VIDEO CAMERA 1993

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REVIEW

 

HEAD

THREE'S A CROWD

 

INTRO

The much-heralded three-CCD camcorder has finally arrived in the shape of the Sony VX1 PRO. Is this spectacular-looking machine an expensive gimmick, or a glimpse into the future? We have been trying one, to find out

 

COPY

Sony have notched up some notable firsts over the years but the CCD-VX1 PRO breaks all previous records by being the first Hi8 camcorder with three CCD image sensors, the first with a built-in neutral density filter, the first to have a zebra-pattern exposure indicator, the first to cost more than 2,000, and the first to have a holographic badge which changes colour as you move it about... In fact the holographic badge and the price are the only wholly new features, just about everything else will be familiar to users of professional video equipment.

 

Attention has rightly focused on the VX1's triple CCDs, a feature borrowed from broadcast video cameras, but is this level of sophistication really necessary? There is no simple answer;  for some it will be like fitting a racing engine into an upmarket family saloon, which will only be driven on busy suburban roads. The performance is there, you can sense it, but much of the time it will never be fully realised.

 

The limiting factor and perhaps the biggest question mark hanging over the use of a 3-CCD image sensor on a machine such as this, is the Hi8 recording system. It cannot record all of the information and detail produced by one high-resolution CCD image sensor, let alone three. However, the differences are clear and pranced when viewing a direct off-camera picture on a monitor, colours are sharp and lifelike, with very little noise, the VX1's camera section is easily  up to professional standards. We'll come back to the question of recorded image quality later on.

 

So what about those other special features, and what is the 'zebra pattern' we've been hearing so much about? This is another feature previously only found on professional equipment, it's an electronic circuit that automatically highlights areas of the picture which are over-exposed, by superimposing a pattern of diagonal lines. It's designed to take the guesswork out of setting the exposure manually and it's something we would like to see on every camcorder with a manual exposure system. The neutral density filter is another valuable exposure aid, it comes into its own when shooting a very bright or reflective scene; snow, sea or sand, for example, where the auto or manual iris is banging up against its end stops. The ND filter reduces the amount of light passing through the lens, thus increasing the amount of adjustment available to the manual exposure systems.

 

EXPOSURE SYSTEMS

The VX1 has been endowed with a impressive array of exposure facilities, ranging from full auto, to full or partial manual control over the iris, shutter, video gain and white balance systems. In between there are four programmed AE modes, called portrait, sport, aperture priority and shutter priority. Portrait mode gives a narrow depth of field by using a wide aperture and a fast shutter speed (up to 1/1750th sec). The sport mode is also dependent on automatic shutter and iris control, but this time the aim is to produce a wider depth of field but with a moderately high shutter speed, to reduce the blur of fast-moving subjects during replay. Aperture priority and shutter priority will be familiar to photographers; aperture priority allows the user to determine the depth of field, by manually adjusting the iris whilst the machine sets the shutter speed to ensure correct exposure; shutter priority works the other way around, with manual control over the shutter, the machine selects the appropriate aperture value.

 

For the record the aperture is manually adjustable from f1.6 to f11 in 12 steps, the shutter has 16 presettable speeds, from 1/50th to 1/10,000th sec, and the video gain (i.e. picture brightness), has 8 settings, from -3dB to +18dB, all of the values are shown in the viewfinder, and on the LCD panel on the side of the machine

 

EDITING OPTIONS

Editing facilities are in abundance on the VX1. It has Sony's RC time-code system which uniquely and invisibly labels each frame of a recording. The code is read by an automated edit controller, to achieve frame-accurate cuts, on suitable equipment. There's now a good selection of RC compatible controllers available, ranging in price from around 280. Perhaps the most useful  feature of the RCTC ('Arctic' to its friends) system, is the facility to add codes to existing recordings, The data is recorded on a separate part of the tape, unlike the rival VITC (vertical interval time-code) where the code is mixed in with the video signal.

 

Naturally the VX1 has a Control L or LANC socket, so it can be used as a source machine by an automated edit controller, the Control L link carries the RCTC, code, or alternatively, the normal linear time counter readout. The VX1 has a number of other editing facilities, these include edit search -- picture search whilst the machine is in the record-pause mode; insert edit, which enables a new scene to be dropped seamlessley into an existing recording, this uses the tape counter as a reference, to define the edit in and out points. Index marking is another edit-orientated feature, which can be used to invisibly tag parts of a recording, during recording, or later on playback. When the tape is replayed the machine can be instructed to fast wind to specified index marks on the tape, or replay the first ten seconds of each one in sequence.  This could be useful during a shoot, for instance, to compile a rough edit list of  required scenes. 

