Atomos Samurai

It’s taken me a while to finish this review as I’ve been pretty busy. While preparing it I posted various frame grabs that I pulled from the Samurai and the Gemini on a couple of blogs and forums and these have created a bit of a stir that was never intended.

Anyway, what about the Samurai? Well to be honest I was impressed before I had even turned it on. When you buy a Samurai, not only do you get a neat little video recorder, but you also get a flight case full of everything you need to use the recorder (with the exception of a hard drive or SSD). The flight case contains the Samurai itself, a couple of adapter cables to go from the mini BNC’s to full size BNC sockets. A couple of batteries, a neat dual channel charger, a pair of drive caddies and a docking station for off loading your material. Everything is well made.

SIMPLICITY

One of best bits about the Samurai is that it is extremely simple to use. A push button on the side turns it on and your quickly greeted with the home screen. From this one screen you can record clips, enter playback mode, go in to monitor mode, format a drive, turn on timecode triggering and choose whether your progressive files get tagged as interlace or progressive (more about that in a bit).

MEDIA:

For my tests I used a 250Gb 2.5″ hard drive that I had kicking around. I’m not a fan of using spinning discs to record on, but in terms of cost per GB they are very affordable. The discs spin at between 5,400 and 7,200 rpm and this means there are some quite high gyroscopic forces in play. Twist the unit too fast or drop it and you may damage the disc leading to the loss of valuable material. The Samurai though, can also use SSD’s (Solid State Drives) which are very fast, cost effective memory devices with no moving parts. If your going to be bumping your Samurai around an SSD is the way to go, but if you need lots of cost effective storage a hard drive may work better for you, provided your sensible with it. One recommendation of my own is not to be tempted to use one big 750GB hard drive, but instead to use several 128GB or 250GB drives. This way if a drive is lost or does fail you don’t loose quite so much. While you should, as I did, be able to use pretty much any drive, there are a few that Atomos do not recommend. Atomos regularly test new drives as they become available and they provide a list of recommended hard drives and SSD’s. It’s almost certainly best if you choose your drives from the list, which can be found here.

SETUP:

There are very few menu settings on the Samurai and this makes it simple to use and fast to set up. If your using a camera with “record run” timecode the Samurai can be set to watch for rolling timecode and as soon as it does go in to record. I found a 2 or 3 frame delay between the camera going into record and the Samurai triggering, which is noting at all and in most cases you’d probably never realise there was this minute delay. Of course you can also press the big red record button on the touch screen LCD or if you have a camera with LANC you can plug a LANC controller into the Samurai and then plug the Samurai into the camera. The remote would then trigger both units together.

PsF:

One of the buttons on the home screen turns on and off PsF recording. PsF is the method used to send 1920×1080 progressive footage via HDSDi. PsF is used by just about every 1080P camera. It’s clever because it allows you to plug a progressive camera into an interlace monitor, and everything still works just fine. It does this by taking the progressive image and splitting it into 2 fields before passing it down the cable. So to the receiving device (monitor, tv, recorder etc) it looks like an interlace signal, but as there is no temporal (time) difference between the two fields, when shown on an interlace monitor what you end up with is a progressive image. The issue with this is that when you feed something like the Samurai with a PsF signal,it can’t tell whether it’s getting a progressive image split into fields or a real interlace image with two fields. This is where the Samurai’s PsF button is useful as it allows you to tell the Samurai whether the signal is progressive or interlace so that the recorded clips are correctly flagged. A word of CAUTION about this. If you are at all unsure, it is safer to not flag the clips as PsF. Why? well once a clip is flagged as PsF your edit software will always treat the odd and even lines within the frame as occurring at the same moment in time, so any effects or renders will also be progressive and this may result in motion artefacts. If you have a PsF clip flagged as interlace this problem does not occur as generally if you render from interlace to progressive the fields get combined anyway.

POWER AND BUILD:

Moving on… On the back of the Samurai are locations for 2 Sony NP series batteries. These are really common batteries that can be purchased very cheaply. Atomos will also provide you with a free D-tap adapter if you wish to take power from a 12v battery. To get the adapter all you need to do is to register your Samurai on the Atomos web site. You can also by additional adapters and a power supply from you Atomos dealer. The batteries can be hot swapped so in theory you could shoot forever, or at least until you drive is full.

