HDV Grows Up: Sony's HVR-S270 and HVR-Z7
Posted Jan 9, 2008

Sony recently unveiled its latest HDV camcorders to the world. This wasn’t just any ordinary product announcement; with the release of these new models, HDV arrived as a true professional video acquisition technology. Just as MiniDV was a format that evolved into DVCAM and DVCPRO, and eventually DV itself became acceptable for broadcast, and even feature film production, HDV started as a "consumer" version of HD. But it has evolved dramatically in Sony’s latest models.

The key features of these camcorders that define HDV’s leap to pro production are as follows:

JVC broke the "removable lens" barrier with its 720p-based GY-HD100. This smallish, but definitely on-shoulder, camcorder was adaptable to any number of projects with a removable lens. JVC added the icing of true 24p recording to HDV tape. The market jumped on this and started producing adapters and lenses to use with this camcorder.

The two limitations on that camcorder (and its successors, the HD110, HD200, and HD250), were that it was limited to 720p (and at 19Mbps 24p, it did not use the full 25Mbps bandwith of HDV, leaving bits "on the floor," so to speak). It also did not record the higher-resolution 1080 image.

I’ll leave alone the arguments over how viewable the difference is between 1080p and 720p images. What matters is that there was a large group holding out for a true 1080p24 camcorder with a removable lens. That’s what Sony has now delivered in not just one, but two different body styles.

Sony itself offers adapters for using its Alpha still lenses, and the camcorders feature hot shoes, as well as jacks to connect non-hot shoe lenses to the camcorders. I’m sure we can expect to see adaptors for film lenses to be commercially available in the not-too-distant future.

Shoulder Mounting
Aside from the JVC models—and with the single, recent, oddball exception of Sony single-chip HD1000 shouldermount—all HDV camcorders so far have fallen into two slightly differentiated categories: handhelds and palmcorders. They ranged in size from tiny, obviously consumer palmcorders with almost no manual capability, to somewhat larger camcorders with copious manual control and professional I/O, but almost all the weight rested in your hand. The latter body style is fine for short bursts of camerawork. But for hours and hours, an on-shoulder camcorder provides a level of usability and comfort that can help ensure that you or your camera operator will get the shot you want. Sony’s HVR-S270 is a true professional camcorder. Sony offered a hint of what it would be at NAB 2007 by showing a DSR-200 (Sony’s full-size DV camcorder) under glass with an HDV label on it. At IBC 2007, a video in the Sony booth showed a completely different model, which we now know as the S270.

This camcorder has all the I/O a professional camera operator would expect, including component, SDI, and four separate XLR jacks for audio into the camcorder. It uses full-size batteries, which places the center of balance squarely on the shoulder of the operator without any of the shoulder-harness gizmos that attach to a handheld—the ones that often look like a torture device with numerous sliders, levers, knobs, and the like.

When I felt the S270 on my shoulder, I knew I was holding my dream HDV camcorder—the one I had written about in my last 2 HD Today columns (Part 1, Part 2).

Compact Flash
Panasonic really pushed the industry forward when it introduced the HVX200 camcorder. Though it could shoot DV to MiniDV tape, it really existed as the flagship for the industry’s focus on recording to flash media.

As widely as it has been adopted, the HVX200 was well ahead of its time, and the disparity between the cost and capacity of P2 and other lower-cost, much-higher-recording-time media was evidence of a breakthrough technology whose time had not yet come—not for event videographers, anyway. The genius of P2, of course, is that it’s a solid-state acquisition media that Panasonic has promoted as having "no moving parts." P2 media comprises two SD cards with a special controller to handle the high bandwidth required by 100Mbps DVCPRO HD. Today, a single SDHC card easily does 125Mbps all by itself, and it is a fraction of the cost of a single P2 card.

Continuing to advance the "tapeless acquisition" approach, consumer camcorders then began to offer a mix of internal hard drives, DVD discs, and SD cards. Sony then introduced the PMW-EX1, a professional, HD-only camcorder that recorded only onto ExpressCard, which is the smaller, faster successor to PCMCIA cards.

