A Proper Review of The iVDR By Maxell

Maxell iVDR device with hard drive inserted.

I’ve lived with the Maxell iVDR for more than a month now and I can say definitively what I like about it and what I don’t like about it.  That’s what I mean by a “proper” review.  I hate reading reviews by people who have held the product for a few minutes in a controlled environment but haven’t had to get dirty with it.  This isn’t one of those.  Before I get down to it, let me say a little bit about what exactly it is and what it can do.  So here’s my impression of C-Net, minus the star ratings, which I think are a little bit of a dated way of saying how good something is.

First of all, let me say what I was doing with it.  I went to the Edinburgh Fringe for the month of August where I filmed over thirty shows for producers there, who wanted DVDs and clips for publicity and fund raising purposes.  I did this last year with two miniDV cameras.  The problem then was that one camera would have to swap tapes at 45 minutes in and the other at about 55 minutes in, which meant a lot of coordinating in different locations with no way to communicate between the cameras.  What a stressful gig that was.  Also it meant hours and hours of putting tapes into the computer while I could have been editing.

This year I was shooting on the same Sony HVR-Z1U  and an ancient Sony consumer camera (wide shot only) that recorded to miniDV in HDV 1080i format.  I was editing on an Avid Express Pro HD system I built on an old XP based HP laptop I got off Ebay for last year’s fringe.  I needed the XP computer for the Express Pro software, which only runs on that OS.  It works well, if a bit slowly when rendering and outputting video, but it’s been a workhorse for more than a year and it hasn’t failed to work yet.  I’ve been storing media on a 2tb Western Digital hard disk I’ve mounted in an external USB case and I have a second identical drive set up to receive finished content.  When it is time to make a DVD though, I plug the output drive into my Lenovo X301i which has Adobe Master Suite on it, so I can author DVDs.

The Maxell iVDR is both a recording device for SD and HD digital recordings through IEEE 1394 (firewire) and it’s an encoding device that can take tape recordings and turn them into several types of video files that can then be loaded into the editing system faster than tape and can be archived more easily and with more of a space savings.  It doesn’t get in a lot faster than tape (my test was 30 minutes of video which took about 28 minutes to get in) but if you have put tapes into the iVDR by playing them back in VCR mode when you have some downtime (say between shoots) this saves you the time spent changing tapes on the way in.  I would just plug it into the computer and transfer the tapes I’d done at night while I was sleeping.  If I didn’t have downtime between shoots to do my conversion to the iVDR, I’d just do that while I was working on something in the Avid.

Anyway, this means my workflow meant I was easily copying the media into the computer and reusing the drives.  Because of this, I would also black the tapes I’d just shot with (on my other camera, which only does miniDV) and reshoot on those same tapes, saving a little money (let’s not forget how much more expensive tape is since the tsunami in Japan.)

Maxell iVDR 250gb hard drive.

Maxell iVDR 250gb hard drive.

The Maxell iVDR is also professional grade, with tough, hot swappable, interchangeable hard disks that (and I’ve not tested this because I paid good money for mine) can be dropped on the floor and still work.  Well, I won’t get into that.  They seem built pretty tough though, so I wouldn’t doubt it could withstand such an impact.

It plugs into the camera with a firewire cable much as it attaches to the computer, but it comes with these great, little short cables that are perfect for it.

First, the good.  This thing works.  Well.  It mounts either on the camera (it comes with a shoe mount that screws onto the base of the iVDR) or any place you can attach the shoe bracket it comes with.  I attached it to the tripod I was using, though it only fit securely when the tripod was extended halfway up, because of the fixed size of the bracket.  The bracket is actually designed to attach to the handles of some miniDV cameras, not tripods, but it worked well for me.  I’m very happy with how it attatches.  Apparently you can even mount it under the camera, by attaching the tripod mount to it, then mounting the camera on top of the recorder.  I don’t have the stuff to do that though, so I stuck with my two setups: on the camera or on the tripod.  Overall, a good design meant to work with many different cameras.

Quality was excellent.  Perfect, actually.  Better than the tape I normally use, and I normally use very expensive tape that rarely has errors.  As I wrote above, I used the iVDR to shoot with the Z1U, then I would take the tape from the other camera (between shows I had some time to recharge and reset) and encode it as well, saving me time in the editing room.  If I was editing and I had tapes left to input, I would copy them into the iVDR while I worked, then I’d input the masses of “tapes” into the computer while I slept.  It was a very efficient use of time and tech.

iVDR screen

iVDR screen (turned off)

Second, the bad.  The interface is… spartan.  The screen is a back lit line of digital text that can be challenging to navigate at first… and at second.  It’s also quite confusing.  When you set up your drive, you format it and chose its playback and record settings.  If you fail to do this, trying to record will result in the “Missing Object” error message.  I managed to iron this out on my drive 1, but on drive 2, I can’t get the bloody thing to work.  It keeps giving me the error message.  Good thing I got drive 1 working.