The build quality is very good. The bulk of the unit is machined from aluminium, so it should take the general bumps an knocks of professional use. There is a 1/4″ threaded mount on the top and bottom of the chassis for mounting. HDSDi Input and output is via mini BNC connectors and Atomos provide you with a couple of adapter cables that go from a mini BNC plug to a standard BNC socket. While this works OK, on the review sample the connectors were straight and as a result these rather thin connectors stick out quite a long way. I don’t like this, they look a bit vulnerable to me. Atomos tell me that are looking into right angle connectors and this would be a big improvement in my opinion. The touch screen also acts as a monitor so you can check that you have not got the camera overlays turned on by mistake. Some external recorders don’t have a monitor and I’ve heard horror stories of entire shoots being ruined because the operator didn’t realise that the camera data was getting recorded burnt into the video clips. It’s not the brightest of screens and perhaps lacks a little contrast, I think some of this is due to the membrane used for the touch screen, but it’s very useable. I could probably benefit from some kind of hood in bright conditions.

BENEFITS AND IMAGE QUALITY:

leaves-crop-f31-300x195 Atomos Samurai
Crop from frame of leaves blowing in wind, recorded using F3’s internal 35Mb/s codec.

So why do you need an external recorder, most cameras are capable of producing a good image without an external recorder aren’t they? Well in general, yes, most cameras will produce an acceptable, first generation image. But when you start making multiple copies or doing extensive post production work on the internal recordings, very often they simply aren’t up to the task. Take a look at the frame grabs presented here (click on them to view full size), one recorded internally on the F3 at 35Mb/s and the other on the Samurai using ProRes HQ at approx 185Mb/s.

leaves-crop-sam1-300x195 Atomos Samurai
The same frame as above but recorded using ProResHQ on the Samurai

When you look at the unprocessed, 1st generation frames, it is perhaps hard to see a difference, but when you do just a little bit of post production grading then the difference becomes much more noticeable. The crop is of the top right part of the frame. The tree branches were blowing in the wind and this motion makes the codec have to work quite hard. When there is only 35Mb/s of data to play with the codec really struggles, while the extra data available to the ProRes codec of the Samurai means that the codec isn’t struggling at all. The other thing in this example is that the F3’s internal recordings (like most AVCHD or Mpeg2 cameras) use only 8 bits of data and the colour is sampled 4:2:0. The Samurai is 10 bit, 4:2:2.

MORE BITS ARE BETTER:

With an 8 bit recording you only have 235 brightness levels. That’s fine if you don’t manipulate the image in any way, but if you modify the image contrast or brightness you will create gaps and jumps between those steps and this will appear as banding in your pictures. 10 bit recordings have 940 brightness levels, so any steps will be much, much smaller so banding after adjusting brightness and contrast is significantly reduced and is not normally visible.

When you compare 4:2:0 against 4:2:2, the later has twice as much colour detail than the former. Now I have to confess that I often to struggle to actually see this difference in progressive material, but if you shoot interlace you can see a difference. In either case, having more colour detail will once again improve the flexibility of your material in post production and can give a small improvement in the appearance of chroma noise.

NOISE AND MACRO BLOCKING:

Talking of noise…. if you choose to look closely at the frame grabs I have provided then you may think that the recordings from the F3 have less noise than the Samurai. Well, they do and they don’t. You won’t see as much fine grain noise in the 35Mb/s frame grabs as the Samurai frame grabs because the F3’s internal codec has to discard a lot of picture information to fit it into 35Mb/s. One of the things that gets discarded is noise, but as well as noise there is also a loss of some subtle fine textures. So be careful when you look at the images, the F3 material may look cleaner, but it’s also lacking the fine detail and texture that has been captured by the Samurai. Check out the video below. First you see the full frame clips from the F3 and Samurai, ungraded and then graded. Finally you’ll see crops from the clips. Check out the ugly, blocky artefacts from the F3’s internal recordings on the first clip, then the breakup of the leaves in the second clip and finally the strange wobble of the hedge and bricks in the last shot. These are all typical motion artefacts from the long GoP Mpeg 2 used by the F3 internally.

