Archive for June 14th, 2009

JBQ and his Camaro

We spent a small fortune to fix the car, so today we drove it all around the county.

Benchmark: The best HD 720p digicam around

When I learned that the new Canon SX200 IS digicam has not only exposure compensation in video mode, manual focus in steps, but also the very important exposure & focus locking, along manual white balance/color/sharpness/contrast/saturation/skinTone/R/G/B, it was a sure sale for me. So we went with my JBQ today at Costco and bought one for $330 (he got a toy too, he bought a 120GB iPod Classic to fit his 50 GBs of music).

The camera records in 1280×720 resolution, at 30.00 fps, at 24 mbps bitrate, with the h.264 (baseline level 4.1) codec & mono uncompressed audio, in the MOV container. Now, think that the best AVCHD camcorder out there, also records at a maximum of 24 mbps, but at the much more demanding 1920×1080 resolution. This means that 720p at 24 mbps is actually a very solid, very generous bitrate.

I set up a scene on my balcony and tested SX200 IS’ video capabilities against my Panasonic FX150, Kodak V1253, and my trusty Canon HV20. Please note that while I shot everything in auto, I turned down to the minimum the color/sharpness/contrast/saturation/SkinTone of the SX200 IS, because that’s the look I like the best (and it’s more color-grading friendly). Please take a good note: the DEFAULT video look of the camera is MUCH more punchy and sharp in every way, which it might be what some consumers want, but definitely not what a serious videographer wants (the damn thing doesn’t color grade otherwise).

The Panasonic has a larger sensor, it records 24 fps in MJPEG at 25 mbps. Unfortunately, this bitrate doesn’t seem to be enough for the less-optimized MJPEG codec, as the picture shows below. The very famous Panasonic LX3 produces the same looking video as the FX150 btw, the two digicams are more alike than different in their video behavior. The Panasonics have exposure compensation, but not locking, creating a very jumpy exposure effect, which kills the seriousness of the footage captured. On the upside, its MJPEG format is very smoothly editable under Sony Vegas, unlike the much slower format of the SX200 IS.

The Kodak V1253, records in 720/30p at 12 mbps MPEG4-SP (simple profile, the same kind of the mpeg4 format as… cellphones record as). The Kodak cameras are plagued with color problems mostly, and the fact that they have absolutely no controls (not even exposure compensation). Under Vegas, its format is near-uneditable, and makes the editor very crash-prone (it realistically requires proxy editing). What Kodak has for it instead, is cheaper prices, starting at $120 (I guess, you get what you pay for).

The Canon HV20, is an HDV camera, shooting 1440x1080i mpeg2 at 25 mbps. In order to properly compare it with these mostly-30p 720p cameras, I had to shoot in the shade with an ND4 filter, at 1/30th shutter speed. I always have Cinemode ON btw, in order to emulate the filmic look (which is why the screenshot is not very sharp and might surprise some of you). I used 720/60i project properties on Vegas (in other words, I trusted Vegas to do a proper resize of the footage), and I used “blend fields” as the de-interlacing algorithm as it provided the best-looking image compared to not de-interlacing at all, or using interpolation (I tried all three options, and analyzed their best(“full”) captured screenshots before I decided which one to include above). Compared to the SX200 IS, it has of course many more options and controls since it’s a real camcorder, but most importantly, it has a better lens that provides twice as much background blur.

As you can see, the HV20 (as expected, even with the less sharp Cinemode mode) and the SX200 IS kill the competition out of the water. Yes, I know of the newer Panasonics that use AVCHD-lite instead of MJPEG, but they still don’t have as much control or bitrate as this Canon camera! Sure, the SX200 IS doesn’t have shutter speed control and a 24p mode, but compared to ANY other consumer 720p digicam below $500, it has the MOST controls and the BEST image!

If they add shutter speed control and 24p option in a future model (even without IRIS/ISO control), that team at Canon should get a medal.

Verdict: get one yourself! Don’t bother with its competition (unless you prefer to buy an actual camcorder, or a DSLR).

Update: Read the comments below, there’s some more info.