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The Last Videotape Format

MiniDV was a popular consumer camcorder format from the mid 1990's to the 2010's. It was launched in 1995 as the first digital videotape codec from a group of video camera makers led by Sony and Panasonic. The goal was to develop a consumer format that used digital rather than analog data and to match the audio quality of the Compact Disc. Although Sony introduced the smaller but resoundingly unsuccessful MicroMV format in 2001, the MiniDV is the last consumer videotape format widely used before camcorder designs moved to storing recordings on hard drives, SD cards and miniature disks. We'll look at the pros and cons of this popular format.

 

Sony had the largest market share of the consumer camcorder business after the launch in 1984 of their Video8 format that used 8mm tape. The Handycam range of Video8 camcorders was popular for 20 years and the Video8 format grew to include the higher resolution Hi8 format and finally the Digital8 format. Compared to the Compact VHS format (VHS-C), Video8 had longer recording times and much higher quality audio. The Digital8 version of the format provided a digital recording on the same 8mm cassette tapes used in 8 and Hi8 camcorders and most Digital8 camcorders and VCRs were backwardly compatible allowing playback of analog 8 and Hi8 tapes. However, a Digital8 recording was half the length of an analog recording so a 120 minute tape on Digital8 would result in a 60 minute recording. Sony and Panasonic were looking to reduce the size of camcorders and improve the audio performance so the MiniDV consortium was formed.

 

MiniDV consumer camcorders were smaller than VHS-C and Video8 camcorders and the format provided a digital recording of 60 minutes in Standard Play (SP) mode and 90 minutes in Long Play (LP) mode. The resolution was still 720 x 480 for NTSC region machines, the same as VHS and Video8, but the audio offered Linear PCM stereo as well as 16-bit audio at 44.1 kHz which is the same sampling rate for CD audio. The video playback could be a 4:3 frame or a 16:9 frame for widescreen video. A high definition version of MiniDV called HDV was launched in 2003 and this version provided options for both interlaced scanning at 1080i resolution and progressive scanning at 720p resolution in a 16:9 aspect ratio. While popular with prosumers and independent film makers, HDV with its higher camcorder pricing was not widely adopted by the consumer market.


The advantages of MiniDV include its smaller tape size as well as the compact dimensions of the camcorder that helped drive sales of this format. Home videos could be viewed by plugging video/audio cables from the camcorder to the TV or the recordings could be transferred using a FireWire cable from the camcorder to a Windows or Mac computer. The digital video image is quite sharp in most cases and the audio quality meets or exceeds the AFM audio on the Video8 formats. The SP recording time of 60 minutes was long enough for most consumers although it did not match the 120 minute SP time of Video8. Advanced users and film makers could buy MiniDV and HDV models from Canon that had interchangeable lenses, microphone inputs, manual exposure settings and other professional features.

 

The drawbacks to the format, in our view, has a lot to do with the tight tolerances of the width and size of the tape and the tape heads. When using the Long Play (LP) recording mode, Sony states in its camcorder manuals that the LP recording may only play back properly in the camcorder that recorded that video. Our digitizing experience shows that around 5% of MiniDV tapes we receive experience distorted audio (chipmunk voices) or no audio as well as video pixilation in parts of the recording. We also see uncompressed AVI recordings digitized with good video and audio that have audio issues only after the AVI video file is converted to any other file format including MP4 or MOV. This usually occurs with LP recordings but we see it on SP mode as well. Finally, the DV specification is a highly compressed version of early MPEG with a 25mbps codec and the format's 4:1:1 chroma subsampling rate has been criticized for having only 1/4 of the chroma bandwidth of a "full" digital signal.

MiniDV was a widely used format. Although MiniDV recordings are digital, the physical tapes are fragile and more sensitive to heat and cold than the larger camcorder tape formats. If you have a library of home recordings on MiniDV or HDV, it is recommended to digitize the movies before the physical tapes deteriorate further. You can then enjoy the high quality video and audio performance from the last popular videotape format.

 


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