Roll Your Own HDTV

Nothing beats using home movies to evaluate TVs. You choose what to shoot so you can stress a specific aspect of screen performance. Since you're the cameraman, you know precisely what each scene is supposed to look like. And since you control the signal, you can eliminate the many layers of visual second-guessing and "tweaking" that take place, say, as a film morphs from a camera negative into a DVD. Of course, the footage itself must be high quality. So I've been lugging a high-definition camcorder around town looking for video stress tests that could be distributed to our reviewers in a practical HD format.

Sony was kind enough to lend me its top consumer camcorder, the ultra-deluxe (and ultra-expensive) HDR-FX1. It produces the best-looking video I've ever seen from a home camcorder. My shots of Times Square at night produced footage whose smooth motion, color accuracy, brilliance of highlights, richness of detail, and freedom from visual noise easily trounce video from the first HD camcorder I tried a couple of years ago (a JVC model) as well as any similar footage I've seen on DVDs.

Along with the camcorder, Sony provided a copy of Vegas, a professional-grade PC editing package that's ideal for manipulating FX1 footage (sonymediasoftware.com). Though not as easy to use as your typical let's-make-a-home-movie program, Vegas is enormously more powerful, and it does high-def without flinching. Aside from editing functions, it offers a convenient way to convert FX1 footage - which comes out of the camera as an MPEG-2 "transport stream" - into Windows Media Video (WMV) HD.

When used properly, Microsoft's WMV HD video codec delivers outstanding quality. It's one of the systems being considered as an encoding method for the upcoming high-def disc system(s). Using it has tempted me to investigate making high-def DVD-ROM discs that are directly playable in computer DVD drives (that is, without first copying the video from a DVD-ROM to a hard disk). Microsoft has defined how such discs can be made and has even issued a few commercially - like the high-def version of Terminator 2 and a series of Imax movies (visit wmvhd.com for previews).

But going the playable-DVD route requires learning at least two computer languages (HTML and JScript). I'm already hardware-challenged; using a 3.2-GHz, hyperthreaded Pentium 4 going full blast, it took 35 minutes to convert a 105-second high-def segment into a WMV HD file. "Rendering" a 90-minute high-def production would take about 27 hours of continuous number crunching.

Nobody said going high-def would be easy. Or cheap: the camcorder alone costs $3,700, and Vegas goes for $450, plus you need a kick-ass computer to run it effectively. The whole process, at least in this early stage of HD home movies, is not for the short-of-time, faint-of-heart, or empty-of-pocketbook. You also might want to think twice if you aren't savvy-of-computer.

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