Hardware Review: AJA KiPro Mini
[ This article was first published in the March, 2011, issue of
Larry's Final Cut Pro Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]
For my policy on product reviews, please click here.
A few weeks ago, AJA sent me a new KiPro Mini to take a look at. It sat there, in its nice white box, patiently waiting for me to have some time to look it over.
“Soon,” I kept telling the box. “Soon. I just need to borrow a camera to do some testing.”
Suddenly, I look up and NAB is careening toward me, followed by an overwhelming quantity of new projects. “Soon” shifted into “almost too late” in an instant.
It was now, or never. So, I sat down and opened the box.
WHAT THE KI PRO MINI DOES
The KiPro Mini is a very small, very light, portable field recorder that takes the output from your camera – either SDI or HDMI – and records it into any of four ProRes 422 video formats.
It stores your media as QuickTime files directly on a CF (Compact Flash) card, which means you can skip Log & Transfer and go directly to Import from the card itself.
It only supports recording in the ProRes format and it doesn’t have all the transcoding options of its big brother, the KiPro. But ProRes is such an excellent codec that, for most shooters, transcoding and standardizing on ProRes makes a lot of sense.
This standardization on ProRes is especially significant, because camera manufacturers show little interest in standardizing video formats between themselves. This often leaves the editor in the unsatisfying position of having to spend hours transcoding media to get it all into a consistent format before editing can even begin.
The KiPro solves this problem during the recording process itself. (Keep in mind that even if you use the same codec, you can have problems matching cameras if the image size, frame rates, or interlacing don’t match. After all, SOME planning prior to production is ALWAYS a good idea.)
Plus, because you are recording directly out of the camera as the scene is being shot, the KiPro will record images whose quality is equal to and more often greater than that provided by recording natively in the camera.
The KiPro supports both SDI and HDMI video formats. SDI is the preferred choice, as it allows up to eight discrete channels of audio, as well as full timecode support.
Depending upon the size CF card you are using, you can get longer record times using the KiPro, plus the ability to save time later during ingest.
WHAT THE KI PRO MINI IS
The unit is small — roughly 6 x 4 x 2 inches (15 x 10 x 5 cm) — and light — 1.2 lbs. (0.6 kg).
It supports simultaneous recording on both the camera and the KiPro Mini.
It supports simultaneous video monitoring via either SDI or HDMI.
It can be powered from a battery (not supplied) or from an AC power adapter (supplied).
It has a rugged steel enclosure to allow it to survive abuse in the field, and by recording directly to Flash, there’s no hard disk to crash if the unit falls to the ground.
AJA also offers an optional table-top stand or a camera mounting plate for the unit.
What I find especially interesting is that you can control the unit directly from the front panel, or from a web browser via a hard-wired Ethernet port on the back of the unit.
WHY THE KI PRO MINI IS IMPORTANT
We are seeing a number of portable field recorders — all of which are designed to simplify the process of capturing images from the camera for the purposes of editing. Two competitors to the KiPro, Cinedeck and Focus Enhancements, come quickly to mind. I’m sure others will display at NAB.
There are several things I like about the KiPro. First, is the reputation of AJA. They are a top-flight company that’s been in the industry for a long time.
Second, is its standardization on ProRes.
Third, is the support for both professional (SDI) and consumer (HDMI) input and output.
LIMITATIONS OF CF CARDS
Not all CF cards are created equal. Some are designed for low price points and only support still images, they don’t have the speed for video.
It is important to buy cards that are qualified by the manufacturer — in this case, AJA. This is not because the manufacturer is part of some conspiracy, but because they have tested these cards under actual video recording situations to make sure their gear works. (Sure, you can buy cheaper cards that MAY work – but how much jeopardy do you want to put into your production?)
However, video grade CF cards are not cheap. AJA has qualified four cards, according to the literature shipped with the KiPro Mini:
* Hoodman UDMA 32GB ($459.99 at Amazon.com)
* Lexar 32GB ($249 at Amazon.com)
* SanDisk 32GB ($259 at B&H Photo)
* SanDisk 64GB ($507 at B&H Photo)
I have intentionally not provided a full part number as the list of qualified CF cards changes. Visit the AJA website to determine what cards are supported before purchasing any CF cards for a KiPro Mini.
The KiPro contains slots for two CF cards, however recording does not span between cards. This means that when one card is full, you’ll need to stop recording to mount the other card for recording. The larger the card’s storage capacity, the more media you can record to it. The total recording time on a card is determined by the storage size of the card and the video format you choose to record in.
I went to AJA’s website to see if they published a list of record times for the different ProRes formats, but I couldn’t find one. So, I created my own.
Based on Apple’s White Paper of ProRes data rates, and assuming you are shooting 720p60, a single 32 GB card will hold ABOUT:
* 96 minutes of ProRes Proxy
* 41 minutes of ProRes 422 LT
* 30 minutes of ProRes 422
* 20 minutes of ProRes 422 HQ
Actual file size varies depending upon video frame rate, number of audio channels, and image size; your storage will probably be a bit less. You can double these numbers for a 64GB CF card.
