Archive for the ‘transcoding’ Category

Review – Sony HDR-SR7 AVCHD Hi-Def Camcorder

Recently my old trusty Canon MiniDV camcorder started breaking down, and I decided it was time to upgrade to a new camcorder. Anybody looking at buying a new camcorder has to first answer one big question: do I upgrade to HD or not?

The HiDef camcorders still cost a big premium over SD. But in the end I decided the “future proof” appeal of the HD camcorder was worth it. Online reviews seemed to indicate that the Sony was the best choice.

There are a lot of posts on the net about how poor support for the AVCHD format used by the new HD cameras hampers their utility. Well, I’m happy to report that the situation seems to have gotten much better. The Sony camera comes with software that allows easy playback of the AVCHD files on my PC, and includes simple transcoding of those files to MPEG2.

The Camcorder

The camcorder itself is great. Small, light, easy to hold. The touch screen interface is pretty awesome. It’s easy to use. I haven’t stressed battery life yet. The camcorder records to an internal hard drive, no tape needed! This really is a great advance. No more spinning through tapes to find stuff. The video you record ends up in clips that you can easily review/delete right there on the camera. It actually works just like a digital still camera.

Connecting to the Computer

Lots of people have complained that the camcorder doesn’t include a USB port on the unit itself. Instead you get a dock which connects to the computer, and you place the camcorder into the dock. I agree it’s kind of silly, but it’s not really a big issue.

Picture

The camorder picture quality is awesome. I’ve only really watched video on the computer, but the hi-def is super crisp. I’ve seen complaints about poor low-light performance. Performance in low-light isn’t great, but it’s not much different than my old Canon SD. So personally I can’t complain.

Workflow

Basically all of my video is of my kids. As any parent can tell you, that means new video every week! So my motivation is not to craft the next Citizen Kane, but rather to get as much video processed as quickly as possible. In my case “processed” just means off the camera and into 3-5 min clips I can share with people. Now this is where this hard-drive camcorder really shines. Getting the raw video onto my computer takes nothing more than plugging the camcorder in and downloading the raw mts files. No more “grabbing” from hour-long DV tapes. Whoo hoo!!! Getting video onto the computer now takes just seconds.

Once I’ve got the raw files, I’m using Sony Vegas for very simple editing. I just drag clips onto the timeline, then say “Render” and generate my video file. Rendering still takes a long time (like running time * 5), but at least that process is totally automatic.

Conclustion

Fantastic. I love the camcorder, and I love the workflow. The best part is actually the hard drive recording into a compressed format. This makes a huge difference in the time you spend editing the video, because you’re just dealing with much smaller files, and no tape. The HD part is cool, but I could probably live fine with SD.

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Open source transcoding – part 2

Ok, now I've got an even better idea! What the world doesn't need is for me to dribble out bits of ffmpeg/mplayer usage to this blog, forcing you to waste a bunch of time with my ramblings trying to get the info you need.

What we do need is a place to store the collective wisdom on using these open source tools for manipulating video for the web (that is, automated video manipulation at the server, rather than through a client app).

So….I've created a new Wiki to gather this info. Please check it out:

http://videotranscoding.wikispaces.com/

Open source transcoding – mplayer and ffmpeg – part 1

So I've been playing with open source encoding tools as of late. It's tempting to attempt to use these tools for video work because they seem so powerful and flexible, not to mention free.

The biggest problem is just figuring out how to use the tools to accomplish what you want. So, I'll be recording some of my experiences here.

The defacto standards in this area are as follows:

  • ffmpeg – this is the core codec library that provides support for encoding/decoding video in mpeg, wmv, quicktime, flv and many other formats. Basically all the other tools use this library for encode/decode.
  • mplayer/mencoder – these utilities build on ffmpeg, but also include a host of other codecs and filters.
  • vlan – again, I believe this guy relies on ffmpeg for any non-standard codecs.

Generally speaking ffmpeg is a video file manipulation library and app, while mplayer/vlan are end-user video player application, and mencoder is an end-user encoding application.

These tools overlap in their capabilities, and yet have wildly different usage options. Some of the core challenges with these tools are:

  • Getting a build for your platform. Mplayer has some pre-built binaries, but generally these tools expect you to build them from source. Especially on non-Linux platforms this can be an incredible pain in the ass.
  • Figuring out the command line options! These apps are wonderfully powerful, and wolefully documented.

I'll be adding posts on my experiences using these and other tools, with the hope of aggregating some common wisdom on using these tools to produce video for the web.

Review: On2 Video Publisher

On2 Logo

As promised, here is a quick review of the On2 Publisher control
which competes directly with VideoEgg (see my review of VideoEgg). As advertised, the On2 control is a very quick ActiveX control install, with no downloadble .exe. The install was quick and painless on IE (FF is supported, but only 1.5). Overall the control is less attractive and less slick than the VideoEgg one, but it does the basic job.

I was able to drag a wmv video file from my computer onto the control. It lets me play the file, set Mark In/Mark Out, and then click ‘Publish’. When I click publish then it encodes the file to Flash and uploads its to the On2 test server. Everything went smoothly and you can see the results here. I used the same video so you can compare to the one from VideoEgg (here). Encoding results seem similarly good from both products.

I don’t really like how On2 sticks their logo right on top of the video – the VideoEgg widget has the logo off the video which seems nicer. Presumably you can change this if you purchase the On2 Publisher control for use on your site.

The On2 product seems less polished than VideoEgg, but it does the job. And given that I do believe the download/install is a big user barrier, the easier to install ActiveX control is an advantage. It seems that maybe VideoEgg will try to be more of an outsourced service, where they will host/serve the video and provide the control. This will probably make it easier for smaller sites to add video hosting. I’m not sure how or how much VideoEgg will charge for this service.

The On2 product seems targeted at integration with your own video hosting solution, which may make it better for larger sites.

Building the solution: Part 1 – The Format Wars

One of the fundamental questions when dealing with video on the web is: what format do I use? This question actually seems a lot easier to answer today than it was even in recent memory with the apparent dominance of Flash 8 video as the format of choice.

Flash had been showing up mostly on smaller sites, but recently I’ve started to notice more and more of the commercial news sites (like Foxnews) using Flash. I think I can safely say at this point that Real and Quicktime are dead as web video formats. WMV still has a little life, but given the horrible bugginess of the web control, I expect to see WMV disappear pretty quickly.

More and more of the sites using Flash are delivering good quality, fast serving, and great cross-platform/browser compatibility. Add to this the ability to brand/customize your player, plus supply a bloggable version, and the solution is awfully compelling. (One of the implications here is that if you’re not using Flash, then you’re at a competitive disadvantage).

One of the knocks against Flash has been the requirement to pay server licensing fees for the Flash video streaming server. Could this be the reason that YouTube appears to be using progressive download instead of streaming? It’s an interesting question since in theory streaming should save you a lot in bandwidth costs, for the simple reason that LOTS of video downloaded through an HTTP GET never gets watched by the user.

The server license cost can be offset somewhat by the fact that most of the CDNs are now supporting Flash streaming (see Limelight Networks or Vital Stream), although the Flash service does command a price premium.

So now that you’ve choosen Flash, how do you get your video into that format? Most of the authoring tools support a Flash codec, but for on-demand server encoding, you need an automatable solution. One that seems popular is On2, whose Flix Engine product supports server side Flash encoding. Anyone want to suggest any others or share your experience with them?