Once I finished the cabinets up yesterday afternoon, I transitioned from “handyman” to “geek” mode and started working on a little video for the charity event Spouse and I are helping to organize; it’s essentially a commercial for the event that I’m going to put up on YouTube.
I spent the late/afternoon and early evening shooting the footage I needed (it’s not complicated, believe me, and the “actors” are compliant enough types – little plastic figurines from the Homestar Runner series of web-toons).
That part of the “shoot” was easy and fun enough; I had rigged up the workshop like a little studio, complete with a bristol-board background that I hope will do service as a (very low) budget “green screen” for some fun chroma key effects (superimposing the “actors” on a couple of amusing stock photos, etc.).
After dinner, I headed upstairs and connected my Sony DCR-HC26 to the computer to “capture” the footage I’d shot into my video editing suite of choice. I have captured video successfully from this exact camera (using this very same cable) many times before without any appreciable difficulty, but on this occasion (probably because I’m working toward a deadline), the technical ghosts and goblins ran rampant over me.
Historically, I have connected the camera to my computer through an IEEE-1394 compliant, “Firewire” type cable. The cable has the smaller “4 pin” connector at the end that attaches to the camera, and the normal size “6 pin” connector at the end that plugs in to the computer’s IEEE-1394 port. Video capture has been smooth, fast and reliable, with few (if any) dropped frames. Typically, with my video capture software package already running (and waiting expectantly for a “capture device” to be connected), I plug the cable in to the camera first, place the camera atop the desktop machine (it’s just a convenient surface to rest the camera on while capturing), then connect the cable to the computer. Finally, I power up the camera and within a matter of seconds, Windows usually detects the camera, loads the necessary drivers and I’m good to go.
On this occasion, however, no matter what I did I could not get Windows to recognize that I had attached the Handycam. On one or two occasions in the past, depending upon the video capture software I’ve been using at the time, I have found that it is helpful to experiment with the order in which things are connected, powered up and started. For example, on certain occasions, I have had to plug the camera in, start the software, and THEN power up the camera in order to get the device recognized by Windows.
I tried every permutation and combination, to no avail.
I suspected that either the cable, the computer’s Firewire card, or the Firewire port on the side of the camera had failed somehow, and decided not to spend time trying to diagnose a problem that I might not be able to solve at eight o’clock in the evening on Sunday (i.e. if cables need replacing or cards/ports need repairing). So, I turned my attention to the USB port on the side of the camera and set out to capture my video through that route.
I dug through the drawers in Mission Control looking for the specialized USB cable required – it has a mini USB connector that is a narrow isoceles trapezoid at one end and a regular-sized rectangle at the other. I wired the camera up, plugged it in to the USB port and powered up the camera. Nothing. After a few minutes, I determined that I needed to turn on the “USB stream” (using the touch screen menu, touch “FN”, then “Menu”; scroll down using the arrow buttons to the setup menu, pres “exec”, then scroll down to “USB stream” and press “exec” again; select “On” to turn the USB stream on). Bingo, the camera was recognized.
But the problem wasn’t solved yet. My computer was searching for the USB drivers for this camera. After a prolonged period of fooling with the “Found New Hardware” Wizard (who really has to be one of the most broke-ass falling-down wizards that ever there was – seriously, that dude can’t even make a parakeet disappear), I realized that the driver wasn’t going to be found by Windows and that I needed to help. I started my search on the Internet. Not knowing the NAME of the driver required makes this substantially more difficult even than it sounds, and so I quickly decided to abandon that option in favour of attempting to locate the CD that came with the camera, in the hopes that the required driver was included on that disc. Twenty minutes and a few overturned and emptied drawers later, I was back at the computer with the CD, which does in fact contain the required driver – the file is installed (easily enough, I have to admit) by an executable file called “setup” in the “drivers” folder of the disc. The actual driver file itself, however, seems to be stored in compressed form in one of two “.cab” files on the disc for reasons that are known only to Sony. I suspect, though, that it’s very difficult to find a copy of this file on the Internet for that very reason.
Anyway, now I had a camera that was ready to play nice with my software – or so I thought. Technically, the setup did what it was supposed to do; video was transferred from camera to computer. When I started up the capture process, however, it was obvious that USB capture is a second-rate, second-best option when compared to capture via IEEE-1394. The tape transport controls in the capture software were greyed-out, except for the button starting the capture; by contrast, using IEEE-1394, you can operate the camera tape transport mechanism remotely with your computer mouse and keyboard: stop, fast forward, rewind, pause, play, commence – and conclude – capture. An annoyance, for sure, but I could live with that loss of functionality if the quality of the captured video was worth anything.
Video is captured through the USB cable at a greatly reduced resolution (320 x 240, I think). What this means is that significantly fewer pixels (about 22% when compared to the Firewire video at 720×480) are being captured and stored to ultimately convey the picture information. The resulting loss in picture quality was obvious, even during the capture process. I checked around in my software to see if there were any options available to configure the USB capture at a higher resolution rate. All those options were greyed-out; I suspect that it is not possible to capture USB video at a higher resolution.
I ended up solving my problem last night in a way that probably won’t help anyone else; I have an older JVC Mini-DV camcorder that also has an IEEE-1394 output. The problem with that unit is that it is very finicky and often won’t playback anything (except a blue scren) on tapes that do have recorded information on them. I essentially put the tape in and took it out multiple times (more than a dozen!) until the camera, for whatever reason, finally decided to co-operate and began playing back my video. I connected this camera to the computer using the very same Firewire cable I had been using earlier; the software instantly recognized that a camcorder had been attached and loaded the appropriate drivers. I was capturing video successfully just a minute or two later.
Searching around on the Internet a bit last night and this morning to try and diagnose the problem with my DCR-HC26, I came across this and the forum discussion to which it refers, information that suggests one possible reason for the issue: I was trying to capture from the camera when it was powered by the battery rather than the external power supply. It is true that usually, I have the camera plugged into its AC power supply when capturing – but not last night.
Update: (Sept. 9/08) Tried it last night with the AC cable attached; still nothing. Time to search for the “extended warranty” documentation – I think I actually bought the extended warranty on this camera because of all the problems I’d had with the previous JVC Camcorder. Hmmm…..
‘Nother Update (January ’09): See this post for an update on the situation.