Feburary 19, 2007

FireStore FS-100 DTE® (v.3.0 firmware)
Panasonic HVX200

Focus Enhancements, Inc.
1370 Dell Ave. Campbell, CA 95008

Review by David A. Saraceno

While Panasonic's HVX-200 camcorder redefined workflow for acquiring high definition video, it presented new challenges as well, particularly for long form acquisition. Many shooters viewed solid-state p2 (professional plug-in) cards as more efficient than tape. However the cards were scarce in the first months following the cam's release, and have remained pricey. In addition, capturing more than a few minutes of continuous footage required multiple p2 cards, offloading to a Panasonic p2 Store, PC Card laptop slot, or shutting down the cam to transfer the footage to a computer using either USB2 or Firewire. None of these options were particularly compatible with shooting continuous footage.

Focus Enhancements' FS-100, a 100-gigabyte device that records video footage directly to a hard drive, changed this equation. The battery-powered device is founded on the company's previous portable hard drive solutions and is the first to work in DVCProHD footage. Once charged and connected to the HVX200 firewire port, it records SD and DVCProHD footage in every format except pNative using firmware v.2.0.3. More on that later. DTE® products from Focus were proven technology, and the FS-100 was no exception.

Early issues with dropouts and reliability have been addressed with a series of firmware upgrades, which also streamlined menus and added features. The latest revision, firmware 3.0, adds the equivalent of pNative DVCProHD MXF acquisition, and the ability to capture DVCProHD footage in QuickTime native formats. This permits over three (3) hours of continuous DVCProHD capture, and almost immediate use of the footage in your editing application. The device is rugged, versatile, and designed to work directly with the HVX200. Using the FS-100 requires attention to detail, however, as does every recording device.

Out of the Box. A shipped FS-100 package consists of the DTE 100 GB drive, a one-foot 4- to 6-pin firewire cable, stock battery, charger, belt clip, and 106-page manual. A downloadable PDF manual is available at Focus's web site. The firewire cable I received uses a straight 4-pin plug to connect to the cam, and a 6-pin plug for connecting to the FS-100. Focus now ships the FW cable with a right angle 4-pin plug to connect more securely the cam. The manual while informative and illustrated, is not a picture of clarity. A shooter needs to spend some time with it to learn both the basic and esoteric capabilities of the FS-100.

The device is housed in a blocky, plastic case the same color as the HVX200. Its dimensions are 1.6 x 5.6 x 3.7"and it weighs in at one pound. No doubt shooters would prefer a smaller, more efficient enclosure similar to the iPod. But this device utilizes a 2.5-inch hard drive and sophisticated electronics -- not the smaller, lower capacity and slower 1.8 inch drives used in video iPods.

The LCD screen, while large and bright, is a different matter. Both the text display and menu system should be improved to ease navigation and make menu choices more intuitive. Menu text is unattractive, and navigation can be cumbersome. In this regard, Focus might draw some inspiration from the iPod. Choices and navigation need to be economized, and the graphics should be improved. This is an ergonomic issue that doesn't affect performance, however.

The 90-minute battery attached snugly to the unit, and took slightly less than three hours to charge. Orange or green lights on the unit monitor battery charging. The stock battery, in my testing, offered a little more than an hour of run time, and HVX200 batteries will not work with the FS-100. Focus's extended battery runs a claimed three hours, and costs $200.00. I wish Focus would ship the extended battery with all units. However, there are a third party solutions for extended battery run times at lower prices, which I will address later.

Although the FS-100 records to SD and several NLE editing specific formats, it is specifically targeted for the HVX-200. To get it up and running, first set the HVX-200 to its p2 mode, and 1394 Control to "Both" to record to p2 cards and the FS-100 simultaneous. Otherwise, use the "Ext." to record exclusively to the FS-100. Set the FS-100 to "Tapeless" in its "Control" Menu, and then you are in for a pleasant surprise.

Firmware v.3.0 Improvements. Focus's v.3 firmware for the FS-100 provides significant new functionality to the FS-100. One new feature enables it to record the equivalent of native MXF for DVCProHD 720p24, 25 and 30. 1080i acquisition in this format is not currently supported, nor does the device provide for variable frame rates. Only the required frames are recorded in the native modes, which eliminates having to remove advanced pull down or duplicate frames when importing into your editing software.

There is an additional bonus to economize workflow for Final Cut Pro users. DVCProHD 720 and 1080 footage can be directly captured in native QuickTime format that is the functional equivalent of native frame rates. Gone are two steps in the import process: the need to organize the p2 data and to use the p2 import feature of Final Cut Pro. Note that the HVX-200 cannot output a pNative stream via its Firewire port, so do not choose this setting in the cam. Elect the appropriate non pNative setting. And up to four channels of QuickTime digital audio support has been added. The revised firmware is included with all FS-100s manufactured after February 1, 2007, and is available for a modest $39.95 at the company's web site. Instructions for applying the firmware are included in the manual.

