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The LCD colour screen saga take on a new twist -- quite literally -- with the new Sony CCD-FX730, weíve been trying it out



At first we werenít too sure about the sudden rash of brick-shaped camcorders with LCD screens that have appeared over the past twelve months. Thereís nothing intrinsically wrong with them, and we understand the industryís desire to break into the vast untapped market of potential owners, put off by the apparent complexity of video movie-making and the frightful appearance of some camcorders.


Sharp were first to identify the huge gap in the market with their View Cam. It was a truly novel idea and brought a much-needed breath of fresh air to the market, but they missed the mark with a decidedly off-putting TV ad campaign that merely reinforced the impression that camcorders were expensive toys for the helicopter-owning rich kids. Sony refined the idea with their two Vision machines, and solved a lot of the handling problems, but the SC5 and SC7 were even more basic than the ViewCams, and still rather dear for what they were. The most recent arrival is the JVCís Infocam -- full review next month -- it builds on the ViewCam-Vision concept, and introduces a couple of clever new twists to the theme, but it too suffers from being quite basic, and like the others, a bit of a dead end for anyone who wants to progress beyond point and shoot recording.


Now Sony have come up with a sort of halfway house design called the CCD-FX730. We first told you about it earlier this year, and even before weíd got our hands on one, we felt sure we were going to like it. It looks like a conventional compact camcorder, but it has an LCD screen -- as well as a conventional monochrome viewfinder -- and  is very easy to use. Moreover, thereís a small selection of creative facilities, and an editing terminal, for those who want to go just a little further. Suddenly LCD screens are beginning to make sense.


The 3-inch colour LCD viewfinder screen is mounted inside a fold-out module, that stows away on the side of the machine; you have to wonder why it hasnít been done before. Actually itís not an entirely new idea, Sharp demonstrated a prototype machine about four years ago with an LCD screen built in to the side, though on reflection itís probably more closely related to the Sanyo EX30/33 which has a detachable pivoting LCD screen on the top. The price is going to be around £800 when it goes on sale this month, which puts it slap bang in the middle of the busiest segment of the market, where it should attract most attention.


So itís just what weíve been waiting for, right? Well, not quite. Sony have done their usual trick and spoilt an otherwise excellent machine by leaving off one essential feature --  manual focus. The instruction book refers to a slightly more advanced model, the FX830, which has manual focus and an image stabiliser, but Sony tell us they have no immediate plans to market it in the UK. That should please Blaupunkt,  theyíre badging both machines as the FV835 and FV845, and intend to sell them in the UK for £900 and £1000 respectively. But we digress.


The FX730 appears to be loosely based on the tried and tested FX200/400 chassis, with a few extra bits, like the LCD screen, added on. The general specification is short, to the point, and includes:

* 12x variable-speed zoom

* mono hi-fi sound

* 4-mode program AE system (sports, portrait, high-speed shutter and twilight)

* backlight and fader

* time, date and age recording

* built-in lens cover

* Control L edit terminal


Only one viewfinder operates at a time, to save power, and as soon as the LCD module is closed the monochrome viewfinder one switches on. Opening the screen switches it on and activates the small loudspeaker, built into the side of the machine. After the screen has been folded out it can be twisted through 180 degrees, so it can be used for overhead and waist-level shooting. The screen is a 3-inch TFT  type with a 324 x 234 pixel display, and weíre sure Sony wonít mind us mentioning that itís made for them by Sharp, who seem rather to have cornered the market in this technology, maybe theyíre not too worried about competition for View Cam after all...



Pick it up and the first thing that strikes you is how heavy it is. At just over 1.4kg all up itís one of the heaviest compact machines on the market, by quite a margin. It doesnít feel too bad with the screen closed, but in the open position the centre of balance shifts some way to the left, putting a noticeable strain on the wrist. After half an hour or so it starts to make its presence felt. To be fair itís not a big problem, and not so long ago 1.4kg was considered reasonable for a compact camcorder, but it just goes to show thereís always a price to be paid for every advance...   


Otherwise the FX730 has been well thought out, what few controls there are have been sprinkled around in a reasonably logical and ergonomic manner. Weíre pleased to see the combined on/mode  function switch at the front, where it also operates the built-in lens cover. Speaking of which, the lens filter thread is a whopper at 52mm, not that youíre likely to want to use it for anything more elaborate than a filter. Accessory lenses are inadvisable on any machine without manual focus, or a focus lock.



