In July 2006, Sony and Panasonic announced the delivery of a new camera acquisition format known as Advanced Video Codec-High Definition (AVC-HD). AVC-HD is a format that stems from H.264 and has a wide range of profiles offering support for mobile communication devices to 4:4:4 ten-bit video. AVC-HD is still in its infancy but stands to become a widely used format in years to come, as encoders mature and especially if hardware improves to make the process more efficient.
The first camcorders utilizing the AVC-HD codec are scheduled to launch soon, and during a recent expedition to Southeast Asia, I had the opportunity to spend several days shooting with a preproduction model of the new Sony HDR-UX1 camcorder in a variety of shooting situations. This small, DVD storage-based camcorder is very impressive, particularly given that it's a first outing for the format. The camcorder offers approximately 12Mbps of video bit rate; the efficiency of the AVC-HD codec allows for lower bit rates while maintaining high-quality images.
Here are a few comments on my initial experiences with AVC-HD:
- It requires a fair amount of additional horsepower to work with than HDV or other less-compressed formats, so for the professional editor, this will be a bit of a challenge, though the average consumer will likely not know the difference. Consumers will love the ability to put the disc in their DVD player or computer and immediately play, index, and edit the content, even if it's not at fast frame rates, as it is now. Most editors will need to convert to an intermediary format in the short run, until hardware and software can catch up to the decoding demands of AVC.
- Keying is a challenge in this format. I shot against a well lit Photoflex green panel, and the results were less than stellar, but this is a preproduction model of the camcorder, so I'll give it the benefit of the doubt for the time being. Keep in mind as well that this is a lower-bit rate, consumer-aimed acquisition device, and the cost has to be figured into the value-per-dollar, and not just pixel-per-dollar.
- AVC-HD is very open in what it can do, and like MPEG-2, the decoder, not the encoder, is where the standard lies. Therefore, AVC encoders, like MPEG encoders, will vary in quality, and though all files are in the same format, it's quite possible that an uninformed user would blame the format and not the encoding device. In actuality, the encoding device is the most important part of the process.
The UX1 is a palm-type camcorder, with a sweet large, second-generation preview screen. Sony is already well known for their preview-screen technology, and this camcorder doesn't disappoint. The Wide/Telephoto and Record buttons are found on the bottom of the screen, which is a bit unusual when compared to previous camcorders with the buttons to the left of the screen. For stability purposes, though, this is where the controls truly belong, from my point of view.
The camcorder is slightly heavier than its HDV cousin, and while the heft is welcome to my hand, some users may not appreciate the additional weight. I have little experience with other DVD camcorders, but the couple that I've held are also a tad stockier in build and slightly heavier than their tape counterparts, so I expect this is the norm.
DVD or HDD?
Upon putting a disc in the camcorder, the system was immediately ready to format the disc, and again, compared to my previous experiences with DVD camcorders, this one simply screamed; after four seconds, the disc was formatted and ready to roll. The 3" DVDs used by the UX1 are capable of holding nearly half an hour of video, depending on the acquisition quality selected by the user. Using the new Sony 3" DVD+R DLs will extend recording time to 60 minutes in long-play mode.
Sony has stated that the UX1 and its HDD-based brother (HDR-SG1) use DSP and imaging similar to that found in the HVR-HC3, so on my excursions through Malaysia, I shot with both camcorders in order to draw a few comparisons. I used both camcorders in fully automatic modes.
The camcorder has all the stock features expected in a consumer-oriented camcorder; the only unique features are found in the HDMI output, speed of disc formatting, and of course, the compression format that AVC-HD brings to the table. With an LANC control, microphone input, and headphone output, the UX1 is also well suited as a second camcorder in the toolkit for small production crews.
The AVC-HD format isn't supported in most video editing applications yet, although Sony Vegas has already been announced as a supporting NLE, and other NLE manufacturers have stated they'll eventually implement support for AVC-HD. However, with the AVC-HD reader software that is included with the camcorder and any number of conversion utilities, the AVC-HD format is ready for users at any point in time. It likely won't be long until we find most, if not all, NLE systems supporting this new format.
Although the DVD- and HDD-based camcorders are aimed squarely at consumers, serious video enthusiasts who are open to the DVD format will appreciate this camcorder. I've never owned a DVD-based camcorder but found myself very much enjoying this one. I don't care for the start lag of DVD camcorders I've tested in the past, but I didn't find that to be an issue in the UX1 model.
One feature I really took a liking to is the way that the menu is laid out, with fast access to the most common pages with a single click—without having to set up a menu preference. With six pages of access found at the bottom of the screen, getting to menu settings is fast, but more importantly, the options are well thought-out.
The CMOS imager is clean and impressive and works surprisingly well in lower-light modes. Historically, CMOS has shown noise in lower light, and high pixel counts on a smaller imager only serve to amplify noise in the frame. Moore's Law has applied itself to CMOS technology, though, and it plainly shows in the recent camcorder offerings from Sony. While neither the UX1 nor the HC3 offers control over gain application, the two images shown in the comparison figure were both shot near sundown at full optical zoom, with the camcorders set in auto-mode and with Backlight compensation enabled. Note the clean lines in the buildings and the detail shown in the windows, towers, and clouds. I fully expected the image to have blockiness in the lower light and shadows of the frame, but I didn't see this at all. There is, however, some inherent noise that I'd expect to find in any low-exposure image on a 1/3"-chip camcorder.
