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Sharp's revolutionary Viewcam is taking Japan by storm, will it do the same over here? We look at the second machine in the series, the VL-E40H which goes on sale this month for 1100



It's not difficult to see what all the fuss is about, Viewcam is a fascinating concept, a real show-stopper in fact, if the crowds around the Sharp stand at Live '93 were anything to go by. However, at the risk of sounding a cautious note it's worth remembering that the  camcorder has been evolving steadily for at least the past ten years, and it's no accident that they all share more or less the same layout, shape and method of operation. Quite simply the traditional 'shoe-shape' or 'palmcorder' form is still the most practical, convenient and ergonomic; there have been a good number of radical-looking failures along the way, to prove the point.


The VL-E40 is the second of three Viewcams designed for the European market. It follows the E400 stereo Hi8 model reviewed last month. The E40 has a normal (SP only)  68mm recording system, and mono audio; this has brought the price down from 1,400 to 1,100, which helps, though it is still quite expensive, compared with similarly-specified machines. However, it is more than just a stripped down version of its high-band stablemate. The basic design is similar, with the 4-inch monitor screen on the back of the deck, and the camera mounted on the side, able to twist through 270 degrees, but it looks a lot smaller and less of a handful. This is mostly due to the battery being moved to the deck section, instead of inside the hand grip, though this has also shifted the centre of gravity outwards, making it less easy to use one-handed.


The smaller hand grip means there's less space for the controls and the record start/stop and zoom buttons are now very close together, which can cause trouble. The rest of the controls are pretty much the same as the E400, being mounted above and below the screen. The on-screen displays are used to good advantage, showing the functions of the bottom row of buttons, which change when the machine is in the record or playback mode.


The E40 has the same assortment of digital facilities as the E400, they include still, snapshot and strobe recording, plus a digital image stabiliser, to eliminate small (very small) amounts of unintentional camera shake. There's also a pseudo-widescreen effect which superimposes black bars at the top and bottom of the picture. Additionally the E40 has a four-mode program AE system, (replacing the E400's manual shutter, backlight button and manual fader); it has settings for:

* Sport -- shutter speed fixed to 1/500th. sec. for blur-free replay of fast movement

* Snow-sand -- effectively backlight compensation for over-bright backgrounds

* Twilight -- white balance biased towards red with increased low-light sensitivity

* Party -- compensation for brightly-lit subjects against a darkened background


One of the Viewcam's unique features is the self-record mode. By turning the screen over, so that it faces the same way as the camera lens, it's possible to see yourself on screen; the image is automatically inverted, so that it appears the right way up. Unfortunately the program AE system is disabled, and it also means the tripod mount is now on the top, but Sharp have thought of that and an adaptor is available as an optional extra.


There's a tiny speaker built into the hand grip, but it can be difficult to hear what's going on when its being held. The integral lens cap is a good idea and like most 8mm machines it comes with an infra-red remote control handset. The external mic and earphone sockets are always welcome, and the optional TV tuner module could be a bonus for campers, caravanners and travellers in general, though sadly the machine cannot make recordings of off-air TV programmes. The E40 is powered by an NP-style 6-volt nicad pack. Sharp rather optimistically claim running times in excess of one hour, we never managed to get more than 40 minutes or so, even after using the mains charger's refresh facility. The E400 had a nickel metal-hydride battery which made a big difference, the E40 is just as power-hungry so it seems a bit mean, in view of the price, that it doesn't have one as well.


There's a couple of things to bear in mind with the LCD screen. The backlight tube has a limited life and will probably need replacing after a couple of years heavy use. It only takes a few moments but they cost around 18.00 each. The screen has a fairly narrow viewing angle, which isn't a problem during normal operation but it means that only two or three people can comfortably watch it, when it's being used for replay, or as a TV monitor. The screen has a fairly effective anti-reflective coating, so it can be clearly seen in all but direct sunlight, but the surface of the screen gets very smudgy, which explains why the accessory pack contains a special cleaning cloth.


There's an ominous warning in the instruction book about the possibility of faulty pixels on the screen, and how they won't show up on the recording. We're pleased to say all 89,622 picture elements on our sample appeared to be working, but it seems a bit cheeky to suggest that a few blue, red, green or black spots are due to manufacturing tolerances, and somehow acceptable. We certainly wouldn't be prepared to accept a machine that was less than 100% operational.


Manual focus is a swine to use. It's controlled from the two zoom buttons, so you can't zoom and focus at the same time, moreover the LCD's screen's lack of  resolution makes it quite difficult to get a sharp picture, especially in low light when the AF system is struggling. The problem is compounded by the fact that the AF system has a mind of its own, and it will zoom out on its own accord, if it decides there's nothing in the picture to lock on to.



