Podcasters and broadcasters have used the Zoom H2 and H4n digital audio recorders from Samson Technologies with great success for a few years. These very portable recorders are perfect for capturing high quality stereo sound in digital formats that can be easily edited by a variety of Mac audio apps. Now they've added HD video capture to a small handheld device, the Zoom Q3HD Handy Video Recorder (available through online retailers for about US$299). Since it's the beginning of the Northern Hemisphere summer vacation season, I thought it would be a good time to review this new device and compare its audio and video quality with another compact video recorder a lot of you may own: an iPhone 4
For many people who might want to capture HD video on the run, the iPhone 4 is perfect. You have it with you all the time, and you can edit the video on the device using iMovie. Zoom appears to be marketing the Q3HD to Mac owners who are looking for better video and audio quality than the iPhone 4 can offer. How does it do compared to the video capture capabilities of the iPhone 4? Read on for a full review and actual video clips for your comparison.
Design and specifications
The Zoom Q3HD is fairly compact and isn't a huge burden to carry around. Weighing in at 5.4 ounces (153 grams) and filling a volume of 2 x 7/8 x 5-1/4 inches (5 x 2.2 x 13.3 cm), it's perfect for popping into a jacket pocket or beach bag for those vacation videos you want to shoot.
Zoom's audio recorders are known for their high quality of sound reproduction, and it's obvious the company wanted to make that the differentiating feature of this handheld video camera. The Q3HD has two studio-quality condenser mics mounted on top in a 120-degree X/Y pattern that provide excellent stereo imaging and depth. As expected on a device from Zoom, the audio capture specifications on the device are fairly impressive: 44.1/48/96 kHz 16/24-bit WAV or AAC up to 320 kbps.
There's a 2.4" (6 cm) 320 x 240 LCD display on the back of the Q3HD for viewing your subject during recording as well as playing back the video on the device. Video is captured to a standard SD card (a 2 GB card is included in the packaging) which can be easily removed from the Q3HD and placed into the SD card reader on many Macs for fast transfer of video to movie editing apps. There's also a USB 2.0 cable built into the device for transferring video without removing the card.
In addition to USB and SD card transfer to your Mac, you can also plug an HDMI cable into the Q3HD for direct viewing on your HDTV. Transferring video from your iPhone 4 is limited to emailing (in which case your video is highly compressed) or transfer via the USB sync cable to iPhoto.
HD video can be captured in 1080p at 30 fps or in 720p at either 30 or 60 fps. For videos that are to be emailed or tweeted, you might want to capture in WVGA standard definition at 30 or 60 fps for smaller file sizes. As a comparison, the iPhone 4 back camera captures 720p video at up to 30 fps, and the front-facing camera can be used to capture WVGA standard definition video at up to 30 fps. However, sound recording on the iPhone 4 is limited to monaural, so getting that surround sound feel for your vacation videos is not going to happen.
The Zoom Q3HD uses a fixed focal length lens and is only able to zoom in on subjects using digital rather than optical zoom up to a maximum of 4x. The iPhone 4 cannot use zoom in video mode, so you're limited to the standard view and cannot zoom in on details. The Q3HD features a five-megapixel CMOS image detector, similar in resolution to that in the iPhone 4.
I was pretty happy with the fact that the native video format for this camera is the QuickTime .mov format. That means you can easily trim and play back your videos using QuickTime 10.0 on your Mac.
Finally, if you want to place the Q3HD onto a tripod or monopod in order to shoot very steady video, there's a standard threaded mount for a tripod on the bottom of the device.
Recording video with the Zoom Q3HD is quite easy. Press one button on the side of the device to power it up, press the large red record button on the back of the device once to start recording, then press the record button again to stop. Playback is equally easy, with a play button conveniently located just below the display.
Being a touchscreen fan, I wasn't overwhelmed with the rocker pad control on the Zoom; it seems rather antique. On the other hand, the on-screen menu icons are easy to get to, and settings are a cinch to change.
Recording of your videos is done holding the Q3HD in a vertical orientation. When you play back video, it's done with the device held horizontal. It's odd to have to switch orientation, another situation where the iPhone has probably spoiled me.
Below you'll find three embedded videos. For the Zoom Q3HD, the video was captured at both 1080p / 30 frames per second and 720p / 30 frames per second, both with full 192 kbps AAC stereo sound. With the iPhone 4, video capture was at 720p and 30 frames per second. Be sure to play these back in HD for the best comparison.
First, the iPhone 4 video:
Update: Several commenters noted that the audio is out of sync with the video on both Zoom videos. This is not the case with the original files, and appears to be a problem with the way that YouTube handled the uploaded file. Zoom is looking into the situation and I will update again as soon as I hear more.
I found the Zoom Q3HD to do a much better job with skin tones, with the iPhone 4 video showing an unnatural reddish tint. The iPhone 4 video was quite blocky and pixelated, while the Zoom Q3HD video was much more smooth and realistic looking. As for a comparison between 720p and 1080p on the Zoom, I personally liked the quality of the 720p video better at an identical screen size.
Sound-wise, it was not surprising that the Zoom did a much better job of reproducing my voice and background sounds. There's depth in the soundtrack thanks to the stereo sound, and to me it made a tremendous difference. The iPhone 4 sound is rather flat by comparison. It was windy when I recorded these clips; the Zoom's much more sensitive microphone did pick up a bit more wind noise. Samson sells a $50 accessory kit that includes a foam windscreen that would have dampened the wind quite a bit. As for the iPhone, you could theoretically stick it into a sock to make a makeshift windscreen.
I'll let you draw your own conclusions about the quality of the video between the Zoom device and the iPhone 4. I was pretty happy using the Q3HD to shoot some video for TUAW TV Live, as the better white balance and excellent job that it did with rendering the video smoothly and with few artifacts made the video look great. I'm a bit upset that I have to return the Zoom 3QHD to the manufacturer, since it would be a big help for recording future segments for viewing on TUAW TV Live.
In the end, it's all going to boil down to two things: whether you have the money to buy a secondary video camera such as the Zoom Q3HD and if you truly need the extra video quality of this camera for your needs. For me, it's not important since I have a third camera -- a Canon PowerShot SX30 IS digital camera -- that will also shoot 720p video and capture stereo sound and does an amazing job at both. For other Mac users, the Zoom Q3HD might be an excellent way to capture HD video at a relatively bargain price of $300 compared to higher end dedicated camcorders.