Please watch the clip full frame 1920×1080. Please also consider that youtube adds a lot of artefacts of it’s own, but the side by side clips will be affected equally. Try pausing the clip during the side by side branches clip.

These may seem trivial in a highly compressed web clip, but let me assure you they are plainly visible on my 42″ TV. When I did compare the Samurai to the Convergent Design Gemini which is a fully uncompressed recorder there was not a lot between them. The Gemini does produce a slightly better image as it has the capability of recording a pristine, mirror image of what comes out of the camera, there is no compression, no loss, no artefacts and if quality is your absolute priority this should be the type of recorder to consider. But the Gemini produces some very, very big files that will need to be backed up and stored. For example an hour of material from the Gemini requires 750GBs worth of the very fastest SSD drives. A 750GB hard drive in the Samurai costs less than 1/10th of the price and will record over 16 hours of material. Not only that but you can backup 16 hours of Samurai material in around the same time as it would take to backup 1.5 hours of Gemini material. In terms of image quality I would say that the Samurai is more than adequate for most types of production, so you do have to ask yourself whether the small quality improvement you can get from the Gemini justifies the more expensive, more complex and slower workflow? Me personally, I’m seriously considering the Samurai as my recorder of choice for all my day to day production work. I’ve looked at the Pix-240 and it’s just too big and bulky, the Ki-Pro mini doesn’t have a monitor and the NanoFlash is only 8 bit. The Samurai ticks all the right boxes. However, if I have a big screen, high end production where the more complex Gemini workflow is not an issue, then for those productions I would use the Gemini. It’s horses for courses, the right tool for the job.

CONCLUSIONS:

For the money the Samurai is all but impossible to beat. Lets face it, the price is very good. Sometimes a price can be too low, I often associate cheap prices with sub-standard products. While the price is low, the Samurai however is not sub-standard. It’s well put together, very capable and has good recording media flexibility with the option to choose codecs (ProRes or DNxHD) and media types (SSD or HDD). With the PMW-F3 it can be used with standard gammas or 422 S-Log. It brings a significant improvement to the quality of the images you can record and makes the workflow even easier than when your using SxS (no need to re-wrap from MP4 to .mov with FCP). I think its great as an all-round every day recorder. 9/10

38 thoughts on “Atomos Samurai”

  1. Alister…thank you so much for the well thought out review. I’ve read several of your comments on DVinfo.net and have enjoyed your no-nonsense technical approach to the subject matter. I also appreciate your ‘real-world’ insight regarding the benefits and shortcomings of the Samurai vs. Gemini recording devices. I considered purchasing the ‘Gemini’ at one point, not realizing the additional complication inherent to the Gemini. For the kind of work I’m doing, the Samurai is the perfect solution.

    I recently retired after a 30-year career at the Kennedy Space Center supporting the Shuttle Program. My little ‘start-up’ company is called Greenside Up Productions. Thinking I’d do a few weddings, corporate events, and my own SIV was my original motivation into the DV world. A few weeks ago one of my oldest and dearest friends called me a told me he wanted to submit a documentary to the Sundance Committee and did I know any Videographers? After I stopped laughing (neither of us knew what the other was doing) I told him, “I’m your man!” It’s funny how things workout.

    Thank you again,

    Jim Kuhn

  2. Hi Alister!
    Thank you very much for a clear and interesting review. Have watched most of your tutorials and they have helped me a lot. I have one Q regarding the Samurai. What are the ways to mount the recorder to the ex1?

    Best regards
    Petter Sand

    1. The Samurai has a 1/4″ threaded mount on the top and another on the bottom of the unit. I used a simple ball joint mounted on the cold shoe of the handle of the F3, you could do the same with the EX1.

  3. Alister,

    Great review! I just purchased a samurai for my ex1 and I’m trying to determine if I have a faulty unit or my camera settings are incorrect.