 

CREATIVE FACILITIES

There's plenty of creative facilities for those who wish to add a few individual touches to their recordings. In addition to old favourites like fade and digital title there's something called  Custom Pre-set. This allows the colour saturation and hue to be pre-set before recording. The actual amount of adjustment is quite small; the hue setting, which goes from a light purple tint, to light green is probably a throwback to the NTSC version of the VX1, where such things are sometimes necessary, due to the vagaries of that colour system. The VX1 has an interval timer, for making time-lapse recordings, this is unusually versatile with variable wait (the gap between recordings) and recording times. The frame recording facility is quite simply excellent and the VX1 can be used to make high quality stop-motion animation recordings. The machine records four frames at a time, the last two are overwritten in the next shot, so the resultant action is remarkably  smooth, maybe not quite up to professional standards but with care and patience the results can be very good.

 

The VX1 has a time and date recording facility but it's not the usual sort, where a string of characters are superimposed onto the recording, instead details of time and date are automatically recorded as a data code, away from the vision signal on the part of the tape used by the RC timecode. This means that time and date information can be displayed at any time, though, it has to be said, only on this machine and others with the same capability. If needed the time and date can be output or recorded as part of the video signal.

 

IN USE

Sony have managed to pack an extraordinary amount of technology into a very small box, even so it weighs a healthy 2.0kg, which can quickly become tiring when the machine is held in the normal shooting position. Serious users will not need reminding but anyone else considering this machine should realise that a tripod is not an optional extra, it's essential. The convoluted carry handle on the top of the machine is more than a cosmetic frippery, it's perfect for taking low-level shots, the viewfinder pivots through 90 degrees, and there's a secondary stop/start button below the mic module. An accessory shoe is built into the top of the handle, this is ideally placed for a video light, or specialist microphone.

 

The huge 12x zoom lens is a delight to use. It's a hybrid design, with an inner-focus system controlled by a servo ring on the lens barrel, but it also has a manual zoom, which is set by a second ring behind the manual focus control. There's two zoom speeds, varied by pressure on the rocker switch.

 

Controls are neatly laid out, with the most frequently used ones grouped around the LCD panel. The transport keys and buttons for the menu-driven display system are situated under a small flap on the top panel.

 

Manual exposure adjustments (aperture, shutter and video gain) are made using a single thumbwheel on the side of the machine, which is fine if you only want to set one thing at a time, not so good if you want to quickly change the settings. Unfortunately the thumbwheel has rather pronounced indents, which are harsh enough to rock the camera when it's being hand-held, so it's not a good idea to mess about with the exposure settings when recording.

 

PERFORMANCE

In addition to our usual resolution colour accuracy and noise evaluation checks we've subjected the VX1 to rather more stringent tests, to try and assess the benefits of the triple CCD image sensor. Our regular test routines showed that the VX1 had a resolution in excess of 400 lines, just below 410-lines in fact, which is at the very limits of the Hi8 recording system. The image produced by our sample had a slightly grainy texture, caused we suspect by digital processing circuitry which combines the images from the three sensor chips, it seems to be more noticeable on some TV sets than others. Picture noise levels, both off-camera and off-tape are well below average,  it shows up most clearly on bright colours which appear vivid and detailed.

 

One surprise was a small amount of colour bleed, it was most apparent on bright blues which tended to smear when the picture was slightly over-exposed. Another aberration, possibly caused by the 3-CCD set-up and its processing circuitry, was a strange shadow effect which occurred at higher shutter speeds. Vertical elements -- trees, telephone poles etc. -- shot against a bright background (the sky etc.), in the top portion of the screen produced a corresponding dark shadow in the bottom half of the screen, the condition's are fairly specific and it is not a major problems but unless they're unique to our sample it may be that there are still a few small wrinkles still to be ironed out on this machine.

 

The automatic and programmed exposure systems worked very well indeed, though the zebra display seems to be set to err on the side of caution,  suggesting the picture was over-exposed much of the time the camera section was under automatic or semi-automatic control.

 

Replay facilities are most impressive with jitter-free still and slomo; deck stability is not so good and the VX1 needs to be handled with care;  even a slight rocking motion will upset the transport mechanism, causing  wow and flutter on the soundtrack, and  wildly varying colours in the picture. A slight tap will also produce a jump in the picture, this machine is happiest mounted on a sturdy tripod.

