AJA Ki Pro Review
Few products come to mind that have so shaken the tripods of shooters and our collective industry bones. One can think of the Sony DCR-VX1000 in 1995 that ushered in the DV revolution, the Panasonic AG-DVX100 in 2002 that brought 24p to the masses, and the Panasonic AG-HVX200 three years later that offered economical HD recording to solid-state media. These products were all game-changing in their own way, and now the AJA Ki Pro joins this elite group. Without a doubt, for many folks, the Ki Pro will be the ultimate convergence tool, merging the demands of production, postproduction, and distribution in a single low-cost box.
Still, the AJA Ki Pro is not without some rather significant foibles at this early stage in its development. These shortcomings, mostly mechanical in nature, however, do not change my overall opinion: The Ki Pro's versatility, ease of use, and simple workflow are compelling and reflective of a masterful design.
The world's acceptance of the Ki Pro portable recorder has been remarkable with thousands of units ordered and already in the pipeline. What is it about the Ki Pro that has elicited such a positive response from shooters and producers?
In this case, the market is speaking loud and clear. Shooters are demanding a smooth, unfettered workflow without transcoding, opaque file structures, or convoluted workarounds that require third-party plug-ins. For users in education and low- to middle-market applications, the matter of recording directly to Apple Final Cut Pro-ready QuickTime files lies at the center of this impetus. The success of the JVC GY-HM100 and GY-HM700 camcorders attests to this single inescapable fact: Shooters and producers care more about a simple, straightforward workflow than the arcane subtleties of 4:2:2 vs. 4:2:0 color, intraframe vs. long-GOP compression, or recording to pricey, proprietary solid-state media.
The Ki Pro is the beneficiary of years of research and product development at AJA, especially with respect to the company's proficiency for scaling hardware. The conversion capabilities of the Ki Pro are extremely compelling, converting an HD-SDI or component analog signal to ProRes 422 720 or 1080 upon input or output with zero latencya major consideration when shooting multicamera through a switcher.
By the way, Ki Pro's ProRes 422 support will expand soon to include ProRes LT and Proxy capabilities. This will be achieved via a firmware upgrade coming at the end of the year, according to the company.
One indication of outstanding design is the ability to unpack and use a device without consulting the operating manual or even a quick-start guide. Of course, the Ki Pro's quick-start guide is there for a reason, and I heartily recommend that you read it, especially with respect to a few less-than-obvious issues.
One issue: The Ki Pro does not default to ProRes 422 (HQ) mode as might be expected. The unit offers the lower-quality ProRes 422 standard mode as well as HQ, but the menu option interface is not clear. A standard mode (STD) indicator should be added to the ProRes 422 option display to remind users that it is in fact the lower resolution setting. Apple unfortunately applies a similar logic in its QuickTime Movie "Quality" settings. Not thoroughly investigating the options in the export window will often create an movie at less than the intended "Best" quality. Your own application of the Ki Pro in news and sports may not require HQ resolution movies, in which case you can merrily disregard the above caveat.
From an operational perspective, the Ki Pro is in urgent need of a thumbnail menu to organize, delete, and otherwise manage QuickTime clips after capture. An onboard 2in. or 3in. LCD would also be highly desirable in order to confirm the recorded image is as desired, clear and free of characters and assorted superimposed clutter emanating from the camera.
Which brings up the matter of the Ki Pro or other recording device that captures a multiplexed HD-SDI signal. We shooters are accustomed to seeing menu characters, timecode, audio levels, and viewfinder safe-area outlines displayed prominently on a production monitor. We assume, as do our clients, that these characters and markings will not actually be recorded, right?
The Ki Pro capturing via HD-SDI will indeed record such graphics, so the shooter must be vigilant to avoid unknowingly recording the onscreen display. While there is currently no way to test the SDI signal for the presence of these characters, AJA is considering adding warning labels to remind shooters to disable onscreen characters.
Keep in mind that many functions, such as safe-area markings and audio levels, can be enabled in the production monitor itself. The Panasonic BT-LH1760, for example, is one model that supports display of key parameters, thus maintaining a clean, character-free SDI signal for the Ki Pro. Also look for camera manufacturers in the future to offer dual SDI outputsone featuring the dirty signal with superimposed characters, the other outputting a clean, recordable image with embedded audio to the Ki Pro. High-end cameras such as the Sony PDW-F800 already offer this dual-output SDI feature. It would be nice to see this same feature implemented in more camcorders at the lower end of the spectrum.
