PREFACE: The ProRes Dilemma
Let’s start this review off by dispelling a long-held rumor. I’m a PC guy, just always have been, and after reviewing just about every PC NLE at least once, I have settled on Adobe Premiere Pro (and the CS 5.5 suite) as my editor of choice. Not too long ago, I had a freelance client that absolutely insisted on Apple ProRes files for the output of a project. Unfortunately, Apple does not allow PCs to write ProRes files, and at the time PC’s couldn’t read them either.
Fast-forward a few months: Imagine my dismay as I walked the aisles of NAB 2011, looking at all kinds of new recording devices from Aja, Atomos, Sound Devices and others that promised long recording times and transfer speeds – yet the catch was: Only records in Apple ProRes.
So when I was offered the opportunity to review the Fast Forward Video Sidekick HD combination video recorder and camera-top monitor, I was distressed to think that I could shoot the footage, but couldn’t edit it. So I put the question to my colleagues on the Vidpro listserv – can PC Premiere Pro play back ProRes? My pal (and fellow Wisconsinite) Steve Oakley FTP’ed me a few Apple clips that seemed to work, so I went ahead and received the Sidekick HD. And I can now say with 100% certainty – Adobe Premiere Pro 5.5 can play back Apple ProRes files, even happily combining them on the same timeline with just about any other type of clip you want to add – .AVI, .M2T, Photoshop files, Canon 50Mb, Sony 35Mb, After Effects comps, you name it. (The theory is that the ProRes playback capability came along with one of the many Quicktime updates Apple shoots out. Hey, who knew?)
Mounted on a Sony HDW-790 HDCam – mount not included
The Fast Forward Video Sidekick HD arrived in a fairly small box containing the Sidekick, a 120GB solid-state drive that acts as the recording and playback storage, a miniSATA-to-USB2 cable, a power supply and AC cord, and a manual that could more accurately be called a “pamphlet” (more on that later). I’ve been reviewing alternative recording devices for more than a decade now, and early on I realized the most important questions about any of these devices are “How do you mount it and how do you power it?” For the Sidekick HD, mounting is taken care of with a 1/4″-20 threaded hole on the bottom, suitable for screwing into any kind of arm, shoe-mount or other support with the right sized screw. However, no mount is included with the device. The unit feels solid, with a sturdy hard-plastic case, and even with the solid-state drive installed it weighs much less than one pound. The only power option included with the Sidekick is AC, via the power adapter that terminates in a 3-pin MiniXLR jack. If your camera has an Anton-Bauer battery mount with a D-tap, you can easily power the Sidekick from there (the cable runs about $100 on the street.) Other than that, you will likely be using the AC adapter, since there are no mount points on the back of the Sidekick for the common Sony, Panasonic or Canon batteries (Fast Forward Video makes mention of an accessory battery solution in the manual, but I have seen no mention of it anywhere on the Web.) If you do decide to experiment, the Sidekick can operate on voltages from 7 to 16VDC, so it might be a worthwhile task if you have a pile of batteries lying about.
I suppose there is a reason the manual is so sparse: Operating the Sidekick HD is pretty simple. The faceplate is adorned with a grand total of eight large buttons and a jog wheel; the power switch sits on the right side. HD-SDI loop connectivity is provided by two BNC jacks on the bottom; if you want to connect via HDMI, there are two mini-HDMI jacks on the left-hand side, along with the headphone jack and a 1/8″ mini jack for line-level analog audio in. The Sidekick HD works best with embedded audio and time code; if your camera has that ability you can slave the recorder to rec-run time code on your camera, for one-button rolling and stopping. The Sidekick also records up to 8 channels of embedded audio; who would have ever thought that so much good stuff could flow down a single BNC cable? Of course, you should make sure that your chosen camera supports embedded audio and time code – my camera, the Canon XL-H1, does not. While this doesn’t stop the Sidekick HD from being useful, it does require the use of analog audio in, with an unbalanced stereo mini-plug jack on the side.
This makes for a pretty tenuous connection (same with the mini-HDMI loop connectors) with no built-in way to strain-relief it. Looks like gaffer’s tape or Velcro will be needed to hold those connections together securely.
Bottom of the Sidekick HD
There is no doubt that the best way to record from a high-def camera is with the HD-SDI jack; that’s where you get the signal before it goes through whatever compression the camera’s electronics impose to lay it to tape. When I connected the Sidekick HD to the HD-SDI ports of cameras that do support embedded audio and time code (like the Canon XH-G1 and the Sony HDW-790 ENG/EFP camera) the Sidekick HD rolled and stopped reliably, and recorded audio just as you would expect. Of course, I haven’t yet met a camera that will start and stop time code without a tape in the drive; you can look at this as either a waste of tape or as mandatory backup. Even on the XL-H1, manual rolling and stopping was a piece of cake, due to the large, silver buttons, which wear the classic squares and triangles we all now know by heart for Rewind, Fast Forward, Play, Stop, and the red Record button.
While not high-definition by any measure, the 4.3″, 480×272 monitor on the Sidekick HD is a great thing to have. Bright, colorful and reasonably sharp, it is a huge asset to any camera that doesn’t have a built-in LCD display. However, the form-factor made me think: what do you do with the Sidekick HD when you are going handheld? For DSLR rigs, that might not be a problem; for ENG/EFP cameras, it probably would be.
Look, Ma, I’m transferring!
Here’s how hard it is to transfer footage from the Sidekick HD to your computer:
1) Power the Sidekick HD down and slide out the 2.5″ SATA drive from the back;
2) Plug the miniSATA cable into the drive and the USB end into your computer;
3) Transfer the clips.
Seriously. That’s it. Start editing. Sure, there could be a faster bus than USB2 (and if you have an eSATA drive “toaster” you could mount the drive there for much higher datarates) but seriously, it is that simple. As I trumpeted before, ProRes clips no longer pose any issues for PCs. Fast Forward Video touts the ability to record in other codecs as well, but as of November 2011 the only other choice is ProRes 422 (HQ). Future plans include codecs for Avid DNxHD and AVCIntra; any of these codecs will be an additional-cost purchase.
Sounds great, right? Well it is, but this transition comes with a price tag attached.
Street price for the Sidekick HD is in the high-$1800 range, with one included 128GB drive.
UPDATE 12/19/12: Pricing for the Sidekick HD with a 128Gb drive *and* the ProRez HQ codec is now $2495, and with the codec but *no* drive, the price is $2195. And I am told that FFV has recently qualified the Intel 320-series SSDs, so now you have more storage choices.
Laptop-size solid-state drives (SSDs) are not (yet) inexpensive; the 128GB drive that ships with the Sidekick HD holds around 70 minutes of 10-bit ProRes footage, and costs over $700. A 256GB drive is over $1500 – that’s over $10 per minute of storage. The competition generally records to CompactFlash memory, and when you get into the 32Gb and 64Gb sizes, the costs almost equalize, with an
slight advantage to CompactFlash. However, when you consider that the Sidekick HD throws in a built-in confidence monitor, loop and HDMI/HD-SDI transcode capacity to feed other, higher-rez monitors, and even a speaker to check your footage, it is a pretty compelling package. If you are looking to move your production to 10-bit recording and solid-state acquisition, the Sidekick HD is easily worth some careful consideration.
DISCLAIMER: I was provided with a Sidekick HD on a loaner basis by Fast Forward Video; it is soon going back. Nothing of value changed hands as a result of this review.