One of the fundamental principles of Japanese manufacturing is kaizen, or continuous incremental improvement. In baseball speak, rather than counting on hitting a home run, product designers and engineers focus on a series of singles to ensure that their products are ultimately big hits. (That's only a slightly oversimplified synopsis of how the Japanese approach baseball, or besuboru, as well.)
This, in a nutshell, is the Sony DCR-VX2100, a modest but likeable upgrade to the venerable VX2000. The VX2100 will do little to upset the balance of power in the prosumer camera realm; those already considering the VX2000 will find more to like, while those looking for high-definition or 24 or 30fps progressive scan modes will still have to look elsewhere for these capabilities.
That said, to a great degree, this positions the VX2100 squarely in the sweet spot of mainstream prosumer DV camcorder usage, and is the perfect vehicle to discuss two related issues. First, what features should a professional or corporate videographer demand in a DV camcorder?
Second, with street prices for the VX2100 ($2999 MSRP) already skirting the $2,000 price point at the time of this writing, when does it make sense for the well-heeled consumer to consider purchasing a camera like this for personal use? We'll start with a quick fly-by of the camera's new features; then we'll consider both issues. Note that Sony supplied a pre-production camcorder for our tests. While this felt fully functional and certainly performed exceptionally well in most regards, your mileage may vary.
The camera body itself is almost identical to the VX2000, but Sony changed the casing from a smooth silver to a slightly gritty dark grey exterior that's easier to grip and feels more secure. The new lens hood has internal doors that shut to protect the lens, a definite improvement over the large, dangling lens cover on the VX2000. By the way, the new lens hood is backwards-compatible to the VX2000, so if you're looking for a gift that a current VX2000 owner will love, this is definitely it.
Sony upgraded the 2.5" LCD to a hybrid LCD which is much easier to view in direct sunlight. The viewable area in the viewfinder has been increased from .22 to .28 inch, and the eyecup is now much larger. Shooters who prefer the viewfinder over the LCD for framing shots will find the new combination a definite improvement. In addition, if you like shooting from below the waist, you'll enjoy the new two-speed zoom controls and record button on the handle, with a convenient off switch to ensure you don't inadvertently brush against it.
Like the VX2000, the VX2100 includes three 1/3" CCDs, each with 340K effective pixels for video and stills. Attributing manufacturing efficiencies, Sony claims to have made the CCD more sensitive, and the VX2100 has a lux rating of 1 compared to 2 for the VX2000. Other quality-related features include a superior signal to noise ratio that reduces the noise level by 6 dB.
First and foremost, the VX2100 offers only 15fps progressive scan mode, inadequate for most uses, especially filmmaking. Also unchanged from the VX2000 is the 640x480 maximum still-image resolution, irrelevant given that no one buys this class of camcorder to capture still images.
In terms of perceived negatives compared to other camcorders like Canon's XL1S, the VX2100 still doesn't offer interchangeable lenses, and the VX2100's 12X zoom is still less than Canon's 16X.
We ran a complete battery of tests on the VX2100, comparing it to a Sony TRV 9, an older model representing the capabilities of lower-cost camcorders, and borrowed a VX2000 and several other still and video cameras as detailed below. Since we'll be using most of these tests going forward on additional cameras tested in 2004 and beyond, we'll explain them thoroughly here.
For the record, we performed all tests with the cameras in fully automatic mode, capturing with the video camera that shot it using Adobe Premiere Pro. We also extracted all comparative test frames in Premiere Pro.
Lines of Resolution
This is a test of the camera's ability to capture detail. The theoretical maximum resolution for DV cameras is 540 lines, compared to 400 for SVHS and 240 for VHS. You test this capability by shooting the EIA Resolution Chart 1956 which contains a number of converging lines scored at different resolution settings. The results are presented in Figure 1.
We'll start with the TRV 9. On the top left of the box is a set of converging lines marked between 200 and 400 lines of resolution. As you can see, somewhere in the 330-370 range, the detail disappears, and you can no longer see the space between the lines, or the lines themselves for that matter. Note also the grayish cast of the chart, which presages the low-light difficulties exhibited by the camera in the course of our testing (discussed below).
Contrast this with both the VX2000 and VX2100, which show great detail throughout the converging lines on the left. So, shift to the second set on the top right of the box. Though the differences are minor, it appears that the VX2100 offers slightly more lines of resolution, perhaps even achieving the theoretical maximum. This obviously pays off in crisp edges and fine detail when shooting real-world subjects.
Our next tests related to color fidelity. Here we use a test chart called the GretagMacbeth ColorChecker Color Rendition Test chart, which contains 24 colors representing natural objects, like human skin, foliage, and blue sky. In addition to our three test cameras, I also shot the chart with a Kodak DC 4800 still-image camera to compare against. The results are shown on page 34.
Three-CCD cameras like the VX2000 and VX2100 use separate CCDs for each color, which produces accurate colors with well-defined boundaries. In contrast, single-CCD cameras like the TRV9 use a variety of techniques to discern the colors, which typically results in less accurate colors and noise at the edges, both exhibited in our test.
If the colors weren't isolated by the gray lines, you probably would see color bleeding, where one color extends over to another. In addition, though lighting was also adequate for both higher-end cameras, you also see the gross pixilation or graininess in the TRV9 image, additional evidence of poor low-light performance.