    Camera is set to 1920 x 1080 hq 24p. 24p system set to 24PsF in camera ( change to 60i ?). SSD card is Intel 320 120GB. The samurai shows 23.98 in the top corner but no options to change record setting. The issue is that the image flickers and won’t stay stable, even the Sdi out causes my monitor to lose signal. It will also loose all color and shift the image to the right as if trying to resize.

    Any ideas? I just want to make sure it’s not something I’m doing before I return it. I appreciate your help.

    Michael

    1. You should have an option to change the codec between ProResHQ and the other ProRes options. I assume you have checked your cables etc. My picture is stable and solid. Do you have the latest firmware installed? Otherwise sounds like a faulty unit.

      1. Yes, I updated to 2.61 and double checked everything. I talked to someone at b&h (where I bought it) and they told me I had a faulty unit so I sent it back today. I hope the next one works. Thanks for your response!

  4. I have a Sony PMW350 editing in sony pro vegas11. Have you looked at the pix220?
    It does 10 bit 4:2:2 I belioeve. I am trying to determine if it is compatible with Vegas.

    1. The Pix-220 and Pix-240 can be used with Vegas. You will need to install QuickTime on your PC to enable the decoding of ProRes files. You will NOT be able to write ProRes files on the PC, but you can create DNxHD files on a PC.

      I would recommend that if possible you get the Pix-240 over the 220 because HDMI connectors come un plugged very easily and are not as reliable as the BNC’s used for SDI. In addition it’s easier to get custom length BNC’s that are nice and flexible and easily routed to the recorder.

  5. Hi Alister,

    Great review. I have had my eye on the samurai since I heard about it at NAB last year. We do quite a bit of live event recording/streaming and love using the EX3. We will usually rent up to three of them from our local rental house, but they recently sold them and bumped up to the PWM320. So we rented Z5s to save $$ for quite a few of our events and although they worked OK, but I see the image soften if we follow a speaker as they move laterally across a stage.
    I am about ready to bite the bullet and finally purchase a camera. So, after seeing that nothing being announced at NAB seems to be worth the wait for our use, we are looking at either an NX5 with a Samurai or an EX3.
    I am trying to find footage from the NX5 that has been recorded in 4:2:2 from the HD-SDI output so I can compare it to the EX series. OR, hear an opinion about this comparison from a reputable source.
    Money is an object here, so we will continue to rent things like professional camera support until we can afford to shell out a couple grand for good sticks, but we really need to BUY A CAMERA that will last us a while!

    I toyed with the idea of the FS100, but really need the powered zoom so we can easily put a studio kit on the camera for live dance events, etc. Do you have any advice as to the quality of an NX5 recorded at 4:2:2 vs. an EX3 recorded to SxS?

    I am already hesitant to buy a 3-5 year old technology, so I am trying to make sure our investment is a solid one that can be used for years to come. (Our SD Camera is a Sony VX2000 that looks like it was unboxed yesterday. It still works perfectly for certain situations.)

    Any direction would be helpful,

    Andrew

    1. You might want to consider the NEX-FS700 as this will be getting a power zoom in the near future. The EX cameras have full resolution 1920×1080 sensors. The NX5 sensors are lower resolution. If it was me I’d really want the EX as it is a higher quality image. The larger sensors of the EX cameras give much improved low light performance and a more pleasing depth of field.

  6. I have a sony ex1 and im planning to have the samurai as a primary recorder and using the cards as back up. my question is that does the samurai record once you press the button on the camera? in other words, can it trigger the samurai to record as well without pressing the record button of the samurai? Im using the ex1 as a primary cam for weddings and i want the files to be secured thats why im planning to duplicate the copy.

    1. Yes, you can use timecode to trigger the Samurai, so whenever the timecode runs on the camera, the Samurai will automatically go into record.

  7. I have started using a samurai with the Sony EX3. Yes if you put the Ex3 timecode on the regen setting the samurai keeps the same timecode as the camera. Also make sure you set the video out display to off or else all the information visible on the viewfinder burns through to the samurai.
    My main problem is that the Samurai sometimes cuts out because Samurai dont make a single lead that goes directly from the Samurai to the EX3. Has anyone else had this faulty connector problem?