As a still imaging camcorder, the HDR-UX1 is a smooth combination of both still-image acquisition and video. A still-image resolution of 2.3 megapixels for video recording and 4 megapixels for still-only acquisition provides high-quality still images without having to carry a second camera around; stills are saved to a memory stick that inserts in the side of the camcorder beneath the LCD screen. With a 3.5" LCD, shots are easy to compose, expose, and focus on this camcorder.
The Clear-Vid image sensor is a serious step forward for CMOS technology, as the pixels are angled at 45 degrees, offering greater exposure, and also contain a boost in green pixels, thereby increasing image quality. While cramming high resolutions onto small chips generally means both loss of quality in low light and less light sensitivity, between DSP and design improvements, I'd suggest Sony is doing everything possible to resolve these issues while providing the ability to capture pretty pictures. If they take this design implementation forward in other camcorder lines, it will be a terrific upgrade.
The Vario-Sonnar Zeiss lens found on the front of the camcorder, like its cousins in the HDV world, is a sweet lens with a 30 mm thread for adapters and a zoom range of up to 10X optical and 80X digital. Zoom control is touch-sensitive and is incredibly smooth for this size and type of camcorder. The zoom is not ring-controllable as found on some of the earlier camcorders, but the fact that the camera only goes to 80X suggests that Sony recognizes users of this sort of camcorder are savvy to marketing hype from some camcorder manufacturers that boast ridiculously high zoom/magnification ratios. While the 80X zoom is likely to satisfy consumers with no video experience, prosumers won't be impressed.
Along with the lens, you'll appreciate the manual access to exposure that operates in steps via the multifunction ring or touch screen menu. Combined with the AE adjustments, this provides for a more-than-reasonable control of exposure. Having a manual shutter might be nice, but this is a feature rarely found in consumer-oriented products. The front end also offers stabilization; this is an electronic system, and I found that, like most electronic stabilization systems, I was happiest with it disabled in order to obtain the sharpest images.
The 5.1 Surround-ready sounds is quite good, even to a doubting ear like mine. This isn't 5.1 uncompressed audio, and the microphones aren't high-end surround mics, but for accurate capture of most events, the format will satisfy most users very well. Just be aware of the tendency toward heavy breathing noise on the back channels if you're exerting yourself at all. There is even a Bluetooth microphone that allows for remote recording up to 100 feet away, although that feature was not accessible during the time I had this camcorder. The microphone is built into the camcorder, or an optional mic plugs into the Intelligent Shoe, just as on other Sony camcorders.
Another newer feature is the super Slo-Mo recording, or "Smooth Slow Motion," option. This is found on the HC3 and on the DCR-DVD 505 camcorder, but no other camcorder I'm aware of. Incredibly impressive slow motion is possible with this model, albeit for short periods of recording due to the way the slow motion is buffered into the camcorder memory. Three seconds of video is recorded which, in turn, becomes twelve seconds of playback as it records 24fps, or four times the standard 60fps. It takes a moment to get used to how the memory buffers in all of the various camcorder models with this feature, but the picture quality makes this feature well worth becoming familiar with. The quality matches or is superior to that of much more expensive camcorders with overcrank capability, but it's very short in the amount of time that slow motion may be used in acquisition.
Unique to this sort of camcorder is its number of inputs and outputs. I'm tickled at the number of options, since this camcorder offers component, composite, HDMI, Memory Stick, USB 2.0, Advanced Accessory, LANC, headphone, and microphone connections. As an HC3 owner, I was a little disappointed in the lack of headphone or microphone connections in this small camcorder, even though I'm very happy with the image quality in such a small-format device. Thus, I was delighted to see Sony had returned these necessary tools in the DVD model, using similar features and technology.
Battery life is impressive; I logged nearly two hours of shooting time with the LCD screen in use but failed to take note of the length of time the camcorder was actually powered up. However, I'd used the UX1 during most of a half-day event, and the camcorder still had plenty of juice to shoot into the evening. The overnight charge took me well into the next evening. However, I didn't keep the LCD open the entire time. Still, I continually expected the big LCD screen to let me know I was on my last second of juice, but I never reached the point of total battery discharge over the course of the week.
The UX1 uses already-existing batteries, so obtaining them is easy and inexpensive. With new camcorder models, it's always a concern when manufacturers switch battery formats on users.
All in all, my experience with this camcorder was not only pleasant, but also just plain fun. It fits the hand very nicely, feels solid, and has a plethora of features that I was happily surprised to find on a low-cost camcorder. The controls are very well placed, and the menu contexts are very intelligent and user-friendly. While the camcorder is marginally heavier than others in the palmcorder world, it has a well balanced, comfortable heft that will prove preferable, I believe, to most users. This likely will be the first (and maybe only) DVD-based recorder I'll ever purchase.
The Sony HDR-UX1 began shipping in mid-September with a street price of around $1,400.