We’re not buying 4K right now

This year’s CES was something of a disappointment for the camcorder user. Sure, DSLRs are still all the rage for creative videomakers whilst the average consumer just whips out their mobile phone but we at Tubeshooter like to imagine that there is still a hardcore of enthusiasts who can’t be bothered with the dreadful ergonomics of DSLRs and who want proper video facilities. For them, only a camcorder will do.

So the paltry level of new camcorders announced at the annual consumer electronics show in Las Vegas was a little unsettling. Panasonic’s top toy was a gimmicky unit that films you while you film someone else. Canon merely shuffled out a couple of very basic point-and-shoots, and an update to their unusual video-selfie device, the Mini X. Sony … well, we’ll come to them in a moment.

Meanwhile, are we to assume that the camcorder sector is to become a niche market with buyers forced either to slum it with a mobile phone, glass up with video-enabled stills cameras, or fork out thousands of pounds on prosumer or professional video gear?

Perhaps. In the meantime thank goodness for Sony who announced two rather interesting “consumer” camcorders, admittedly at the top of anyone’s household budget. The one that took all the show plaudits was the AX100, a handheld “proper” camcorder with lots of manual controls, a one-inch sensor and the headline feature of 4K recording. All this for a price of £1,995 (far better value in the USA where it’s $1,999 of course!)

The feature set on offer for the (relatively) achievable price almost put the AX100 on our instant-buy list. In the end though, we didn’t pull the trigger, preferring instead to shell out £500 less on that camcorder’s little brother, the CX900.

Some eyes may roll at this decision. Some jaws may even drop. Why spend £1,500 on an HD camcorder – why, HD’s soooo last year, darling! – when for just £500 more you can get the droolworthy 4K model?

Well, OK, we know that 4K’s all the rage. There was a hint of it throughout 2013 and now it’s everywhere. There’s a massive 4K telly on sale in our local John Lewis, taking pride of place in their display and at a relatively sensible £2,999; that’s roughly what HD TVs cost when they were as new as 4K is now. And yes, YouTube’s got a 4K setting. Camcorders are, clearly, being introduced with 4K recording. Even some mobile phones shoot 4K for goodness sake!

But there are three reasons we’re sticking with HD for the moment. First, we know absolutely no-one who’s actually bought a 4K TV or a 4K monitor or has any interest in 4K as anything other than a curiosity. There’s precisely no way to broadcast 4K over the air in the UK at present; Freeview is HD only (and quite low bitrate HD at that, it seems to us). Frankly, most people we know still don’t have a Blu-ray player, let alone any means of watching 4K.

So for all the furore and all the manufacturers getting their knickers wet at the prospect of this shiny new tech, it’s very much a niche market at present. Unlike 3D, we do think high-res tellies will catch on with the Great British Public – but it may not be 4K because by the time the GBP are ready for their next upgrade from HD, 8K or even greater will have become the next thing to have. So it’s quite possible that apart from enthusiast early adopters, 4K might be a red herring in mass market terms. Granted, this is very much just speculation.

Secondly, even if we wanted to buy 4K for our own interest we’d have to not only buy the camcorder but also upgrade all our monitors and, more importantly, our editing PCs to be able to handle the colossal amounts of data that 4K generates. That’s storage AND processing power. Ordinary HD AVCHD knocked out our old edit suite; can you image trying to deal with four times the data? Sony’s AX1 “semi pro” 4K camcorder will shoot up to 600Mbps!!! Yes, it’s worthy of three exclamation marks it’s that huge. No-one should underestimate the upgrade required to shoot and edit in 4K and at the moment, that’s a level of investment we can do without, especially considering point 1 (above).

Thirdly, and finally, the acquisition technology is in its infancy. Sony’s AX100 is a brilliant piece of showpiece marketing but let’s just delve into the tech spec for a moment; it’s restricted to 60Mbps which is not that great for four times as much resolution as HD. The sensors on the 4K cameras are likely to have to cram in more pixels than before and that means low light capability will likely be affected – the AX1 has a quoted 6 lux minimum illumination; contrast this with a Canon HF-G30 (HD) camcorder goes down to 1lux (and 0.1 in low light mode). Worst of all, the AX1 in UK spec will only shoot 25p or 24p but not 50p. Movement in the shot at this low frame rate looks horribly jerky so you have to be careful what you’re shooting and how. It’s just too restrictive for many kinds of filming.

Sure, we’d love the ability to film a single shot and get HD versions of both the wide and a close-up out of it (by cropping to HD from the 4K source) but that’s not enough of a reason to fork out the dosh at the moment, especially in light of our other concerns.

For the moment then we’re crossing our fingers that we’ll be delighted with the CX900. Everything else about it seems pretty much the same as the AX1 – it’s just HD and not 4K. The sensor, the manual controls, the form factor – and the 50Mbps XAVC-S recording should make for a mighty fine HD recording experience.

Your opinion may differ. If so, why not post a comment below (polite ones, ideally)

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