The New Digital Formats

By Robert Lamm

Just when we thought that Digital Betacam had settled in to rule the digital roost, Matsushita (parent company of JVC and Panasonic) introduced two competing new component digital formats. Why pay attention? They're a whole lot cheaper and portable than D-Beta.

DVCPro: D-Beta on smaller than Hi-8!

Panasonic's DVCPro records on tiny 6-1/2mm tapes that look like DAT cassettes. They've really thought the product line out, with a highly portable camcorder that looks like a lens with a handle, a very compact laptop editing system with two LCD displays built into the cover, and a high-speed player that can dump video onto a video server at 4 times normal speed. (Well, theoretically at least: There's no compatible video server in sight yet.)

But the sampling is only 4:1:1 and the signal is compressed 6:1. I turned the chroma up on a monitor (Boy, did the salesman get mad at me!), and one could see how the color wasnít as sharp as D-Beta. It's still better than composite, though. Although there aren't any subcarrier artifacts, I thought I saw some compression noise.

The amazing thing about DVCPro is that itís been developed out of a consumer format: The consumer versions should be out in a year or two. Conventional wisdom is betting that DVCPro will appeal to the Hi-8 crowd, which wants portability on top of image quality. They'll be waiting for a while, though: Only the full-size (not the laptop) editing deck is going to be out anytime soon, the other machines were just mockups.

Digital-S: Compatible with a large market

JVCís Digital-S uses VHS-sized metal tapes to record 4:2:2 signals with 3:1 compression. Consequently, itís performance is close to that of digital Beta. It's clearly aimed at a more elite clientele than DVCPro: the editing machine supports pre-read and the format is compatible with the S-VHS equipment that a lot of industrial users currently have.

JVC had a prototype editing machine that users could look at in comparison with a D-Beta deck. I couldn't see a difference. Conventional wisdom seems to hold that these machines will be popular in the industrial and graphics community, where the higher image quality and compatibility with S-VHS will help it beat DVCPro. A camcorder and editing deck should be out by the end of the year...

And what about Sony?

A couple of years ago, prior to the introduction of D-Beta, Sony showed a digital recorder that recorded component digital signals on Hi-8-sized tapes. It was just a technical exhibit, but if Sony decides to introduce a third compact-component-digital format, it could change the whole scene. On the positive side, we might have a nice price war. On the negative side, some of these formats might die and leave their users stranded...

Robert Lamm is manager at CYNC Corp., a video dealership in Brookline, MA. He can be reached at (617) 277-4317, cync@world.std.com.