Digicam video recording is a joke

A lot of people these days don’t buy camcorders because digicams are now able to shoot QVGA and VGA video at 15/30 fps and this seems to make a lot of people think that they don’t need anything more than that. As a result, camcorder sales are down the drain the last 2 years.

I have a very cheap camcorder (a Canon Z-series that costs less than $300) and I only use it once or twice a year at important social events (if you ask me where all its cables and accessories are right now inside my house, I wouldn’t be able to answer you). However, even if I use it so rarely, I still want it around and here’s why.

When we go to places we take with us our digicams, and while I have 4 of them (excluding the 7 cellphone cameras I have laying somewhere around) I mostly use the 6MP Canon A700 I bought last Spring. This camera can shoot VGA video at 30 fps, at a quality almost comparable to my camcorder (my camcorder doesn’t have as good quality but it has higher resolution, so I classify them as equal). Now, here is the catch: There is NO digicam that can compress fast-enough MPEG4 video and so the resulted video recordings are extremely uncompressed and unoptimized. You can barely fit 8 minutes of VGA video on a 1 GB SD card (and you need a high speed SD card for VGA recording).

Take as example this video which is VGA at 30fps from the new Canon A700 IS. For 10 seconds of video it resulted in 18.1 MB of file size. Now, use a utility like the 3GP Converter to convert this to either Microsoft’s AVI or Apple’s h.264 MP4 files (still at VGA, 30 fps, high quality). The resulted file size is just about 2 MBs on each case. In other words, depending on the digicam, you will get 9 to 10 times worse compression rate that you would get by normal and expected compression rate. Hence the huge file sizes.

You see, digicams need to encode in real time and there’s pretty much zero CPU power in those things. They need a custom chip, but custom chips cost a lot in R&D. In Canon’s case, their DigicII CPU can encode JPEGs very fast, but that’s all it does. Custom chip design is really really complex, especially if you want to encode video in any format more complex than MPEG-1. Even worse, most digicams only support Motion JPEG data format recording (with a .mov or .avi container format), which is not suitable as an output format in the first place.

And then there are the cellphones that can encode MPEG4 and 3GPP but even their “best quality” settings is actually pretty low. And most cellphones can only record either 3GP or just QCIF or QVGA resolutions. The Nokia N93 has the best encoding atm at high quality VGA, but as in the case of digicams, compression rate at these settings goes out of the window too in order for the Symbian OS to keep up with recording.

So, if you have the cash and you must attend your brother’s wedding, buy or rent a camcorder. Don’t take the easy way out of using your digicam or even worse, a cellphone, to record video. At least until Canon comes up with Digic III that is able to compress MPEG4 in real time at acceptable compression rates (and without running out of battery so easily on video recording), camcorders must have a place in your… closet.

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JBQ wrote on September 20th, 2006 at 1:31 AM PST:

The funny thing in the reasoning is that DV camcorders don’t win on compression, they win on storage capacity. A 1-hour DV tape holds 11GB of data, allowing for 60 minutes of recording in a format that is optimized for digital editing and TV playback.


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