The E40 is the second camcorder we've seen recently that uses the new quarter-inch size CCD image sensor. We first saw it on the Panasonic R50 and it didn't appear to have any significant impact on  picture quality or resolution, compared with third-inch CCDs. It's difficult to say what effect, if any, it has had on the E40's potential video performance but with resolution hovering around 230 lines, it's below what we would have hoped to see on a machine costing in excess of 1000. 


Picture noise levels, especially on recordings made indoors, (though not necessarily in poor light) are a little above average, though outside, in good natural light it is perfectly satisfactory. The auto exposure system is a little jumpy and doesn't take too kindly to sudden changes in lighting level.


We were unhappy about the strange sideways stereo mike on the E400, the one on the E40 is not much better, though for different reasons. It's mounted right in the middle of the machine, on the back of the tape compartment; it's reasonably directional but it readily picks up handling and motor noises a lot of the time, unless they're swamped by ambient sounds.



Having lived with the VL-E40 for a while our initial scepticism has mellowed a little;  but the constraints the machine impose on the user still tend to outweigh the undoubted attraction of watching what you're recording on a small colour screen, held a couple of feet from your face. There's also something to be said for the on-the-spot replay facility, on the 4-inch LCD monitor, but is it worth paying 1100 for the pleasure?


That's a question you'll have to answer for yourselves, we're simply mindful of the fact that better specified and performing camcorders cost 300 to 400 less. That's more than enough to get yourself a three or four-inch  pocket LCD TV, with a monitoring facility.



There's a lot of good machines costing between 750 and 1100, including several excellent high-band models; a couple of them even have colour LCD viewfinders, if that's what you're looking for. Obviously there's nothing to directly compare with the E40, unless you count the E400, but next year the new Sony SC5, which also has a rear-mounted LCD monitor screen could provide Sharp with some competition. In the meantime, unless you're one-hundred percent sold on the Viewcam concept, make sure you look at any of the Sony TR and FX machines in that price bracket , Canon's UC30 Hi, JVC's S505, the Hitachi VM-H37 and any of Panasonic's top-end palmcorders, before you buy...



Make/model                      SHARP VL-E40H   

Recording format           8mm

Guide price                     1,100



Lens                               f1.8, 4.5-36mm

Zoom                              x8

Filter diameter               37mm  

Pick-up device                0.25in CCD

Min. illum. (lux)             6



Long Play (LP)                          no

Max. rec. time                                          120mins (SP only mode)

IR remote control ?                                    yes

Edit terminal?                                              no


MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto Focus?                              yes

Manual focus?               yes

Auto exposure?             yes      

Manual iris?                               no

Programmed AE?                  yes (4-mode)  

Auto white balance                          yes

Manual white balance?            no

Power zoom                              yes      

Manual zoom?               no

Backlight compensation            no

Insert edit?                                no

Audio Dub?                               no

Character generator?            no        

Digital Superimposer?            no

Image stabiliser?                     yes

Video light?                               no        

Battery refresh?                            yes

Accessory shoe?               no

Record review                yes      

Fader?                          no

Digital effects                             yes      

Digital zoom?                            no



time/date recording, record review, pseudo widescreen recording, still/strobe/snapshot recording, self recording, index search, built-in lens cover



Viewfinder                       4-in colour LCD

Sportsfinder eyepiece?   N/A

Viewfinder info.               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, focus mode, tape end, time/date, dew, AE preset mode, digital FX,



Stereo?                                       no

Audio dub?                                no

Wind noise filter?                no

Mic socket?                              yes

Headphone socket?             yes

Microphone                                      omnidirectional electret



Sockets                                  video and audio out (phono), ext. mic., headphones (minijack)

Size (mm)                               211 x 124 x 81

Weight                                   1.2kg (inc. tape and battery)



Batteries, (nicad and lithium), straps, AC charger/power supply, remote control, cleaning cloth


video light?                    no        

remote control?            yes

cassette adaptor?            N/A      

RF Converter?             no

SCART adaptor?            no        



Resolution                   230-lines

Colour fidelity              average

Picture stability            average

Colour bleed                 slight

White balance               average

Exposure                       average

Autofocus                      average

Audio performance       average

Insert edit                      manual inserts clean

Playback thru adaptor  N/A



Value for money          7

Ease of use                   8

Performance                7

Features                       8



(c) R Maybury 1993 1410




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