Movies on the Move

A video library in your pocket and camcorders with no moving parts: the MPEG-4 wave is coming your way

The MP3 audio-compression format is a technical standard-turned-fashion fad: MP3 players have become ubiquitous on city streets in many parts of the world. It's probably no surprise that, as television followed radio, the next standard-turned-fad will likely be a video-compression format: MPEG-4.

Photo: RCA

The RCA Lyra RD-2780 is one of a wave of video players based on the MPEG-4 compression standard. However, the player's software falls short.

MPEG-4 became an internationally recognized standard in 2000. The visual equivalent to MP3, it was developed by the same organization, the Moving Picture Experts Group, an international working group operating under the auspices of the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission. Like MP3, MPEG-4 offers very compact file compression at selectable data rates. This allows users to make a tradeoff between quality and required storage space.

MPEG-4 represents a big advance over earlier image compression standards. At its highest quality and bit-rate levels, MPEG-4 can produce images superior to those produced with MPEG-2 (the DVD recording format), with only one-third to three-eighths the data.

With the new availability of high-quality digital video in manageable file sizes, pocket video players and camcorders with no moving parts are starting to appear, as well as hard drive-based video jukeboxes holding dozens of full-length movies. Soon, people will carry their movies, along with their music, in their shirt pockets.

Some of these new players and camcorders store video files in flash memory, such as the Secure Digital (SD) memory cards used in digital cameras and PDAs. Solid-state media make for a very compact and rugged player or camcorder--but this comes at a price: only minutes, rather than hours, of video can be stored.

Photo: RCA

The Fisher FVD-CI Pocket CameraCorder is one of the lightest cameras around, weighing in at only 170 grams.

More recently, a pair of players--one from Archos Technology, Irvine, Calif., and the other from RCA, a unit of Thomson SA, Boulogne, France--has gotten around the memory problem by building their devices around standard 2.5-inch (63.5-mm) laptop hard-disk drives with capacities up to 80 gigabytes. Both the players are powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, and both let you play movies on your TV--with picture quality similar to that of VHS--as well as on the built-in LCD.

Of the two, the winner is the Archos, for its more complete and usable software. Archos, a leader in the hard-drive-based MP3 player category, has introduced a gorgeous line of combination MP3/MPEG-4 multimedia jukebox players that feature a 9.65-cm LCD screen. The three models vary in storage capacity from 20 GB up to 80 GB. These units can also store photos and act as backup devices for your computer. You can add an optional camera module for US $199 that takes stills and full-motion video, saving them straight to the hard drive.

The RCA Lyra RD-2780, with its 8.89-cm LCD, is similar to the Archos devices at a slightly lower price. It doesn't offer a camera module, though, and the operating software is missing many features: try to adjust the contrast of the screen, for example, and a box pops up telling you to check the RCA Web site for a software update. Actually updating the software didn't result in the hoped-for functionality: it simply deleted the contrast control altogether! Releasing a product with such incomplete software is simply unacceptable.

Because few people have libraries of MPEG-4 content ready to load, the Archos and the RCA players can record analog video from sources such as your VCR or camcorder. Using an included snap-on recording module, the Archos AV series converts the video into ready-to-view files. The RCA doesn't require a snap-on attachment to record, but unlike the Archos, it accepts only normal composite video input, not S-video. Composite video is available from all VCRs but is of lower quality than S-video. For viewing on the tiny screen, the difference probably won't be noticeable, but it might be evident on larger screens.

Photo: RCA

Resolution of the Mustek DV 4000 camcorder is only 352 by 288, but for less than $200 it makes a fun toy.

Why don't these machines have TV tuners and timers, so that they can be used like miniature TVs with built-in TiVos? That would be the ultimate pocket video machine! The obstacle, according to Marco Delrosario of Archos, is legal, not technical. Because of the reproducibility of digital recordings, copyright concerns keep this handy functionality out of your pocket. Considering that the Archos machines can record the analog output from a DVD player--despite the presence of anticopying signals--it's puzzling that there's such worry about capturing unprotected signals off the public airwaves. However, units that can do just that are rumored to be coming soon from other manufucturers.

Things aren't quite so rosy on the camcorder side: the current generation of no-moving-parts camcorders offers recording times that are almost comically short--as little as 11 minutes. Also, memory cards are much more expensive than tape; the combination of short recording time and the high cost of additional cards demands frequent transfer of material to a computer. Another big problem is that creating MPEG files requires a lot more processing power than simply playing them back--in fact, at MPEG-4's highest possible quality, a little more power than can be easily squeezed into a camcorder. The problem is eased at reduced resolutions, but this can result in state-of-the-art camcorders capturing video at a quality that would be mediocre for a VHS tape. All this means that MPEG-4 isn't up to the standards of today's best tape-based machines.

Nevertheless, the opening salvos have been fired, and it's only a matter of time before moving parts in video cameras go the way of the phonograph needle.

Photo: RCA

Pocket video players like the Archos AV 380 still lack the ability to receive television signals.

Currently leading the way at the high end is the Panasonic SV-AV series made by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Kadoma City, Japan. In its highest-quality MPEG-4 mode, the top-of-the-line Panasonic SV-AV100 can store more than an hour of video. But the resolution is so low (320 by 240) that the picture isn't quite on a par with VHS quality. Given that competing products using digital MiniDV tapes offer resolutions up to 720 by 480, pixelated, sub-VHS images just won't fly.

To accommodate the limitations of current MPEG-4 hardware, the SV-AV100 also offers the option of recording video in the older MPEG-2 format: the quality is impressive, but the files are much larger. Its highest-quality MPEG-2 mode will exhaust the included 512-megabyte SD card in 11 minutes--not a lot compared with the two-hour maximum available from MiniDV tapes. The suggested retail price is high, too: $999.95.

The new Fisher FVD-C1 Pocket CameraCorder, from Sanyo-Fisher Corp., Chatsworth, Calif., offers better resolution. Available for $899, at only 170 grams the combination camera/camcorder is one of the lightest devices around and measures just 10.9 by 6.9 by 3.3 cm. It offers up to 21 minutes of 640 by 480 video on a 512-MB SD card, using a data rate of 2 Mb/s. It can store 3.2-megapixel stills and has a built-in flash. It's also one of the few SD card products to explicitly offer Macintosh as well as Windows compatibility.

On the lower end of the price scale are the Mustek DV 3500, DV 4000, and DV 5000 memory-card camcorders. They provide a rather low resolution of 352 by 288 when recording at 30 frames per second, but they also cost very little--starting at less than $200--and should be fun toys for very casual video recording or Web use.

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