VIDEO CAMERA 1993

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REVIEW

 

HEAD

NEURAL-LOGICAL?

 

INTRO

It's back to basics for Sharp who have just launched a new, no-frills 8mm compact called the VL-N1, selling now for just under 550

 

COPY

The recent spate of unusual and sometimes highly innovative Sharp camcorders has left them with a noticeable shortage of what you might call normal machines. Up until about a year ago they had a number of plain but worthy VHS-C models in their range, plus the VHS Slimcam, but they've since been discontinued and nowadays they're wholly committed to the 8mm format. To fill the gap they've just introduced the VL-N1 8mm compact, which, for the time being at least, will be sold exclusively through Rumbelows for just under 550.

 

Judging by the N1's conventional shape and styling -- straight from the Sony, Canon and Hitachi schools of design -- it would appear that Sharp are trying hard to regain their share of the highly competitive budget end of the market, where simplicity and ease of use are more important that radical technology or gimmicky features. The N1 is off to a fair start, it has a 12x inner-focus lens, an advanced auto-exposure system, fader, manual shutter and menu-driven control system. There are no editing facilities to speak of, though like most 8mm machines it can make passable manual video and audio insert edits, and there's an external mic socket, so you're not stuck with the standard microphone. Other features worth a quick mention are a widescreen recording mode, which imposes black borders at the top and bottom of the screen, and an accessory shoe, which we'd happily swap for a bucketful of digital gizmos any day.

 

The layout is fairly straightforward, with a top-loading deck, camera controls on the left and the pivoting monochrome viewfinder on the right side of the machine. The only significant departure from the norm is the position of the tape transport buttons. They're mounted on the tape hatch cover, which isn't unusual, except that in this case they do not operate switches directly, instead they press upon the buttons of the tiny remote control handset, which fits into a slot on the side of the machine. That's all very well, except that if, for any reason, the handset is lost or damaged the machine will be left without any playback functions.

 

We've got a number of other design misgivings. The main on/function selector switch is a little strange;  not only is it difficult to determine which mode it is in -- there are no visual indicators -- it has no safety interlock and can be easily moved when fumbling for the camera controls. The N1's manual focusing system is far from satisfactory. In order to switch from auto to manual focus it's first necessary to slide the full auto switch to the off position, call up the menu display, select the focus function, set it to manual, then clear the display; depending where the cursor is on the menu display that could amount to no less than nine separate actions. You have to go through the whole rigmarole again if the full auto switch is returned to the auto position. To make matters worse manual focus is controlled by two rather stiff and difficult to identify push buttons. The whole business is slow, vague and unnecessarily complicated.

 

Sharp are quite proud of the N1's exposure system; they've called it 'Neuro AE', which they say uses neural network technology to compensate for awkward exposure conditions. It sounds very impressive but we're a little suspicious, not at all what we understood neural networks to be about but at least it makes a change from fuzzy logic... Whatever the name the end result is a reasonably competent AE system that handles backlit subjects well, and can usually be relied upon to make the right  decisions, most of the time.

 

IN USE

The oddly-shaped stop/start button takes some getting used to, and the two-speed zoom needs a very light touch, in order to get the slower speed. The extending eyepiece could do with a more positive lock as even light pressure will make it collapse back to the stowage position. The machine is comparatively light, and handles well, bearing in mind our earlier comments about some of the controls. The machine appears to be well built, and apart from all that it's not a bad looking machine.

 

PERFORMANCE

On the evidence of our review sample the N1 isn't going to set any new performance records. One of the most telling results is horizontal resolution, that's its ability to record and replay fine detail, ours just managed 220-lines, which is a little below what we would have hoped for, even on a budget machine. Resolution isn't the be-all and end-all, and other factors, especially picture noise, can have big effect on picture quality. In the case of our N1 noise levels were just a little above average, possibly  because of the digital signal processing  circuitry in the camera section. Overall, in good natural light the picture is acceptable, though there is some little smearing around  heavily saturated colours. In lower light levels noise increases noticeably, though it's capable of recording in normal living room light.

 

Colour reproduction, in the auto white balance mode is not too bad, in natural light; colours tend to look a little bleached under tungsten light, and fluorescent light produces a characteristic yellow cast. Our concerns about the manual focusing system are exacerbated by the rather slow autofocus system, it's particularly sluggish in low light.

 

The on-board mic isn't especially directional and in spite of it's proximity to the lens barrel it doesn't pick up motor whine. Noise levels on the  FM recording system are quite well suppressed and overall sound quality is quite good.

 

VERDICT

Picture quality is just about okay, manual focus is a disaster, and we caution anyone buying one to guard their remote control handset well. The N1 is up against some tough competition at the budget end of the market. It has its good points but unfortunately the N1 has a few too many rough edges for us to be able to recommend it wholeheartedly

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model                   Sharp VL-N1

Recording format           8mm

Guide price                     550

 

OPTICS

Lens                               f1.8, 6.5-78mm

Zoom                              12X two-speed

Filter diameter               42mm  

Pick-up device               0.3in CCD

Min. illum. (lux)            2 (gain up)

 

VIDEO DECK

Tape speed (mm/sec)    20.051(SP), 10.026(LP)

Max. rec. time               240 ins (LP mode)

Remote control              full-function IR  

Main facilities               auto/manual focus, auto exposure, auto white balance, fader, high-speed shutter (5-speeds up to 1/10,000th sec), time/date recording, gain-up, pseudo widescreen mode, edit search, auto head cleaning

 

VIEWFINDER

Viewfinder                       0.6in monochrome

Viewfinder info.              deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, shutter speed, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, menu

 

AUDIO

System                            mono FM

Microphone                    omnidirectional electret

 

GENERAL

Sockets                           video and audio out (phono), external mic (minijack)

Size (mm)                        106 x 105 x 301

Weight                             1.0kg (inc tape and battery)

 

STANDARD ACCESSORIES

Batteries, (nicad and lithium), straps, AC charger/power supply, AV leads, remote handset, RF converter

 

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                       220-lines

Colour fidelity                 average

Picture stability               average

Colour bleed                    slight

White balance                 average

Exposure                         good

Autofocus                        sluggish

Audio performance         good

Insert edit                        manual inserts clean

Playback thru adaptor     N/A

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money           8

Ease of use                   7

Performance                 7

Features                       7

 

---end---

(c) R Maybury 1993 1005

 

 

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