVCHD files (or even if it would be useful for converting AVCHD files that aren't recognizable by FCE.) Note: the demo is good for 10 conversions, with a maximum file size of 50MB

First the good news: It converts .MTS files (native AVCHD files) no matter where they are, so that's a big plus over FCE and will be useful for archiving .MTS files. I copied a .MTS file from the camera card onto the Desktop and then successfully converted it. The program has a simple, but intuitive interface; drag the files into a list, where you can select them if you want to transfer them, and you can see a preview of the first frame of the clip by clicking the Details button. There's no In and Out point selection as there is in FCE, but I can live with that.

The bad news: it takes much, much longer than FCE to do the conversion. A 15 second clip took FCE 32 seconds to convert on my test machine (a 1.8GHz MiniMac) but took VoltaicHD 5 minutes and 22 seconds.

File sizes were almost identical: the original 15 second clip was 23.6MB. FCE's file was 246.6MB, while VoltaicHD's was 241.6MB Curiously, VoltaicHD's own FAQ says that files are typically 4 times the original size, but up to 7 times for "action clips" yet this source file was a camera held shot of a fireplug with the only motion being slight movement of the camera!

On the one hand this tool provides a way to access .MTS files that have been archived to another medium, but performance is poor (I'm talking about conversion time here, the file size is acceptable given that it's what FCE produces.) Other than for reconverting archived files, I don't see that I'll use it in place of FCE.

Final Cut Express SDHC Conversion

To provide a little more illumination on how the SDHC conversion works in Final Cut Express;

When you either mount the camera in disk mode (or have the SDHC card inserted in a card reader) and open the Log and Transfer window, the name of the volume appears with a spinning progress indicator:

After about 20 seconds, a list of clips appears. You can preview them, set in and out points, or simply drag from the top window to the bottom. The bottom window is a queue of clips to be converted.

Note that FCE only seems to recognize AVCHD files if they are contained within a valid file structure. If you try and copy the .MTS file into Log and Transfer from another location, you get an error message:

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

AVCHD Editing

I had two concerns when considering getting an AVCHD camera:

1. Dealing with archiving all that video content that I could no longer just file away on the tapes on which it was recorded.

2. Editing the AVCHD content

I’m still working on 1, but issue 2 seems to work okay…though there are issues.

I’ve been using Final Cut Pro for a couple of years, and Apple announced support for the AVCHD compressor with the latest release of it and FC Express. That meant upgrading, and – long story short – I ended up buying Final Cut Express 4.0, because it was cheaper than buying the Final Cut Pro suite.

After shooting some video with the Panasonic AG-HMC70U – and installing the software – I tried inserting the SDHC card into the card reader, mounting that, and accessing the files. The card mounted fine, and revealed a somewhat confusing directory structure, but I eventually found what I took to be the data files (.MTS) in a folder called STREAM. Unfortunately, these files were completely unrecognized by the system, and by the QuickTime player.

Putting the card back in the camera, connecting it using USB, and putting it in “disk mode” produced exactly the same results.

Time to read the Final Cut Express manual

This revealed that Final Cut Express can’t edit AVCHD files directly. Instead, you have to use the Log and Capture tool to view the clips and then convert them over into a format that Final Cut likes.

Opening the Log and Transfer tool, a small spinning icon appeared with the name of the SDHC card, and after about 20 seconds, it displayed a list of clips with icons. You can then select a clip, preview it, and choose in and out edit points. But you have to convert the clips before you can add them to the timeline. This is where things get more worrying, for while the preview is almost instantaneous and works well, the transfer process takes a lot of time. Admittedly I was running this on the lowest of the low – a 1.83GHz MiniMac - but it took 9 and a half minutes to transfer a 5 minute clip. That’s less than real time!

I found a review of Final Cute Express 4 that cites slightly better performance using a MacBook Pro with a 2.33 processor. Transfer times are 1:1.32 – better, but still less than one to one, which is how long it takes to transfer from an HD tape-based camera. (Note: the review suggests that FCE will only convert files that are on the camera, but I think the important part is the file structure; I mounted the card using the card reader and was able to transfer successfully.)

More troubling, the conversion process converts the files to the Apple Intermediate Codec (AIC) and the files are much, much larger than the AVCHD files (the 5 minute clip was 460.6 MB with AVCHD and went to 4.26GB in AIC.)

I have mixed feelings about these results.

a) This is the first rev of Final Cut Express to support the AVCHD compressor. I’m sure that in a year or so, the software will improve, the computers will get faster, and we’ll be editing AVCHD content without going through a conversion step. Also, I’m not shooting video every day, so I’m willing to take some of the pain right now.

b) However, if I was shooting day in and out right now, I’d skip this camera and get the Sony HVR-HD1000. The files are ultimately smaller, and more importantly, the transfer process is faster with HD minitapes if you’re doing more than a minute or two of video. There’s definitely some payback with the random access nature of the cards, if you’re shooting lots of little random bits, and only want to transfer over short subsets, then the loss of time during transfer offest by other gains. It really depends on what you are doing.

c) I’m going to archive the AVCHD clips, not the converted ones. I'm concerned that this may cause problems if I later want to import them into FCE (how to get it to recognize the files seems to be an issue.) The utility VoltaicHD may be particularly helpful for this, and I’m going to look into it. It claims to convert AVCHD files to AIC format. They also claim that their converted files are only four times the size of the AVCHD files.

d) What I’m going to do with the AIC files I’ve converted for projects, I’m not sure; probably save them in the short term, and delete them when I’m sure I won’t need to go back and reedit a sequence.

Finally, it’s important to note that Apple’s support for AVCHD requires the latest OS, and an Intel processor. It’s not available otherwise. The VoltaicHD utility supposedly runs on other machines – I’m going to try it – though they note that it requires quite a bit of system memory for converting longer clips.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Memory Snob

The AG-HMC70U comes with a 2GB SDHC card. That should hold about 20 minutes of video at the highest quality setting. Not too bad for playing about with, but not enough for everyday use.

B and H Photo (where I bought the AG-HMC70U), lists – amongst accessories - a Panasonic 16GB Class 6 card for $129.95. Considering what I’ve paid over the years for Compact Flash cards, that’s almost like giving them away, but I thought I could do better.

A search for SDHC cards at Amazon came up with only a few 16 GB cards (though I think the number increases each time I go back there!) My first preference was for a name brand card. The SanDisk Ultra II seemed like the obvious choice, which they were selling for $89.99. SanDisk is a “known” entity; they have been around for a while, and I have several cards from them already that I have been happy with. But a little research revealed that this card is a Class 4, with a maximum transfer rate of 15 MB/sec. The AG-HMC70U maximum bit rate is 13, so in theory a Class 4 should be fine, but there are Class 6 cards out there. I thought it would be better – both for this camera, and for any future purchases - to get a Class 6 if it wasn’t too much more.

My search proceeded to the SanDisk Extreme III, which was too much at $74.89 for 8GB, and ultimately to the Transcend 16GB (SD 2.0 SPD Class 6) which at $51.85, was cheaper than the Class 4 card, and included a simple card reader too! While I don’t really know anything about Transcend, the price difference was enough to make me give it a try.

I ordered the card, and can report that - so far - the card (and reader) have worked just fine. The card reader is about the size of a USB memory stick, and I wonder how long it will last; I once got a card reader bundled with a memory stick and it lasted two weeks before it stopped working.

I see now that there’s an A-DATA 16GB Class 6 card listed for $39.75. I’ve never heard of them either. If I buy a second card, it will either be that, or the Transcend 8GB (which sells for $26.35)