VIDEO CAMERA 1995

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FEATURE

 

HEAD

BYGONE BARGAINS?

 

INTRO

Camcorder prices are coming down again but if your budget still wonít run to one of the latest models donít despair, there are some genuine bargains to be had, if youíre prepared to do a little shopping around

 

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In an ideal world -- ideal for camcorder manufacturers that is -- the arrival of new model ranges in the shops would coincide with the depletion of stocks of the machines theyíre replacing. You wonít need reminding this is not an ideal world and more often than not significant quantities of end-of-line camcorders find their way into discount and direct-sales outlets, where they are quietly sold off, often at greatly reduced prices. The bargain basement stockpile is further supplemented with machines from manufacturers who, for one reason or another, have decided to withdraw from the camcorder market, switch formats, and the inevitable Ďgreyí imports, which come into the country by the back door, as it were. All this adds up to an excellent opportunity for the alert camcorder buyer, who is not put off by the fact that these machines are theoretically obsolete, or may not have the very latest gee-whiz features, though in practice many of these machines differ little from current models.

 

However, there are pitfalls, and whilst the majority of discounted camcorders have excellent pedigrees, and will perform every bit as well as their successors, a few old dogs find their way into the system. They include machines that may have inherent design weaknesses, a poor reliability record, or received less than glowing reviews in the video press, which ironically, could be one of the reasons theyíre being sold off so cheaply now.

 

It works both ways of course. By the time many camcorders reach the discount warehouses they will have built up a well-documented history. In addition to the test reports in publications like Video Camera and Camcorder User, fundamental design flaws -- or other problems -- will have been brought to light in the letter and problems pages of the video magazines, itís well worth trawling through back issues, if you had the foresight to keep them.

 

If youíre tempted by the low prices it pays to do a little detective work first, before you part with any money. Find out as much as you can from the seller about the machine, starting with its age, and whether or not it is still covered by the manufacturers original warranty. It certainly should be if itís being sold as new, in the original box. In any case the retailer is obliged to provide a statutory guarantee, and comply with the Sale Of Goods Act. However, it is worth bearing in mind that a number of companies have closed down their UK operations, and it may be difficult to obtain service, parts or accessories for some models. The safe option, if youíre not sure, is to stick with obsolete models from the top-name manufacturers, who you are sure are still active in the UK camcorder market; most of them keep spares for up to ten years after a product has ceased production.

 

If a particular machine looks promising, and youíre tempted to buy, then track down a test report. Between us, Video Camera and Camcorder User have reviewed just about every camcorder made during the past ten years. This might involve a little research, though, itís not too difficult to find reviews of discontinued models from mainstream manufacturers but a good proportion of discounted machines are clones or badge-engineered specials that will almost certainly have been reviewed, not necessarily under the name you see, but as the brand original. Where possible we list known clones in the Buyerís Guide section of this magazine. Several discounted machines weíve come across have never been officially marketed in the UK by the company concerned, which makes life even more difficult. They were probably intended for other European countries using the PAL system, (Germany, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia etc.) and more often than not itís possible to find a similar machine -- with a slightly different specification -- that was sold here. In those cases itís important to check the accessory pack, to make sure it has English Language instructions and if it has an RF modulator, that it is a PAL I type that can be used on UK televisions.

 

Generally speaking thereís nothing whatsoever wrong with clone machines, theyíre usually identical to the original, any differences are mostly cosmetic in nature, or concerned with the contents of the accessory pack, and the retail price. The fact is comparatively few companies actually manufacture camcorders -- none of them are outside the Far-East anymore -- so thereís a better than even chance it will have been built by one of the major Japanese firms. For example; over the years Philips have sourced their machines from Panasonic, Sony and Hitachi, and several well-known camera makers, like Olympus, Nikon, Yashica and Pentax have put their badges on Sony and Sanyo equipment. Ferguson camcorders have been variously made by JVC and  Hitachi, though their most recent machines were made for them by the Korean company Samsung. European brands, such as Nokia, Salora, Loewe, Blaupunkt, Braun, B&O and Grundig also badge-engineer products from Japanese companies, though comparatively few of these machines were ever imported, so theyíre quite rare and were often only distributed through specialist dealers.

