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Built-In Video is Just Built-In Hype

Jeff Sauer

May 2000 | A friend who's having a baby soon told me that he's got a certain amount of money for a camcorder and digital camera. He asked for buying advice, hoping he could get one very good, multipurpose camcorder with photo mode, or a still camera with video to address both wants at once. Indeed, today's 2-megapixel cameras produce very good still pictures, and 3-megapixel units have already been announced--but be careful of technology hype when it comes to motion-video in these devices.

I haven't decided whether this video capture is the vision of marketers playing a features game or engineers flexing their sure-we-can-do-that muscle, but it's not a serious feature, and has little value beyond a line item on a sales brochure. Sure, it's clever and will impress friends and passers-by, but only as long as they don't look closely at the image quality.

the user gets captured by the game

Sony, Olympus, Casio, Epson, and others all now include video capture in some models, promoted as an easy way to get video onto your computer for email or Web sites. Unfortunately, quality is poor, clips take up too much space on the camera's storage cartridge, and as a result it's strictly a novelty that will likely see little use after two weeks of ownership.

Sony's marketing gets the worst grades for exploiting consumer misunderstanding of low bit-rate video. Sony calls what its Digital Cybershots capture "MPEG video." Unfortunately, while it bears a resemblance to MPEG, its reduced picture size and frame rate are not standard MPEG, and it will not play in a standard desktop MPEG player. For consumers to understand and be comfortable with video, and start creating the overly anticipated bonanza of future video emails, this stuff has to look better and work effortlessly.

Most other manufacturers capture similar low resolution, low frame rate clips, but into JPEG sequences that are more likely to play without special software. Unfortunately, quality is generally even worse than Sony's, because it doesn't leverage interframe compression. (Creating good-looking, low bit-rate video for the Web is hard enough when it's done with smart compression tools.) These cameras offer ready-for-the-Web consumer convenience, but their brute-force approach does little to make it useful.

If you capture poor-quality video to start, you'll have no chance to improve it later. A better approach is to start with good quality and recompress if necessary. Most of the digital still photos I take of my newborn son, for example, get cropped, squeezed, and recompressed before going on the Web, but they look better than if they were captured at that resolution, and I still have the full-quality original for paper printouts. Similarly with video, a better solution is to use a camcorder, capture in full resolution, and take the time to make something others might enjoy watching.

stills à la photo mode

"OK, some digital camcorders take still photos now?" my friend went on to ask me. "I hear Sony even has one with photo printer built in. How can you beat that?"

Digital camcorders started the crossover trend with photo mode because it was relatively easy to do. Unlike the "pause" on an analog device with a big sync line, in photo mode you can easily use digital data to rebuild full-quality paused frames. When camcorders capture an image in photo mode, most use seven seconds of videotape per image. So why not just shoot seven seconds of video? Whether you're taking pictures of a moving baby or a stationary object, why have one image when you could choose from a sequence of 210 images?

Admittedly, Sony's starting to answer that question, in several ways. First, the Sony DCR-PC100 (introduced last fall) was the first camcorder with a megapixel CCD chip for taking still photos. (The newly announced DCR-TRV20 joins it.) Virtually all other camcorders from Sony and other vendors simply capture stills at the 640x480 resolution similar to video. That low resolution does only a marginal job, but the one million pixels of the new units match a general rule of thumb for minimal quality in still cameras. Second, Sony has built its Memory Stick storage cartridge into the camcorder, so photo- mode data does not take up videotape space.

A third potential answer from Sony is the forthcoming built-in photo printer of their DCR-TRV820. No doubt, printing out manually fed, wallet-size digital photos from your camcorder will win coolness points. But whether or not these stills will prove long-lasting quality photographs (given typical print degradation) remains to be seen.

Ultimately, even Sony agrees that camcorders can't match a dedicated still camera for true picture-taking. For starters, they don't have built-in flashes, making indoor photography questionable. They do have zoom lenses, and often even manual exposure and focus controls, but rarely macro-mode focus, aperture control, or compression quality settings. With megapixel still cameras becoming more affordable, the features in a camcorder are of limited value.

OK, so I'll admit that over the past four years, built-in photo mode in a couple of cameras has improved, and at that pace, we'll see genuinely intriguing multipurpose devices sometime within the next decade. Unfortunately, for the time being, if you don't want a serious compromise on the quality of either video or stills, you'll have to pack two cameras.

Jeff Sauer (jeff@dtvgroup.com), columnist for The Moving Picture, is the Director of the DTVGroup, a research and test lab that regularly reviews tools and technology. He is an industry consultant, an independent producer, and a Contributing Editor to New Media Magazine, Video Systems Magazine, Presentations Magazine, and AV Avenue.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.

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