Safe Harbor Computers offers 3 great portable video field recording devices, but which is right for you? The Blackmagic Design HyperDeck Shuttle records uncompressed video, while the Atomos Ninja and Samurai units record to the Apple ProRes codec. This is not meant to be a review of any of these units – rather, I wish to explain the compression and storage methods used by each, along with the associated storage costs, to help you decide which might best suit your particular workflow and budget.
To learn more about the ProRes codec and uncompressed video, please see one of our previous blog posts, Apple ProRes 422 codec vs. Uncompressed HD.
Of Color and Compression
If you’re not familiar with what 4:2:2 and 4:2:0 refer to, please see this link -http://blogs.adobe.com/VideoRoad/2010/06/color_subsampling_or_what_...
Today’s solid-state HD video cameras are capable of shooting some incredible images, but ultimately this quality potential is limited by the compression codec used to save the video to the memory card. Most cameras are using AVCHD, or some other variant of the H.264 codec, to compress the video at a data rate of 24Mbps or less, using 8-bit 4:2:0 color. At first glance, the video playback may look quite good, but scenes with complex detail and high motion can exhibit compression artifacting. And then there’s the issue of color detail.
Science has proven that the human eye is much better at seeing differences in brightness, or luminance, than it is at seeing color detail, and that’s why 4:2:0 color is often used, because "no one will really notice anyway." The problem is that your editing and compositing software WILL notice! When it comes time to do color grading, keying, and compositing, 4:2:2 color produces results superior to 4:2:0, making it much easier to pull a clean key or do precise color correction.
On top of that, 10-bit color produces much smoother gradients than 8-bit color. Have you ever tried to color correct a blue sky, only to run into banding issues? 10-bit color gets around this by offering 1024 levels each of red, green and blue, versus just 256 shades with 8-bit color. That’s over one BILLION (1024^3) possible colors versus 16 million (256^3). I know 16 million seems like a lot, but when you get into editing color, 8-bit really doesn’t go very far. Remember in grade school, when it was preferable to have the 64-count box of Crayolas? Same thing!
So what if you could take the stunning HD imagery coming into your camera lens, and bypass the negative effects of compression, capturing the full fidelity of the video signal with 10-bit 4:2:2 color as uncompressed QuickTime or the visually lossless Pro Res codec? Today, you have options to do just that!
At just $345, the Shuttle is by far the least expensive of the trio being discussed. The Shuttle unit records 10-bit uncompressed 4:2:2 QuickTime files onto user-supplied SSD drives from SDI or HDMI sources. For green screen compositing, commercials, features, or any other short-form recording needs that demand the ultimate in quality, uncompressed is definitely the "no compromises" way to go.
Keep in mind that uncompressed HD video chews through storage very quickly, so if you are shooting stage events, weddings, or other long-form videos, then Shuttle is probably not a good fit. A 128GB SSD drive starts at around $200, and will only hold about 12 minutes of HD video, so remember to budget for multiple SSD drives beyond the cost of the Shuttle itself. The SSD contents can of course be off-loaded to another hard drive in order to re-use the SSD, but you may wish to have extra recording capacity available in the field.
The Shuttle offers video playback capability via HDMI and SDI outputs, but to edit the captured videos, you’ll need to pick up a third-party hard eSATA drive dock ($30-40) to connect the SSD to your edit rig. You can then edit direct from the SSD drive, or copy the contents to your video editing hard drive. The Quicktime files will work in any editing software, Mac or PC, but keep in mind that high-speed RAID storage is recommended for smooth playback of uncompressed HD footage on your computer.
Power for the Shuttle is provided by the internal rechargeable battery, or the included 12V adapter can be used with available AC power. Recording and Playback functions are controlled by physical buttons on the sides of the unit.
Atomos Ninja - $995
The Ninja accepts an HDMI video input and records 10-bit ProRes with 4:2:2 color. Three quality levels are available – choose from ProRes LT, 422, or HQ, at data rates of 100, 145, or 220Mbps respectively. ProRes is often called "visually lossless", and with 10-bit 4:2:2 color and data rates far greater than camera-native codecs, it’s a vast improvement.
For storage, either an SSD or a laptop hard drive can be used. SSD drives are recommended for situations where shock and/or vibration could cause a spinning hard drive to skip. For most applications, the inexpensive laptop drive will work fine. A 500GB laptop drive retails for under $80 and can hold from 5 to 11 hours of ProRes 1080i HD footage! A 128GB SSD (about $200) holds from 77 minutes to 3 hours of HD video.
A hard drive Dock is included to connect the drive to your Mac or PC, and includes USB 3.0/2.0 and Firewire 800 connectivity. Video can be edited direct from the drive, or may be copied to your edit system. Although ProRes is an Apple codec, it works just fine in Premiere Pro on the PC. As long as QuickTime is installed, you should have the ProRes codec on your system, ready to edit with.
As mentioned, the Ninja can record several hours of footage to a single drive. To assure uninterrupted recording for long durations, Ninja uses dual Sony-style camcorder batteries that auto-switch and are hot-swappable, so power should never be an issue on all-day shoots.
The Ninja features a 4.3" color LCD screen to view the video you’re capturing, and it is also a touch-screen to control all functions of the unit. Lacking a video output, playback review is limited to the onboard screen.
Atomos Samurai - $1495
The Samurai is the Ninja’s "big brother", featuring SDI input rather than HDMI, an SDI video output for playback review, and a larger 5" screen. The ProRes compression and hard drive options are the same as the Ninja, but Atomos has announced that they will soon be offering Samurai users the option to purchase the Avid DNxHD ® codec, providing users yet another high-quality 4:2:2 codec to work with.
These portable recorders will allow you to take your existing camera to new levels of recording quality. This can be especially beneficial to owners of older HDV camcorders (with HDMI), where the quality improvement can be dramatic since HDV tape records at just 1440x1080 using old Long-GOP MPEG-2 compression technology.
The HyperDeck Shuttle will provide the least expensive start up costs, but purchasing several SSD drives can quickly add up. If the short recording times offered by the Shuttle suit your style, then there is no substitute for uncompressed video quality, and you’ll be very happy with this professional unit.
For users than can benefit from extended record times, the Atomos Ninja and Samurai models can meet those needs. The laptop hard drives are so inexpensive, that they can actually be put on the shelf to archive important footage just as you would with tape! As for drive costs, capacities will continue to increase while prices move downward, especially for SSD drives, so it will be up to you to evaluate current storage costs at the time you read this.
If you have any questions about these products, or video workflows in general, please contact Safe Harbor at (800) 544-6599 and we’ll be happy to assist you.