Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Disappointment with Sony Handycam Software

I purchased Sony SR-12 in April 2008. I have earlier written about my first impressions and compared the camcorder with my previous Sony camcorder. So far, I have been busy just filming my travels and left watching and editing for later time. One reason for this is that I'm practically unable to watch any of the videos that I have recorded. The SR-12 comes with no less than three Windows utilities:
  • Handycam Utility - to copy videos to computer and DVDs
  • AVCHD Player - to play video from the cam or from DVD
  • Picture Motion Browser - to organize, edit and publish videos
All of them fail in some respect and are terribly problematic.

If you like stories of frustration, hopelessness, anger, and an occasional burst of masochistic laugh, read on.

Handycam Utility

The Handycam Utility is the software that pops up when you plug a USB cable into your camcorder. In theory, it allows you to watch videos from the camera, copy them to your computer, or to create DVDs from the videos. It fails miserably in most of these tasks. Let us go through the functionalities of the utility.

Video Playback (AVCHD Player)

You can launch the AVCHD Player from the Handycam Utility or from the desktop icon. The player allows you to watch videos from the camcorder either from the camcorder or from AVCHD DVDs. This is really what you would expect. The player has, however, a few problems. Probably the most annoying one is that it pauses for about a half a second between each shot. This is especially annoying if your shots are very short. You don't get that on TV, you don't get that on DVD, you don't get that when you play back the recordings on the small screen of the camcorder, so why do you get it on this player? Actually, the two other player softwares that come with the camcorder have the same problem, but the delay is much bigger in them.

Another problem is that once you start the player, it starts indexing the shots on the camcorder. Indexing one shot takes about 3-5 seconds. I myself take usually well over 1000 shots during a week's travel, so indexing the shots takes about 4000 seconds, that is, over an hour. Currently, I have some 3000 clips stored on the camera, so indexing would take about 4 (four) hours. That's every time you start the player, as it doesn't remember the index. The speed is a bit strange as the copy-to-pc functionality of Handycam Utility indexes the pictures maybe twenty times faster.

Third problem is that the clips are shown 6 (six) clips a page on the screen. You can click on arrow symbols on a page to change to the next page, but with my 3000 clips, it means 3000/6=500 screens! So if I want to get to a page somewhere midway, I have to click the arrow 250 times. No worry, changing page takes maybe 0,5 seconds so it "only" takes some two minutes to get there. This absurdity makes it certain that the developers of the software have never themselves used the software, not at least with their own camera. Or they only record very very long clips, half an hour and so. "Oh, we have tested the program with a large number of clips, twenty!"

There is also a problem regarding video quality. Sony SR-12 is supposed to record 30 frames/s. I dare to say that the player plays maybe half of that. The problem is clearly visible when someone walks on the screen. The playback is far smoother when you play it from the camcorder to TV, or in Linux after conversion.

You can also use the AVCHD Player to play AVCHD DVDs that you can burn with the utilities. The problem with DVD playback is that the DVD index shows the clips by date. Typically, you have just one day in the DVD, so the DVD index has just one item. The problem is that you can easily record 200 shots a day (that's my average when traveling), but the software does not have an index to allow you to jump to a certain shot easily. You just need to click the Forward button 200 times to get to the end. Changing to the next clip is not immediate, so it can take a few minutes to get to the end. It's really frustrating.

PC Backup

The PC Backup functionality allows you to copy your videos from the camcorder to your PC. That's handy. My problem with the program is that I have only 20 GB disk space on my laptop (I have a 80 GB disk but I have reserved 60 GB for Linux). Windows Vista takes about 18 GB, so I have just 2 GB free, while I need tens of GBs to store my videos. This should not be a problem, as I have a 120 GB USB disk that I can attach to my laptop. The utility actually allows me to configure the folder where the videos are stored. All good? No. After I change the folder to my external USB disk and click the Ok button...it fails and leaves the target folder unchanged. I have tried everything, but it completely refuses to make the "PC Backup" to a USB disk attached to my PC.

One Touch Disc Burn

This feature allows you to burn all the videos on your camcoder to an AVCHD format disk. Well, ok, virtually no DVD player plays AVCHD disks, but I knew that beforehand, so I can't complain. My main purpose anyhow in burning such DVDs is to get backups.

The problem is that the utility can only burn everything on the camcorder to DVDs. There's no option to start from a certain disk or a certain date or anything. You can only burn all or nothing. That would not be a problem if it was just one disk, but if you have, say, 80 GB (6 hours) of recordings on your camcorder, burning them all takes 20 DVDs. You can burn them in just one go, so if there was a problem at some point, you have to burn everything from the beginning. And if you go out and shoot more, you have to burn the earlier 20 DVDs again. Really.

The functionality is even more problematic because it is a bit slow, to say the least. Burning a DVD takes a bit over 10 minutes. So, burning 20 DVDs takes 200 minutes or 3 h 20 m. Plus time to change the disk, of course. So, please remember to have to plug in the power cord to your camera before recording, because otherwise your battery will go empty and you'll have to begin again...

