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AJA Ki Pro Mini

CreativeCOW presents AJA Ki Pro Mini -- AJA Video Systems Review


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AJA's Ki Pro Mini ($1995) is a portable video recorder that gives older, cheaper cameras new life by recording their footage as digital files in Apple's high-end ProRes codec. All you need is a camera that can output its image via HD-SDI or HDMI. Just attach the Mini to the camera, and you're ready to enjoy a file-based workflow, and an industrial strength codec that delivers full-raster resolution and intraframe recording using 4:2:2 chroma sub-sampling and 10-bit color at data rates up to 220 mbps.

I got a chance to test the Ki Pro Mini out with two different cameras. First was Panasonic's new AG-AF100, which normally records to SD cards in the AVCHD format -- that is, at 24mbps, using interframe recording (not every frame is recorded fully; some are interpolated) with 4:2:0 chroma sub-sampling and 8 bit color. The second camera I tried it with was a Varicam, which normally records to DVCPRO HD (100mbps, 4:2:2, 8 bit color, but with rectangular pixel resolutions of 960x720 and 1280x1080, instead of the full HD resolution's you'd get from square pixels).






Both cameras saw improved visuals by using the Mini. 10 bit color can produce smoother gradations. 4:2:2 sub-sampling gives more flexibility for color correction, better results for green screen work, and less fringing. Full-raster resolution can result in a sharper image if you're camera normally uses rectangular pixels (as many Panasonic cameras do). Intraframe recording and a higher date rate results is fewer compression artifacts, and an overall cleaner picture, and easier editing in post. But this still doesn't mean every shot on a Mini will be noticeably better than when recorded natively on a given camera. Your average TV viewer may not tell the difference in most situations, although DPs and directors should be able to. And the post production benefits will always be there.

As for my own tests, the most notable differences I noticed was that the Ki-empowered AF100 seemed to handle highlights more smoothly, and the Varicam footage looked sharper (thanks to using more square pixels vs DVCPRO's fewer rectangular pixels).

But whatever camera you use, the Ki Pro Mini works the same way. Here are some other impressions from my time with the unit…


OPERATION

Hit the Ki Pro Mini's power button, and it will be ready to record about 35 seconds later. It will detect the resolution and frame rate your camera is set to, and configure itself to the same thing. It can accommodate progressive modes, PsF modes, and variable frame rates.

You can start the Ki Pro recording just by hitting its record button. It will record anything coming over the HD-SDI or HDMI cable, and its tiny, text-only LCD screen will tell you how much recording space you have left (as a percentage). Or, depending on your camera, the Ki Pro may be able to automatically record (and stop) as soon as you hit your camera's own Record button and the Ki Pro sees timecode coming over from the camera. Some cameras send timecode over their SDI signal, so you may not need any additional cabling for the Mini to automatically record as soon as it detects timecode. Other cameras may need to feed the Ki Pro timecode through a separate BNC cable -- just attach that from the camera to the Ki Pro Mini's Timecode port, and you're ready to go.

The Mini lets you tweak a bunch of settings by navigating a series of menus on its LCD screen. You can set the kind of ProRes 422 flavor to use (HQ at 220mbps, standard at 147mbps , LT at 102mbps, and Proxy at 45mbps). You can cycle through previously recorded clips by name, and either play them back or delete them. Playback, by the way, requires an external monitor hooked into either the Mini's HD-SDI or HDMI outputs.






You can also tweak the clip naming conventions that the Mini uses. Its default operation lets you set a Reel number (from 1-999) and creates clip names by using a combination of a Clip number, a single additional text character (to, say, help differentiate an A and B camera), and a Take number. For instance, a typical file name produced by the Ki Pro would be "CLIP5ATK1", for Clip 5A Take 1. You can change the numbers yourself, or just let the Mini increment them automatically. You can also change the letter designation (the "A" in Clip "5A") to whatever other letter you want it to be.

You can also tweak the Ki Pro's naming conventions in other ways. For instance, you can set it to name clips with SC (for Scene) instead of CLIP (ie, SC7ATK1). Or you can customize the clip's name completely ("Interview_Doe"). Most people will never do that, though, because you have to have the patience to thumb in an alternative name using the Mini's buttons, OR attach the Mini via Ethernet cable to a computer, and use your web browser to make the changes on the computer.

Anyway, the Mini's is a no-frills naming system, but I hoped for a few more frills from a $2000, second-generation box. I would have really been impressed if AJA had included a WiFi chip inside, which would let anyone with a smartphone, tablet or laptop change clip names over the air. Even better, giving me the ability to add a little metadata to clips would have been much appreciated (show names, locations, etc.). Unfortunately, the Mini embeds no meaningful metadata in its clips, and its naming system is about as barebones as they come.

On the other hand, the Mini's audio support is extensive, thanks to two XLR audio connectors, and knobs for adjusting levels. This lets you record sound separately from whatever's coming in through the camera, which can be useful depending on how you're audio department is handling sound. Ki Pro competitors like the nanoFlash don't have that kind of flexibility with audio.


POWER

You can power the Mini with its AC adapter, but most people will feed battery power into it via its standard 4-pin XLR adapter. AJA doesn't sell them, but you can get cables with a 4-pin XLR on one end and d-taps for Anton Bauer or other batteries on the other. It's a little bit of a pain to track these down; it would be nice if AJA could sell cables along side the Mini, but so far it doesn't.

As for power-draw, the Mini uses about 12 watts in idle, and up to 16 watts when recording. That's actually pretty hefty, near what some cameras use entirely, and much more than a competitor like the nanoFlash needs(.1 watts on standby, 6 watts recording). Still, most productions that use the Mini will already have multiple, beefy batteries on hand, and will probably find the Mini's power appetite manageable over the course of a day.






