Panasonic AJ-PCD2 P2 Card Reader
COW Library : Panasonic Cameras : Helmut Kobler : Panasonic AJ-PCD2 P2 Card Reader
Panasonic's AJ-PCD2 is a simple, straight-forward, affordable card reader for P2 media cards. It connects to any Mac or PC via USB2, requires no external power, and costs $350. It started shipping in the last couple of months, which is about 3 years later than it should have.
Why it took Panasonic so long to make a basic P2 card reader is one of the great mysteries of the ages, right up there with Stonehenge and Mona Lisa's smile. Years ago, Panasonic bet its professional camera division's future on P2 cards, and yet, the company never sold a simple, cheap card reader to encourage more people to use P2! Instead, Panasonic made fancy 5-card readers like the PCD20 and PCD35, which cost $2,000 or more. Don't get me wrong: I love my speedster PCD35, which can offload 13 hours of 720P footage in less than an hour. But a two grand card reader is obviously not for everyone.
If you didn't want to spring for the Rolls-Royce of card readers, you could always hook your camera directly up to a computer, but that was clumsy and impractical. And laptop users could, for a while, buy a third-party card reader like a Duel Adapter, which connected to laptops through an increasingly rare ExpressCard slot. But the Duel Adapter was a bonafide kludge, thanks to kernel panics, driver problems, and other headaches.
Such was the state of P2 card readers until the PCD2 came along recently. But now that it is here (and finally shipping in some volume), it's actually an important addition to the P2 constellation. Now, finally, anyone with a few hundred dollars in their pocket can add straight-forward, no-hassle P2 compatibility to their workflow. This is a big step for many production companies that are increasingly experimenting with tapeless workflows. The price of the PCD2 lets you easily accept P2 cards from a ton of popular cameras, but without making a big investment in one tapeless format or another.
The PCD2 connects to a Mac or PC via two included USB cables - one cable carries power to the reader, and the other cable carries data - so you need two free USB2 ports to make it work. The good news is that most computers have two or more USB ports to spare (except my Macbook Air), and you can also run the PCD2 by plugging it into a powered USB hub, or into the powered USB ports found on the back of many monitors. Fortunately, the PCD2's two separate cables are 40" long, which means you can leave the PCD2 on your desk while connecting it to a workstation on the floor.
As long as you have Panasonic's P2 drivers installed, any card you slip into the PCD2 will mount on your computer. From there, you can offload its contents to a hard drive, edit the card's metadata, import the footage directly into every major video editor, and even edit footage directly from the card.
When it comes to offloading cards, the PCD2 is not exactly a speedster, thanks to the fairly pokey USB2 connection. To give you an idea, I used a 2009 Mac Pro and an early 2008 Macbook Pro to copy a full 32GB E-Series card from the PCD2 to various hard drives (I used Shotput Pro 3.13 to manage the copy). Here's what I got:
So the PCD2 is slow compared to a state-of-the-art card reader, but not intolerably slow. If you're shooting and transferring hours and hours of footage a day, it probably isn't appropriate. But if you're transferring a few cards here and there, then most people can live with the PCD2's speed (which often gets between 2 and 4 times faster than real-time speed). Also, if you pay attention to the kind of hard drive you're using to offload your footage, you'll get the best possible speed.
Not Just For Offloading Footage
Most people will think of the PCD2 as a way to offload cards, but you can use it for more than that. As I said, you can actually plug a P2 card into the PCD2, and edit 720 or 1080 footage directly off the card. I did this in Final Cut (using the MXF Import QT plug-in to edit the MXF footage natively), and then used Compressor to export the edit to in various flavors.
More importantly, you can edit the metadata of any P2 card you've mounted in the PCD2. This makes the PCD2 a great tool for field producers -- just take your cards into the field, and when your cameraman hands them back, you can use utilities like Panasonic's free P2 CMS app or P2 Flow to open the cards, review footage, type in custom clip names, mark highlights, etc. Field producers know their footage better than anyone, and can quickly do much of the logging work directly from the cards. By the time that footage gets to an editor, it's already organized and ready to go.
Worth the Cash?
My only complaint with the PCD2 is the $350 price, which seems a little steep for a plastic, single card reader, even by the over-priced standards of the pro video world. For instance, Sony's USB card reader for SxS cards is $278 (although that one needs an AC adapter, so it's way less elegant than Panasonic's version). Panasonic could probably boost P2 adoption rates overall if it priced the PCD2 a little cheaper.
But the fact is the PCD2 is highly portable, works reliably with just about every computer around, is fast enough for most offloading work, and is still affordable for anyone but a hobbyist. Overall, it's a small but very welcomed addition to the P2 world. It's about time!
About Helmut Kobler
Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based documentary cameraman who shoots a lot of P2. He's also written three editions of Final Cut Pro for Dummies. For more information, go to www.varicaminla.com