Tapeless camcorders and the Mac

If you’ve been keeping up with our camcorder reviews at Macworld , you’ve probably noticed that we only evaluate miniDV camcorders. You might ask, “Why not the latest line of high-definition camcorders that utilize hard disk drives, SD cards, and DVD-R to store footage?” From what we’ve heard, most camcorders that use such storage methods aren’t friendly with iMovie, the video-editing application included with iLife.

Recently, I had a chance to get my hands on a batch of “tapeless” camcorders and put them to the test, and I’ve got good news and bad news. To avoid being old-fashioned, I’ll start with the former.

The Good News I had good results with an SD/SDHC card camcorder, the Sanyo VPC-CG65. This camcorder stored footage in .MP4 format, which imported into iMovie without any problems. The catch is that .MP4 is not iMovie’s primary format, so when you’re editing you have to allow iMovie to convert the video to .MOV first. This, of course, will cost you some time. On a 2.5GHz Power Mac G5, it took me roughly 14 minutes to convert 7 minutes of .MP4 into a .MOV. I guess two minutes of conversion time per each minute of footage isn’t too bad though, right?

I also tested a Sony Handycam DCR-DVD408, which stores on mini DVD-Rs or mini DVD-RWs. This camcorder’s storage method is a little trickier. After recording your footage, you have to “finalize” the DVD. In this finalization process, the camcorder burns the footage onto the DVD, allowing you to play the disc in a DVD player. The problems? You can play your footage, but you can’t edit it on your computer. Also, Mac CD/DVD loading slots can’t read mini DVDs.

Then again, from my understanding, DVD-R camcorders are aimed at a specific consumer group—that is, those who simply wish to point, shoot, and playback. Therefore, Mac compatibility isn’t very relevant to this type of camcorder; all you need is a DVD player that will play mini DVD-Rs.

The Bad News I tested two hard-disk drive camcorders—the JVC Everio GZ-HD7 and the Panasonic SDR-H200. After connecting them to my Mac, their hard drives mounted on my desktop, and I located their video files. The GZ-HD7 and the SDR-H200 recorded in formats that couldn’t be recognized by QuickTime or iMovie—.TOD and .MOD, respectively. After some experimentation I learned I could play .MOD files using VLC Media Player. My attempt to import a .MOD file into iMovie, however, resulted in video with no audio. So with the GZ-HD7 you can’t edit your footage on a Mac. And the SDR-H200 won’t work well with Macs either, unless you regularly make silent films—and I’m assuming you don’t.

After speaking to some camcorder makers, I learned that high-definition HDD camcorders utilize a recording format called Advanced Video Codec High Definition ( AVCHD )—which neither Final Cut nor iMovie support. I’m puzzled as to why Apple doesn’t yet support this format: I always thought Macs were supposed to be ahead of their time when it came to multimedia and creative applications. Overall, this is disappointing, since hard-disk storage is much quicker and more convenient than having to perform live captures with MiniDV tapes. An Apple representative told me she could not comment on whether Apple had plans to implement AVCHD compatibility in the near future. So if you’re an avid video maker and you plan to continue editing with your Mac, I’d say the safest bet right now is to stick with MiniDV. Though MiniDV is considered relatively old technology, camera makers are still producing excellent MiniDV camcorders (the Panasonic PV-GS320, for instance). I’m optimistic that Apple will eventually add support for recording formats used by HDD camcorders to its video-editing apps; I’m just not sure when.

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