Format War Hits New Ground

The battle between Sony’s XDCAM HD and Panasonic’s P2 HD camera formats is heating up this fall. Sony now has a version of XDCAM that records video on solid-state memory cards, as does P2, instead of the optical disc media that XDCAM previously used. Besides adopting solid-state storage technology, Sony’s new XDCAM EX camcorder is also changing the price structure of the XDCAM HD format, which uses MPEG-2 compression to store hi-def video at rates ranging from 18 to 35 megabits per second.

The PMW-EX1 model, shown at IBC in Amsterdam and demonstrated at a New York press event late last month, will sell for under $8,000, significantly less than XDCAM HD optical models, which range in price from $14,000 to $25,000. More important, that price point puts the PMW-EX1 squarely in competition with Panasonic’s AG-HVX200 camcorder, which lists at around $5,000 (actual prices vary widely based on lenses and other options) and represents the low end of Panasonic’s solid-state P2 line. It also makes XDCAM EX competitive with full-featured HDV-format camcorders like JVC’s ProHD, which sells for between $10,000 and $15,000 and offers a choice of tape- or disk-based recording.

Sony says it has sold to date some 23,000 units of its optical disc-based XDCAM format. But by positioning the PMW-EX1 camcorder at what Sony VP Bob Ott calls the “high end of our affordable line” of high-definition camcorders, which includes HDV-format tape-based units that sell for less than $2,000, it could see a big increase in volume.

To be sure, Sony is playing catch-up with XDCAM EX. Panasonic has already shipped more than 60,000 units of its P2 solid-state format, with the HVX200 camcorder by far its most popular product. It also sells more feature-rich models aimed squarely at the news market that range in price from $14,000 (the AG-HPX500) to $27,000 (the AG-HPX2000), as well as a new $48,000 model (the AG-HPX3000) for high-end production. Its newest P2 HD models are also incorporating an MPEG-4-based compression scheme, AVC-Intra, that can store HD video at 50 Mbps compared to the 100 Mbps its current HD cameras record at (using the old DV-based DVCPRO HD compression scheme).

Panasonic VP of marketing Bob Harris notes that P2 has had particular success in the U.S., where Panasonic has sold some 32,000 units including sales to 260 broadcast stations, with major groups like Fox and Cox adopting it across all of their stations. As for Sony’s move into memory cards, Harris says, “We’re happy to see they’ve recognized solid-state,” but cautions that there are workflow issues with the new recording media that Sony will have to overcome.

“It’s going to take a little time for them,” says Harris. “But the market has told them the direction they need to go.”

Sony says that it is entering the solid-state game at this stage because it was waiting for the next-generation, higher-throughput PC Express cards to come to market. Sony will sell two versions of the “S x S” PC Express cards, which are made by Sandisk but include some proprietary Sony technology that distinguishes them from regular PC Express cards; 8 gigabyte cards will cost around $500, while 16 GB cards will cost about $900.

Moreover, Sony executives suggest that the PC Card that P2 cameras use will soon be outdated and not widely supported by computer manufacturers. “The card technology that competitors use is in danger of becoming the equivalent of the 3.5-inch floppy disk,” says Ott.

Panasonic’s Harris disputes that contention, saying that the type of PC Card used by P2 is supported by “85% of the computers out there,” and that a $100 adapter can solve compatibility problems between the two types of cards. “We don’t see any inherent limitation or inherent inability to be compatible,” he says.

Overall, Panasonic doesn’t expect PC Cards—or P2—to go away anytime soon. The company just announced a 32 GB P2 card, capable of storing 32 minutes of 1080-line-interlace HD video, which ships in November for $1,650.

As Harris says, “The bottom line is we’re in 260 stations, and I think we’re doing very well.”

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