Archive for the ‘Camcorders’ category

Canon HV20

January 23, 2008

Compared to Panasonic’s sleek HDC-SD1, the Canon HV20 looks a bit ungainly, mostly because it has a large MiniDV tape mechanism grafted onto one side. The HV20 records 1920-by-1080-pixel HDV-formatted high-definition footage or standard-definition footage to MiniDV tapes, whereas the HDC-SD1 records in AVCHD format to SDHC Cards. However, they weigh almost the same: The HV20 weighs 18 ounces, the HDC-SD1, 17 ounces. (Canon will release its first AVCHD camcorder, the HR10, in August.)

The HV20 has some tiny buttons–an avoidable design decision given the size of its body; the start/stop button and the zoom button are particularly small, though the latter has a variable-speed setting, which helps smooth zooming. The lens cover is integrated into the body–and it’s motorized, so it slides open when you power up and slides shut when you power down. That way, you don’t have to worry about a lens cap intruding into your shot or getting yanked by a curious toddler.

The HV20 ($999 as of May 22, 2007) came out on top of our August 2007 issue’s chart mainly because it has more features and costs quite a bit less than the Panasonic HDC-SD1. The HV20 offers a 24p mode to simulate the look of film recording; thissetting adds a certain lushness to video, as long as you don’t use it to capture fast-action or low-light clips. This camcorder doesn’t have a full-manual mode, but it does have aperture- and shutter-priority modes. However, unlike past Canon models, it lacks a mode dial on its body, so you must scroll through a menu and use a tiny joystick to select different capture modes. Having to use this method slowed me down. A dedicated button on the camera body is supposed to enable the camcorder to compensate for a backlit subject, but it didn’t even out the exposure as much as I would have liked (in fact, it lightened both dark areas and bright areas). Nevertheless, because it’s a dedicated button, you can push it at the first sign that your subject is too dark, rather than fiddling with one of the priority modes.

We conduct lab tests with ambient lighting, which often proves pretty challenging for camcorders. The HV20 came in third out of four high-definition models we tested at the same time, but it wasn’t far behind the second-place Sony HDR-SR1 (which also records HDV to MiniDV tapes). Nothing stood out in the HV20’s output as a serious failing, but its performance in low light (where we dim the lights to simulate a poorly lit indoors setting) lagged somewhat. In less-challenging, well-lit settings–for example, a sunny outdoor park scene–the HV20 produced superb-looking video (though most camcorders do pretty well in such an environment). The Canon earned top marks for its still-image shots, and its sound quality earned very good scores. We got nearly 2 hours out of its battery, an outstanding mark.Like most high-definition camcorders, the HV20 has HDMI and component-out connectors for connecting it to an HDTV (we tested with HDMI). An accessory shoe, which you can attach a video light or a microphone to (without having to use an additional battery pack) hides beneath a removable plastic panel on top of the camcorder. Canon offers telephoto and wide-angle adapters; if I were planning to buy the HV20, I’d probably invest in the wide-angle adapter, because more than once I found myself trying to zoom out after already reaching the camcorder’s widest setting. 

Canon provides software for transferring still images to your computer, but none for transferring video. Several video-editing applications do let you import and edit the HV20’s HDV footage (see our reviews of Adobe Premiere Elements 3, Corel Ulead VideoStudio 11 Plus, and Pinnacle Studio 11 Ultimate). I found that even highly compressed Web videos looked better when I used footage from the HV20 instead of video from a standard-definition camcorder, but I had to invest much more time to render them, because editing high-definition footage requires a very powerful computer. 

Since the HDV format demands less computing power than the AVCHD format does, I would steer clear of AVCHD models unless I had an extremely powerful PC. And the HV20 one of the better HDV models on the market, at a pretty good price to boot.


Panasonic HDC-SD1

July 31, 2007

One advantage of using flash memory cards as a recording medium in camcorders is that they facilitate smaller designs. The body of Panasonic’s 1.1-pound HDC-SD1, which records high-definition 1,440×1,080 AVCHD video to SD cards, is a mite smaller than camcorders which use other formats, but its tubular shape retains a bit too much bulk to be truly compact. It’s not wasted space, though; the SD1 accommodates a 12x zoom lens, a 3-inch, 16:9 LCD, a 5.1-channel surround microphone, and a trio of 1/4-inch, 560,000-pixel CCDs.

Ironically, one of the SD1’s biggest design weaknesses stems from its lack of a bulky DVD drive, hard drive, or tape compartment that you often find on other models. The extra height helps provide a good solid grip; I found the SD1 just a little too squat to comfortably hold with my forefinger on the zoom switch. In addition, the joystick for navigating the menus and accessing shooting adjustments–white balance, shutter speed, iris (aperture), and so on–is too far to the right to easily control with a thumb while holding on to the low-riding body. As a result, you really need to operate the camcorder with two hands: one to shoot and one to hold it level. Even then, changing the manual settings tends to jog the camcorder more than usual. And you frequently have to nudge the joystick multiple times to effect a change.