NOTE: The higher the data rate, the higher the quality, but the less data you can store on a card. So, Proxy files may not look as good as HQ files.
In actual production, you’ll need to have three cards: one for shooting, one ready to shoot, and one getting copied to a hard disk. So, to the retail price of the KiPro Mini, you will need to add the cost of the cards. The good news with cards is that, unlike tape, you can reuse them many times over.
CAN THE KIPRO MINI BE USED FOR NETWORK PRODUCTIONS
In researching this article, I was reading that the KiPro Mini had not yet been approved for video acquisition for network productions, such as the Discovery Channel or National Geographic.
Before investing in a KiPro Mini for a high-end production, check to be sure that the KiPro can deliver the specific master files that are required by the network. This is NOT an issue for productions that are going to the web and for many cable, and local station programs.
A phone call before starting production can save a tremendous amount of heartache after everything has been shot.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE KI PRO MINI PRODUCT MARKETING MANAGER
As part of this review, I spoke with Bryce Buttons, product marketing manager for the KiPro Mini for AJA. (Bryce is also the producer/director of the videos AJA produces for its website.)
Larry: How would you describe the KiPro Mini?
Bryce: We’ve been working on the KiPro Mini for three years. It is an all-digital device. It is smaller, more robust, ergonomic. It has exactly one moving part – the cooling fan. It records in four different versions of ProRes, which means it is ideally suited for working with Final Cut Pro.
Larry: Is it shipping?
Bryce: We launched it at IBC last August (2010) and started shipping in January, 2011.
Larry: Why has AJA qualified such a small number of CF cards?
Bryce: The quality of CF cards varies widely by manufacturer. Chip controllers built into the cards vary, as does data transfer performance. Even the longevity of the card is highly variable. A CF card is much more than just memory. How all those different components work together has a dramatic impact on performance.
Larry: How about audio support?
Bryce: I am very proud of our audio. It supports XLR audio inputs, as well as embedded SDI audio. It records up to 24-bit, 48 kHz audio. Stereo, if you use the XLR inputs. Up to 8-channels if you use SDI. You can also use the KiPro for on-set playback of both audio and video.
Larry: What’s the benefit of 24-bit audio?
Bryce: It has a lower noise floor. Final Cut supports both 16-bit and 24-bit audio, and 24-bit audio, properly recorded, sounds better. And, when compared to 16-bit, 24-bit isn’t that much bigger.
Larry: Why did you decide to only support ProRes as a recording format?
Bryce: ProRes provides the best balance between production and post. It holds up better in post, unlike many camera formats. Because ProRes is a 10-bit format, you avoid color banding. ProRes can take a lot of abuse during editing.
Larry: How are you doing your video compression?
Bryce: Encoding is done in hardware using some custom firmware chips that we developed. Encoding in hardware provides much faster speeds. And, assuming you use the same compression settings, the quality of hardware compression vs. software compression is identical. What hardware gives you is speed.
Larry: What are the key markets for KiPro Mini?
Bryce: People with smaller cameras, who are price sensitive, who need superior picture quality in a highly portable device.
BUT, LARRY, DID YOU ACTUALLY *USE* THE KIPRO?
Since I don’t shoot, I don’t own an HD camera. (I know, I should. Its in the budget for “sometime in the not-too-distant future.”) So, I needed to borrow a camera to test this.
The reason the box sat around unopened for so long is that I kept trying to find time to borrow a camera. I ran out of time before I located a camera.
So, I like what I see in the KiPro Mini. I like what it does. I like the formats it records in. The front panel and web interface seem straight-forward to use. But I have not actually used it.
SHOULD YOU BUY A KIPRO MINI?
Compared to recording on the camera, this is a large, up-front expense. And the CF cards are not cheap.
However, the ability to standardize all your recording into a single extremely high-quality video format and bypass time spent using Log & Capture can save a huge amount of time and stress during editing.
That codec standardization, combined with the portability, ruggedness. and simplicity of the KiPro Mini make a compelling case for video professionals that shoot a lot and don’t have a lot of time to waste in post.
UPDATE – March 5, 2011
Andrew Liddell writes:
After reading your review of the AJA KiPro Mini, I thought I would share this neat little solution to extending the life of old HD cameras.
I’ve seen it in use and it’s pretty amazing!
I’m not in anyway affiliated to them, we use JVC which record in long gop (4.2.0) no good for green screen so I’m about to start using one of the Ninjas for 4.2.2 ProRes recording, the beauty about the Ninja is that it can use a SSD or HD (brilliant! – Record ProRes to this and as a contingency still record to the SDHC cards in the camera!).
Larry replies: Andrew, thanks for sharing this.