 

Even if the company has ceased trading in the UK, and it goes wrong after the guarantee has expired, in most cases the machine can still be repaired as parts will still be available from the original manufacturer. The same goes for accessories, and items like batteries, lenses, cases etc., that are intended for the original machine will almost always fit the clone. If in doubt take the machine along with you, and try it first.

 

The situation is not always so clear cut when it comes to machines made by companies who have subsequently stopped marketing camcorders in the UK. They include at least four big Japanese names: Akai, Fuji, Mitsubishi and Toshiba, plus several other high-profile brands, such as Amstrad and Goldstar. Between them they have left behind a rag-bag assortment of machines that in some instances clearly illustrate why they gave up trying to sell camcorders... During the late 1980ís we saw a number of idiosyncratic designs, some of them highly innovative, but far enough away from the mainstream to limit mass market sales. Others were simply too expensive, under or over specified, or just plain horrible. Thatís not to say they should all be avoided, indeed one or two of them are widely regarded as classics, often their only flaw was to be ahead of their time. Nevertheless, the fact remains that in many cases even basic items, like re-chargeable batteries, may be difficult, if not impossible to obtain, either from the original manufacturer, or the accessory companies who, due to the low volume of sales, may have concluded that it wasnít worth the effort and expense of tooling up their production lines.

 

To sum up; if you really want to play it safe, limit your choice to discontinued models from the major Japanese brands, and try and read at least one test report before you buy, our backnumber and reprints departments will try and help to track one down for you. Badge-engineered clones can be a very good deal, but always make sure you know the background of the machine it is based on, and that spares and that vital accessories are still available from the original manufacturer. Again, check out the test reports before you buy. Camcorders from companies who no longer make them can be a bit of a gamble. If you choose wisely you may get a highly advanced machine that by rights should cost twice as much as youíre paying; if you choose badly you will almost certainly discover why they pulled out of the camcorder market.

 

To help you on your way weíve been trawling through the ads in video magazines, newspapers and magazines to see whatís on offer at the moment. This is just a snapshot, though, stock are changing all the time, and thereís no guarantee that the machines weíve mentioned will still be available by the time you read this, or even selling at the same price -- they might be even cheaper... The ones weíve chosen are a fairly representative sample of whatís available and they illustrate most of the points weíve been discussing. The prices shown are the lowest ones we could find. Happy hunting!

 

AKAI PVM2

Akai threw in the camcorder towel about two years ago, which was a shame because they produced a succession of innovative, high-performance designs. The three PV series machines were their first and last 8mm models. Rather than play it safe they opted for a controversial Ďflatí design, that with the benefit of hindsight, now looks as though it was a bit too radical for its own good. The PV-M2 was the entry-level machine, the step-up model was the PV-M4, this had stereo sound and more sophisticated exposure controls, and the PV-MS8 was the Hi8 version, in its day the cheapest high-band machine on the market.

 

The flat layout wasnít as much of a problem as it had been on similarly styled Sanyo machines, and it could be comfortably held one-handed, but some of the controls were a bit fiddly. Otherwise it was reasonably easy to use, and the auto-chase focusing system -- which locks on to a moving subject -- actually worked quite well. Akai were the first, and as far as we can remember the only company to have a tape-tuning feature (I-HQ) on their machines. This performed well on their VHS-C models, where there was a significant variation in tape grades, but it seemed to have less impact on 8mm tapes, which are manufactured to a more rigorous specification.

 

When we reviewed the PV-M2 back in March 1993 we concluded that it was a very agreeable little machine, we see no reason to change our opinion now,  if you can live with the unusual looks itís not a bad deal, but bear in mind that some accessories may be difficult to obtain.  

