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Leaving the camcorder at home?
(aka: How have I got on shooting my family video on a smartphone for the last 12 months?)

It's been interesting seeing the various uses people have put the Nokia N93 to over on WOM World, though these have mainly been limited to shortish pieces and often rendered down to something smaller than the full N93 resolution using YouTube or similar. I thought it might be useful to recount my experiences with digital video on a smartphone over the last 12 months.

The story so far

As a convergence freak, once I got hold of the Nokia N70, with its 352 by 288 pixel (CIF) video capture, I started trialling shooting all my family video on my phone - the ad-hoc ability to whip the device out and start shooting was fabulous, especially when children are involved - you never know when one of those magic moments will happen. Once I started shooting this way, I never went back to my old (inconvenient) standalone camcorder, despite the quality difference - the far more interesting subject matter outweighed, in my mind, the rather blocky and slightly jerky CIF video picture. I began editing all the best bits of my N70 (and later N90) footage using Ulead VideoStudio 10 Plus and burning them, together with my best N70 and N90 still photos, to DVD and copying these for ourselves and for the grandparents.

Enter the N93

N93Then the Nokia N93 appeared in real life and, after a few problems with the initial firmware that got sorted out a day before my main summer vacation, I switched from the N90 with a few worries about what might go wrong. Leaving everything else at home, I only took the N93, as my main email device, music player, PDA, camera and (of course) video camcorder.

And you know what, I was largely bowled over. The larger screen (2.4" diagonal) was supremely readable and worked well as a camera viewfinder, there were no fragility problems with the swivelling and twisting screen, the large keypad was great for texting and composing on, and best of all the video recording facility proved to live up to its billing (VGA resolution, 30 frames per second).

Over the course of my vacation, I filled up 1.3GB of a 2GB miniSD card, with over almost an hour of video and over 15 still photos. I actually shot about two hours of video, but I would review the footage at the end of each day and discard or edit down any clips which didn't work. Reviewing footage, with the stereo headphones on, was quite an experience - with the stereo audio soundtrack, the video was surprisingly immersive.

Click to enlarge
Example frame grab from holiday footage - click to enlarge to full size

Dealing with my footage

Back home, I had to process all my footage, and here's where I hit a few hiccups. Although the MP4 videos from the N93 would open fine in Quicktime Pro, trying to paste a few of them together and then re-save resulted in all kinds of audio sync problems. Undeterred, I loaded the clips into my favourite video editor, VideoStudio, which promptly crashed - it seemed it just didn't like the N93's MP4 files at all. Sighing(!), I tried the huge, bundled copy of Adobe Premiere Elements 2.0 from the N93's CD. As with all Adobe software, seemingly, this was extremely RAM hungry and bloated. My PC's no slouch and has 512MB of RAM, yet I couldn't even preview the N93's videos in the software, even after going through Premiere's rendering preview cycles. I tried including the clips as-is, without editing, but it made a mess of the resulting DVD, with (again) horrible audio sync and distortion problems. I wasn't impressed.

I was left with a vacation's worth of videos that I could do nothing serious with and I despondently moved on to other devices (the E70, which has a similar camera to the N70, plus a proper qwerty keyboard), leaving the N93 lying around looking rather sad for itself.

Click to enlarge
Another example frame grab from holiday footage - click to enlarge to full size

Good news

On a whim, a few days ago, I tried the Ulead site and found news of a 'Service Pack' for Video Studio 10. Although it didn't mention MP4 compatibility problems, I thought it was worth a try. After upgrading, amazingly, all my N93 MP4s imported perfectly into Video Studio 10 Plus and could be previewed in real time and edited to my heart's content. Importantly, the finished DVDs were perfect too. Phew!

Watching the point on the DVD where the N90 video clips stop and the N93's vacation ones come in is quite dramatic - the extra resolution makes a big difference. The sound was great too. But - the big question - what about comparing N93-produced video to that from my original standalone camcorder, though? Is it as good?

Answering the 'big question'

In short, no, but that's not really important - read on. Looking at the N93 video on DVD on a big-screen TV, it's apparent that there's noticeable jerkiness when panning round a scene, probably partly to do with the scaling down from 30 frames per second to 25 for European PAL video equipment. In addition, there are often compression artefacts and shimmering, giving the game away that this is smartphone video rather than something produced with 'professional' optics onto a standalone camcorder. And the N93's microphones get horribly overloaded when subjected to anything remotely loud, leading to drop-out in the final soundtrack.

But the important point is that the N93's video clips aren't that much worse than that from standalone units, meaning that for most purposes (family, friends, informal events) you can shoot away happily on the N93 and no-one will complain about the quality afterwards - they'll simply be happy that the moment was recorded. Just don't try shooting a friend's wedding video on the N93!

Still photos weren't quite such a success story. Although in good light, they were certainly acceptable, under most conditions, stills from the N93 showed high levels of compression artefacts - curiously missing from the later N73, with a similar camera, leading me to hope that a firmware revision can fix the problem on the N93.

The next generation

As I write this, the N95 is being unveiled across the world, to be available early in 2007, also with VGA video recording. I'm guessing that the N93 will effectively be redundant then - but in the meantime it's most definitely the king of smartphones when it comes to video recording on-the-move.


All text (C) Steve Litchfield, 2006

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