UPDATE: iMovie ’08 now supports AVCHD.
Just in time for the holidays, our old JVC miniDV camcorder broke. We used it just a handful of times in the years since we purchased it, but we’re convinced that now we’re finally ready to start recording all those home movies that friends and relatives love to watch.
As we pondered a replacement, I noticed that Amazon is selling Sony’s new HDR-UX1 HD camcorder for an amazing 44% off: $850, a steep discount off the $1,500 retail price.
Wow. I did some research and found that this camera uses the brand-new AVCHD file format, currently unsupported by nearly every application on every platform. Only a couple of Windows programs — Sony’s viewer and PowerDVD 7 — can even play it back. However, the camera doubles as an SD camcorder — but recording in an MPEG2 format that’s also not compatible with iMovie. And, iMovie and other Mac programs can’t use the camcorder for video input like they can with miniDV. Hmm…
We took the leap and bought it. The quality of the HD video recorded by this device is astounding. I’m not a videophile, but it seems to rival equipment in the $3,000 range. However, using the HD video footage on the Mac is painful. You currently have to down-size it to SD sizes through a multi-step process (down-convert to MPEG2 on the PC using Sony’s tools, convert to DV format using the free MPEG Streamclip on the Mac, import into iMovie manually), but we’ve found that the quality of the final product in iMovie is just as good as any other DV / SD device (some find Sony’s downsizing algorithm too crude for their tastes). Of course, you can skip HD entirely and just record in SD with the device, but you still have to convert the output files using MPEG Streamclip for iMovie to use them (and Final Cut, too).
Since AVCHD is just H.264 in a different format than Quicktime’s H.264 movies, and given its use by both Sony and Panasonic, I’m hoping support for AVCHD by Apple is just around the corner. Regardless, I’m sure as AVCHD devices gain more traction in the marketplace, an easy workflow that converts this stuff to HDV footage for use with iMovie (as opposed to down-converting it to SD res) is around the corner. In fact, some folks report already doing it by a combination of custom C code and command-line video file format converters.
So the pain of the current editing process notwithstanding, we’re very happy with the HDR-UX1 and have given it quite a workout over the holiday season. It’s twin, the SD1, has a built-in hard-drive, but it goes for something like $1,400 on Amazon.