  8. I ave just finished a field test in East Timor on the Samurai. You mentioned 12 months ago your concern about the ‘vulnerable’ BNCs/SDIs sticking out…

    Well, you are RIGHT. The Samurai is a great little recorder but buyer beware. The top BNC is very, very vulnerable. Mine snapped and became loose just before we finished shooting. Thank god we finished.

    I was told by the distributor the machine was ‘dropped’ at ‘G force’ to make it snap.

    All my insisting that NO we take good care of our equipment (30 years using Nikkormats, Nikons, Canons, Fujis) NEVER once a problem.

    But the NO it was our fault it snapped and an assistant must have dropped it to make it break… NO amount of explaining that that was no the case had any impact on the distributor. He continually insisted it was our fault. There were NO other marks on the connecting BNC/SDI cord (or cracks, bends or breaks) and No marks on the Samurai itself…. We dont mistreat our equipment.

    However, I have NO doubt it is a serious design flaw as you first told your readers some 12 months ago.

    The BNCs stick out and have no real support around them. The are extremely vulnerable as we found in the field – despite the care we took!

    Fortunately, ATOMOS is repairing the machine, but I must say I have no serious doubts whether this is a real field recorder for professionals or a very good toy for studio work… if you tip toe about….

    ATOMOS fix the design flaw and you will have a wonderful recorder for serious professionals.

  9. Good article, Alister. I have just ordered 2 Samurai Blades and a Canon C100 to go and shoot a theatrical feature-length documentary in South Africa. I shot some tests recently on the C100 and my EX1, and although the settings were on 25p – I did not see the PsF setting and Atomos mentions it nowhere in their documentation. When I imported the test shots into FCPX, everything was interlaced (except the stuff recorded on the SxS card). I cannot possibly use interlaced material for this film, so I am a tad worried. I read the section about PsF in your article, but it’s not absolutely clear to me whether I can work around this interlaced issue (in the camera/Blade or in FCPX) to ensure that I will ultimately be able to work with and output pure progressive. I’d appreciate your feedback. Thanks in advance!

  10. Good article, Alister. I have just ordered 2 Samurai Blades and a Canon C100 to go and shoot a theatrical feature-length documentary in South Africa. I shot some tests recently on the C100 and my EX1, and although the settings were on 25p – I did not see the PsF setting and Atomos mentions it nowhere in their documentation. When I imported the test shots into FCPX, everything was interlaced (except the stuff recorded on the SxS card). I cannot possibly use interlaced material for this film, so I am a tad worried. I read the section about PsF in your article, but it’s not absolutely clear to me whether I can work around this interlaced issue (in the camera/Blade or in FCPX) to ensure that I will ultimately be able to work with and output pure progressive. I’d appreciate your feedback. Thanks in advance!
    Heinrich Dahms
    http://www.buzzmedia.net

    1. Don’t worry about it. If the camera is set to P the output will be PsF, but there is no way that the Blade or any other external device can tell the difference between PsF and i, so the recorder will just record it as i and mark the files metadata as i. However while the file will be identified as an interlace file, what’s inside that file is true progressive.

      If you don’t believe me or just want piece of mind try this simple test. Using the Blade record a fast pan with the camera set to interlace and then record the same pan with the camera set to progressive. Import both clips in to your edit application and then export a frame grab from the middle of the pan for each clip. The interlace footage will have combing (alternate lines that don’t line up) while the progressive clip (even if the edit app says it’s interlace) will not have any combing.

      See also: http://www.xdcam-user.com/2013/03/what-is-psf-or-why-does-my-camera-output-interlace-in-progressive/

  11. Hi Alister

    I want to record from a Sony DSR 450 (which has the SDI board fitted) to a Blade. With the camera set to 16:9 the Blade video input format shows PAL 4:3 and the screen displays a squashed 4:3 picture. How can I record a 16:9 picture.

    Thanks

    Damian

  12. OK, what am I not doing? I have been using an EX3 for years so I figure I know it pretty well – but I have just bought a Samurai Blade and cannot get my EX3 to trigger the Blade!!! I’ve tried every choice of timecode in the EX3 and the selection is to Sony on the Blade! HELP!!!!!

