Direct-to-Disc Recorder

By Aaron Barry and David Collier from Studio B Films

At our company, Studio B Films in Berkeley, CA, we've been shooting with Panasonic's VariCam and SDX900s for some time. A few months ago, we invested in two HVX200s, which means lots of shuffling 8 GB P2 cards back and forth and figuring out an IT-based workflow on the fly. So we were particularly excited about reviewing the FireStore FS-100 recorder from Focus Enhancements ( The HVX200 is a great indie tool for recording true HD, and we know we're not alone in wanting more storage to accommodate those big HD files, so the FS-100-with a similar price point to an 8 GB P2 card but with more than 10 times the capacity--is very appealing.

The basics
The FS-100 is based on the line of portable hard-drive recorders that Focus Enhancements has delivered for the past several years. It's designed to pair with the HVX200, although it will work with any Panasonic camera that has a FireWire port. The main difference between the FS-100 and the other models in the FireStore line is that the FS-100 can record in Panasonic's DVCPRO and DVCPROHD formats.

When the drive arrived, we eagerly opened up the package to see what we were working with. In an age of the iPod and other portable drive devices, the overall design of the FS-100 seems a bit chunky. It's a functional black with well-spaced user buttons on the face and FireWire and remote connectors on the top. On first inspection we noticed that the chassis is light. Light is great, mostly, but it also feels a bit vulnerable, in spite of the "electronic shock cache" that is mentioned in the brochure. The FS-100's housing is thin plastic. We'd feel more comfortable with a more rugged rubberized material to withstand rough use in handheld production.

The included battery is nice and slim, and it slides snugly onto the back of the unit. But our first thoughts were: Are we going to need an additional battery, and how much does that cost? The standard battery is rated at a 90-minute run time (ours ran out at about 70 minutes). For more recording time, you can buy additional battery packs from Focus Enhancements for $129 (90-minute capacity) or $199 (180-minute capacity). Ideally, though, we'd like to be able to snap one of our many Panasonic batteries right onto it and always have backups.

Initial impressions
Since we wanted to test in handheld scenarios, we connected the included power supply and immediately the charge indicator light lit up orange. After about three hours, the green charge LED told us we were ready to rock and roll. We turned it on (you have to remember to hold down the On button for a couple of seconds) and the slick blue-backlit LCD welcomed us. A small fan also whizzed within the casing, which caused some mixed reactions here--keeping cool is good, but extra noise isn't. So, for quiet studio shooting, finicky sound people might try isolating it for noise. And, if you want to mount it anywhere near the camera, the onboard microphones might pick it up. But for most uses, it is certainly plenty quiet. Next we quickly mounted the supplied belt clip and the handy strain-relief clip to the FireWire cable.

After struggling with the QuickStart guide, we called the very helpful FireStore support team and learned that the guide was printed before the FS-100 was completed. Luckily, Focus Enhancements has a great Web FAQ to help resolve most issues. Under the support team's guidance, we also installed a firmware update that streamlines some of the menus and clip viewing options--an update that should now be standard on all the FS-100s that leave the shipping dock.

Navigating the menu system took a couple of tries, because we had to get used to the unique engineering language in the FS-100. For example, when you want to connect to your computer, you have to Enable Bypass on the FS-100 and connect to a second FireWire port, which didn't strike us as particularly user-friendly. But once we got our bearings, navigating the menus was straightforward and quick.

Format realities
When deciding what format we wanted to use, we realized that the FS-100 is not really a huge P2 card because it can't write any of Panasonic's native streams. If you try it, the FS-100 won't recognize the stream and you can't record. So, if you want to shoot 720 24pN, you can't do it. And that means that the record time is still about 1 GB per minute in HD. (You double that rate if you can record in one of the "N" formats, which don't record any extra or pulldown frames.) But the FS-100 had no problem with the other formats we tried. It handled all of our 1080i, 720p, DVCPRO50, and DV footage perfectly.

The FS-100 can also record in a number of NLE-specific formats (such as Canopus or Matrox AVI or Avid OMF). Our focus was on HD, so we didn't spend time trying these alternatives. But the option seems very handy: simply change the settings in the HDD Mode menu, record using the NLE-specific format, and then edit natively in your NLE. We also liked the handy prerecord function that constantly caches footage even when you're not rolling. If an event catches you by surprise (like the alligator snatching the bird in your nature doc), you can hit Record after the fact and it will back up to a programmed number of seconds of what was previously cached (a maximum of 6 seconds in HD and 24 seconds in DV).

Shooting and editing
In the field, once we had the menu settings down, we found the FS-100 worked just as expected. It records after you hit the Record button twice (first time it goes into record pause) and then stops when you hit the Stop button (record pause again). The Lock feature is handy because the FireStore's button placement makes it vulnerable to unintended stops and starts as you walk around with it on your belt and bump into things. Also, while working handheld, we wished for a timecode display on top to glance at when it's clipped to your belt--just for confidence that you're actually recording. We kept reaching down and swinging it up so that we could be sure we were rolling. Or, if the FS-100 had other mounting options, such as a threaded mount hole or a beefy Velcro strap, then we might have found another way to mount it and view the display.

Footage shot, we were ready for ingest into our Final Cut Pro HD system. Without looking at the manual, we connected the drive to our Power Mac G5 Quad, took a look at the contents, and...panicked. It appeared that no footage was on the drive at all. It didn't look like a P2 card; it was just a series of MXF files. But, after checking the Web site, we found out that we needed to do one more essential thing: open the Utilities menu on the FS-100 and select Organize P2. After you do this and connect to the NLE computer, the FS-100 shows up just like a P2 with all of the familiar folders and TXT file. Whew.

It works
In summary, the FS-100 works. You really can record 100 minutes of HD footage for not much more than an 8 GB P2 card. Although we have our complaints about the design and elegance of the interface, the FS-100 is a great option because of its portability, capacity, and price. Out of the box, it is ideal for locked-down, studio-type shoots when you have plenty of power and can easily see its front display.

Our wish list for the next version would be a display on the top for easy reference, the ability to record native "N" HD formats, a 1/4-inch 20-threaded mount hole for mounting directly onto the camera, and a longer battery life. Better yet, change the form factor to allow standard Panasonic batteries to mount directly, so you're likely to have backups on hand if you're shooting on the HVX200. But, even without these features, the FS-100 proves to be a powerful tool at a decent price in this new and quickly changing IT-based video landscape.

Aaron Barry and David Collier are partners at Studio B Films, Inc. Studio B has been a hub for production and rentals in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 15 years. The founder, David Collier, is a renowned DP who has shot a wide range of material, from MTV shows to PBS documentaries. Aaron Barry, technical director, is a seasoned editor, graphic designer, and camera tech. Their work can be found at