AVCHD Lite vs Motion JPEG – editing ease on the Mac

5 minutes

UPDATE: 11/05/10 – Thanks to your insightful comments, I have written a new article on AVCHD editing on OSX.

With the new camera come a whole slew of editing questions – which format is better, which format lends to easy editing, which format produces the best audio/video… To better educate myself on this topic, I have been trawling the web, finding resources, reviews, experiences of ZS3 users, as well as shooting sample videos using my ZS3 and editing the same on my Mac. It turns out that Motion JPEG is better overall, in terms of quality of audio/video and ease of editing – the two most important benchmarks in my opinion. Intrigued? Read on. Word of caution – this is aimed solely at the hobbyists – people who shoot videos for personal or family leisure. Professionals, well you are just way off base here.

AVCHD Lite is the 720p cousin of the more famed AVCHD format pushed by Sony and Panasonic. Recording at 30fps, at a variety of Mbps (9-17), it is a newer format being implemented by many Point and Shoot cameras. The main pro of shooting in this format is the smaller file size on the card. Everything else touted as a pro, is actually a con. AVCHD uses frame blending (the main reason why the file sizes are smaller) to capture video. It encodes one full frame every X second, the rest being all deltas, which is GREAT for file sizes, but is horrid for editing when converted to another format.

MJPEG or Motion JPEG was the first generation of video compression available to the users back in the day, and arguably is the least efficient way to compress video, but it is on the flip side, the fastest to decode and edit. This is due to the fact that each frame is encoded separately using JPEG compression. It takes the least amount of processing power to encode, edit or playback. It is indeed very wasteful in terms of space consumption. An eight minute sample will take 2GB of space in 720p setting.

Before we start, editing an AVCHD Lite video is NOT natively supported with any of the OS X based video editors. Some have pointed that Final Cut Pro (FCP) can edit the AVCHD files, but I can confirm that it actually converts the MTS video to ProRes 422.

Test Setup
I shot three sequences of videos in low light, out in the snow, and indoors – well lit. All shot in AVCHD Lite format, SuperHigh settings (17Mbps) with Dolby Digital stereo audio, with auto focus in manual settings. I used iMovie ’09 and Final Cut Pro. The former imported the MTS files as AIC (Apple Intermediate Codec) and the latter as ProRes 422 (HD) files. The time taken to convert the MTS files to AIC and ProRes 422 were nearly 80% of the length of the clip. For instance, a clip of a minute took 40 seconds to import to iMovie and FCP.
I repeated the same set of videos with MJPEG, auto-focus and manual settings. There was no conversion necessary and all clips were natively imported in iMovie ’09 and FCP.
The movies were then spliced together, and output as an HD MOV file with bitrate of 9100kbps and two pass encoding. I can post the other setup variables as well. The encoding took the same amount of time, since working with AIC and ProRes 422 is the same as working with MJPEG (native).

Initial Reaction
The time taken for video conversion notwithstanding, the MJPEG format seemed to be a clear winner of the two. Not only was the video sharper, featuring more vibrant and true-life colors, and much less noise (especially compared to the AVCHD videos converted to ProRes and AIC), but also, the quality of the output encoded video was clearly much superior. I could already notice artifacts and loss of quality on the ProRes and AIC encoded videos but this got trebled (nearly) in the final product. The end result seemed to be shot with a normal non-HD camera.
There was no appreciable difference in terms of audio quality. Even though the AVCHD Lite format supports Dolby Digital audio input, after encoding and compression, there is no discernible difference between the AAC encoded audio from AVCHD Lite and the stereo 2-channel audio recorded with MJPEG.

Preliminary Conclusion
Clearly from an editing standpoint, on the Mac, MJPEG is the clear winner. The editing ease and persistence of quality and low level noise in day-to-day videos makes the benefits of AVCHD (eg. longer recording times) moot. Even though with MJPEG videos are limited to 8 minutes per recording, and translate to roughly 2 GB file (per 8 minutes of video) on the SD card, it more than offsets this lack of compression, with the ease and ability to edit and encode the video on one’s tools of choice be it basic trimming with Quicktime, or Timeline based editing on iMovie and FCP.

My recommendation is a resounding yes for MJPEG. Keep a couple of 16GB SDHC Class 6 cards handy though.


15 thoughts on “AVCHD Lite vs Motion JPEG – editing ease on the Mac

  1. thanks for the excellent review. I just bought a Panny Lumix FZ35 and just tried to import the AVCHD files. Major pain, spent hours thinking about how to do it.

    Without a doubt, using MJPEG is going to be my solution.

    Thanks again.

