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Once upon a time ViewCam was once one of the most innovative concepts in camcorder design but is it still relevant today? Sharp seems to think so, we try out the new VL-AH50 Hi8 model



Clearly there is still a market for 8mm and Hi8 ViewCams, otherwise Sharp wouldn’t keep on making them, but quite how this rather bizarre concept manages to survive is a mystery. Sorry if that sounds unkind but analogue ViewCams are the Reliant Robins of the camcorder world. (In fact we wouldn’t mind betting they are really popular amongst Reliant Robin owners…). Like the much maligned -- and thankfully now departed -- three-wheeler, ViewCam was once briefly quite a good idea. Doubtless in its time it has introduced a lot of people to the joys of video movie making but its many idiosyncrasies and foibles now look completely out of step with current camcorder technology. At the risk of labouring the Reliant Robin metaphor, its most recent incarnation, the VL-AH50, is akin to fitting new door handles and uprating the ashtray…


Let’s take a closer look. It’s a Hi8 machine with mono sound and a 16x optical zoom that can be electronically extended to 400x. There’s a 3-inch colour LCD screen on the back of the deck unit and like all previous ViewCams the camera module swivels, making overhead shots and self-portraits a doddle. Creative options include a simple 4-mode Program AE system with presets for Sport (fast shutter), Sunlight (bright background), Dusk (colour corrected low light) and Party (spotlight compensation). It also has a manual exposure override, white balance lock, backlight compensation and switchable gamma correction, which jiggles the picture’s contrast balance, to bring out detail in dark or gloomy scenes.


The AH50 has a fair assortment of special effects (strobe, gain-up, sepia, B&W, solarisation, negative, slim, wide and 16:9 recording mode), plus a digital image stabiliser, title generator with 8 preset titles, still/snapshot recording and a dual-picture facility. This last one is actually quite unusual, inserting a live or frozen PIP (picture-in-picture) into the bottom left or right hand corner of the image, or the image can be spit horizontally with a live or frozen image at the top or bottom of the screen. 


That little lot doesn’t look too bad on paper but you need to meet an AH50 in the flesh to understand our reticence. It’s a huge lump of a thing and whilst it is quite easy to use, provided you don’t mind holding it with both hands. You can just about use it one-handed but the weight distribution makes it rather unwieldy. The price isn’t that wonderful either, you can get some very decent analogue high-band machines for £500 these days, including models with LCD viewing screens, moreover most of them have stereo sound, and pretty well all of them have a S-Video output, which for some unaccountable reason the AH50 lacks, making a nonsense of some of the key benefits of the Hi8 recording system!  By the way, it doesn’t have an external microphone socket either, there are no editing facilities to speak of, not even a Control L/LANC socket and according to the manual a SCART AV adaptor is an optional extra.


The LCD viewing screen might seem like an attractive idea, and indeed, it does work well indoors, but the image is virtually washed out in bright sunlight. Since there’s no alternative viewfinder Sharp has had to include an absurd-looking clip-on fold-out sunshield in the accessory pack that makes it look like something out of a World War II bomber. The machine is powered by a nickel metal battery pack that lives in the camera module and is charged in-situ; a high capacity pack is also available.



The start/stop, zoom, snapshot and mode select controls are all on the back of the camera module and very easy to get at, though your thumb might need a little extra training to get used to the side-to-side zoom action. Everything else is on the back of the deck unit. There’s a row of seven buttons just below the screen and their functions and on-screen labels change according to the mode selected, and where you are on the menu display. It’s mostly okay, though some functions that you might want to get to quickly, like manual focus or exposure override, are buried quite deeply in the menus.


There’s a little speaker on the side of the machine (volume is set using the zoom lever) and the mono mike is on the top; the whole of the front opens to load and unload cassettes.



Normally we dive in with things like resolution and noise but we’ll make an exception with the VL-AH50. It is without question one of the least stable machines we’ve tested! The picture can be easily disrupted during recording and playback by gently tapping the case or a moderately vigorous pan or tilt. Plonk it on a tripod and it’s okay but this is not the sort of camcorder you’d want to use on the hoof.


Now back to the technical stuff. Unfortunately, due to the absence of an S-Video output we are unable to say how well picture quality compares with other Hi8 machines, the composite video output produces a decent enough picture but resolution is nothing special for a high-band machine at just over 350 lines and colours, which should look bright and crisp on a S-Video feed appear quite ordinary. Noise levels are quite average and the image is moderately stable. The image stabiliser works adequately well but there is a noticeable reduction in detail and an increase in grain. The 400x zoom is pretty pointless, at that kind of magnification it’s almost impossible to make out any detail and the picture wobbles about at the slightest touch, unless the machine is bolted to a very rigid tripod.


The mono audio track sounds bland, the response is reasonably wide and there’s very little background hiss, but it lacks any sense of depth and the top-mounted microphone picks up some motor and handling noises. 



By now you’ve probably figured out that we’re not terribly impressed by the AH50. The list of faults and foibles is a long one, starting with the price, less than inspiring performance, shaky deck mechanism, lack of S-Video output, LANC and microphone sockets, clumsy sun hood; we could go on. In its favour it is quite easy to use and if you don’t get on with today’s titchy pocket cams and like something you can get hold of, with both hands, then it may be for you. Otherwise we have to be blunt and say that this style of camcorder is well past its sell by date, if we had £500 to spend on a high-band analogue machine, and the AH50 was the only one available, we’d keep saving…



SHARP VL-AH50/Hi8/£500



Lens                             f/1.4, 4-64mm

Zoom                            16x optical, 400x electronic

Filter diameter            46mm  

Pick-up device            0.25in CCD

Min illum                       0.8 lux  (gain-up mode)

Long play (LP)                        no                   

Max rec time                        120mins (SP mode only)

IR remote control                        yes

Edit terminal                        no


MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto focus                                yes                                          

Manual focus                 yes      

Manual white balance yes (lock)   

Auto white balance             yes

Auto exposure               yes                              

Manual exposure                       no

Programmed AE                          yes (4-mode)  

Fader                                        yes                  

Backlight compensation            yes                              

Manual zoom                             no        

Power zoom                              yes                                                                              

Insert edit                                  no        

Audio dub                                  no

Character generator                       yes                  

Digital superimposer                 no        

Image stabiliser                         yes                                          

Video light                                 no        

Battery refresh               n/a                                       

Accessory shoe             no        




time/date recording, record review, digital effects (strobe, monochrome, sepia, solarise, stretch, slim, negative) gamma correction, exposure override, 16:9 record mode, snapshot mode, program AE (sport, sun, dusk, party), dual picture, picture-in-picture, animated title generator, self/message recording



Viewfinder                       3-inch LCD viewing screen

Viewfinder info               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, title, zoom position



Stereo                                       no        

Wind noise filter                         no                   

Mic socket                                no                    

Headphone socket              no        

Mic                                           unidirectional electret



Sockets                                    AV out (2 x minijack), DC in (DC socket)

Dimensions                               183 x 109 x 99mm                      

Weight                          0.85kg (inc tape and battery)



Batteries (nickel metal hydride, lithium & alkaline), straps, AC charger/power supply, screen sun shield

AV lead             yes      

video light                      no                    

remote control            yes      

cassette adaptor n/a                   

RF Converter             no        

Scart adaptor                 no                    



Resolution                     350-lines

Colour bleed               negligible          

White balance            average            

Exposure                     average            

Auto focus                   sluggish           

Audio performance    average            



Value for money            7

Ease of use                   8

Performance                  7

Features                       8



R Maybury 2000 0410





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