I should point out that the Ki Pro supports remote operation and configuration via Ethernet and Wi-Fi. One can envision an asset management system inclusive of a thumbnail editor and confidence monitor on a laptop computer accessing the Ki Pro through a browser. While it would be preferable to incorporate a small LCD into the Ki Pro, it may not be possible because of space constraints. Perhaps a third party might consider manufacturing a top-mounted snap-on unit that can, at the same time, offer a degree of protection to the HDD module.
Interestingly, the Ki Pro may extend the life of 720p camcorders such as the older tape-based Panasonic F and H series Varicams. Recording to the Ki Pro at 1080p 10-bit ProRes 422 (HQ), the Ki Pro instantly transforms an older camera into a state-of-the-art one. Keep in mind that the scaling to 1080 is performed in hardware by the Ki Pro, relieving the pressure on the ProRes encoder and allowing it to perform with maximum efficiency and quality.
For postproduction, film festivals, and large, high-resolution displays, the $4,000 Ki Pro has the potential to functionally replace a $70,000 mastering deck. Recording to 10-bit ProRes 422, the Ki Pro recorder will soon support RS-422 machine control—a key capability for the recorder in a professional control room.
The version 1 software that ships with the Ki Pro does not support ExpressCard storage or the FireWire and host interfaces with a MacBook/MacBook Pro or Mac Pro computer. AJA says that these and other 1394a and 1394b functions will be enabled in version 2 software. Keep in mind, however, that the 1394a connection will only enable timecode and machine control but not data transfer or direct video recording. This lack of FireWire recording capability may be perplexing to some users accustomed to the do-anything, go-anywhere breadth of functionality in AJA products.
Given the unit's performance, versatility, and ease of use, the Ki Pro's most significant shortcoming is a feeble mechanical interface. In actual use on a fast-paced, high-end production, I found that the top-mounted recording module could be easily jostled and dislodged, resulting in a hard crash and, potentially, lost footage.
The culprit appears to be the poorly designed clutch mechanism that secures the hard drive module. A tiny engagement claw at the left of the receptacle is not nearly robust enough for professional use. A redesigned, beefier claw should be implemented post haste, with a second claw added to the right of the slot to ensure a positive fit. Panasonic faced the same dilemma several years ago when designing its solid-state recording system. It opted for a serious military-grade design to secure the P2 card in its slot; AJA should consider the same for the next version Ki Pro.
Another point of dissension is the module's consumer-grade plastic connector. This connector is undersized and not nearly rugged enough for panicky hands in a high-stress production environment. An industrial-grade receptacle should be employed to provide a surer, more reassuring fit.
Speaking of which, when inserting the recording module into the Ki Pro chassis, the slot protrusions along the drive side should be redesigned to prevent insertion of the module upside down. The ability to insert a module in this way and push it forward against the weak plastic connector is a recipe for disaster, or at the least cause for serious consternation. For this reason, I recommend that the module slot be redesigned to preclude any chance of improperly inserting the HDD unit.
In the meantime, AJA is considering orientation labels for users to place over the module to help forestall confusion. In any event, most Ki Pro recordists will want to create their own labels with the production name, date, and module number; we did this on film magazines for years.
The Ki Pro is AJA's first serious mobile recording device, so there were bound to be some birthing pains. As Focus Enhancements, Sony, Maxell, and others have discovered, the design and manufacture of HDD and solid-state recorders is an arena fraught with unseen perils. AJA has prevailed in introducing the best product of its type on the market. Now it's on to making the Ki Pro more durable and rugged to complement its remarkable versatility and spirit.
Product: Ki Pro
Assets: Easy to use; simplifies tapeless workflows; uses Apple Final Cut Pro-ready QuickTime files; impressive signal conversion/scaling capabilities.
Caveats: Unit could use some changes to HDD retention system to stand up to rigors of production; no FireWire recording capability; some parts (audio knobs, HDD module connector) are not rugged enough.
Price: $3,995 (MSRP)