Simon Wyndham spends time with the new $495 Blackmagic Video Assist and finds a unit that will appeal to people who are on a budget but still require a high quality, versatile monitor with good recording capabilities.
If you are in the market for an external viewfinder or camera mounted monitor, now is a good time to make a purchase, with more and more choice being available. Hot on the heels of the new SmallHD range of monitors comes the Blackmagic Video Assist, a lower cost 5” alternative to the more pricey offerings out there. But can it cut the mustard in terms of overall features and practicality?
Those who know me are in no doubt as to my views on Blackmagic products. They are incredibly well built, reliable, and affordable. Even if they put the prices up tomorrow, they would still be good value, and the picture put out by their cameras contain qualities that are lovely to behold.
On first handling the Video Assist monitor it is apparent that nothing has changed. Made from a black anodised machined aluminium body, the Video Assist has a nice weight to it. There is no doubting the construction quality.
Adorning the the left side you will find 6G SDI in/out, and full size HDMI in/out. While on the right hand side there is an SD slot for footage storage, headphones out, the power switch, and a 12v in port. Both the top and bottom of the device allow for a total of size screw holes for various mounting options. The bottom also contains a USB port, utilised for firmware upgrades. As a neat little feature there is also a flip out stand to allow the Video Assist to free stand on a table top or other flat surface.
Portable power is taken care of by two Canon E6 battery mounts. The battery system, to quote BMD, uses a serial discharge, with the battery containing the least power being depleted first. Connecting the Video Assist to a 12v power supply also charges the batteries in parallel.
Video sampling is in 4:2:2 YUV 10-bit colour, and the device supports SDI metadata including closed captioning. When recording in ProRes formats the Video Assist supports up to 16 channels of audio for SDI Audio Output, while Avid DNxHD is restricted to 2 channels.
Video Assist in use
My first impression of the display in use was that it was very clear and defined. The Video Assist is a native 1920x1080 display, and being a 5” monitor offers a very similar pixel density as a result to the SmallHD 502. This not only makes it nice, crisp, and sharp, but makes the on screen fonts very easy to read, too.
The monitor displays a very responsive histogram, audio metering, battery level information, recording format and frame rate, as well as timecode. A simple tap on a magnifying glass icon allows digital zooming for ensuring focus.
The latest firmware contains guides for various screen ratios, as well as focus peaking. The latter being of the coloured type, which in all honesty I have never found truly useful because it only seems to appear on the very highest frequency edges. This is less help in focussing on more subtle detail (though this isn’t specific to the Video Assist; it’s a problem with many cameras). Lastly there are adjustable zebra highlight options.
To avoid screen clutter a simple swipe up or down the screen with your finger is all that is needed to move all that information out of the way. A swipe up or down again will bring it back again.
The Video Assist can be set to have its recording triggered in two ways, via a trigger record over SDI or T/C Run, which detects running timecode over either SDI or HDMI and starts and stops recording accordingly.
Playback of clips is nice and easy, and scrubbing through them using the touch screen is a simple using the scrubbing slider.
One nice touch regarding the power monitoring is that a click on the battery icon brings up a screen size icon with a very accurate representation of how much power is left in each of your E6 batteries. Power consumption appeared very good, and while your mileage may vary, with my fairly well used E6s I was getting around 2hrs continuous runtime.
Cooling is taken care of with a fan, which I have to say can be audible, so you may need to take care when recording in quiet environments.
The Video Assist records to SD cards rather than CFast as per their higher end cameras. This means that although it can accept a 4K signal, it is strictly an HD recorder, capable of up to 1080p at 60fps. The use of SD cards means that those who are hoping for 4K recording via firmware later on will need to be aware that this will not be possible. So, while you may not be able to record 4K if you own a 4K camera, you will be able to record high quality HD proxies, or as a straight backup for a 1080p camera, and nailing your focus.
For DSLR owners who own a camera with a clean HDMI out, the Video Assist will allow them to record and monitor footage in a higher quality fashion than they would using the internal recording. The Video Assist will also act as a great way to monitor footage from the BMD Micro Cinema Camera too.
Another thing to note is that Avid DNxHD was not available as a recording codec in the firmware I tested (v1.1).