MEDIA

The Mini records footage to Compact Flash cards, and can take two cards at a time. Unfortunately, the Mini can't carry over continuous recording from one installed card to the other. When one card runs out of space, you'll have to stop recording, and hit a button to mount your second CF card.

In general, a lot of people have clamored for cameras and recorders to get away from proprietary card formats like Panasonic's P2 and Sony's SxS cards, since they tend to be more expensive than more commonly-used media. Better to use the same SD and CF cards that so many other devices use (still cameras, phones, etc.), and take advantage of that media's lower cost and uber-compatibility.

So the Mini gives you industry-standard CF cards, but you might not reap the big financial windfall you'd expect, because it's only designed to work with four high-speed CF cards currently (see the current list here on AJA's web site), and those cards ain't cheap! The only 64GB card that AJA currently recommends is a 600x Sandisk card, which goes for about $523 on Amazon. A 32GB card goes for $244. If you're thinking of using other cards with the Mini, just know that AJA says you'll risk dropping frames during recording or suffer other hitches. For instance, a tech note currently on AJA's web site warns against using Lexar cards, even the fast 600x variety.

Anyway, given the price of cards, and the fact that the largest currently available is 64Gb, you'll want to think about what flavor of ProRes you'll use to record your video. ProRes HQ has a datarate of 220 mbps, which will give you only about 30 minutes per 64GB card when recording 1080/30. You might want to strongly consider using the standard ProRes 422 mode instead (147mbps), or even ProRes LT (102mbps). Our instincts always tell us to pick the highest quality mode available, but I could never tell the difference between ProRes HQ and plain old ProRes recorded in my tests. I didn't evaluate ProRes LT, but know that Panasonic's excellent AVC-Intra codec uses a similar datarate of 100mbps, and looks fantastic.


MOUNTING

The Mini weighs 1.26 pounds, which is heavy enough to know it's there when mounted on a camera rig, but light enough to tolerate (it's about .25 heavier than a nanoFlash).

AJA sells a couple of extras to make mounting it to your camera pretty straightforward. First there's the Mini Mount ($75), which looks like a battery plate with a ton of different holes for screw configurations. You can use this to mount the Mini to other battery plates, arms, and other surfaces. There's also a Mini Rod accessory plate that lets you attach the Mini to 15mm rods ($149).


EDITING

If you're a Final Cut user, you'll appreciate that your media is in ProRes, because that's a format that Final Cut can import directly, instead of having to waste time and additional disk space by transcoding or re-wrapping your camera footage (which is something Final Cut has to do with footage from P2 cameras, Sony XDCAM, Canon DSLRs, AVCHD cameras, etc.) Final Cut only works natively with QuickTime files, but since that's what the Mini records, you can import the native footage instantly into your editor…

If you use Avid's Media Composer 5 or later, you can import ProRes files natively as well, thanks to v5's AMA (Avid Media Access) feature. If you're on an earlier version of Avid, you'll have to let Avid transcode the ProRes files into Avid's native DNxHD codec.

As for the last couple of versions of Premiere Pro, you should be able to import and edit ProRes natively.


COMPARED TO THE KI PRO

In case you're wondering what the Ki Pro Mini misses that you get with the bigger, $3995 Ki Pro…

1) The Mini can't up or downconvert video. In other words, you can't attach a camera that's recording in 720, but record the footage in the Mini as 1080. You can do that kind of scaling with the Ki Pro.

2) The Ki Pro doesn't record its footage to CF cards. Instead, it uses a removeable drive module with a built-in 2.5" hard drive. The standard Ki Pro comes with a 250GB hard drive, but you can also get drive modules up to 500GB, or modules with a 128 or 256GB SSDS. Unfortunately, you can't swap your own drive mechanisms into the modules, so you're stuck paying AJA's high prices when you want something bigger. For instance, a 500GB module is $385 and a 256GB SSD is $1,395.

OVERALL

I really like the Ki Pro Mini. It's easy to use. It records video in a high-end format, one that Final Cut loves. It can record XLR audio separately from what's embedded in an HD-SDI or HDMI signal, and gives you manual control over levels. And it's still small and light enough to accommodate camera setups without turning them into boat anchors.

One last thing to consider if you're in the market for a field recorder like the Mini, and that's how many new competitors are heading into the market. There were several interesting ones at NAB 2011, including the Sound Devices PIX , Fast Forward Video's Sidekick HD, and Atomos' Ninja and Samurai. All of them record in various flavors of ProRes (the PIX can do Avid's NTxHD too), and they all have small built-in touch-screens, which seem easier to use than the Mini's button/tiny LCD combination. The touch-screens also double as field monitors…perhaps not high- quality monitors, but definitely good enough for a cameraman to judge composition. And these new units are all significantly less expensive than the Ki Pro Mini.

Of course, price isn't everything. Who knows how many of these competitors will be around in the next year or two. My gut tells me that not all of them will survive, but I'm willing to bet money on AJA's longevity. Also, AJA has phenomenal support. The Mini comes with a 3-year warranty, and if your's goes down within that period, AJA will send you a replacement via next-day FedEx (just get your call in by 2pm Pacific time). That's service. Plus, I've called AJA support many times over the last several years, and I can't remember waiting more than a minute or two to speak with someone knowledgeable. Overall, saving a few hundred dollars always excites me, but the magic aura of saved money wears off after a few months. What lasts is my peace of mind knowing that if I have some troubles with a product, that I can get back up and running almost instantly.


REVIEW RATING: 4 out of 5 COWS

About Helmut Kobler
Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based documentary & reality cameraman. He's also written three editions of Final Cut Pro for Dummies. For more information, go to http://www.losangelescameraman.com.



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