Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Aiptek Action HD GVS camcorder first impressions

This looks promising as a low cost camcorder useful for teaching and learning media. Not available in New Zealand so bought 2nd-hand off ebay. Arrived in the post today. Later (12 Mar) found out how to check firmware - identified as version 2302 made in Jan 2009.
Very good first impression. Seems to do a good job of what we want for our teaching with 3 important features in a low-price package: AF-lock, Ext Mic input and Remote Control.
Our students do some animation exercises with modelling clay and other physical objects. The Remote Control, close-focussing ability and AF-lock are good value for this. The Aiptek is also a stills camera taking 5 megapixel stills, but a surprise discovery is that a stills 'burst' mode can be changed to a single still mode - and this delivers 16:9 format 1280x720 stills which is an ideal size for ease of animation editing on modest computers. Switch off "Continuous Shot" in the menu then animate with the "OK" button on the remote rather than the "Still Photo" button.

Other reviewers criticise "flimsy" construction - on handling the camera it seems robust enough and looks to be of a similar construction standard to its competitors.

Other reviewers comment on over-sensitive microphone recording giving distortion with loud subjects. My first tests were with recording lectures and presentations and the results were good. But on filming an enthusiastic group of children singing loudly I discovered that problem! It did not seem to be the dreaded "clipping" except in extreme cases - my guess is that an Automatic Level Control does exist but was leaving too much high frequency in. I got acceptable improved results by applying an equaliser with gain reduction over 3000 Hz. After updating the firmware from ver 2303 to ver 2901, audio performance seems to have improved with less serious distortion happening less often. Conclusion - I can live with this OK for entry-level educational use. I can do ambitious indie work with some care, eg adding in a home-made attenuator for loud subjects.
A low cost $8 "Genius" computer desktop mic for Skype etc gives excellent results apart from a little more background hiss than I would like.

Others criticise poor low light performance - seems good enough for what we need with good results in all classroom lighting and acceptable results in low-level household lighting even with the "NightShot" setting off. The specs claim that the lens maintains its f/3.2 aperture from wide through to full telephoto and my first tests seem to back this up. This is unusual in a good way because most low cost optical zoom lenses lose light-gathering power when you zoom in. F/3.2 is average for a wide angle setting but is remarkably good for a telephoto performance.

I found the back ports cover difficult to remove so I got out a craft knife and cut the tight plastic holding peg down smaller - that worked well and the cover now removes comfortably with a fingernail.

Aiptek will need some care in classroom handling - some eccentricities to watch when mounting on a tripod. The tripod hole is shallow so you may need some spacers - I cut some out of cardboard. You need to open the LCD door before you mount it on the tripod else the door gets stuck.

The Ambarella chip on which many budget camcorders are based seems to be a work of genius that performs extremely well. I feel sorry for the inventors that the resulting cameras seem to not quite fulfill their chip's potential for creative power. The Chinavasion A4402 tested earlier runs its chip fast giving excellent video quality but misses out on perfection by not having any alternative to an always-on autofocus. The Aiptek does give us more controls including the all-important focus-lock. So could I shoot a film festival indie movie on it or would I be confident using it in the 48 Hours competition? [Edit] At first my answer was "no, not quite good enough" but after the firmware update I am re-editing this article to say a marginal "yes". Indie - some limited possibilities. Education - looking very good. More to come as other teachers test it.

[EDIT 16 Mar 2010 - FOLLOW-UP] - I have discovered Aiptek's firmware update page and upgraded the camera's operation system from ver 2302 to ver 2901. The bitrate for the 2 top HD settings has gone up. Now reporting 720p60 increased from 6mbps to 8mbps. 1080p30 increase from 8mbps to 11.3 mbps. Audio quality seems to be better. Odd effect fixed - previously 720p60 had a better wide angle with the stabiliser on but narrower angle with the stabiliser off - reverse of what I would reasonably expect. They are consistent now.

[EDIT 25 Mar 2010]"Aiptek GVS Camera Test Song (Processed)" now on Youtube.