So, what do you know about AVCHD? - Macenstein

So, what do you know about AVCHD?

Macenstein has now gotten enough of a readership base that I feel the time has come to abuse our popularity and ask for a little technical advice. The question today has to do with whether or not I should buy an AVCHD camcorder, or, more accurately, whether I should return the one I just bought.

In preparation for Halloween and multiple children’s birthday parties, this Saturday I went to Circuit City and picked up the Panasonic HDC-SD5 AVCHD camcorder. Without getting too technical (mainly because I can’t) it’s a 3CCD flash memory based camera, meaning no tapes are involved. What sets it apart from most other High Def camcorders is its ability to record at “full HD”, meaning 1920x1080i, 30 fps.

Above: While in motion the video looks decent, yet a freeze frame reveals some pretty heavy compression artifacts, even in sunlit shots.

In general, I feel the pictures it takes are reasonably nice when outside or in a room with sunlight, yet not much better than a giant mini DV image when shot in a standard living room in the afternoon or at night. I understand noise is to be expected when the CCD’s are shrunk this small, but given that at the 1920 x 1080 setting it supposedly records are 13Mbps constant bit rate, I guess I was expecting better.

Panasonic HDC-SD5 AVCHDThe unfortunate downside to adopting this newer tapeless format is that Final Cut Pro (my editing system of choice) does not yet support the AVCHD format. However, iMovie ’08 does, as Steve pointed out in his last Stevenote (well, that’s half true. Really all iMovie can do it read from the card, and convert it to the Apple Intermediate codec, which means your 40 minutes of footage you shot on a 4GB SD card now takes up 40 GB of hard drive space). Unfortunately, iMovie ’08 appears to be the least intuitive “intuitive editing app” I have ever seen, and I can’t imagine trying to even add a fade to my footage, much less do any real editing in it.

I’ll bash iMovie ’08 fully at a later date, but suffice it to say, my current workflow now relies on using iMovie ’08 to import my footage, and then taking the resultant converted footage into Final Cut to edit it. I know Final Cut is supposedly going to be adding support for the feature in the somewhat near future, and I can work this way for now, but the two questions I am posing to you, dear readers are:

1) Do any of you know, or could any of you make an educated guess, or even a good BS riff, as to whether when Final Cut eventually DOES add support for AVCHD, will it be similar to iMovie’s approach, meaning it will never be able to edit the format natively, and will have to first convert (and embiggen the file size) of every import? Or will it be able to use the native files? Does anyone know how AVCHD works on the PC in apps like Pinnacle Studio Plus?

2) Do any of you have experience with other HD camcorders, tape-based or otherwise, and think you could recommend a better solution? I am particularly interested in a camera that might experience less camera noise in low light situations, and I would even give up the native 1920×1080 resolution if it meant better overall image quality. I suppose I am looking in the sub $1400 range.

Thanks in advance for any help.

-The Doc

[UPDATE:] I would appreciate it if anyone who owns and likes their HD camcorder could take a moment and send me a still frame from it, just so I can see whether I am getting comparable performance from the SD5. You can send it to Thanks!

7 Responses to “So, what do you know about AVCHD?”
  1. Matt says:

    FCP Studio certainly does support AVCHD – there’s a download available through the software updates panel which enables this functionality. You are then able to access all the footage on the camera using the “log and transfer” window.

    I use a Sony HDRSR8 and it works brilliantly.

  2. Scott says:

    I have the SD5 as well and am using the Nero 8 Ultimate for PC. I can edit these files in their native format and play them back in Nero Showtime (part of the Nero 8 package). I can play the files in this without any problems. I sure wouldn’t take the camera back. As you know, the camera itself takes awesome video (especially outside). I’m still learning all the ins/outs of both the camera/software but I definitely recommend both together. I have my computer in the office also hooked up to the hdmi receiver in my living room (wall in between). I don’t have to burn any dvds this way unless I want to give to someone else. You can tell I’m excited! Enjoy the camera!

  3. Rolnif says:

    Adobe Premiere Pro CS3 supports AVCHD.

  4. Mark M says:

    This is off-topic, but at Costco the other day I noticed the latest Sony VRD-MC5 DVD Recorder for around $170 as I recall. This unit can do an interesting trick of recording AVCHD videos (possibly only from Sony devices) to standard DVDs, which are then playable in Blu-ray units (presumably encoded in MPEG4). Couple that hybrid with its ability to burn to Double-Layer blanks and it gets kind of interesting for certain types of users. I’ve used the original MC1 unit for years and its great for basic dubbing to DVD DL.

  5. David says:

    The trouble with these flash based cameras is that they often use the CCDs from digital cameras collecting images with a very fast frame rate. Because of this less light is able to get in and the pictures are as a result less than perfect. I don’t know anything specifically about your camera, but last year I spent a lot of money on an HD flash based camera which I ended up taking back for that exact problem of poor image quality in low light. Best of luck with your camera.

  6. Steve says:

    I have the same camcorder: I agree well lit situations give stunning HD video, but lower light/indoor shots are definitely quite grainy.

    From what I’ve read, all HD camcorders in this price range are similar in low light quality, although some have said the HDSD1 with larger CCDs has better low light performance: how much is anyone’s guess.

    The AVHD format definitely has compression artifacts, no matter who makes it.

    I’m keeping mine. Given its very small size, quick boot up and the continual record mode (buffering a few seconds before the shot), and the fact it uses an industry standard SDHC card, I’m very happy with it.

    Sony makes a very similar unit (HDR-CX7) which might be better with the nightshot (green color, zero lux) mode, but I think its standard low light graininess is the same. It has the unfortunate holdback of using the Sony Memory Stick, which I wouldn’t use in any other device. It would be my very close second choice. I’m NOT sure if it works with Macs.

  7. Steve J says:

    I have the new Canon HD HDD camcorder model HG10 that uses the AVCHD. The video looks great and iMovie 08 plays nice with it. I do use FCP yet so your mileage may vary.

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