Viagra for video cameras? This wonder I/O device-meets-tapeless deck records raw files from any camera for better editing, no transcoding required.

AJA’s Ki Pro lets your aging or inexpensive video camera record a sharper, better looking, and more editing-friendly picture than it could otherwise. Basically, think of the Ki as Viagra for video cameras.

The Ki Pro works its magic by taking over your camera’s recording duties, provided the camera has a component, HDMI, or SDI output. Having one of those outputs is essential, because it carries the camera’s raw video signal to the Ki Pro before the camera can apply chroma subsampling and other image-destroying compression to it.

Just connect your camera to the Ki via an appropriate cable and it records the camera’s “pure” signal to a removable 250 GB hard drive module (your camera can still record to its internal tape deck, optical drive, or memory cards, even as the Ki Pro does its thing). Of course, the Ki applies its own chroma subsampling and compression to the video, but it’s not nearly as heavy-handed as what you find in older and/or cheaper cameras. In fact, the Ki records video as a QuickTime file using Apple’s modern, industrial-strength ProRes 422 codec. ProRes captures full-raster HD imagery using intra-frame recording (i.e., every frame is recorded) at a data rate up to 220 Mbps, with 10-bit color depth, and 4:2:2 chroma subsampling.

ProRes definitely compares favorably to the recording scheme you’ll find in tons of popular but hardly cutting-edge cameras. Take Sony’s XDCAM EX1 camera, for instance. The EX1 uses inferior Long-GOP compression (it records only a few full frames every second, and estimates what the other frames should look like) at 35 Mbps, in 8-bit color, with 4:2:0 chroma subsampling. The Ki’s ProRes codec also beats what you’ll get from a DVCPRO HD camcorder, such as Panasonic’s tape-based HDX900. That camera does intra-frame recording up to 100 Mbps, with 8-bit color, and 4:2:2 chroma subsampling, but it cheats sharpness by using rectangular pixels instead of square ones, giving you fewer pixels than you’d get with ProRes (960×720 pixels, instead of 1280×720, or 1280×1080 pixels instead of 1920×1080).

Of course, comparing one set of numbers to another doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get an appreciably better-looking picture. Compelling cinematography rarely boils down to a numbers game, but to my eye, ProRes footage often looks noticeably cleaner than what you’d get from lesser codecs. Also, ProRes’ 10-bit color depth produces smoother gradients and gives you more flexibility when doing color correction in post.

But what the Ki Pro gives you in image quality it takes away in mobility and convenience. Suddenly, your camera system has a whole ‘nother unit to worry about-worry about carrying around, worry about knocking over accidentally and worry about operating, not to mention worry about keeping juiced with battery or AC power. I do a lot of documentary shooting, which means I have to move quickly and manage gear by myself. Given that kind of work, the five-pound Ki looks like an interesting science project, but isn’t something I would regularly bring into the field.

But if your productions aren’t particularly mobile, or have an extra crew member to help manage gear, then the Ki Pro can definitely make sense. For starters, it’s fairly straightforward to set up (five minutes is all you need to spend with AJA’s Quick Start guide). You can power it from AC power, or from your own batteries via a 4-pin XLR input on the body. The Ki is designed to install in a conventional rack, or, for $595, you can buy an “exo-skeleton” shell for it, which lets you mount it on your tripod, right under your camera. The exo-skeleton can handle almost 200 pounds, so it supports all kinds of cameras and their accessories. 

The Ki can record in 525i, 625i, 720p, 1080i and 1080PsF, and can automatically configure itself to whatever mode you’ve set in your camera (except PsF, which you’ll need to configure in a straightforward menu). The easiest way to operate the Ki is with the VCR-style controls on the front. When you’re ready to record, just hit the Record button, and the Ki writes the video to its hard drive with zero latency (you can also control the Ki Pro from a Web browser, via its Ethernet or built-in WiFi connection).

The Ki also has a small LED display (two lines of 20 characters), which lets you adjust settings and select recorded clips for playback or deleting. You can see recorded video via any monitor you’ve attached to the Ki’s numerous outputs-again, component, HDMI, HD-SDI, and there’s even an old-fashioned composite output if you’re slumming it. But since the Ki’s simple LED screen can’t show you thumbnail images of previously recorded clips-it just shows the file names-you may find it cumbersome to find any given clip.

As for your recorded clips, the Ki Pro lets you customize their names…to a point. You can assign clips one of two different clip names (either “Clip” or “SC”, which stands for Scene), a clip number (1-999), a secondary text value (like “B” or “C”) and a Take number (1-999). With this approach, you’ll get clip names like “SC12BTK3”, which stands for “Scene 12B, Take 3”. All these name settings are easy and intuitive to change with the Ki’s simple LED menu interface, by the way, and they auto increment every time you start recording a new clip.