 

The VX1 has a conventional stereo FM recording system, unlike the two most recent PRO machines (V5000 and V6000) which also had digital PCM soundtracks. The VX1's audio facilities are perfectly adequate, and the stereo mike strikes a good balance between directionality and sensitivity, background noise levels on replay are very low. The AGC system works well enough under normal conditions but the kind of serious and semi-professional users this machine is aimed at would  undoubtedly prefer some kind of manual recording level control. Whilst we're on the subject of what might have been, we're disappointed that the VX1 doesn't have an external video recording facility, like the V5000, V6000 Pro machines. The relatively small numbers of these machines that will be sold can't have much impact on the EC import restrictions which traditionally limit their numbers by classifying them as VCRs.

 

VERDICT

The first thing we have to say is that for the majority of video movie-makers a camcorder costing 2,500 is not five times, three times, or even twice as good as one costing 500. Sony will not thank us for lightly comparing the VX1 with domestic camcorders but that's the marketplace it will be sold in, and it must be our main frame of reference. .

 

We suspect that in side by side tests most people would not be able to tell whether or not recordings of everyday scenes had been made on a VX1, or a couple of other high-band machines we could name, including one made by Sony, and another costing 1,000 less, but that is not necessarily the point. The differences are subtle and mostly only apparent on test patterns, or when they're pointed out, but in serious applications, where performance, flexibility and editing facilities are paramount the VX1 has few rivals this side of 20,000.

 

Having put the VX1 into context, how does it fare as a serious or semi-professional recording system? The simple answer is very well indeed, and we suspect Sony will be selling every one they can get their hands on. It's not capable of broadcast quality recording, but there's really not a lot in it, moreover second and even third generation copies still look better than standard VHS originals, so there's plenty of scope for this machine in industrial and commercial applications.

 

Are 3-CCDs really necessary, are they worth the extra, and is this the way forward? It does make a difference to picture quality but at this stage we'd have to say the improvements are small, barely noticeable on an original,  and all but lost on subsequent generations, so it's probably not worth the relatively high price premium for the majority of users. We also a little concerned by some of the picture faults we've already outlined, and suspect that 3-CCD technology, at this level, still needs further development. Where the VX1 is used as a camera the 3-CCDs really show their mettle, so where the machine will be used in a mixture of studio and portable situations it could prove a valuable asset. As far as the future is concerned triple CCD image sensors will remain a far-off luxury for the majority of camcorder users, there's little or nothing to be gained in terms of picture quality, and the complex technology and optics is expensive.

 

It's difficult to bottom-line a machine like the VX1. It  is not an alternative to a palmcorder or compact machine, practically or economically but if you're in the business, and make your money making videos you will probably already have your name down for one!

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model                   SONY CCD-VX1E

Recording format           Hi8/8mm

Guide price                     2,500

 

OPTICS

Lens                               f1.6-1.8, 40-480mm

Zoom                              12x, two-speed

Filter diameter               52mm  

Pick-up device                3 x  0.3in CCD (410k pixels each)

Min. illum. (lux)             4

 

VIDEO DECK

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

Max. rec. time                 240 ins (LP mode)

Remote control                full-function infra-red and Control L (LANC)

Main facilities                 auto/manual focus, auto/manual/programmed exposure, auto/manual  white balance, fader, high-speed shutter, time/date recording, gain-up, record search, RC-time code read and write, 2-page/8-colour title superimposer, index marker/intro scan, jitter-free still frame and variable slomo, zebra marking, manual/auto neutral density filter, wind noise filter, data code recording, interval recording, colour noise reduction, high-speed shutter (16 speeds up to 1/10,000th sec),  frame recording (animation), custom presets, insert edit

 

VIEWFINDER

Viewfinder                       0.6in monochrome

Viewfinder info.               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, shutter speed, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, title, exposure value, RC time code, data code, index mark, program AE mode

 

AUDIO

System                              FM stereo hi-fi

Microphone                     single-point stereo

 

GENERAL

Sockets                           S-Video out (mini DIN), video out, stereo audio out (phono), headphones, external mic, mic DC out, Control L (minijacks)

Size (mm)                       116 x 148 x 352

Weight                            2.0 kg (inc tape and battery)

 

STANDARD ACCESSORIES

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

 

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                       >400-lines

Colour fidelity                 very good

Picture stability               good

Colour bleed                    slight

White balance                 very good

Exposure                         very good

Autofocus                        good

Audio performance         very good

Insert edit                       clean

Playback thru adaptor    N/A

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money            8

Ease of use                    7

Performance                  7

Features                         9

 

---end---

(c) R Maybury 1993 2604

 

 

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