Itís difficult to be too specific about the resolution on machines without manual focus, youíre never quite sure if theyíre giving their best. The 730 is no exception, though during our tests it consistently managed over 240 lines, which isnít too bad at all, who knows, it could be even better? Colour fidelity is fine, no problems with bleeding or spillage, and the auto white balance system dealt efficiently with most forms of artificial light, though not surprisingly it worked best in good natural light. Picture noise was minimal and the image remained reasonably stable.


The AF system on this machine works adequately well, but it cannot be entirely relied upon. Without manual lock or override thereís nothing you can do in difficult, (but not unusual) shooting conditions, which include recording in poor light, shooting through glass, reflective or highly patterned surfaces and when the subject strays from the centre of the screen. Itís no worse than most other machines, but Sodís law says it starts to wander at the most inconvenient moment.


The 730 has a mono sound system, and being 8mm sound quality is not half bad. It has a good dynamic range and very little background noise. Plus points too for the external microphone and earphone sockets, plus the high level of immunity to motor whine and wind noise.



But for that one missing feature the 730 would have earned our unbridled admiration. We really like the fold-out LCD viewfinder idea. Communal on the spot playback is a big selling point, it makes high or low shots a doddle, and it has a proper viewfinder when you need it. The price is very fair, it works well, and the features list is just right, but it is flawed. The autofocus system on this machine is simply not 100% reliable, and that, in our opinion is the only possible excuse for ditching manual focus. As it stands the 730 is still worth thinking about but we would hope that someone in Tokyo gets the message and starts thinking about a properly-equipped Mark II version before too long.



The £800 sector is buzzing at the moment but when it comes to comparing like with like the 730 has only one serious rival. Itís the Sanyo EX33, which has a remarkably similar specification, but the colour viewfinder is a separate entity and can be detached. It also has proper manual focus, a built-in edit controller and a few extra creative facilities, definitely one to put on the short list. The Sharp E31 ViewCam and Sonyís SC5 Vision are both £100 dearer, and fairly basic, so weíll rule them out.  JVCís Infocam is in the same price bracket as the 730 but like ViewCam and Vision itís really meant for those want nothing more than a totally idiot-proof point and shoot machine. If thereís any chance you can broaden your horizons we urge you to look at outstanding Panasonic NV-S70, it may not have an LCD screen but it will record exceedingly good pictures and sound. Moreover, in the full auto mode itís no more difficult to use an any of the machineís weíve discussed, and the creative facilities are there, when you want them.




Make/model                             Sony CCD-F730                             

Recording format              8mm

Guide price                              £800



Lens                             f/1.8, 5.4 - 64.8mm

Zoom                           x 12

Filter diameter            52mm  

Pick-up device            0.3in CCD

Min illum                     4 lux   



Long play (LP)                        yes                  

Max rec time                        240mins (LP mode)

IR remote control                        yes

Edit terminal                        yes (Control L)


MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto focus                               yes                                          

Manual focus               no       

Auto exposure             yes                              

Programmed AE                    yes (4-mode)

Fader                                       yes                  

Manual white balance            no       

Auto white balance                       yes                                          

Manual zoom                           no       

Power zoom                            yes                                                                              

Insert edit                                no       

Audio dub                                no

Character generator                     no                   

Digital superimposer               no       

Image stabiliser                                  no                                           

Video light                               no       

Battery refresh                         no                                       

Accessory shoe                 no       




time/date/age recording, record review, built-in lens cover, LCD screen and speaker, backlight control



Viewfinder                       0.6in monochrome and 3-inch colour LCD

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



Stereo                                      no       

Wind noise filter                                         no                   

Mic socket                                yes                  

Headphone socket              yes      

Mic                                           unidirectional electret



Sockets                                    AV out (phono), ext. microphone, earphone and

Control L (minijacks)

Dimensions                              120 x 111 x 260 mm                      

Weight                         1.4kg (inc. tape and battery)



Batteries (nicad and lithium), straps, AC charger/power supply,

AV lead                        yes      

video light                   no                   

remote control            yes      

cassette adapter            n/a                  

RF Converter             no       

Scart adapter               yes                  



Resolution                               >240-lines

Colour fidelity                           average

Picture stability                         good

Colour bleed                              negligible

White balance                            average

Exposure                                   average

Auto focus                                  average

Audio performance                   average

Insert edit                                  n/a

Playback thru adapter              n/a



Value for money         8

Ease of use                  8

Performance               8

Features                      8



R Maybury 1994 0409





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