Review of the Sony HDR-SR1 - The Practicalities of AVCHD
The Sony HDR-SR1 is the world's first high-definition, hard drive camcorder. It represents the start of a new era, and is a camera I've personally been waiting many years to see arrive.
When JVC introduced the Everio line of hard drive camcorders in late 2004, I figured it would only be a couple of months until they came up with a high definition version of the same. Prosumer high definition camcorders were already available at the time, so it seemed logical they would marry the two at the earliest opportunity.
The closest they came, was an optional hard drive attachment for the very sexy GY-HD100 . But Sony has caught up with JVC, and taken the lead in the consumer market, with this groundbreaking and reasonably priced camcorder.
I managed to get my hand on one of these when they were launched in the UK last month. I've now had a chance to put it through its paces...
(Please note this is not a full review of the HDR-SR1. You can find a comprehensive review here. Instead I focus on some of the practicalities of dealing with Sony's new file format AVCHD).
While the premise of this camera is excellent, dealing with Sony's AVC file format is very difficult. This will change in the months ahead, as leading software makers release updates to cope.
Sony has decided to use an H.264 based file format they call AVCHD, promoted in conjunction with Panasonic. I've been a fan of H264 ever since Apple started using it in Quicktime. It's a very efficient compression algorithm, yielding excellent picture quality and small file sizes.
Unfortunately, Sony's H264 isn't compatible with Apple's H264, and there is not a single major editing program that currently supports it. Even Sony's own 'Vegas' editing program will not be supporting the format until Spring 2007.
So what can you do with the footage?
The camera stores high definition footage on its internal hard drive as .m2ts files, one file for each clip you shoot. You can easily transfer these to your computer via USB - the camera shows up as an external hard drive on your computer, as you would hope and expect.
You can also use Sony's supplied software, available only for PC, to transfer footage, and this is an efficient way of importing lots of clips at once. The software organizes these clips into chronological folders, according to the date of each clip's shooting. A nice feature.
If you are on a Mac, you will need an Intel Mac and have Windows XP installed to do this. Nobody to my knowledge has got playback to work on a Mac yet other than running under Windows. And I've searched. I have a Mac Pro, and the only way I can play back the files is to boot into Windows XP using BootCamp, and install Sony's software. This works very well, but is not exactly ideal.
Playback of AVCHD files
To play back files smoothly you will need a very fast computer. Decoding H.264 high definition footage is extremely processor intensive. I tried it on Dell's latest entry level laptop as a yardstick, and the playback was slow and stuttery.
Sony's Picture Motion Browser software is used to browse your imported media files. To play back a clip in full screen, you highlight a clip, and click the slideshow button at top, which looks like a movie projection screen. This fires up the 'Player for AVCHD', a program I initially tried to open by itself without success. On the MacPro 'PC', playback was smooth and very impressive. You use the arrow buttons to move left and right through different clips, and hitting Enter acts as a pause control.
To playback .m2ts files in any other player requires some jumping of hoops, but is not very difficult. In basic terms you need an AVC decoder installed on your computer, and that done, you can play back the files in Windows Media Player, and other players that support DirectShow technology.
The 3 Steps to play back .M2TS files in Windows Media Player
(UPDATED MARCH 2007)
- Download and install a trial or full version of Cyberlink PowerDVD 7. If you decide to purchase it, you will need the Deluxe or Max version. **UPDATE** - Curiously (because of this post?) Cyberlink have removed the H264/AVCHD codec from their Cyberlink PowerDVD trial, even though the version number has stayed exactly the same. Until I'm told otherwise, here is a trial version of PowerDVD 7 with the original codec included (CL264DEC.ax).
- Rename the imported .M2TS files to have a .MPG extension
- Double click a file to view it
All this works because Cyberlink PowerDVD comes with an AVC DirectShow compatible decoder as part of the software package. Note that there are other files on the camera's hard drive, and you do not need to transfer these for playback. All the video information is stored in the .M2TS files.
Other Media Players
CoreAVC is a commercial AVC decoder costing $15 for a multi-core processor version. This codec claims to be the most efficient AVC software decoder, meaning you can get away with a less powerful computer for smooth playback. I have not been able to get it to work, but many others have.
Nero offers an AVC decoder and if you are a Nero enthusiast this might be a good option to try. I did not test it myself, but according to this benchmark, it is the slowest of the main players.
Elecard offers an AVC plugin for their DVD Player. I tested a trial version and the quality was below par. I did not test their MPG player which also has an AVC plugin.
Editing with AVCHD
There are three approaches to editing with AVCHD.
- The first is to use Sony's supplied software to convert the .m2ts files into mpeg-2 files, and then edit those. This is not ideal, because it lowers quality, and the quality of the converter itself is not great.
- The second approach is to capture the HDMI output of the camcorder with a capture card. Blackmagic Design are about to launch an HDMI capture card costing $249, and I am hoping to receive a review copy to put it through its paces. If it works, this would represent a very attractive option, since the quality should be very high indeed. It would also allow capture of live HDMI footage from the camera, without the quality lost when compressing the files for storage on the internal drive.
- The third and final approach is to use editing software that can deal with AVCHD directly. As indicated above, none of the major software packages currently allow this, but there is one lesser known option. The Cyberlink AVC decoder is a DirectShow filter, and in theory this means that any editor supporting DirectShow should be able to use that decoder to access the footage. TMPGEnc XPress is one, and it will happily edit .m2ts files, no renaming required, providing you have installed the AVC decoder as described above. It is a simple cuts only editor, albeit one with a wide array of export options. You will need to add each clip twice, once in the video browse dialog and once in the audio browse dialog to have audio. I successfully used it to edit two .m2ts files together and outputted the result in HDV format. The quality was impressive.
I have tried unsuccessfully to find another editing option including several open source and commercial video editors claiming to have DirectShow support. So far I have tested...
- uLead VideoStudio (earlier versions supported DirectShow)
- MainActor (DirectShow)
- Positron (DirectShow)
- Avidemux (DirectShow)
- Jahshaka (cool looking open source NLE. DirectShow?)
In conclusion, it seems that DirectShow compatible media players work well (e.g. Core Media Player), but DirectShow editors do not.
Do you have any tips for working with AVCHD?
I would be grateful if you would share any tips or experiences you have working with AVHCD and the Sony SR1 below. Your comments will also help other SR1 users. I will maintain this posting over time and add any new information I find.
UPDATE - Blackmagic have sent through their HDMI intensity card for review and I have begun putting it through its paces here.
If you've enjoyed this post you can receive future musings, as I write them, via email. I post about once a
week year on average. More techy folk might prefer to subscribe to my RSS feed and I'd be delighted if you do. I'm rather more active on Twitter, have a few pictures up on Flickr, and I tend to keep track of people on LinkedIn and reluctantly so on Facebook. My day job is running WorldTV.com - a site for doing cool things with online video.