Menus. There are plenty, and many are not particularly self-explanatory. On the plus side, some menu choices don't pertain to HVX-200 users and others help HVX-200 users streamline workflow. For example, the Reels function enables a shooter to save captures to user-defined folders on the FS-100. There is a loop control to record footage to defined lengths, and programmable buttons to recall frequently needed screens. A prerecord function caches footage for a preset time interval even when not recording. Up to six (6) seconds of HD footage can be captured to the prerecord cache. The point being that the FS-100 can be set in numerous ways to meet your shooting requirements.

If there is room for improvement in this area, it lies in menu navigation and appearance. The LCD is big and bright, but the onscreen text is succinct and basic. There are better navigation roadmaps and displays on iPod-like devices and cellular telephones. I am a believer in functional ergonomics, and Focus is urged to improve the menus.

Firewire Connections. I was initially concerned with how secure the two Firewire connections were while recording. A related concern was protecting the exposed (and delicate) link between the cable and the HVX200 FW port. These concerns arise when the devices are jostled, or when attaching or removing the firewire cable.

I experienced no firewire disconnects while shooting that I can directly attribute to jostling or movement. However, the FS-100 is finicky when turning record on and off quickly in the cam. You will likely and briefly loose a connection doing that. However, the real concern is the durability of the 4-pin FW connection to the cam. Focus acknowledges that the connection is exposed and delicate. If this concerns you, there are a couple of options. You can restrain the cable to the camera by looping it through the handle. Or you can buy a right angle 4-pin FW connector that faces downward if your FS-100 didn't ship with one. Other FS-100 owners attach Velcro straps (Peavey is recommended) to better secure the 4-pin FW plug to the cam.

In all fairness to this review, Focus has no control over the choice or placement of the 4-pin Firewire port on the HVX200. Camera manufacturers seem to gravitate to the smaller and less robust 4-pin Firewire connection rather than studier 6-pin plug/port. However, FS-100 users should be aware of the issue and take preventative steps to minimize damage to the port, cam, and FS-100. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so the saying goes.

Accessories. The device ships with a plastic belt mount clip that attaches to the FS-100 and your belt loop. Extended batteries, camera mount kits, and battery chargers are available from Focus and third parties on the web. Focus's FS-100 Camera Mount Kit includes a plastic cradle, metal swivel mount, and 12" 6- to 4-pin Firewire cable.

The JimmyBox II camera mount (see lafcpug review) both works well the FS-100, while originally designed to house audio receivers, adapts well as an under cam FS-100 mount. A similar mount called the cage FS-100 is available from geardear.com, and screws into the thread on the grip of your camera. The Focus camera mount system attaches to the top of the cam. Another excellent but pricier option is the redesigned under cam Box-FS fastening system from bebob . (see lafcpug review) Promised options for this device expand its use.

JimmyBox II camera mount

Box-FS fastening system from bebob

You can purchase an extended battery directly from Focus, or use third party power supplies like the Tekkeon MP3400 MyPower external battery, which can last up to 2.5 hours.

Considerations. My take on the ruggedness of the device combines my experience and what I've read elsewhere. I've read numerous posts on field use and most are encouraging in both mundane and demanding environments. The FS-100 comes with a two-year warranty, which is longer than industry standard. However, the device is essentially a hard drive, and it should be treated carefully as with any similar type component. I asked Focus to estimate its longevity, and the company provides the following specs: Load/Unload cycle - 600,000; Power on hours (POH) per month - 730; Availability - 24x7, which are typical of most better hard drives. In nearly three months of use, it never exhibited a problem for me.

Summing Up. With the release of v.3.0, the FS-100 provides some increased functionality, and impressive capabilities. Recording directly to QuickTime in a variety of functionally equivalent pNative QuickTime formats, further economizes getting footage to your computer for Final Cut Pro users. Although 1080i p2 MXF and VFR are yet unsupported, Focus has a track record of listening to its user base in determining future firmware updates. Most gripes I had with the FS-100 relate to menu appearance and navigation, and streamlining the various functions of the FS-100. Users should also take notice of the exposed 4-pin Firewire connection on the cam when shooting, transporting, and plugging/unplugging the device. Each of these concerns requires care, attention, and some accommodations. However, the device provides new and economized options for long form DVCProHD acquisition in a form factor that works.

DTE® (direct-to-edit) is a registered trademark of Focus Enhancements. All other trademarks are property of the respective owners.

Copyright ©2007 David A. Saraceno

David A. Saraceno is a motion graphics artist located in Spokane, Washington. He has written for DV Magazine, AV Video, MacHome Journal, and several state and national legal technology magazines. David also moderates several forums on 2-pop.com.


copyright © David A. Saraceno 2007

This article first appeared on lafcpug and is reprinted here with permission.

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