AJA Ki Pro Mini
AJA is now shipping the Ki Pro Mini, a major step forward in the company's line of direct-from-camera acquisition products. First came Io HD, a product I reviewed at its introduction some four years ago. Io HD's ability to transcode any input into ProRes was revolutionary, but what was needed, I remarked then, was some way to make it portable and record on the fly. Two years later came Ki Pro, a product that remains hot. For all that it does in acquisition, cross and transcoding, and up/down res, however, Ki Pro is a relatively expensive ($3,995) and large device that does not lend itself to easy portability.
The Ki Pro Mini is the latest and greatest stage of evolution of this family of AJA products. People are lining up to acquire it, and for good reason. Ki Pro Mini will take any HDMI or SDI signal and record to two CF cards in Apple ProRes with the ability to output HDMI and SDI. It does not cross-convert or transcode, but it is lightweight, able to be powered by a variety of sources and, at $1,995, represents a tremendous value for the quality of its construction and video results. Add two XLR analog inputs and you have a complete 10-bit field acquisition unit.
The Mini records in all Apple ProRes flavors and available frame sizes and rates, with the exception of ProRes 4444. The data rates required by ProRes 4444 could not be sustained on today's CF cards, nor does the Mini itself have Dual Link or 3G HD-SDI I/O. That is not to be considered a significant omission since the overwhelming majority of users may find ProRes HQ or even ProRes 422 more than sufficient.
Now to the unit itself. The Ki Pro Mini looks at first glance as if it might be a bit awkward; indeed, it requires some creativity and additional devices for mounting. With its height of about 5.4" and width of almost 3.5", as well as a bottom-situated 4-pin XLR power connector, the Ki Pro Mini may present some mounting challenges. For an additional $75, AJA sells cheese plate mounts for each side of the Mini. For maximum versatility, AJA recommends buying two plates—one for each side of the unit—and mounting them 180° opposed. These plates have multiple iterations of every conceivable size of video mounting screw. They attach solidly to the unit and are milled precisely. Considering prices of precision mounting plates, $75 is a real bargain.
Also available is a desk stand, elevated to allow a right-angle XLR power connector. Unfortunately, the desk stand cannot be used with the mounting plate. AJA recommends using the rod assembly from the Ki Pro exoskeleton option to mount the Mini on rails.
In much of my testing, I used only one cheese plate, mounting the Mini to a Noga articulating arm going into the rear hot shoe of a Sony PMW-EX3. I also experimented with the Noga arm on several other smaller cameras. It was somewhat of a challenge with the PMW-EX1 adding that 1.25 lb. Mini—that was a case where I definitely would have preferred to mount on rails.
The Mini can be powered by AC or by any 12-18V source. It is not exactly a power miser, consuming 18 watts maximum, 15 watts typical. AJA shows on its site a Mini powered by an Anton/Bauer DIONIC 90 battery. Just do the math and you will see that that will deliver five to six hours of use. But keeping in mind that many of the smaller cameras draw pretty close to that same amount of power, having adequate batteries or AC access is something to keep in mind when shooting with the Mini.
The quality delivered by the ProRes family of codecs comes at a price when shooting to removable media. AJA is quite strict in its qualification of CF cards, only recommending specific cards at 600x and greater. Since this is a dynamic qualification process (certain cards have been removed from the list), I would urge readers to consult the AJA site for qualified cards. When budgeting for a system, keep in mind that 600x cards cost upwards of $300 for 32GB and $550 for 64GB. And we have little idea what effects the horrific catastrophe in Japan will have on media and component prices.
The Mini has two CF slots. Of significant concern is that the device does not switch slots automatically, nor does it span clips. When the CF card in slot 1 is full, it is necessary to stop the camera, manually push the "slot" button to switch to slot 2 and then resume recording. I regard this as the most problematic aspect of the device.
The Ki Pro Mini has a straightforward and complete menu system. Recording can be set to activate from embedded timecode in the SDI signal or by manually starting/stopping the device. Control buttons are large, an advantage of the larger device. Additionally, they are physical buttons rather than chiclets. I would like to see the ability to lock the device, since it is easy to press a button by accident.
Another amazing feature built into the device is Ethernet control. The Mini has a built-in DHCP, so plugging it into a wired Ethernet network immediately makes it available on the network. From there, a Web GUI allows remote control of every aspect of the device, from settings to recording to playback. Depending on network configuration, there is also a menu option to specify a static IP address.
I found the remote feature particularly nice, allowing me to set many parameters in advance of a shoot from the ease of a computer rather than from punching menus. Nowhere is this more evident than in defining custom reel, clip and take names to increment during the recording process.
Physical recording itself is a snap. Initiate and end recording either through the camera or on-device controls. AJA notes and I have verified that it sometimes takes several seconds for clips to complete writing. Longer clips could take 20 seconds. You can't initiate recording until the prior file has completed writing. Again, for small clips, it is really only a second or two, but it is something to keep in mind.
Another feature of the Mini that could become a liability if not configured properly is the internal fan. Make certain that the default value of "fan off during recording" is not changed. While the fan isn't noisy, I'm no "fan" of any additional noise sources while shooting. The feature, though, is important to protect the Mini against one of the greatest dangers for electronic gear: heat. I applaud AJA for thinking of utilizing a fan and for giving the user the ability to control when it activates.
The Ki Pro Mini can adapt to virtually any camera's output. If your camera can output true 24p, the Ki Pro Mini will record it. If you need to remove pull-down or see the input as PsF, those options can be set as well. It sees VFR if so configured in the menu structure.
One thing missing from the Mini is a pre-record buffer. Many solid-state devices and in-camera recording systems provide such a buffer; it has saved a couple of run-and-gun shots for me when I simply couldn't press record fast enough.
Once you've gone through all of the mounting and technical settings and shot your clips, you will have CF cards with ProRes .mov files. Play from the card via your favorite CF card reader or copy to your edit station. Those files can be read by any system on which the Apple ProRes codecs are installed. In an effort to further the universality of ProRes, Apple has made the codec available for all in PC and Mac versions. Avid handles ProRes files nicely via AMA, and the procedure for FCP and Premiere Pro is simply to import the clips into your NLE.
Just as the Ki Pro Mini has begun to ship, several other recording devices have hit the market, some priced lower and others with different feature sets. AJA's implementation of ProRes is offset by Convergent Design's adoption of MPEG-2, both Long and Short GOP, and at a much higher price point by Convergent Design's Gemini monitor/recorder, recording uncompressed video. At an even higher price point, Cinedeck offers ProRes, DNxHD and CineForm recording.
What it really boils down to is codec support. Which codec is best is a question that doesn't have an easy answer. In essence, what counts is what look you like and what works best in your scenario. ProRes is a 10-bit I-frame codec that, most importantly, holds up to considerable grading and VFX work. That alone places it at the top in the minds of many users.
Despite the emergence of several low-priced devices, AJA's Ki Pro Mini remains a bargain if for no other reason than it has AJA on the nameplate. That's big. And it is an even greater advantage if you should have a problem with an AJA product. I've called AJA customer service several times for products I own and review, never revealing that "I'm the guy who writes things about you in magazines, so serve me well or else." If nobody is available, callbacks are prompt. (The longest I've waited for a callback is 20 minutes—seriously.) If something breaks, they will cross-ship you a replacement. The products are proven and nobody can afford to be the lab rat when it comes to paying jobs.
The AJA Ki Pro Mini is a worthy tool for high-quality ProRes acquisition with low cost. I recommend it enthusiastically.