AVCHD video: The hardware is willing, but the software is weak

If you've got to Google before using your video, the camcorder's not ready for prime time.

AVCHD logo

Latest updates in bold.

After 20 years in the biz, I've lost count of how many times I've heard, "The software hasn't caught up with the hardware." Usually, however, it simply means you have to wait a bit before recognizing the speed benefits of your expensive 64-bit, dual-core system, or find games that show off the long-shader support in your graphics card. With camcorders, however, it means you can't use your video.

Personally, I don't consider a camcorder as mainstream if you have to search the Web and troll forums to find software to play or edit your video. The highly lame software that comes bundled with these models doesn't count. That's where we stand with AVCHD, even eight 10 months after the first models hit the market.

I just reviewed the Sony Handycam HDR-SR7, a very nice HD camcorder hamstrung by lack of software support. What surprised me was that the situation hasn't changed much since late last year when I reviewed its equally promising predecessor, the SR1. Now, as then, the only thing you can easily do with the video is play it on an HDTV, direct from the camcorder. Neither Microsoft Windows Media Player nor Apple QuickTime as yet offer decoders--a reader below claims he plays files in QT, but I think he's confusing the H.264 codec with the AVCHD format, because as far as I can tell, neither QT nor QT Pro recognize the format. That means you can't simply play the files on a computer, much less send them to your friends, without down-converting to SD (which defeats the purpose of spending the extra $500 or so for an HD camcorder). After a few days of retracing the Web tracks I made last year, I decided to share the current state of AVCHD support with all you potential buyers.

Updated 8/9/07: Adding to the confusion, the Canon HG10, which we've just reviewed (and admittedly isn't shipping until mid-fall), can record 1,440x1,080/24p video. It's likely that most of the software won't support that mode in the first go-round. The camcorder will be bundled with an as-yet unconfirmed set of Corel applications. My guess is VideoStudio 11, which doesn't yet support the 24fps files.

Updated 10/24/07: I've never been a big fan of DVD-based camcorders, but mixing them with AVCHD seems to be one of the worst ideas evah. You just end up with the worst of two worlds: slow, unstable (for real-time recording, at least) low-capacity media combined with a confusing, low-compatibility encoding format. Can you tell I've just completed my testing of the Canon HR10? The HR10 ships with four Corel applications: InterVideo WinDVD SE for playback; Ulead DVD Movie Factory SE, for importing and transcoding AVCHD files into other formats; DVD Movie Writer SE, for burning DVDs; and GuideMenu, which seems to function much like Sony's MediaCheck tool, sitting in your system tray watching for AVCHD files to appear in your file system. For what it's worth, the way Movie Factory handles AVCHD files is--unsurprisingly--just as annoying as VideoStudio 11's.

I also ran into an as-yet unsolved mystery: Windows XP on my system could not properly read the AVCHD disc (Windows Explorer reports zero objects), while our lab tech had no problem whatsoever on his system. On my PC, the bundled software applications read the disc, but nothing else could. Of course, an afternoon of googling yielded no useful information about my Lite-On DH16A1L, which could be a culprit. Suggestions welcome.

Updated 10/25/07: Rabw mentions Elecard Converter Studio AVC HD Edition ($75; free trial) below as a potential solution. I purposefully haven't discussed transcoders--software that converts files from one encoding format to another--for a couple of reasons. First, I believe that any file format that requires manual transcoding before you use it is not transparent enough to be an adequate consumer solution. It's true that all video-editing software transcodes video into an intermediate format, but it does so on the fly without user intervention. Second, once you start discussing transcoding software you inevitably must address the quality of the encodings, which I so don't have time to test. You guys are free to post comments with your experiences, however.

After a couple of pain-free AVCHD experiences--notably, footage shot with the new Canon Vixia HF10 and repeat visits to clips from the Sony Handycam SR7--I was beginning to mellow, and even predicted that 2008 would be the year that AVCHD was finally ready for the mass market. Then I began my attempts to open 1,920x1080 videos shot with the Panasonic HDC-SD9. In short, every application I and our Labs' tester tried--iMovie, Pinnacle Studio, Ulead Video Studio, Sony Vegas and Avid Liquid--at best could open but barely play some clips, and more often simply hung or crashed. Panasonic's tech support wanted me to use HD Writer, the horrible home-grown application Panasonic ships with the camcorder. I finally got InterVideo WinDVD to consistently play clips, albeit not very smoothly. Updated 4/2/08: Per drj444's comments, I revisited VideoStudio and realized I hadn't upgraded to 11.5. I did and tried again. The clips came in okay, but the software crashed soon after I'd imported them. Sigh. Updated 5/2/08: Tried again and it seems to work now. This also ties in with my theory that many technical problems will simply go away if you leave them alone for a while. In any case, if you're looking to edit SD9 files, it looks like Ulead VideoStudio is your software. ArcSoft's TotalMedia also provides very nice playback.