 

First launched:             December 1992

Original selling price:             £600

Selling now for:                   £400

Made by:                                  Akai

 

Format:            8mm

Zoom:              8x

Min illum:            2 lux

Audio:              mono FM

Features:            Ďchaseí autofocus, fader, high-speed shutter (7 speeds up to 1/10,000th sec, character generator, wind noise filter, I-HQ tape tuning, backlight compensation, remote control

Dimensions:            165 x 83 x 135mm

Weight:            0.85kg

 

VC TEST REPORT

Resolution                   >230-lines

Colour fidelity            average

Picture stability            good

Colour bleed                average

White balance            average

Exposure                     good

Auto focus                    good

Audio performance            good

Insert edit                    manual inserts poor

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money 8

Ease of use                  8

Performance                8

Features                      8

 

 

FERGUSON PRO 8 220

Back in the heady 1980ís it was always a safe bet that Ferguson camcorders were made for them by JVC but as the 8mm format gained ground they hedged their bets with a series of cloned Hitachi models. Ferguson have since pulled out of camcorders, concentrating instead on TVs and hi-fi. Their last machine was the PRO 8 220, and it was made for them by the Korean company Samsung. It is very similar to Samsungís own VP-808 which first appeared towards the end of 1993, to considerable critical acclaim.

 

The 808 was a landmark machine for Samsung, narrowing the gap between Korean camcorders and Japanese machines, which until then were always two or three years ahead in terms of design and styling. The 808/Pro 8 220 is quite well specified for a budget machine, even by current standards, and it includes a couple of facilities rarely seen nowadays, like a title generator and manual shutter. Some features of the 808 have not been carried across to the Ferguson version, though,  like the self and interval timer, and clip-on video light. Picture performance is good and we found little to complain about on the 808, apart from the slightly awkward manual focus controls which we also found were slow and unresponsive. The lowest price weíve seen the Pro 8 220 selling for is £480, which is not a bad deal as it usually comes bundled with quite a good accessory pack, though keep your eyes peeled for discounted Samsung 807 and 808ís, both of which have a slightly more advanced specification.. 

 

First launched:             Late 1993

Original selling price:             £550 (Samsung 807/808)

Selling now for:                   £480

Made by:                                  Samsung

 

Format:            8mm

Zoom:              8x

Min illum:            2

Audio:              mono FM

Features:            high-speed shutter (5-speeds up to 1/4000th sec), title generator (1-page/2-line), edit search, insert edit, fader, remote control

Dimensions:            109 x 127 x 288

Weight:            1.2kg

 

VC TEST REPORT (Samsung 808)

Resolution                   240-lines

Colour fidelity            good

Picture stability            fair

Colour bleed                negligible

White balance            average

Exposure                     average

Auto focus                    average

Audio performance            good

Insert edit                    clean

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money 8

Ease of use                  8

Performance                8

Features                      8

 

 

FUJIX FG122SW

Fuji have never really achieved much of a presence in the UK camcorder market, despite having some quite likeable machines. The FF120 was a case in point, it was the FG122ís stablemate, identical in almost every respect except that it had a conventional monochrome viewfinder. The FF122 was an attempt by Fuji to cash in on the brief  popularity of camcorders with colour LCD viewfinders, but whereas most other manufacturers added a price premium of £100 or so, Fuji made the mistake of upping the price of the FF122 over the 120 by £150. The colour viewfinder on this machine isnít that good, and quite frankly serves no useful purpose; it even makes some operations, like manual focus, more difficult that they need to be.

 

Viewfinder apart the FF122 is a fine machine, and weíve always been impressed by the screw-on multi-grip handle, which turns into a neat little table-stand. It handles reasonably well and control accessibility is okay. The lens is unusually versatile with a 12x zoom and wide-angle setting. Picture performance is fairy average, resolution on samples we tested was around the 230-line mark, which is adequate. The launch price of £850 was way over the top for what was a fairly basic palmcorder, in spite of the LCD viewfinder. The current discount price is much more realistic, though the colour viewfinder is not a feature we rate very highly and given the choice between this and the FF120 weíd go for the b&w machine every time.