Of course, this is a pretty primitive naming system compared to other “tapeless” formats like Panasonic’s P2, but it works fine for shows that are following a conventional script. It’s not as convenient for documentary and reality work where more descriptive clip names are helpful, such as “Interview_Winston_Churchill” or “Broll_Launchpad”. Also, if you believe in baking extensive metadata into your clips, you’ll be disappointed that the Ki Pro has no support for metadata fields like program title, filming location, producer and shooter names, scene names and take numbers, camera used, etc., etc.

When you’ve finished recording your shoot, you’ll need to unmount the Ki’s hard drive module by pressing a dedicated button for that task, then hold the Ki’s Eject button and pull the drive module out of the main unit. Be sure to unmount the drive before physically ejecting it-I forgot to do that once, and my Mac couldn’t recognize the last clip I had recorded.  

The drive module is formatted as a Mac volume and features a 2.5-inch laptop drive, spinning at 7200 rpm, wrapped in a plastic case that’s just a bit wider and longer than a deck of cards. That case has a small FireWire 800 port built in-just use a FireWire 800 cable to connect the module to your Mac and mount the drive on your desktop (no AC power required, but AJA includes a small AC power adapter just in case). From there, you can copy your files over to an editing or backup drive, or edit directly from the Ki’s drive module.

Since the footage is already recorded as QuickTime files using Apple’s ProRes codec, the files are obviously a shoe-in for any Final Cut Pro workflow (you’ll need Final Cut 6 or higher to play the footage). On the other hand, an Avid system will have to convert your ProRes footage into one of its native formats, which means you’ll have to wait for a lengthy render before editing. Abobe’s Premiere Pro CS4 (Windows or Mac) can work with ProRes files natively, but you might not get the same, smooth real-time effects performance you would with Final Cut Pro.

Editing issues aside, the Ki Pro’s hard drive capacity-at 250 GB-is good but not great. You can set the Ki to record in ProRes at 720 or 1080 resolutions, in Standard or High Quality (HQ) modes, giving you the following recording lengths at 24 fps:

720 Standard = 9 hours
720 HQ = 6 hours
1080 Standard = 4.5 hours
1080 HQ =   3 hours
Is this enough for your productions? For music videos, commercials and narrative work, almost certainly. For documentary and reality work, not so much. But one factor that may help you stretch out the unit’s recording time is the fact that it’s very hard to discern any difference between video recorded in ProRes’ Standard mode (which is the Ki’s default setting) and ProRes HQ. Of course, most shooters will automatically choose the “HQ” mode of anything, but if you can resist that deep, primal urge, I’d recommend shooting some tests comparing the Standard and HQ flavors. You may find that Standard mode looks just as good, and buys you hours of extra recording time. Either way, if you still need more recording time than the Ki Pro’s 250 GB module offers, then you can always buy a spare module for $265.

Besides footage capacity, there are a couple of other issues to be aware of when dealing with the Ki’s standard 250GB hard drive. Issue number one is the time it takes to transfer your footage from the Ki module to an editing or backup drive. FireWire 800 used to be the bee’s knees of speedy interfaces, but these days it’s middle-of-the-road. In fact, transferring a full 250 GB load via a Mac laptop can take about an hour and a half-that’s a long time when you’re paying someone to nurse the data transfer at day’s end.

The second issue to consider is the hard drive’s risk factor: as with any mechanical device, there’s a slim chance it could fail before you transfer your footage. AJA has handpicked its drive mechanism for reliability, but if putting your livelihood in the hands of a spinning disk gives you the creeps, then consider AJA’s 128GB SSD module for $695, or its 256GB model for $1,395. Both options are painfully expensive, of course, but they have no moving parts.

Finally, you may notice that the Ki Pro actually has two ExpressCard 34 slots built in. Those slots aren’t functional as I write this review, but AJA will release a firmware update in early 2010 that lets you plug in ExpressCard media and record video directly to it, instead of the hard drive. AJA isn’t ready to say whether Sony’s popular SxS media cards will be compatible, but here’s hoping they will.

Beyond its basic video recorder duties, the Ki Pro does some other handy things. It can up/down/cross-convert any signal it supports, using the same high-quality internal hardware that AJA builds into its storied Kona cards. That means you could turn an SD camera into an HD camera with surprisingly good results. It’s also helpful for doing multi-camera shoots using different camera models; some cameras may shoot SD, some 720 HD and others 1080 HD, but if each camera has a Ki Pro attached, they can record footage in exactly the same format.

The Ki can also moonlight as a good portable playback deck; for instance, a film festival could load a number of films onto the drive module, and then easily select each film for high-quality output right from the Ki’s LED screen.

But the Ki Pro really lives or dies on its ability to record video from a camera at a higher quality than you’d get otherwise. It definitely succeeds in this respect, and if you can deal with the Ki’s limited mobility, its simple file naming system, and its Final Cut-oriented workflow, then it’s a great way to boost your visuals without buying a whole new camera.

Helmut Kobler is an independent filmmaker and the owner of K2 Films, a production company in Los Angeles. He is also the author of several books in the Final Cut Pro for Dummies series.