NAB Roundup: Monitor/Field Recorders from Atomos, Sound Devices, Convergent Design, and Blackmagic
As large-sensor cameras at all price points become more prevalent, one of the most limiting factors to the image quality is the native video codec used for compression. Many of us are used to DSLR codecs that may hold up initially, only to fall apart during color correction (some codecs don't even hold up very well initially, except for viewing on the web). One way to overcome this limitation is to buy a much more expensive camera with superior recording options, like a RED or ARRI ALEXA. Another way to overcome the same codec issue is to pair an external recorder with a cheaper camera. Here's a roundup of the field recorders I saw on display at NAB.
Sound Devices Pix 220 and Pix 240
Sound Devices, known for their pro-level audio field recorders, was a surprise entrant into the monitor/recorder space with their Pix 220 and Pix 240, which are HDMI and HDMI/HD-SDI recorders, respectively. They record to CF or SSD media in ProRes or DNxHD codecs and, as you'd expect, have a more audio-centric focus, with full-size XLR inputs. They felt extremely solid, with excellent tactile, backlit buttons and a rigid cage. Their 800x480 resolution is standard at this size. One thing that stood out to me was the SSD drive caddies, which protrude significantly from the side (not pictured). I was told by their rep that they use the drive sleds because the SATA connector is not designed to be plugged in and out hundreds of times. Pricing for the 220 will be around $1,600 and the 240 will $2,600, with both shipping in July. Here's a look at the PIX in action from Coffee Sound:
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=0dCiaWCIUV0
Convergent Design Gemini 4:4:4
I've covered the Convergent Gemini previously, and it's a product I was looking forward to getting my hands on. It's an absolutely perfect match for the Sony F3 -- so much so that Sony was displaying a Gemini in their own booth (well, not really a booth -- Sony had an entire corner of the central hall, and it was more like their own mini-hall). The Convergent's main selling points are its size and weight (it's no larger than a field monitor alone), and the fact that it offers a plethora of recording formats (including 1080p/60p) as uncompressed data. Of course, if you're going to be transcoding to an editing format when you offload your footage, wouldn't you rather have your recorder use that file format natively? Sure. But the Convergent is a fraction of the size and price of the $10k Cinedeck (whose booth I didn't visit, as I figured that $10k field recorders are out of the purview of most indie filmmakers), and by recording uncompressed without the need for extra encoding silicon, the size, weight (and to a limited extent, price) of the device are the advantages to codec-less recording. The device felt extremely solid in-hand -- it's a great form-factor -- but the monitors were not working in record mode yet, so I didn't get a chance to test out the touch screen or menus. Here's cameradepartment.tv with a look at Convergent's NAB booth:
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=oywOGOc_ea4
The Gemini should be shipping in the July-August timeframe at a price of $6k -- you're not going to use it with a DSLR, but it's a great match for the F3's terrific S-Log mode.
Atomos Ninja and Samurai
Atomos made a big splash when they announced their Ninja $995 ProRes HDMI recorder, a good match specs- and performance-wise for DSLRs. DSLRs with a good HDMI output, that is, of which there should be more in the coming months. The HDMI connection is a consumer-level port (in terms of robustness), and the Ninja followed suit in my hands-on: it's a nice device for the price but it didn't feel like something you'd base a professional production around. The 480x270 screen felt a bit flimsy to me and is not to be used for focus-pulling purposes. However, at $1k the recorder is a nice complement to inexpensive shooting packages, and it comes with drive caddies, batteries, and a case. For higher-end work, the Ninja has a big brother, the Samurai. The Samurai wasn't anywhere to be seen when I visited the booth, but $1,500 should get you a HD-SDI input and 800x480 resolution monitor that is presumably better suited for pro work. We'll see when the Samurai ships in "summer 2011." Here's a look at Atomos' NAB presence from Tony and Sean at NextWaveDV:
Blackmagic Design Hyperdeck Shuttle
All of the aforementioned units are both monitors and field recorders. Some of them are more capable monitors than others, but if you already own a nice high-rez monitor, do you need a second monitor built into your recorder? If not, the Blackmagic Design Hyperdeck Shuttle might be your best option. At $345 (there's also a $995 Studio version), it's ridiculously cheap, and it does 4:2:2 10-bit uncompressed recording through either HDMI or HD-SDI. This is a disruptive product for the market because of its price, and while I didn't get a chance to do any sort of hands-on (given it was under glass), it's a pretty straightforward device as you can see in this video from DVXuser:
Similar to the Convergent Gemini, the Hyperdeck captures to uncompressed Quicktime files, leaving you to transcode to your preferred editing format during the offload. The Hyperdeck uses larger 2.5" SSDs, offers none of the monitoring options of the Convergent, is limited to 4:2:2, and does not list 60p 1080p on its specs page, but unless you have a Sony F3 upgraded with the S-Log firmware and need 4:4:4 output, the fact that Blackmagic's uncompressed device is 5% the cost of the Convergent makes it a very attractive product. And you can record S-Log to 4:2:2, toss on a $1,000 HD monitor like the SmallHD DP6 or ikan VX7e and you're looking at $1,400 instead of six grand. Seriously, $345? Some monitor arms cost that much. Blackmagic has come up with a product that's a no-brainer purchase, assuming it delivers good reliability to go along with its low price -- even if you only keep the Hyperdeck on-set as a backup recorder. The Hyperdeck starts shipping in May.
For more coverage of the gear on display at this year's NAB show, click here.