Focus Enhancements‘ FS-C direct to edit (DTE) recorder is a high-performance, feature-rich product that’s the perfect complement to Canon camcorders like the XL H1, XH A1, or even XL2 (I tested with the XH A1). The only catch is price; at $1,799.95 for the 100GB model at B&H Photo, the unit may be hard to justify for all but the highest-volume (or highest-end) event videographers, though as you’ll see below, product benefits do extend far beyond time-saving.
The hardware itself is 5×3.5×1.75″, about the size of a thick roast beef sandwich from the corner deli, including a thin 90-minute battery on the bottom, with either a 60GB (about 4.5 hours) or 100GB (about 7.5 hours) hard disk. You connect the unit to your camcorder’s FireWire port and it records video in one of several modes discussed below.
If you have an XL-body Canon camcorder (XL H1 or XL2), you can mount the unit directly on the back bracket using a cradle and associated connection hardware supplied with the kit. Otherwise, the theory is that you hang the unit from your belt while you shoot, which should sound pretty scary to anyone who’s ever crashed a hard drive. A better alternative is the Jimmy Box, a black-milled aluminum box that sits between your tripod and your camcorder, with Velcro to hold the FS-C in place ($179.95 at B&H).
The FS-C is Canon-specific, which helps it control the camera during operation. You can also use the hardware with other cameras, but certain shooting modes, like tapeless acquisition, may not be available. You configure and drive the unit via a functional 2.25×1.5″ blue LCD panel, along with a record button and configuration and playback controls.
The hard disk is formatted with FAT32, which provides backwards compatibility to Windows 98SE, and, of course, the Mac. This also means that all video is broken into sub-2GB chunks, which is the upper limit of FAT32, though the files were perfectly contiguous when loaded into Final Cut Pro. The unit also captures a separate file each time you stop and start the camera, a tremendous convenience in any environment involving multiple takes. You can also store your clips in different bins to organize your footage during the shoot.
You set the capture format prior to shooting, and when you do so you’ll find that the FS-C offers support for most common formats like Type 1 and Type 2 DV, along with more exotic formats like Canopus, Matrox, and Pinnacle AVI or Avid OMF. The unit can also capture HDV in either QuickTime or M2T format; since I was testing primarily for Mac ingestion and editing, I chose the former.
To capture video to the FS-C, you click the record button twice. The first time starts the LCD blinking to tell that the unit is ready to capture, and the second starts the capture. During lulls in the shoot, you can click your camcorder into VCR mode and view any files captured to the FS-C, a pretty sweet feature given that rewinding and viewing your shots on tape always spawns fears of either overwriting your content or leaving a gap in the tape.
Once you’ve finished shooting, you configure the FS-C to look like a hard drive, connect it to your computer via FireWire, and it appears as a separate drive (left). If desired, the FireWire connection should be fast enough to preview your files before dragging them over to your main hard disk for editing. I shot just under 4 hours of video during my testing, and each hour of video took about 10 minutes to transfer over to my PowerPC G5.
Those are the basics; here’s where it gets interesting. You can use the FS-C in three modes: Syncro Slave, Local, and Tapeless. Syncro Slave is the only mode available when using a non-Canon camcorder, and in essence, the FS-C acts as a dumb slave device, capturing when the camcorder captures, stopping when it stops, with none of its caching or time-lapse features available.
In Local mode, you control the FS-C manually, and it ignores camera controls, so you can capture to tape, or not, at your option. For me, the killer app for this feature is the concert set that runs longer than the 60 minutes I can capture to tape. In this mode, I can continue to record to the FS-C while I switch tapes, then start recording to tape once I’m locked and loaded. If you’re shooting seminars, Catholic weddings, or any other event that doesn’t conveniently break every 60 minutes, this feature can save you lots of aggravation.
In Tapeless mode, you drive the FS-C via camera controls as normal, but can operate with or without tape. With tape inserted, this gives you redundant copies with identical time codes, and without a tape, you can record up to the capacity of your hard disk without stopping. Though you can also record without a tape in Local mode, the camcorder would time out and shut off after the normal timeout period. Tapeless mode avoids this problem.
Other noteworthy features include Retro Cache Record Mode, which stores up to 10 seconds of video to cache in a continuous loop, insurance against clicking record a few moments too late. You can store up to 60 minutes of video to hard disk in the same fashion in Retro Disk Record Mode; in each case, the configured duration of video is tacked onto the start of each captured clip.
The unit also features Loop Record, which continuously records a series of video clips to disk up to capacity, erasing earlier clips as necessary to record the new. When capturing in DV, you can also capture in time lapse mode like one frame per minute, so you can capture a progression like dusk to dawn, or traffic over several days.
These latter functions enable capabilities that you just can’t get with a tape-based camcorder. Throw in the time saved during multiple-take selection, and capture, and the reduced wear-and-tear on your $4,000 camcorder, plus the security of having both tape and hard disk copies of your footage, if desired, and the cost/benefit analysis starts to improve dramatically.
Something of particular interest to me in this review was whether the FS-C could handle HDV video. That’s because in previous trials with the unit, some HDV files ended up corrupted, forcing me to revert to the tape copy to finish the project.
The picture this time was brighter—36 captured clips, about 4 hours of video captured, with absolutely no problem. More importantly, I scanned many of the message boards that actively follow the FireStore line of products and found general consensus that with more recent firmware revisions, HDV capture performance was extremely reliable.