Suggest a video camera camera to record usability testing
February 17, 2008 2:09 AM   Subscribe

I have the opportunity to buy some equipment to do usability testing. I want to buy some video equipment but know nothing about video cameras.

My immediate thought was MacBook Pro with Final Cut Express to edit the footage. However, I need to record said footage first and know nothing about video cameras. It'll need to be reasonably cheap, small, easy to use, play nicely with the MacBook and be able to sit on a tripod. Any thoughts? Hope!
posted by TheDonF to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well, the older MiniDV format is easier and quicker to edit than the newer HDV, but HDV packs more resolution. So that's something to ponder, I imagine, depending on what your end use is. I think cameras by all the well-known makers will fit your criteria. I've been happy with Sony cameras, but I wouldn't claim they're superior to other makes.
posted by londongeezer at 2:48 AM on February 17, 2008

Response by poster: I'm basically going to record users carrying out tasks using an intranet and record the odd interview. Strictly for internal use by my small team so the quality doesn't have to be stunning. I have *no* idea what MiniDV or HDV is - I am completely ignorant about this kind of thing!
posted by TheDonF at 3:13 AM on February 17, 2008

MiniDV is a format that was created to make a consumer digital format video fairly cheap.

There's nothing magic here, nothing confusing; it's compressed, but it's digital. You can find used (and some new) cameras for around $200-300, and the top end (professional equipment) around $3-6k. As formats go, it's compressed, it throws out quite a bit of color (almost all video does!), but it's decent enough; many documentaries are done with it, as it's a very cheap convenient format. The whole 'digital revolution' in video came about because of this format. You can buy tapes in the middle of the night at your 24 nearby pharmacy. See? Convenient.

Prior to DV, you needed an expensive capture card for video editing. After DV, all you had to do is plug your camera into your computer via firewire (this is critical - make sure your DV camera has a firewire port.) Something like 95% of final cut pro users (and video editing in general) use DV. I'm simplifying a bit here, but the picture size is 640x480, which sucks if you ever want to 'print' a frame.

It works well enough, just try not to play to do any chromakeying (green/blue screen) with it...and avoid recording items with high complexity (like the cherry blossom's in DC or leaves falling in summer.)

In the 'consumer' manufacturers came out with recording to DVD. This is great for people who just want video on a DVD. Do not buy this format... It's great for your grandparents, but the hoops you have to go through to edit with it, is just painful.

In High definition you have HDV - High definition on a DV tape (the same tape we mentioned above that you could buy everywhere.) Yes, this is a high definition camera, but it's very compressed. It uses the same compression as DVDs do, which means the editing system has to work harder. Cameras start around $1k.

The format is a bit painful, because at some point along the line, you need to downconvert (shrink) the high definition picture to a standard definition size to play on most people's televisions. The format has a greater amount of pixels (1440x1080)...which gets 'shrunk' at some point in your workflow.

There is another format, that's a bit newer called AVCHD - which records to a chip, a very compressed picture (like HDV) but instead using MPEG-4 compression (like an ipod.) It's a bit ugly to work with at this point (compared to HDV), but the picture is a bit better.

I'm skipping another HD format as well (starts at $6k), because its likely out of your price range for this use.


You probably need to decide how much money you want to spend and then where you're going to show your video. These two factors dictate what format will be best.
If it's going to be something like youtube, it probably won't matter (and DV is a fine choice.) If it's something like projected at a conference, HDV might be a better choice. If its to be seen on most TVs, again DV is an excellent choice.

Since both HDV and DV use a physical video tape, it means you can put that raw tape on your shelf after you're done...and if you ever needed to, rebuild your edit (as long as you have the Final Cut Project.)

In summary: you can't really go wrong with DV or HDV. Both work superbly with Final Cut Pro (or even Final Cut Express - which is only $199 when you buy a new mac.) Avoid DVD Cameras under all circumstances. This is critical: Make sure the camera you buy has a jack for external audio, and buy a microphone. The microphones in cameras are worthless.

You said MacBookPro in your post...and then Macbook...I'd suggest avoiding a MacBook (not the MBpro), as technically, it's not suggested for Final Cut Pro.
posted by filmgeek at 6:07 AM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Use a basic webcam and screen capture software. A video camera is overkill. (This assumes you are testing usability on the computer.)

Try this product (assuming you can use a Mac) that captures video and webcam at the same time:
posted by bprater at 7:10 AM on February 17, 2008

Response by poster: We're usability testing on PCs connected to the company intranets - specifically it's the intranets we're testing. The PCs are locked down so we can't add hardware, new software, etc. As such I'm going to need an external camera to grab the footage and then use a non-company machine to process it. Screenflow looks fantastic, but I can't use it in this instance.

I'm envisioning burning the finished footage to DVD and then showing it either on a work PC or on a TV. The quality isn't overly important, but it needs not to suck too hard.
posted by TheDonF at 8:30 AM on February 17, 2008

Editing is a tedious and laborious process. It's fun for the first 3 minutes and then it'll make you want to jab spoons in your eyeballs.

I suggest getting a video camera that records straight to DVD, so you don't have to edit. You aim the camera at the screen, plug a lavalier mic into the camera and on to the talent and hit record. When you are done, label the DVD, chuck it in a case and be done with it all.

I wouldn't normally recommend a DVD-based camera, but for down-and-dirty -- it might be a good solution for you.
posted by bprater at 9:07 AM on February 17, 2008

I would buy a cheap DV camera secondhand. Make sure it has a fire-wire for editing and that if it's second hand the fire-wire works. A lot of older DV cameras might be missing this crucial element. DV records onto mini-dv tapes, which are pretty cheap these days and can be bought from most places.

Does sound quality matter? You can get by with crappy pictures, but bad sound makes things very difficult to watch. You're doing interviews, so most domestic dv cameras will have a mic input. You should be able to also buy a cheap lapel mic with cable to attach to the persons clothing. Built in Mics on DV cameras are pretty rubbish, so if you want your subject to be heard this would be essential.

HD definately sounds overkill and unlesss you have all the right gear very hard to edit with. DV has less resolution so you can fit a lot lot more on your hard-drive and don't need the most powerful computers, but it helps. DV is handled on most editing programmes where as HD is only usable on the latest programmes.

If you're not a flash editor, I-movie does the very very basics and is simple to burn to dvd at the end.
posted by DOUBLE A SIDE at 10:38 AM on February 17, 2008

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