Wearing the CineAlta badge, this remarkable little camcorder had an integrated lens and the ability to "overcrank" to shoot true slow motion 24p footage at 60p. The camcorder sent 2.5x the normal data rate to the cards—something you can’t do with ordinary tape mechanisms. With the HVR-S270 and the HVR-Z7 HDV camcorders, Sony developed specialized, clip-on compact flash media recorders. These will use any compact flash media fast enough for the 25Mbps data rate of HDV. This also enables you to download the footage several times faster than you could with tape, yet you can still record to tape as a backup.

Compact flash is currently limited to 16GB capacities, yielding about 73 minutes of HDV record time on one card. Larger cards are in the pipeline, and it may not be too long before end users are recording several hours of HDV onto a single piece of very inexpensive, nonproprietary flash media.

The fact that this is coming from Sony is quite a surprise, because Sony is the company that has a long line of proprietary media in its history, from Digital Mavica to MemoryStick, Digital 8, MicroMV, and the like. Most Sony products are limited to Sony-only media—for example, all Sony phones and digital cameras are Sony MemoryStick-specific. To see high-end Sony HDV products integrate the use of third-party flash media is quite refreshing.

4-Channel Audio
The HDV specification, like the DV specification, has allowed for four-channel audio recording from the outset. Few cameras took advantage of it, and when they did, it was an add-on that did not maintain full balanced audio throughout. Though the smaller Sony HVR-Z7 records only two channels of audio, the larger HVR-S270 has two XLR inputs in the front of the camcorder and two XLR inputs on the back of the camcorder. Each one has a separate audio level control and an automatic level control switch on the side of the camcorder.

In the camera menu system, there are discrete controls for limiter, audio level, wind filter, and more for each of the four channels. Never before has HDV audio been given the red carpet treatment like this.

Some reviewers have tested Sony camcorders and found the audio frequency response and noise floor less than what you’d expect on a pro camcorder. Let’s hope that Sony built these two new camcorders to quell the concerns of any audio purists in the field. We’d all surely love to make full use of all four of those audio channels while shooting in the field.

Let’s also hope that NLE providers such as Apple, Adobe, Sony, NewTek, and Grass Valley step up to the plate here and guarantee that we can import and edit all four channels as soon as these camcorders are shipping. There’s nothing worse than recording it and not being able to get it into the computer.

Low-Light Performance
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for our market, Sony apparently heard the cries of event and corporate videographers who hated that we kept taking steps backward with low-light capability in HDV camcorders from what we’d come to expect in mature DV models.

The PD 150 was a great DV camcorder. The PD 170 took what was great in the PD 150, kept it, and added unparalleled low-light capability. Sony’s FX1/Z1U proved in testing to be about a stop, to a stop and a half darker than the PD 170.

Sony’s FX7/V1U CMOS HDV camcorders were reportedly another stop to stop and a half darker than the CCD-based FX1/Z1U. Many producers were scared that the next step was to put the 50 W light back on the camcorder to get any image at all.

Sony insists that the new CMOS design and processing used in the S270 and Z7 will produce a CMOS image that appears as bright as the PD 170 at the same light levels. While they haven’t mentioned grain from gain, Sony has talked about its new processing that improves the images by comparing each chip to the others. It seems that these new HDV camcorders demonstrate that Sony has listened to criticism and not only fixed the problems, but made distinct improvements.

I’m sure there are event and corporate videographers out there who have been wary of HDV to date, but they are finally ready to take the plunge into HDV if these camcorders live up to the claims and the specifications. In the end, we don’t ask for miracles. We weren’t clamoring for a compact flash adapter, but we’ll certainly make full use of it when it arrives in our hands. As long as the many (and there are many) features of these two new camcorders work as advertised when the cameras ship in February, there will be smiles on the faces of many videographers around the world.

Anthony Burokas of IEBA Communications has produced wedding and corporate videos for nearly 20 years. He is technical director for the PBS series Healthy Flavors and runs TechThoughts, an official EventDV blog.