Backing Up Solid-State Cards In The Field
COW Library : Field Production : Helmut Kobler : Backing Up Solid-State Cards In The Field
PORTABLE CARD BACKUP DEVICES
The Nexto Video Storage Pro & Panasonic AG-MSU10
There are plenty of advantages to shooting video on solid-state cards, but cards have one particular headache of their own. That's when you have to offload your cards to a backup hard drive while working in the field. Maybe you have to free up card space so you can continue shooting, or maybe you have to hand your footage to a client who didn't bring their own cards. Either way, doing an in-the-field offload usually means bringing a laptop, a card reader, external hard drives and lots of cabling to your location, then finding a secure place to set it all up, and then waiting around as each card slowly copies to the drives.
No one looks forward to this. It certainly never appealed to me; in fact, I bit the bullet a couple of years ago and bought more cards than I might have otherwise, just to avoid doing an offload on set.
But there is another way. Instead of hauling around an entire computer ecosystem, or busting the bank on excess cardage, you can invest in a portable card backup device, which includes a built-in hard drive or SSD (solid-state drive), is small enough to hold in your hand, runs on battery power, and makes copying cards quick and foolproof.
This review takes a look at two of these products that I've worked with for the last few weeks.
$2,349 with 500GB hard drive (* tested)
$2,699 with 128GB SSD (256GB SSD available as build-to-order)
The first thing that impresses about the Nexto is its small size. It's about the size of a small paperback book -- and not much heavier -- and you can easily carry it in a jacket pocket. After working with the Nexto for a day or two, you'll never want to go back to lugging a laptop...
Around its black body are multiple card slots -- an ExpressCard/34 slot (which takes Sony's SxS cards), a CompactFlash slot, and another slot that can handle SD cards, Memory Sticks, and MMCs, all in one. If you've got P2 cards, the Nexto also handles those, but in a clunky way: you have to plug a P2 adapter card into its ExpressCard slot, and then stick the P2 card into the adapter. The whole contraption hangs awkwardly off the side of the Nexto, and won't win any awards for aesthetics but it does work (note: in early 2011, Nexto will ship a new version of the Video Pro --the 2525 -- which has a dedicated P2 slot, and uses its ExpressCard adapter for CF cards instead).
The Nexto has a 2.4" screen to show menus, thumbnails and play back video. You navigate its menus using a tiny thumb-sized joystick built into the top of the unit. You can click the joystick in (like clicking a button) to make selections. Clicking the button quickly versus holding it in for a second can produce different results, depending on the menu you're on. That can be a little confusing to the newcomer (I had to look at the manual to make sense of it), but once you understand there are two different kinds of clicks, you get adjusted. Also the Nexto's LCD screen always tells you what a short (S) or a long (L) click accomplishes, so there's never any doubt.
When you plug a card into the Nexto, it immediately gives you three choices to begin copying the card: a Fast Copy (no verification), a Copy & Verify, and a Safe Copy (which does verification but also checks the Nexto's internal hard drive for bad sectors as it's copying).
Here are some transfer times, using the Fast Copy option with no verification on a Nexto with a 500GB 7200 RPM hard drive installed:
The Nexto copied some cards faster than others, but if you're using SxS or P2 cards, you're getting pretty cutting-edge copy performance in the field. For instance, using a laptop to copy a 32GB SxS card with Sony's own card reader to an external hard drive would take closer to 15 minutes, instead of the Nexto's 6 minutes. The Nexto also copied SxS and P2 cards faster than the Sonnet Qio ($999), which is a multi-format card reader and eSATA interface that some folks take out on the road.
CompactFlash copies were a little slower than expected, but still reasonable.
By the way, if you're thinking of buying the Nexto with a SSD ($2,699), you shouldn't expect even faster copies. Nexto says that its 7200 RPM hard drive already maxes out the hardware's SATA I bus, which means an SSD's speediness would probably go to waste.
The nice thing about having an SSD in the Nexto is that you can shake the unit violently, and know that there's no risk to your data, since the SSD has no moving parts. But even if your Nexto has a hard drive installed, like the unit I worked with, you'll find it holds up surprisingly well to shaking while copying. In fact, there's a screw-hole on the back that you can use to attach a belt clip, keeping the unit on your waist as you copy. I didn't try that, but I did walk briskly around and climb stairs while holding the Nexto as it copied. Nothing seemed to disturb the copy (I was using verification, just in case). Finally, I started rolling the Nexto over on one side and the other. At that point, I could hear its internal drive stop, but then it resumed copying as soon as it was level. Again, no problem with the data. I didn't go as far as dropping the drive from a height, but Nexto says the drive would have detected the drop and locked itself before hitting the ground.