The interface is run not by the flashing buttons at the business end of the device, but by a switch/button on the side that manages to be both uncomfortable to push and difficult to get to work.  I still can’t get my second drive set up because it seems even though I think I’m setting everything up properly, it won’t work.  That’s just the nature of the control: you’re never really sure if you’re pushing the button, forget if it’s the right button.

Maxell iVDR buttom/switch

Maxell iVDR buttom/switch

The Maxell iVDR's buttons, plugs and status LEDs.

The Maxell iVDR's buttons, plugs and status LEDs.

The display includes a bunch of LED buttons and a few LED indicators that light up and change color/flash to tell you various bits of information.  Normally, I love this.  Simple and effective.  In this case however, it falls down in a few places.  I know it’s built small to keep the weight down, but the battery light was a problem for the entire time I was filming in Edinburgh.  It’s supposed to be green when the battery is full, orange when less full and red when it’s about to die.  Sometimes green meant full, sometimes green meant it was a big fat digital liar and I was about to have to run a tape if I didn’t want to miss something.  Helpfully, it does this sort of light show/seizure when it’s about to die on you, which is a nice thing when you are set up for tape, because you can get rolling and not miss anything, or at least not miss much.  More worryingly, when you are recording, the record button glows red, which, since it is located right next to the power status LED, bleeds red light into the other LED and can make it look like you’re about to run out of juice when in fact you are not.

Finally, there is an adapter that comes with the rig.  It can be plugged in via IEEE 1394 or by USB+power adapter.  Sometimes it worked with USB, until it stopped altogether.  Other times it just wouldn’t work.  I couldn’t get it to work at all via IEEE 1394 on multiple ports with multiple interfaces (hardwired, PCMCIA, Win XP, Win 7).  I haven’t tried it on my home HP Z800 workstation yet, but I hope it works.  Maxell tech support couldn’t puzzle this problem out for me.  At least I have a bunch of extra cables now, as I had to try many in my efforts to get it to work.  Ostensibly, having this working would mean you can shoot on one drive and transfer to disc with the other.  Sounds good, but it doesn’t happen for me yet.  I’m guessing mine is just a little messed up and others would work.  Either way, the main unit will plug into the computer without a problem, so unless you’re shooting and handing your drive to an on site editor while you swap drives, this shouldn’t be a major issue.

I haven’t tried the alternative systems yet, but what I like most about this is the hot swappable drives.  There are similar systems that come with gorgeous touch screen displays, but have only one internal drive, or that record to flash memory sticks, but aren’t really professional grade.  This balanced what I wanted with what was dreamed up by ivory tower engineers much better than the other similar types of products.  For me, even a basic remote that I could plug in to augment the controls available would have been a major boon.

Overall, I like this product.  It does what it’s supposed to do and it does it well.  It just annoys me while it does it.  As a way of making my Sony Z1U a lot closer to its next generation counterparts, it works beautifully.  It turned my HDV miniDV recording camera into a high tech, straight to file 21st century machine.  And for that I’m grateful.  I wish it would work on my 1st gen consumer Sony miniDV HDV camera, but working with the Z1U was all I really needed.

I just wish I could say definitively when the power runs out.  Hopefully the next version will address this.  For what it lacks in power meters it makes up for in power-to-cost-ratio.  This thing is fantastic and I don’t know what I would have done without it on my last gig.

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Gaming Machines As Editing Machines

I just had a look at this sweet little machine and it brought me back in time a couple years.  In 2005 I purchased a one handed gaming controller, one of those mini-keyboards with only a dozen or so buttons on it.  The idea behind making it was that a gamer would use it and a mouse to kill zombies rather than a traditional keyboard.  I wanted it so I could map all my editing commands and even some scripts I could custom program into the device, thus saving me time editing.

It worked for a while, but as I started to learn more about the Avid, I needed the full keyboard and when I tried doing something simple again, it was impossible because I couldn’t remember how I’d set up the controller.