  2. I recorded some videos on AVCHD Lite mode on my Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 but it wont go on my computer! I then took a picture on Motion JPEG and that goes on my computer. Is there anyway for me to get that AVCHD video onto my computer?

  3. @Mel~: Download an application called “Handbrake”. It’s free. Converts all kinds of files, DVDs, etc. to usable video for your Mac, iPod, iPhone, you name it. You can choose the quality/file size. Actually very quick.

    I still agree with the reviewer here, though, about quality. MJPEG seems to come out a touch nicer in my informal tests, once AVCHD lite is brought over into a file that works on the Mac. BUT, there is that video size limitation. So, basically:

    1) if you need really long individual video files (over 8 minutes a pop) = use AVCHD lite
    2) for all other HD needs = use Motion JPEG

  4. Hey Mel, the AVCHD lite video is hidden all the way in some folder that isn’t immediately visible. What OS do you use? I would recommend that you google for “AVCHD folder on SD cards”.

    I agree with Spectacle, Handbrake is the best app for converting the videos. I use it to convert my handy cam videos all the time.

  5. I’d like to update my previous comment from June 19th. For everyday purposes, I find that shooting in AVCHD lite is significantly better quality than Motion JPEG.

    That is, if you care about sound, or if you’re not converting to AVI files, importing into any video editing software, etc. (which is what the original post here was comparing). For me, Motion JPEG with my Panasonic Lumix ZS3 tends to produce grainy, dull, washed-out videos, with significantly inferior sound. But if you shoot in AVCHD lite, convert the MTS files to MPEG-4 files with Handbrake, then compress these files to whatever size you like with MPEG Streamclip, the audio stays fantastic, and the video is clearly superior to the standard Motion JPEG files you can just drag onto your Mac from the camera.

    It may take a bit longer than just a drag-n-drop, but I find the AVCHD/Handbrake/MPEG Streamclip option FAR superior for everything. And the MPEG Streamclip step is crucial, even if you don’t need to compress the size, as it fixes the jerkiness of the MPEG-4 file produced by Handbrake. Simply running it through MPEG Streamclip, compressing it at 99% quality with no change to the pixel size, turns what looks kind of like an internet streaming video jerkiness into smooth-as-silk HD video. And if you DO want to compress to send in an e-mail, MPEG Streamclip can do that for you, too. With quite nice results even with files smashed down to about one-fiftieth of their original size. Also lets you add a watermark, adjust saturation, contrast, etc., convert to all the other possible file types you can think of. It’s just plain fantastic.

  6. Thanks for your writeup Spectacle. I agree, the sound does indeed seem better on AVCHD Lite than on MJPEG. According to the forums I usually surf, this is because AVCHD Lite records in AC3, while MJPEG is limited to Stereo sound. In my trials I found that the conversion from AC3 to iMovie usable format was always a lossy operation. I must admit I haven’t tried Handbrake for converting MTS to MPEG4. I will have to give it a whirl. Do you have some settings you used? Perhaps you could post the same…

    I will post again when I have some results. Thanks!

  7. I actually find the opposite, that AVCHD is better quality, especially at higher ISO and in lower light, where MJPEG falls aprt and looks horrible. I say shoot tests and figure out your own best workflow. Both codecs have their advantages, MJPEG can play in Quicktime immediately, but if AVCHD is converted to Apple Pro Res, then edited and colour-corrected in Final Cut Studio, it looks damn fine.

  8. Thanks you so much for the great review. I just bought the Panasonic ZS7 with the HD video and I was wondering how many gigs per minute the Mjpeg used and you spelled it out. I too would rather have quality over quantity. I guess I’ll get back on line and order another sd card. A 32gb this time instead of the 16gb I just received today. 10-13-2010

  9. I have Panasonic cameras tz1 and a friends ts7, and Camcorders sdr-t55 and now ordered a HDC-HS250 w/o software. So I have lots of file types, mod, avchd and lite. I have converted .mod to avi for smaller size but not much else. I find the information about all this very limited. Any suggestion on software for pc (sorry no mac yet) and sites to educate myself.

  10. If you want to watch the native MTS files off the memory card you can drill down to the STREAM folder and use Movist, a google supported player. Works ok but you’ll need a pretty fast computer to play the files and you can’t scrub through them either.

    I’m not sure that Motion JPEG will have better quality, perhaps you had problems with the conversion to ProRes?

  11. Spectacle, would really appreciate you providing the settings in your Handbrake and Streamclip workflow. I am not getting good results.

  12. I use AVCHD for shooting video in my Panasonic LX5 and use Adobe Premiere CS 5 for editing needs. The quality is superb and I love the small file size.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.