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Could this be the shape of camcorders to come? We've been trying out the radically different Sharp View Cam, the first Hi8 machine to have its own built in 4-inch colour LCD monitor



Sharp used to have a reputation for making dull and somewhat predictable compact camcorders, not any more! Last year they came up with the unique 'Twin Cam' dual-lens palmcorder, quickly followed by the ultra thin VHS 'Slim Cam'. Whilst neither machine made much of a dent in the UK market they were nevertheless highly innovative and very unusual, marking Sharp's departure from the mainstream into hitherto unexplored avenues of camcorder design. It looks as though they're making a habit of it; earlier this year they announced the View Cam, an intriguing combination of Sharp's expertise in LCD technology and their newly-found determination to be different.


View Cam is a radical departure from the accepted norms of  camcorder design and layout. To begin with there's no viewfinder as such, instead it has a 4-inch colour LCD monitor screen, built into the back of a Hi8 tape deck, which does away with the need to hold the machine up to the user's eye. This has freed the designers from all of the usual constraints  and they've mounted the camera on the top of the hand grip which attaches to the deck/monitor by a bearing that allows it to swivel through 270 degrees, so the screen can be seen from almost any angle, whilst the camera remains pointed at the subject. This also enables the screen to be turned to face the same way as the lens, so the user can see themselves as the machine records; the picture is automatically inverted, so it appears the right way up. 


The built-in screen means recordings can be easily viewed anywhere, without having to connect the machine up to a TV, and there's a tiny built-in speaker, so you can hear what's going on as well. View Cam can also be used to watch broadcast TV programmes, via an optional tuner module which plugs into a monitor socket on the side of the machine. Unfortunately external video inputs can only be displayed, and not recorded, (unlike the Sony 'Compo' system of a couple of years ago); this probably has more to do with EC import regulations than any technical difficulties; camcorders with a line-input facility are classified as VCRs, which subject them to a different set of tariffs and quotas.


In Japan View Cam has been an instant success, accounting for almost a quarter of the market within a few months of its launch. Sharp are clearly mindful of the differences between the technology-hungry Far-East and conservative, price-conscious Europe, so the original VL-H400 Hi8 machine has been joined by two simpler 8mm models, the VL-E40 and VL-E30 which will be selling for 1100 and 900, against 1400 for the H400. In addition to differences in the price, recording format, cosmetics and facilities the E40 and E30 also have 5-mode programmed auto exposure systems, and, in the case of the E30, a smaller 3-inch monitor screen.


We've elected to look at the H400 first, reviews of the other two will follow in the coming months, though general comments on operation and handling apply to all three. It's quite difficult to judge the View Cam's size from the photographs but it is surprisingly bulky, roughly equivalent in height, width and depth to three VHS cassettes placed next to each other. Although it is not especially heavy at around 1.3kgs, the unusual shooting position, with the arms slightly outstretched, can prove tiring after a while. It can be held with one hand but it's better with two, which also helps to maintain stability.


The self-recording facility is quite clever, though it pays to read the instructions and little notice on the top of the camera module otherwise you can end up with upside-down recordings. Needless to say we missed it first time out, it definitely looks as though the camera should be turned over, to face backwards. In fact the camera remains upright and the deck/monitor turns over, as it does so the image on the screen flips the right way up but the recording on the tape is unaffected.


Considering the hefty price the features list is fairly sparse and there are few manual controls, of the sort that would appeal to enthusiasts. The inner-focus lens has an 8x zoom, controlled from a rocker switch placed next to the stop/start button. View Cam is unusual in having no power-save/standby facility and the main mode selector switch is in a slightly awkward position above the lens, this is because it's mechanically linked to a sliding cover, which protects the lens when not in use.


Other frequently-used camera controls are also mounted on the hand grip and operated by the user's right thumb. They include buttons for 'snapshot' button, which makes a 5-second recording of a digital freeze frame, still/strobe recording, and digital image stabiliser (DIS), for eliminating small amounts of camera shake, at the expense of a slightly enlarged image and reduced resolution. The rest of the controls are on the deck section, above and below the screen. Here Sharp have made good use of the monitor screen and the on-screen display system labels the row of buttons immediately below the screen which have a dual role, as the transport keys in the replay mode, and manual camera controls when recording, adjusting focus, white balance lock and shutter speed. Secondary functions, such as time and date setting, are accessed using a menu display, which helps to keep the button count reasonably low. We're also impressed by the large friendly warning messages which pop up from time to time, and they're in understandable English as well....


View Cam has a stereo audio system, with the microphone mounted on the side of the lens assembly, we'll come back to that in a moment... There is provision for an external mic but the instruction book contains dire warning about using unsuitable accessory mikes which may damage the View Cam, or suffer damage themselves. Strangely Sharp do not market an accessory mike, apart from the one used in an optional Sport's housing. Whilst we're on the subject, other accessories include a marine housing, waterproof to a depth of 50 metres, padded carry-all bags, remote control pan/tilt head and video light plus bracket. Sharp also have screw-on tele and wide conversion lens, it has a 37mm fitting, so other makes of accessory lens can be used as well.


Power comes from a 6 volt nickel metal-hydride (Ni-MH) battery, similar in shape (though not fitting) to Sony's NP-type packs; it fits into a compartment in the hand grip. The standard 1.5mAh battery lasts for around 50 minutes with normal use, and there shouldn't be any problems with memory or cell-imbalance. There's room inside the hand grip for higher capacity batteries which last for up to two hours. The tape deck is accessed by opening the front of the machine; a small stand is built into the front cover, so the screen is at the right angle for desktop viewing.