Updated 5/2/08: As if AVCHD camcorders aren't problem enough, along comes the Casio Exilim Pro EX-F1 sort-of-hybrid still/video camera to bring all sorts of unwanted software excitement to my life. I haven't had a chance to take it out into the world yet--I've been spending hours trying to figure out what applications can properly handle its FHD 1080i and 1080p files (the 720p clips seem to be okay in software that supports QuickTime files). Complicating matters, the Casio uses the QuickTime MOV extension rather than the more "standard" MTS extension used by Canon, Panasonic and Sony. Ultimately, after much trial and error, I figured out that only the bundled software, ArcSoft TotalMedia Extreme and TotalMedia Theater (see below) can play the files. The kicker? No editing capability. You can't even transcode the videos to edit them in something else. I called Casio tech support and a rep told me that they don't know anything about third-party software, and actually suggested that I go to my local electronics retailer and ask them for advice. After the laughter died down, I did some poking around on ArcSoft's site and saw that the retail version of TotalMedia Extreme includes the Studio editing software. But it doesn't seem to be in the trial version I downloaded. I'm trying to find out how to get it, so stay tuned. Updated 5/6/08: I've heard back from ArcSoft and as far as I can tell, Studio isn't real editing software anyway, just disc authoring. So scratch that as a potential editing solution.

Also, one note for those of you complaining in the comments about the Pixela software bundled with the Canon HF models: stop trying to use it and spring for some real software, such as anything mentioned here. This is one occasion where spending a little money beats sticking your head into a wood chipper, which is what it feels like to use bad software.

Playback:

  • Updated 5/14/08: ArcSoft TotalMedia Theater (BD/HD DVD). $89.99; 15-day trial download. Requires entire file structure to play back from folders, though drag and drop works for individual files.
  • Updated 3/13/08:  Nero 8 Ultra Edition Enhanced 8 (with ShowTime 4). $80; there's a 15-day trial download, but AVCHD support requires the full licensed version.
  • Updated 5/6/08: CyberLink PowerDVD 8 Ultra. $99.95; no trial download.
  • Updated 5/14/08:  Corel WinDVD 9 Plus. $79.99; trial download does support AVCHD files, but only by dragging and dropping them onto the player. According to a Corel rep: "'open from folder' functionality is for DVD folders only. There is no definition of an AVCHD folder in the AVCHD spec. AVCHD folders have the exact same structure as BDMV folders so, for security concerns expressed by the Blu-ray Disc Association, Corel WinDVD 9 Plus Blu-ray does not support AVCHD or BDMV folder playback." (emphasis mine). This is odd, since other products will read from the BDMV folders.

Editing:

  • Added 5/6/08: CyberLink PowerDirector 7 Ultra. $119.95; no trial download.
  • Added 11/15/07: Final Cut Express 4. $199; no trial download. For Intel-based Macs only. As far as I can tell, there's no list of supported models, which bodes well in my mind. Notably, FCE4 can mix HD and SD video on a single timeline, just like its very expensive big brother.
  • Updated 5/14/08: Sony Vegas Video Movie Studio Platinum Edition. $129.95; 30-day trial download. As of Version 8.0c, Vegas Platinum supports Panasonic and Canon files. I opened a few files to check. Woo hoo! According to the release notes for Version 8.0d, it now supports 1,920x1,080 files, but not for Panasonic.
  • Updated 6/6/08: Pinnacle Studio Plus 12. $100; no trial download available.
  • Final Cut Pro 6. $1,299 (part of Final Cut Studio 2); no trial download available, and AVCHD editing requires a Mac Pro with Intel Xeon CPU.
  • Updated 4/2/2008: Corel Ulead VideoStudio 11.5. $99.99; The current version of VideoStudio now lets you import AVCHD files--it no longer requires the entire directory structure--and author AVCHD discs.
  • Apple iMovie '08. Apple only supports a few of AVCHD camcorders, however, and even those have a couple of caveats. Here's the current list of supported models.

Adobe Premiere Pro CS3 and Premiere Elements 4 don't yet support AVCHD editing.

 

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