One more thing: on the Nexto menu is a feature called "Self Test". This combs your drive for bad sectors, so it can avoid them later on. Nexto recommends running this feature the night before you do a shoot, but it can take several minutes or hours, depending on the level of detail the test uses. Personally, that's just one more thing for me to worry about, and I can't imagine many other people would bother. Besides, you can always do a Safe Copy, which inspects the drive for bad sectors before laying down your card.
Once you've copied a card to the Nexto, you can see it represented as a folder on the Nexto's hard drive (each card gets its own folder named after the date the card was first recorded).
Once you select a folder, you can see the thumbnails for any video clips and JPEG images in the folder, and play back most clips. That's right: the Nexto plays back Sony footage, P2 footage (including video using Panasonic's AVC-Intra codec), and Canon DSLR footage. Playback is at between ½ and ¼ of normal speed, which means it looks stuttery and won't wow any clients. But it's enough to see what you've got, and is pretty impressive for such a small device (the Panasonic MSU10 can only playback AVC-Intra as a tiny thumbnail, instead of taking up the whole LCD screen). Also, Nexto is currently working on a firmware update that lets the 2500 play back RED footage, and an upcoming model, the Nexto 2525, will playback ProRes footage from the Arri Alexa camera.
Power and Battery
The Nexto's internal battery is a bit of an issue. The manual says a battery should work for two hours on a full charge, but my demo unit ran down its battery after a little more than an hour of steady copying. In that hour, I copied three 32GB SxS cards (two with Verification), two 16 GB CompactFlash cards (with Verification), and a 64GB P2 card (no verification).
Of course, my demo unit used a hard drive, and Nexto says an SSD would get about 15-20% better battery life. And you can always run the Nexto on AC power but still, a 1+ hour battery life is likely to become frustrating at some point. And since the Nexto's battery is sealed inside the case, you can't swap in a fresh one. Recharging the battery from a wall outlet takes about four hours, by the way.
$2,500 with empty drive tray
$2,595 with 500GB hard drive tray
$3,095 with 256GB SSD tray (* tested)
The MSU10 is a product that Panasonic should have shipped two or three years ago. In fact, Panasonic did ship something remotely similar --it was called the P2 Store, but had so many limitations that it never caught on. If Panasonic had shipped something like the MSU10 instead, you'd see a lot more P2 cards used on nature and reality shows by now (P2's weakness to date). No use crying about it now, though. The good news is that Panasonic finally has a great, industrial-strength product.
The MSU10 is about twice the size of the Nexto, so you won't be able to stuff it in a jacket pocket or hang it off a belt. But it's still small and light enough (about 2.5 pounds) to carry around in one hand, or squeeze it into the corner of a case with other gear.
The MSU is also very easy to use. It starts up in about 9 seconds, and all you have to do is slip in a P2 card, and hit its big START button. The copy begins, and you can see a 0-100% progress bar on the unit's 3.2" screen. Other buttons on the MSU are self-explanatory (Menu, Exit, etc.) and the MSU uses the same menu system that its P2 cameras and recorders use.
The MSU can copy P2 cards faster than almost any other alternative around. Using the 256GB Samsung SSD tat Panasonic ships with the MSU, I was able to copy a full 64GB E Series P2 card in 14:47 (without data verification).
To put that in perspective, I used a Macbook Pro and Panasonic's USB 2 card reader (the AJ-PCD2) to copy a 64GB card to an attached FireWire 800 drive, and that took more than 45 minutes! I also used a Mac Pro desktop, with Panasonic's speedy PCD35 card reader, to copy the same card to an 8-drive RAID, taking 10:02.
So the MSU ran circles around Panasonic's USB card reader, and wasn't materially slower than the fastest P2 copying station known to man (a desktop computer with the PCD35 copying to a blazing RAID). Not bad for an in-the-field device that runs on battery power!
Of course, I was using the MSU with a very fast SSD installed in its drive tray. You can also buy the MSU with a conventional 2.5" 7200 RPM hard drive, or install any 2.5" drive you might have laying around. I wasn't able to test the MSU with the 500 GB hard drive that Panasonic sells, but Panasonic says it's about as fast as the SSD. That's because a modern 7200 RPM hard drive already maxes out the SATA I interface used by the MSU10, so having an even speedier SSD installed.
However, I was able to borrow an older 2.5" hard drive from my friends at Los Feliz Hi-Tech in Los Angeles (a great resource for anyone in the neighborhood, by the way), and give that a whirl. The drive was a 120GB, 5400 RPM SATA model from 2007, and it copied my same 64GB card in 27:20 versus the 14:47 of the SSD. So that's proof that the MSU can copy much slower to some 2.5" drives than it copies to an SSD. But again, I can't vouch for the faster, newer hard drive that Panasonic sells.