This machine though might be different.  With a touchpad that is also a screen, one could do a lot for simple effects like titles, or maybe even map certain commands to parts of the touchpad and have the appropriate icons on the pad.  And with some of the new high tech mice coming out, one of which you can buy here, I’m thinking that having a touchpad on one’s laptop to save desk real estate isn’t necessarily such a wonderful or necessary thing.

Ultimately though, I think a fully OLED keyboard is what’s necessary to bring gaming devices into video postproduction.

Theatrical Lighting Done Badly For Film

I’m editing a show right now I just filmed here at the Edinburgh Fringe.  It’s the home stretch, the final days of the festival and I am booked wall to wall by producers who finally figured out that they wanted their shows filmed.  I barely have the time to do the actual editing.  It’s a lot of fun right now actually, as many of these final shows are actually quite good, which is excellent, especially since these will be my parting memories from the 2011 Ed Fringe.

I did however run into one unpleasant thing in these final days.  LED theatrical lighting.  Now, I know everyone wants to be green, whatever that stupid buzzword means, but really?  LEDs?  Well, just so all you theater techies out there will know this for when you’re lighting a show that will be filmed, LEDs run between 567 and 700 nm peak wavelength, which is I think the reason they make the stage vibrate like a 1980s video game background.  I tried adjusting everything on the camera, but to no avail.  Sadly, the only thing I can do is hope that when I output to quicktime there will be something I can do to the frame rate there that, with frame blending, will eliminate this effect.

Is It Wrong That I Want To Do It Myself?

I’m really sad that HP is soon to disown its PC business.  Sadder still that it has already put to death its mobile devices division.  It makes me want to cry when I put my hands on the awful keyboards of their current generation of laptops and think back to the very nice keyboards of just a few years ago.

What that, and Lenovo’s current lack of ability to live up to expectations has added up to is my desire to build my own laptop.  How hard could it be?

Well, for a start, it’s hard.  It’s hard to build a tower, even though you can easily go out and find a plethora of empty boxes you can fill with motherboards (also available to buy) hard drives, etc.  You really have to know what you’re doing and even then you may have components that work together on paper, but not in body.  Laptops are a different story.  To do this with a laptop, your best bet seems to be to buy the basic box and processor you want and if you want to make changes, install new components. Apples of course, you cannot customize in any way, because Apple is run by Nazis.

The problem with this is that many of these computers come with some arcane drivers that can go ape shit if you mess with the hardware, even if you’re only adding a bigger hard drive.  HP has always been good for this, but their current crop of laptops have been a huge disappointment to me.  If HP splits that business, it may improve the quality of their computers, but maybe not.  A computer is a tool.  Nothing more.  If the tool doesn’t fit the use, it’s useless.  On an airplane, the iPad is brilliant.  For me, in every day life, it’s no good because there’s no keyboard.  I touchtype.  That means I need a keyboard.  Add a keyboard to a tablet and you have a crappy netbook.

I haven’t tried the latest X series by Lenovo but that’s where I’d like to start when I decide to build my custom beauty, unless HP impresses me in the meantime.  Does anyone have an idea of where I might start, if I want to build my own portable Avid?

#iQuit

If you follow my twitter @MrLichtenstein (I have an @ManPoweredFilms I don’t really use, mostly so I own that name) you’ll know I beat the New York Times to the announcement of Steve Jobs’s resignation as CEO of Apple.  I have some thoughts on this that, if you’re a regular of my blog may surprise you.

First of all, I think it’s very sad that he is sick.  I do joke about it sometimes, but only because cancer is one of those things you have to smile at, since there’s little else that can be done.  My mother had it twice.  It’s a heck of an opponent.  I like the Churchill quote, “I like a man who grins while he fights.” Jobs has done just that.

When he came back from the wilderness in the 1990s, he lead Apple from being a shithole company that made frankly very bad products with poor customer support to one of the most successful companies in the world.  I’m not saying their customer service got much better, or that their products were really that much better, but he did help them move on.  Just as how Eric Schmidt’s cutbacks at Google may change its culture for the worse, so too may Steve Jobs’s departure hurt Apple.  I don’t think the culture of Apple works unless you have a top down mind like Jobs’s.  Google is about crowd sourcing ideas.  Apple is about turning to the Messiah.

