Flash Memory Camcorders vs MiniDV Camcorders
The camcorder market is currently in a transition. MiniDV has dominated the camcorder market for over a decade, but that stronghold is beginning to weaken. Flash memory camcorders, hard disk camcorders, and optical media camcorders are all aiming to take MiniDV’s place as the king of the camcorder. Still, MiniDV is not dead yet, so which one should you buy?
Moving parts eventually equals broken parts. While tapes don’t have the same impact issues as hard drives, they still rely on mechanical motion to record. These mechanical parts are typically well proven and refined designs, but they are still moving parts. You will need to have your heads cleaned periodically and other service done to maintain the mechanical parts. Flash memory camcorders don’t have moving parts and are less likely to have maintenance issues because of this.
In terms of the durability of the actual storage media, flash is a clear winner here. Over time, tape is subject to stretching and is sensitive to magnetic fields. Most flash cards have a wider range of operating temperatures than MiniDV.
Winner: flash memory camcorders
Both formats share the advantage that the storage media is removable. This is a key feature, because it allows you to add more storage once you fill the current tape or card. MiniDV and to some extent SDHC can be found throughout the world, so if you are running out of space, you can always buy some more.
Buying more space might be more practical with a MiniDV camcorder than with a flash camcorder. A single 90 minute MiniDV tape can hold 19.5GB and costs around $3.00 ($0.15/GB). A 16GB class 4 SDHC card costs around $40 ($2.50/GB). This is one of MiniDV’s biggest advantages over flash memory (and even a little better than hard drives).
A MiniDV tape is 37.4 cm3 compared to 1.6 cm3 for an SDHC card. And your math is correct; SDHC is 26 times smaller than MiniDV. Why is this a big deal? Well, your camcorder has to be at least 37cm3 bigger (really even more for all the mechanics to record and play) for MiniDV than a flash memory camcorder. Also, if you want to take several tapes with you, they begin to take up a lot of space. MiniDV’s storage density is the worst of the 3 formats, by far.
It should be pointed out that a hybrid approach to storage can offer unique solutions to problems. A few MiniDV camcorders support recording to flash memory. Also, a portable video storage device can be used with a flash memory camcorder to lower the $/GB.
Still, MiniDV holds enough of an advantage in cost and availability that it’s the winner in this category.
Winner: MiniDV camcorders
If a photographer shoots in a compressed format like JPEG, then color, light, and detail information is thrown away in the camera and never makes it to the editing application. Detail is then thrown away a second time when converting the finished photograph into JPEG. To counter this professional and enthusiast photographers shoot almost exclusively in uncompressed RAW format to preserve the original fidelity of the photo until it can be edited on a computer and then compressed for distribution. This is the workflow that videographers would love to have, but it does not exist in the consumer space. All video is compressed, especially HD video. Yes, you heard me, all.
There is a misconception that MiniDV does not use compression. In fact MiniDV is compressed using DCT compression (a lossy compression algorithm a la MPEG-2) at a bit rate of 35 Mbit/s. That 35 Mbit/s is comprised of about 25 Mbit/s for video, 1.5 Mbit/s for audio and 8.5 Mbit/s for error correction. The misconception may stem from the fact that the same video encoded in MPEG-2 and H.264 will be 50% smaller in H.264. This leads to the perception that MiniDV is not compressed, but really H.264 achieves better compression through a number of factors, including borrowing details from the previous 16 frames, whereas MPEG-2 only borrows from one previous frame.
H.264 (a.k.a. MPEG4, a.k.a. AVC, a.k.a. MPEG4 H.264, a.k.a. AVCHD, a.k.a. a.k.a.) is the current standard for High Definition video. Blu-ray uses H.264, High Definition TV uses H.264, and just about everything HD uses H.264. H.264 is not really a single standard, but rather collection of standards, levels, profiles, and vendor specific extensions. H.264 does not necessarily mean high definition as almost any resolution of video can be compressed with H.264. This is important because not all H.264 is created equally. If you are concerned with quality, then you want to look for “High Profile” camcorders with Level 4.0 or greater. This will typically mean 24Mbit/s camcorders. As you can see this is about the same as the video encoding of the MiniDV format.
Each form of compression will have its strengths and weaknesses, but they are roughly equivalent in the case of 24Mbit/s camcorders. In both formats, you will have to decompress the video to edit it and then recompress it again. Because this is a more complex compression algorithm, it does take more CPU power on your computer to decode it for editing. If you record directly into H.264 and don’t plan on doing any editing then you would end up with the least loss due to compression, but this is probably unrealistic for most people.
Winner: flash memory camcorders
Yes I went against conventional wisdom. It’s pretty close to a draw, but I figure if I can use a better compression algorithm and get more compression while maintaining the same bit rate then that’s an advantage. Also, if I can have the option of recording in the same format I want to distribute, then that’s and advantage as well.
We covered this a little bit already, but accounting for the tape and all the mechanics to record/play the tape, flash memory camcorders are going to be at least 50cm3 smaller than MiniDV camcorders. This means that a flash camcorder is lighter, easier to hold, and may not place as many design constraints on where buttons can go.
Winner: flash memory camcorders
There is a large body of software that works with standard definition MiniDV, so this should be MiniDV’s category to win, but there has been some fragmentation around MiniDV in the high definition formats. Vendors have added proprietary extensions to the format to support HD, and so the compatibility may not be as good as standard definition MiniDV support.
H.264 (AVCHD) is relatively new compared to MiniDV, and so when introduced there were few software programs which supported it, but that is changing. A year ago this would have gone to MiniDV, but there is a healthy body of software available now that supports AVCHD, and with AVCHD gaining market share, you can bet this will be the format of the future.
Both MiniDV and flash memory camcorders are very good formats. Each offers distinct benefits, and can coexist for a while until flash memory drops in price enough to become cost competitive with MiniDV. If you have existing editing software which doesn’t support AVCHD, or need a lot of cheap video storage on the go, then MiniDV is a good option.
Flash memory camcorders are probably the form factor of the future, and so if you are more concerned with future compatibility than current compatibility flash memory is going to be a better option. Flash memory camcorders are smaller, lighter, less power hungry, and more durable than their MiniDV counterparts. If you like flash camcorders features but are concerned about storage, get a portable storage device to mitigate the cost of flash memory.