While I really like the joystick navigation, other operational aspects can be a bit frustrating. The manual focus is unusable, for example, as it provides no distance feedback. It does show a zoomed view (Focus Assist), but there’s too much trial and error involved in finding focus. There were times when the camcorder wouldn’t focus at all (as the subject was probably too close), yet I couldn’t figure out when moving the joystick had stopped having any effect.

This situation applies to the device’s features as well. The SD1 offers a reasonably broad set of options, but their implementation occasionally falls short. For instance, you can’t manually set the shutter speed below 1/60 of a second. The iris settings may confuse some users, as Panasonic combines iris settings with gain controls. At and below f/2.8, the SD1 reports in decibels–from 0dB to 18dB, adjustable in 3dB increments. At 0dB it displays “open,” and then gets narrower in f-stop, at various increments, to f/16. Beyond f/16, it reports “close.” While there’s a logic to combining them–both allow you to increase or decrease the exposure–each produces different side-effects when changed. The shutter and iris settings also function more like priority modes than manual modes; that is, you can’t change them independently.

Other shooting features include backlight compensation; five scene program modes; MagicPix night mode (which drops the shutter speed below 1/60); a very nice tele-macro mode; soft-skin mode; zebra stripes; an audio wind filter; and zoom microphone. The SD1 also offers Auto Ground-Directional Standby (AGS)–a fancy way of saying that it goes into standby when you hold the camcorder upside-down. At its highest quality, or HF mode, the SD1 requires 1GB per 10 minutes of video, and uses constant 13Mbps encoding. In the lower-quality HN and HE modes, the SD1 switches to variable bit-rate encoding, and increases the available recording times to approximately 15 minutes per gigabyte (9Mbps) and 22 minutes per gigabyte (6Mbps), respectively.  

Overall, I liked the SD1’s video quality. In good light, video usually looks nice and sharp; the colors are bright and pleasing; the exposure generally hits the mark; and there’s little noise in low-light shots. The 1,920×1,080 still photos look good printed up to 8×4.5–I wouldn’t bump any HD-resolution shots beyond letter size. Played back on an HDTV, videos and stills look great. Up close in a video editor, however, they lose a bit of their luster. Interlacing and interpolation artifacts appear, thanks to the undersized 520,000-pixel sensors (effective resolution) Panasonic uses. 

 Image quality is also inextricably entwined with performance, which isn’t so hot. The autofocus is a bit too slow to keep up with unpredictable subjects, such as squirrels. And the automatic white balance seems confused most of the time, usually producing overly cool tones. On random occasions, the video seemed to get particularly soft and the autofocus simply didn’t lock. The optical stabilizer works well, though.

A fine if not stellar camcorder, the Panasonic HDC-SD1 delivers solid AVCHD video that’s fun to watch, somewhat less fun to shoot, and not fun at all to edit 

Reviewed by: Lori Grunin

Sony announces its first removable-media HD camcorder

April 27, 2007

And then there were four: quadruplet Sony HD camcorders, that is. When they ship on June 27, the $1,200 Memory Stick Duo-based Handycam HDR-CX7 and $1,400 hard-disk-based HDR-SR7 will join the tape-based HDR-HC7 and DVD-based HDR-UX7 to provide consumers with an almost bewildering array of HD options

They differ primarily by storage media. All use the same 1/2.9-inch, 3.2-megapixel ClearVid CMOS sensor, recording video at 2.3-megapixel (HD) or 1.7-megapixel (SD) resolution before downsampling and encoding to 1080i HD (1,920×540) or SD (720×480), respectively. They also shoot photos at native 2.3-megapixel (16:9) or 3-megapixel (4:3) resolutions, despite the 6-megapixel claim on the body, which refers to maximum interpolated resolution. They also use the same 10x zoom Zeiss T*-coated lenses, 5.1 Dolby surround-sound recording, and support the as-yet unviewable xvYCC color space and are rated at a minimum illumination of 2 Lux.


In some ways, though, the CX7 is the odd man out. The other three provide a manual focus dial on the side of the lens and an eye-level viewfinder, while the CX7 appears stripped of the external power-user trappings of its siblings. I’m guessing that’s to save space: Sony claims that it’s the smallest and lightest AVCHD camcorder available.


In fact, both the CX7 and SR7 look remarkably small, especially given their recording capacities. In best-quality HD mode, the CX7 requires 133MB per minute of video, for a total of 30 minutes on a 4GB card or 60 minutes on an 8GB card. The SR7 seems to compress a bit more, managing 125MB per minute of best-quality HD video, or 8 hours on its 60GB hard drive. Both also ship with a Handycam Station for ease of transferring video. 

The HDR 5 series–HDR-HC5 and HDR-UX5–gets another member this spring as well, the $1,100 hard-disk-based HDR-SR5. It shares the specs of its line mates, including Sony’s 1/3-inch 2-megapixel ClearVid CMOS. The SR5’s 40GB hard disk will hold up to five hours of best-quality HD video, or the same 133MB per minute as the CX7. Sony makes no mention of an HDR 5 series Memory Stick Duo-based model