There are a lot of things I don’t like about Apple.  I don’t like the fact that it isn’t open source.  I don’t like that it’s so expensive.  I don’t like that you can’t just buy the OS and put it on any old machine.  I don’t like that the Apple hardware itself isn’t always as well made as it is pretty.  I don’t like the lack of PCMCIA slots on their laptops.  I don’t like the Porschesque market driven way they set up their computers and mobile devices.  I don’t like that the iPad doesn’t have a proper USB slot.  I don’t like that the iPad doesn’t have a memory card slot.  I don’t like that Apple has used its market clout to push other media software makers toward the fringes of the marketplace by making Final Cut Pro so different from other programs that using it actually enfeebles editors’ ability to work with other programs.  I don’t like that the OS on iPads iPods and iPhones isn’t actually very good and yet Apple refuses to update it despite the existence of Android.  I don’t like that the Apple OS has enfeebled so many of its users that they cannot find their way around on any other PC.  Frankly, I don’t like the idea that people think of “PC or Apple” in as much as an Apple is a kind of PC, not a different kind of machine.

I do like some things about Apple however.  For all its flaws (and I haven’t even begun to list them above) Apples have made it possible for stupid people to get on line without the hurdle of learning to use a proper computer.  Apples have allowed grandparents to sext, art school grads to use Adobe without learning anything technical and of course provided jobs to a generation of child sweatshop laborers who would otherwise be working in the sex industry.

Jobs is a visionary.  I won’t say a genius.  He’s not one.  He is a visionary though.  In time, we’ll see a few more, so long as corporate culture encourages every person to be their own personal skunkworks.  Like Google.  In 2005.

I Am In Love With My iVDR

I’ve been loving the new toy I took with me to Edinburgh since I started using it.  The Maxell iVDR is a very cool device for someone like me, someone with an old (read: miniDV) HDV recorder that needs a hot swappable hard drive solution to replace the old tape ways of yesteryear.

I’ve been shooting with it for a while, but occasionally the battery doesn’t have enough juice left for several successive shoots in one day, as I don’t always have time to recharge.  As a result, I’ve recorded some media to tape that I had counted on having on the HD for purposes of passing it along to others as raw footage, or for putting into my computer for editing (it seems to take in these files faster than real time playout.)

So today, as I shot three shows, I was confronted with two tapes I need to convert to file and hand the raw footage over on a hard drive.  I tried various combinations of plugging my cameras to capture with software other than my trusty Avid Express Pro HD, but with little success.  A lot of them don’t recognize my camera, as it is much newer than the old software I had lying around.  What I learned though is that I can switch my camera, a Sony Z1U to VCR mode, plug the iVDR in as though I’m on a shoot, play the tape, hit record on the iVDR and it will record to file on the hard disk.

This is great, especially since I offloaded the media I shot earlier to a USB drive which is currently putting it into the Avid database.  The long and the short of it is this:  I thought this would mean me capturing tape for hours, then exporting to file for hours, thus tying up the computer I’m meant to be working on, for hours.  Instead, in two hours I’ll have the show in Quicktime and by morning, my computer will be ready to edit the other stuff I’m working on.  Hooray for tech!

The Old Girl Soldiers On

Somehow, some machines cling to life.  A car driven a million miles.  A phone abused since the 1990s and in my case, an XP based HP laptop from the era of the HP laptop with a keyboard you could use.

Today, laptops, many by HP, are fast, powerful and lightweight, with massive HD screens, bigger hard disks and keyboards, inexplicably designed to throw off anyone who learned to touch-type.  Mine is none of those things.  It sports an Intel Centrino, which is so many generations of processor ago, it may as well have fought at Waterloo.  It even has a sticker proudly announcing “Designed for Windows XP”  Yes, the dinosaur that refuses to die is still with us.

So, it has Norton 360 now.  It’s still running a version of Avid so old that kids graduating from college now will not have even heard of it.  Never the less, it manages to work.  I’m currently outputting a massive quicktime file of a show I filmed here at the Edinburgh Fringe.  It’s about an hour long.  Rather than tie up the computer with outputting three clips and then the massive file, since the computer seems capable of only using one processor per program, I’m exporting the massive file, then opening quicktime where I’ll chop off two of the three bits I need, then use Avid simultaneously to make the third.  All this, on a computer that was old in 2006.

Even the hardware works… sort of.  The firewire port doesn’t seem to work (which is fine as I have a PCMCIA card – it is a PC and not an Apple after all) and the DVD burner turns out not to be a burner at all, which I guess means it isn’t technically broken, just disappointing.  The hard drive is, get this, 80gb (75 usable.)  There are 4 year old iPods with bigger hard drives than this thing.  And yet.  And yet.

God bless well made machines.  My $5000 Apple lasted a month before something major broke.

Oh, look.  It just crashed because I closed the lid and Avid thinks I changed the resolution without asking permission.  Oh well.  Ctrl+Alt+Del…