Camcorder Issues with SR-12

One horribly serious problem with Sony SR-12 is that it doesn't store any unique number for the video clips. The name of a video file stored on the hard drive of the camcorder is just a sequential number starting from 1. If you remove a video from the middle, all the numbers of the later files are reduced by one. So, if you clean up files on your camcorder, you have to remove them all at once.

The camcorder actually stores the date and time when you shot the clip as the modification time of the file. So you could order the clips by date? Not possible, because if you edit a video on the camera and, say, split it in two, the split files will have modification time of the editing operation. Of course...

Linux Issues

I use Linux 97% of time and only use Windows for playing some games. Unfortunately, the Sony camcorder utilities are not available for Linux. The camera itself is just a USB memory, so by just plugging it in, I can easily copy the video clips from the camcorder to my computer. The problem is in actually watching them as no Linux video player currently supports the M2TS video format. No problem, there are ways to convert the M2TS format to formats that I can play on Linux. The problem is that so far, all there ways have failed for me.

The article Transcoding MTS/M2TS AVCHD Video Into AVI Files with Free Software provides excellent instructions for transcoding regular HD (not FullHD) M2TS AVCHD video files to H.264 AVI. I did not enjoy the shell scripts so I wrote a very similar Python script for my purposes.

So far, the ffmpeg solution either loses audio altogether or has severe audio synchronization problems. Ffmpeg doesn't have built-in scaling, but I would want to scale my videos to PAL 720x572 resolution or some other resolution lower than FullHD's 1920x1080. Regular YUV image conversion utilities would do, but using them is a bit cumbersome.

Mencoder provides another solution and works much better. Audio is ok and I'm able to scale the video as I like. The problem is that the resulting video is "jumpy": movement of people is not even but looks somehow rushed. This is probably because of "duplicate frames" that occur during the conversion. Both the input and output are 30 frames/second so there should not be problems with that, but there probably is some .

I had a really well-working video editing path with my old Sony DV camera, with dvgrab utility for grabbing the video data and Kino for editing it. I really would like to reach that same level with my new Sony.


The software that comes with Sony SR-12 camcorder is, to a large degree, unusable for the typical use for which you would expect it to work. SR-12 is not a low-end beginner model, but while definitely not a professional, it is a low-end prosumer model. As such, you expect some usability from the software. A prosumer can expectedly take thousands of video clips and wants to store, convert and edit the clips and use some video editing software to make amateus movies. However, even the basic functionalities are severely lacking.

I certainly hope that Sony comes with major updates for the Handycam Utility software. Otherwise the problems with the software make the camcorder themselves unusable.


Saif said...

So what software are you using now? Sony's Vegas? Perhaps Corel Ulead Video Studio?

Faisal Khan said...

I bought Sony SR12E from a store in Franfurt. The camcorder is fantastic, no two opinions about it but then I am facing exactly the same issues in playback, burning to DVD etc. Its from last six I have going through each blog I could to find a solution to this problem but looks like I have to give up.

I wrote to Sony Europe, went down to the retailer, downloaded every possible media player but of no use.

I have already switched the mode to Standard Defintion which is working fine but then in that case I could have bought a camera some 500 euros less than this High Defintion one.

My conclusion: there is no solution to this problem.

Bes said...

If you think you've had problems with Sony Camcorders you ain't seen half of it. I bought a 600 quid Sony Handycam dcr-dvd101E in June 2006 to use to produce promo videos for use on www.sanclare-infosys.co.uk my company website.
I produced a few clips and went through all the 'carry on' you have experienced. The software ImageMixer supplied with it worked ok but at the time my website, was not able to run them anyway. I have used the thing only a few times since then but recently I decided to try again for uploading stuff to the web.
No problem filming stuff but as soon as I connected the thing to the two computers I had originally downloaded video and photos to, I hit problems. Both machines running XP SP3 would not recognise the thing when plugged in although they did detect that a USB device had been attached, and went through the whole installation process again - not a good sign.
Even worse - when the ImageMixer software was opened and the USB device button clicked on, both machines blue screened with that good old "Windows is clos........" error message. I then installed the software on a brand new tower PC running Vista and it crashed as well.
Just to check on the situation with the hardware I then connected the camcorder to my trusty little CnM notebook (don't we just luv Linux), and it just didn't even detect a USB device. Although when I connect my mobile phone which incidentally a S*!y Ericsson, the CnM immediately detects it and the phone goes into transfer mode, recognising the CnM as a USB storage device.
Armed with all this data I then tried to contact S*!y customer support. TWO hours later, (I kid you not) after contacting an individual to talk to in the UK, the best the idiot on the other end of the line could suggest was that I finalize a mini-disk every time I want to transfer data to my PC! At this point I threw down the phone swearing never to buy any S*!y gear again!
Unfortunately I have had a similar problem with a Digicam in the old days. The com port went down and I had to throw the thing away, what a bloody waste!