MiniDV vs. HDD vs. SD Card (Solid State)

by Fraser

A while ago, late 2006, I wrote about the choice between miniDV and HDD camcorders.nBack then, I liked the convenience of not needing tapes, but was concerned about the HDD skipping when filming snowboarding (follow-cam). Plus, the HDD camcorders were still relatively new so they were more expensive than their similar, miniDV counterparts.

But what about now? Solid state, or flash, memory is getting bigger and cheaper all of the time. Are the suped-up SD cards removing the need for hard disk drives? Or do HDD models still have a place in the market? How does the choice between miniDV and HDD/SD feel now?

Some things that I know

OK, so I’m kinda outside my comfort zone writing about this stuff. At the end of the day, I’m interested in good quality video that’s suitable for the snowboarder’s environment. So here are some of the things that I think I know.

  • DV, digital video, records at 720 x 576 pixels, for PAL systems. That’s what my current camera records at. MiniDV cassette tapes are used for recording DV. DV was designed for recording to tape, so if you’re considering a camcorder that uses miniDV tapes, you’re probably looking at 720 x 576 resolution.
  • HDV, high-definition video, has a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels (720p) or 1920 x 1080 pixels (1080i/1080p). Perhaps a better description would be “higher” definition, as I’m sure there’s more to come. HDV records to cassette tapes too. It just seems that it’s more common to see camcorders that use hard disk drives or flash memory for recording…
  • There’s no quality difference between HDD and solid state; one is bigger and cheaper, the other has no moving parts and is faster.
  • Recording format aside, the quality of both the lens and the chip/sensor are going to play a big part in the final quality of the video.

Some things I don’t know

Like I said, I’m not totally sure that I’m on firm ground here. There are still a bunch of things that I don’t know…

  • MiniDV records raw video and HDV is compressed. Is that right? Or is it that the direct file-based storage of HDV is compressed, and, if you record HDV to a cassette you get raw, HD video?
  • Can you get consumer level HDV camcorders that record to tape? Or is that reserved for the higher end stuff? Are the manufacturers choosing to push HDD and SD card storage at the consumer level?
  • Is there a correlation between the size of the sensor and the final display resolution? For example, I’ve seen a camcorder that is capable of recording to either DV or HDV, how does that work?
  • Has the camcorder market confused the terms? It seems to me that they use “miniDV” to mean standard DV, even though a miniDV cassette could be used to record HDV. And they use “HDV” to mean high-definition video recorded to file based memory, even though HDV can be recorded to tape cassettes…
  • Has the editing software changed much? Are the files recorded onto either HDD or SD card easy to edit once they’re on your computer?

So what’s there to choose between?

The choices that I’m interested in are:

  • No tapes: HDD or SD card?
  • Tapes: DV or HDV?
  • Finally: tapes or no tapes?

No tapes: hard disk drive or SD card? So let’s say I like the convenience of not needing tapes. For snowboarding, I like the solid state memory. I’ve not used a HDD camcorder before, but I’ve used MP3 players with hard disks and they can skip at times. I’d hate the recording to skip just as your friend nails his best trick of the trip – or even worse, if I’m the one being filmed 🙂 And I imagine that the HDD camcorders respond less well to taking knocks or being dropped.

Trading off the storage size. OK, so opting for the flash memory means less size, 120GB hard disk or a 32GB SD card. I think that a 32GB card should supply around 70 minutes of HDV video, which should be more than enough for a day on the hill. And besides, you can always swap another one in if you run out of space.

Tapes: Standard definition (DV) or high definition (HDV). Let’s say I like recording to miniDV tapes. Is everything out there high-definition now? The thing is, more pixels doesn’t necessarily give you better quality video – if the rest of the camera is poor you’re gonna end up with a poor image. But if you’ve got a decent lens and a good sensor, then why not have HD?

At the consumer level, for recording to tape, I’m more interested in a good, all-round package. I don’t want the HDV badge at the expense of the other components.

Finally: tapes or no tapes?

As a snowboarder, I like the no tape option, specifically the SD card option. My previous concerns over the non-miniDV route were skipping, robustness and cost. Solid state memory eliminates the first two, and, now that the HDV market has matured the cost of a high-definition camcorder has come down some.

Is quality still something to consider? At the same price point, will I get better images on miniDV? I don’t know. And editing: do the file-based cameras provide something easy to work with, like an .avi, or are they propriatary formats?

It’s a big topic and my knowledge isn’t that great, so please add a comment if I’m missing something or have simply got it wrong!

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