So we come to the question of viewing LCD screens in bright sunlight, have Sharp solved the problem? Well, almost. The screen has a non-reflective coating, which helps a lot, and there's a good range of brightness and backlight settings, to cope with most ambient lighting conditions, however, in direct sunlight it can still be quite difficult to see, though there's always the option of tilting the screen a little, to avoid the worst effects of glare. Sharp have an optional sun shield in their accessory range, we think it should be included as standard. Another extra that potential owners might like to consider is a replacement backlight fluorescent tube for the LCD screen. Sharp have made it user-replaceable via a little hatch in the side of the deck, pointing out that it has a limited life, Sharp won't say exactly how long that is but replacement tubes will sell for 17.50.



Resolution and colour fidelity of Hi8 recordings replayed on the View Cam's own monitor screen is understandably some way below that of a proper TV, nevertheless it still manages to show around 250 lines which is good for this type of display. Colours were bright and sharp, though not accurate enough to judge or compensate for routine white balance errors, even if it had a manual colour balance control, which it hasn't. On an S-Video compatible TV resolution jumps to around 380 lines, which is adequate (but unremarkable) for the Hi8 format, and about what we expected from such an unconventional machine. Recordings made using normal 8mm tape managed to just top 240 lines. Unusually View Cam has no LP recording mode, though now that two hour tapes are available it hardly seems important. As a matter of interest the picture on our sample, as shown on the viewfinder screen, was slightly larger than the recorded picture, so some detail could be lost at the edges of the screen.


Colour accuracy of recordings made in good daylight, shown on a proper TV is quite satisfactory. The WB lock prevents any disagreeable colour shifts during recording but the machine really could do with some sort of manual override as the auto system has trouble with tube lighting, which gives the picture a yellowish tinge. Noise levels are very low and overall the picture (on a normal TV screen) is difficult to fault. Sharp also deserve some credit for giving the View Cam almost noiseless still, slomo and picture search; that's rare on any 8mm machine, and almost unheard of on machines with a miniature head drum.


We've often grumbled about the limited stereo effect from the single-point microphones used on most stereo camcorders but Sharp have give us something completely new to whinge about. As we mentioned earlier the microphone is mounted on its side, to the right of the lens. This means that instead of differentiating between sound from the right and left sides of the machine, it is in the unique position of having up and down sound channels, though actual channel separation is minimal and quite frankly it might as well be mono. The previously mentioned difficulties in using accessory mikes only compounds the problem. To be fair sound quality is reasonable, though the mike does pick up a fair amount of handling noise and deck whine.



If you're looking for something different, and you don't mind paying for the privilege then the View Cam has much to commend it, and we're not at all surprised by its success in Japan which we suspect could be repeated over here, with the E30 and E40 models. However, in spite of the clever application of the LCD screen and all the hard work that has gone into the design View Cam doesn't really do much to advance the cause of video movie-making, in some respects its a retrograde step. We think it is less convenient and harder to use than a conventionally-shaped compact or palmcorder and the peculiar stereo sound system is a disappointment.



View Cam is quite unique, so there's nothing to compare it with, at the moment! Sony's Vision Handycam is eerily similar in concept but the PAL version won't be with us until early next year. Hi8 camcorders start at around 850 for the neat little Akai MS8 but if you want one with a colour viewfinder then you're going to have to spend at least 900, for the Sharp MX7 Twin Cam. Sony's excellent little TR505 has one too, that's now selling for around 1,000 but it does have a sophisticated exposure system, and an edit terminal. If we had 1,400 to spend on a fuss-free Hi8 machine with a colour viewfinder we would also think seriously about the Sony TR8. In fact there's plenty of cheaper and better equipped Hi8 machines on the market; if on-the-spot playback, on a 3 or 4-inch colour screen is really that important you could always buy a  pocket LCD TV as well.  















Make/model                   Sharp VL-H400S 'View Cam'

Recording format           Hi 8/8mm

Guide price                    



Lens                               f2.0, 5.8-46.4mm

Zoom                              8x

Filter diameter               37mm  

Pick-up device               0.3in CCD (470k pixels)

Min. illum. (lux)             6



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

Auto exposure?             yes             Manual iris?                              no

Programmed AE?                  no            Backlight compensation            yes

Auto white balance                          yes             Manual white balance?            no

Power zoom                              yes            Manual zoom?              no

Character generator?            no            Digital Superimposer?            no

Image stabiliser?                     yes            Insert edit?                             no

Battery refresh?                            no            Accessory shoe?                      no

Record review                yes            Fader?                          yes/white

Digital effects                             yes            Digital zoom?                          no



time/date recording,  high-speed shutter (5-speed up to 1/1000th sec), record review, index search, 'snapshot' recording, still record, strobe record, 'cinema' recording, self recording



Viewfinder                       4-inch colour LCD

Sportsfinder eyepiece?   no

Viewfinder info.               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, shutter speed, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, zoom position, dew, lamp failure, self record



Stereo?                                       yes

Audio dub?                                no

Wind noise filter?                no

Mic socket?                              yes

Headphone socket?             yes

Microphone                                      single-point stereo



Sockets                                  AV in and out (4 x phono), S-Video out (mini DIN), ext.

mic and headphones (minijack)

Size (mm)                               201 x 155 x 91

Weight                                   1.3kg (inc. tape and battery)



Batteries, (Ni-MH and lithium), straps, AC charger/power supply,

AV lead, S-Video lead


video light?                    no            remote control? yes

cassette adaptor?            no            RF Converter?             no

SCART adaptor?            no        



Resolution                   380-lines

Colour fidelity             good 

Picture stability           good 

Colour bleed                none 

White balance              average 

Exposure                      good

Autofocus                     average

Audio performance       good

Insert edit                      manual inserts clean

Playback thru adaptor  N/A



Value for money          7

Ease of use                   8

Performance                 8

Features                        7



(c) R Maybury 1993 0609




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