    1. The EX3 needs to be set to record run. I don’t know the blade, but there should be a trigger on TC run option.

  13. I can´t record 720×676 in 16:9. The Blade alwyas show 4:3 in the screen and i can´t switch to 16:9.
    I have 2 brand new BLADE and i really need to record in 16:9 so i can deliver my product in a TV station.

    Need help here, this is very important !

    Thanks in advance

    1. 16:9 SD is what’s known as “anamorphic”. The recorded signal is actually a 4:3 signal. inside which is an image that is stretched vertically. When you play back this vertically stretched image on a widescreen TV the TV will stretch it back out horizontally resulting in the correct aspect ratio. So what you are seeing is actually the correct way to record 720×576 16:9. It SHOULD be 4:3, but distorted vertically.

  14. Hi Alistair, thanks so much for all the information you shared. I have a sony f3 and just need confirmation that i can trigger the samaurai from the camera. Thanks so much

  15. Any solutions to the mini BNC deliema on the Samurai? I bought one and am having buyer’s regret. As a matter of fact, the top connector got bent on the first day. I’m inclined to get it fixed, then build a cage to protect the connector and always leave the mini to regular cable connected.

  16. The Samuari is a great recorder from all my old HD cameras Canon xha1 xha1s and xl1s
    for the XHA1S You use the component out to RGB cable into (Blackmagic Analog to Sdi mini convertor) to ATOMOS SAMURAI.
    for XL you a s-video to RCA cable (MINI AV2HDMI) convertor
    HDMI to HDMI cable
    HDMI to SDI then to the ATOMOS SAMURAI.

  17. I am using the sony ex3 with the samurai, my question is how can I turn off the LCD monitor to not spend camra sony batteries.
    Thank you very much from Argentina

    1. I don’t think you can as if you didn’t have an external monitor and the menu options visible there would be no way to turn it back on.

  18. Thanks Alister for this rare and precise comparison of external Samurai vs internal EX1 recording that is very useful and relevant for me, even though it is years since you did the review, since I do not have access to or budget for the latest and greatest technology. I have got a lot of good use out of my EX1 that I like using a lot. All I do is short videos mostly for internet viewing but coming from a photography background I am very concerned about color, contrast and other “photographic” qualities of video (though am no expert). For this reason I was thinking seriously about upgrading to a 4K machine until I realized how much that would cost and also how much I liked shooting with my EX1 that would be difficult to sell anyways. That brings me to the Samurai that seems to be the only way of upgrading the IQ of the EX1 without replacing it but was not sure if the difference would be significant enough to be noticeable when for example doing a bit of color grading with Adobe After Effects. Your review and the accompanying video is the only one I have been able to find anywhere that addresses this issue. So thanks very much for making it available for free here on your website!

  19. Hi Alastair ,

    I am about to start shooting a doc in Africa using a canon c300… Why would shooting on atmos samurai blade benefit me and the production. The prices have come down considerably since 2014-2015, I will be shooting 1920×1080 and we are trying give the look of the doc a very film cinema texture… Can I using the samurai blade , can you only record via the touch screen or you can use the trigger on the camera… Also will it continue to record on compact flash cards as well as the blade or only one or the other ? I presume there is no difference between the ninja blade or the samurai blade other then connectivity … Being a bit old fashioned I like the idea of a BNC type of connection …Any advise on setting it up much appreciated … I guess I am a tad nervous having not used an external recorder before …this job is a bit hit the ground running some days and don’t want to look a bafoon who has never picked up a camera!!.. Cheers G

    1. Yes, the ProRes codec is a much better codec than the mpeg2 codec in the C300, so your images will look better.

  20. Hi
    I have an samurai 4K and it has worked really well up until now. It keeps ‘zoning out’ after the first few minutes and won’t take pics/record unless turned off then on. Also can’t access my saved pics, I think for the same reason on XDV or the camera itself. Does anyone know how to fix this issue and just letting you all know of a problem of the camera.

Leave a Reply

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

*

Camera setup, reviews, tutorials and information for pro camcorder users from Alister Chapman.

%d bloggers like this: