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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