Interestingly, though the Kodak also uses a single CCD, it's much larger than the TRV9 and doesn't have to process the data in 1/60" of a second. While the lines were a touch less sharp than both higher-end cameras, probably because we didn't use a flash, there is minimal noise and the color accuracy is quite good.
Finally, the VX2000 and VX2100 are very close, but the VX2100 appears to produce more highly saturated (and less faded) colors than the VX2000, and neither exhibits much low-light noise to speak off. Still, as with the lines of resolution, you probably wouldn't notice the difference shooting side by side unless you performed tests similar to these.
Probably the most widely quoted metric used in camcorder reviews is "low-light performance." Here's the problem: As you may know, most television studios are extremely well lit, which is why anchors have to wear pancake makeup to avoid sweating and to appear natural. This is the environment most camcorders are designed for and the environment most professionals re-create when they shoot.
Of course, when shooting out of the studio, particularly on location, rigging sufficient lighting to match studio settings is nearly impossible. The problem is particularly exacerbated among consumer camcorders, whose users are typically unskilled in lighting and shoot in locations like living rooms, play rooms, and gymnasiums that are particularly poorly lit.
Most camcorders have a rating called a "lux," which represents the minimum lighting necessary to produce an "acceptable" image. Technically, one lux equals the amount of light generated by a single candle on a square meter surface that is one meter away from the candle. Most consumer camcorders fall in the 5-7 lux range, while the VX2000 has a rating of 2 lux, and the VX2100 a rating of 1 lux.
Unfortunately, though some standardization efforts are under way, lux ratings are subjective, so different cameras with the same lux rating can produce significantly disparate results. The only way to compare is to test, so test we did.
In contrast to the somewhat scientific tests performed for resolution and color, my personal low lux test was somewhat more real-world. I have a picture of Lance Armstrong permanently on display in my office, up against the back wall. Shooting from a standard location, I shot several seconds of Mr. Armstrong with each camera, and then compared the results.
Since the TRV9 is somewhat ancient, I included the results of the Canon Elura 50, which was the best performing consumer camcorder I tested in 2003. Figure 3 tells the tale.
As you can see, the TRV9 shows a grainy image with little detail and very low color contrast. Though slightly more distinct, the image from the Elura 50 is still clearly inadequate, and it's difficult to tell that Lance is wearing the maille jaune. Again, the VX2000 and VX2100 are very, very close, though I would give a slight edge in brightness to the VX2100. Clearly, however, though the decrease from 2 lux (VX2000) to 1 lux (VX2100) is technically a 50% improvement, don't expect your images shot under low light conditions to be 50% brighter.
In addition to these laboratory tests, we shot with the VX2100 for a week in a range of indoor and outdoor shooting environments, including bright sunlight and many indoor settings. Many of these experiences highlighted key features like the two-step neutral density filter that's absolutely essential for shooting in bright sunlight, as is the zebra striping that helps avoid hot spots (overexposure) in the video.
We also appreciated the VX2100's extensive range of manual controls, most of which are conveniently located on the back panel. Disengage the auto lock and you can access shutter speed, white balance, and audio level controls with an exposure wheel on the front left panel. The manual focus and zoom controls on the camera front are a constant joy to use—precise, responsive, and accessible.
The highlight of our tests was filming a holiday concert at the fabulous Rex Theatre here in Galax. With my three- and six-year old girls in tow, and a VX2100 and monopod in hand (note to self: bring a tripod next time), I felt obligated to sit towards the back, where I shot most of the show. Since I was unsure how well the theater's speaker system would convey the sound, I brought a Sony ECM-HS1 zoom/gun microphone which I attached to the VX2100's accessory shoe.
This experience revealed some additional strengths and weaknesses. On a positive note, with the spotlight whiting out most performers, I greatly appreciated the spotlight switch on the body, which significantly enhanced color reproduction. Most consumer cameras that offer this feature bury it in the menu, where it's hard to access without joggling the picture and creating noise that's inevitably picked up by the camera microphone.
Better yet, image quality, even from the back, at the extremes of the optical zoom, was exceptionally crisp and totally noise-free. After the concert, I produced a highlight DVD in Pinnacle Studio 9 and, even after compression, the video is nearly flawless.
On the negative front, the lack of a stereo audio meter obscured the fact that the ECM-HS1 is a monaural microphone. Not that a stereo microphone would have produced better results, shooting from near the back row, but it would have been nice information to know beforehand.
That said, the sound quality itself was awesome, with minimal noise and great fidelity. Working in Sony's Sound Forge, I duplicated the mono track into a stereo file and produced a CD-Audio that sounds professionally mastered.
This experience, in a nutshell, is what the VX2100 is all about. For the professional, control accessibility and format quality are absolutely essential, and the VX2000 delivers extremely well in both areas.
As a parent, while you probably won't produce a professional-quality DVD or CD from most events you attend, it's lovely to know that you can. Even more important, it's great having a camera that can produce optimal results even under the sub-optimal lighting conditions that characterize 99% of our indoor shots.
Sony DCR-VX2100 Digital HandyCam Camcorder
• Extraodinary low light capabilities
• Great video quality
• Relevant controls very accessible on the camera body
• Excellent range of accessories from Sony