One more thing: I did all of these copies without data verification. If you turn the MSU's Verification On (via a menu setting), it will double-check each bit to make sure it's copied properly from card to drive. The drawback to this is that your copies take about twice as long than without verification (similar to the Nexto). Personally, if I were using the MSU with a conventional hard drive, I would probably give up some speed and use verification, given that a mechanical hard drive is more susceptible to problems. But if I were using an SSD with the MSU, I'd be very tempted to do copies without verification.
Like I said, I tested the MSU10 almost entirely with its 256GB Samsung SSD, and that was a pleasure. With an SSD installed, you can start a copy going, toss the MSU in your backpack, and literally run to the next location. Or hop in a cab and copy cards on the way to the airport. Or keep your crew entertained by tossing it around on the set. Whatever.
But how does the MSU handle movement when it's using a conventional hard drive? That's a legitimate concern, knowing how the old P2 Store -- the MSU's predecessor -- would often abort copies if you looked at it the wrong way, much less bumped it. Good news: a hard drive-based MSU is far more resilient. I started a copy, and then took it up and down stairs, and movement it from one table top to another. The copy kept going without issue.
To be fair, I didn't subject the MSU to the more extreme tests I gave the Nexto, because the hard drive I was using was borrowed from a third party. But for normal use, using an MSU with hard drive should be fine.
Once you've copied a card to the MSU's drive, you can see each card represented as a folder on the drive (named according to the card's copy date) and see each clip represented as a small thumbnail. You can select a thumbnail to play it, but it doesn't actually play at a larger size. Instead, it just plays back at the same tiny thumbnail size, instead taking up the whole LCD (the Nexto fills its screen when playing back P2 clips). Also, footage plays back at a fraction of normal speed, especially AVC-Intra footage. Given all this, I would say the MSU's playback features are fine for getting an overview of what you shot, but not for examining each clip.
Removable Drive Trays
As I said, one of the best things about the MSU10 is its removable drive tray (called the MBX10G). You get one tray with the MSU itself, and can buy extra ones for $150. Then, you can buy your own hard drive or SSD, and install it in the tray by removing 5 small screws with a #0 screwdriver (see Panasonic's drive recommendations here).
After that, you can swap drive trays in and out, all day long. It literally takes about 3 seconds. Just slide one tray out and slide the next tray in. You don't even have to turn the MSU off; it pauses for a second and then recognizes the new tray.
For anyone shooting tons of footage at a time, or who's on the road for long stretches, or sitting in a bush waiting for a Snow Leopard to show up, you can spend a few hundred dollars on a couple of drive trays, and literally keep shooting for days, weeks, months. There are very few shows out there that a single MSU10 couldn't accommodate. I bet a couple of MSUs could handle a massive, quick-moving, fast shooting reality show like The Amazing Race.
Of course, to do that, you have to keep clearing footage off the trays themselves, but, they're rugged enough to stick in a small box and mail back to the home office. The folks back home can plug the drives into their editing systems, copy the footage, and send you back an empty drive tray. It's no more expensive than sending video tapes through FedEX, and probably cheaper due to the lower weight. One more benefit to those trays is that they're bus-powered (even if you plug them in via eSATA....just plug in a USB cable at the same time, and you've got power), so there's no worrying about power supplies.
Power and Battery
You get one battery and a charger/AC power supply with the MSU. The battery is the same kind that Panasonic uses with its smaller video cameras (the HVX200, the HPX170, etc.), and can power the MSU for quite a while. I charged my battery to capacity, and then made, about 20 full 64GB card copies (most to an SSD drive) over about 7 days. Even after all that, my battery still appeared to have about 25% of charge left.
If you're using a hard drive, you'll get less battery life, but probably not materially less. In other words, the MSU's battery life won't be an issue for most people, and the fact that you can buy multiple batteries means you can keep it going infinitively…
Summing Them Up
The Nexto and MSU10 copy cards quickly and are virtually foolproof to use, but they're very different beyond that. The Nexto is your only option if you want to back up multiple card formats. It's also the right choice if you think its more-or-less fixed storage capacity -- a 500 GB hard drive or a 128GB SSD - and its short battery life will meet your needs in the field. The Nexto is also a few hundred dollars cheaper than the MSU when you consider real-world street prices. Finally, if you're a P2 user and like everything about the Nexto except the idea of hanging your cards awkwardly off the unit's side, then remember that 2011 will bring a Nexto 2525 with a dedicated P2 slot, as well as FireWire 800.
Panasonic's MSU, on the other hand, is for those P2 shooters who never want to run out of backup space or juice in the field. With its hot-swapping drive trays and long-lasting, replaceable battery, the MSU can keep backing up footage endlessly. Plus, the MSU's drive trays give you a convenient way to send your footage back to headquarters, or send them back with a client.
About Helmut Kobler
Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based documentary cameraman. He's also written three editions of Final Cut Pro for Dummies. For more information, go to www.varicaminla.com