 

First Launched:                   Late 1992    

Original selling price:             £850

Selling now for:                   £500

Made by:                                  Fuji

 

Format:            8mm

Zoom:              12x

Min illum:            5

Audio:              mono FM

Features:            colour viewfinder, high-speed shutter (6-speed up to 1/4000th sec), remote control, handgrip

Dimensions:            103 x 100 x 175mm

Weight:            0.96kg

 

VC TEST REPORT

Resolution                   >230 lines

Colour fidelity            average

Picture stability            average

Colour bleed                average

White balance            average

Exposure                     good

Auto focus                    good

Audio performance            average

Insert edit                    manual inserts clean

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money 8

Ease of use                  7

Performance                8

Features                      8

 

 

HITACHI VM-E31

The E23 started life as the VM-E21, launched in the Spring of 1992, it was a good machine, but the price, at £800 was a touch high. Eight months later Hitachi effectively re-launched it as the E31, with a £600 price tag, and almost overnight it became a best-seller. Itís well-equipped for a budget machine, and was one of the first camcorders to feature digital signal processing, which gives a crisp, sharp picture, accurate colours and comparatively little noise. It was also one of the first machines to have a programmed auto-exposure system, which varied the shutter speed according to the prevailing conditions, though the user has no control over it, other to switch it on or off. In some other respects itís a little old-fashioned -- the front-focus lens for instance, but we actually prefer it to inner-focus lenses, and you get manual control of the zoom as well.

 

Itís not the prettiest camcorder weíve seen, some might say plug-ugly in fact, but you can live with that, and the controls are very well laid out. The only operational niggle is the battery, which looks like a standard Sony pack but the contact and mounting lug arrangements are quite different and few accessory companies bother to make replacements. It handles very well and picture performance is very good, resolution is in the region of 240-lines and that, coupled with lower than average noise levels, results in a really good looking picture.  A splendid little machine that can still show many current models a clean pair of heels, and at £500 or less itís well worth considering.

 

First launched:             September 1992

Original selling price:             £600

Selling now for:                   £500

Made by:                                  Hitachi

 

Format:            8mm

Zoom:              8x

Min illum:            2 lux

Audio:              mono FM

Features:            high-speed shutter, (5-speeds up to 1/10,000th sec), title generator (1-page/2-line), remote control, insert edit, backlight compensation, fader

Dimensions:            112 x 113 x 174

Weight:            1.0kg

 

VC TEST REPORT

Resolution                   240-lines

Colour fidelity            good

Picture stability            very good

Colour bleed                negligible

White balance            good

Exposure                     average

Auto focus                    average

Audio performance            average

Insert edit                    clean

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money 10

Ease of use                  9

Performance                8

Features                      9

 

 

JVC GR-323

JVC went through a funny patch in the early 1990ís with a lot of fairly indifferent machines and one or two real crackers. The 323 was a case in point; at first glance it looks a lot like one of their top-rated compacts, the GR-303 and S505, when in fact it was based around the fairly basic AX10. In essence it was a palmcorder dressed up to look like a compact, with a large lens barrel and outboard mike. To be fair the end result wasnít too bad, the bigger body improved handling, and it gained from a servo-controlled inner-focus lens (the AX10 had button-controlled focus). Nevertheless, in spite of being billed as a machine for creative video movie-makers it has a fairly routine assortment of features, though if you add on the extra facilities accessible from the optional remote handset (£40 wired, £80 infra-red), it begins to look quite interesting. They include audio dub, insert editing, index marking, animation mode plus self and interval timers.

 

It is generally easy to use, the only minor ergonomic niggle is the microphone, which is in an awkward position and can be easily brushed by the users fingers. Picture quality is well up to todayís standards and on samples weíve tested resolution is over 240-lines. Colour accuracy is good in natural daylight but the picture looks a bit grainy indoors, more so with the gain-up mode switched on. Sound quality is reasonable, though being VHS-based itís in mono and recorded on a slow-moving linear track, so thereís a fair amount of background hiss. The 323 looks its age now and itís quite basic but it performs well and at £400 whoís arguing.

 

First launched:             April 1992                

Original selling price:             £700

Selling now for:                   £400

Made by:                                  JVC                 

 

Format:            VHS-C

Zoom:              8x

Min illum:            6 lux (3 lux in gain-up mode)

Audio:              mono linear

Features:            High-speed shutter (6-speed up to 1/4,000th sec), title superimposer (1-page/8-colours), fader, record search, pseudo cinema mode, wind filter. (insert edit, audio dub & index mark with optional remote handset)

Dimensions:            110 x 123 x 278

Weight:            1.2kg

 

VC TEST REPORT

Resolution                   240-lines

Colour fidelity            good

Picture stability            average

Colour bleed                none

White balance            fair

Exposure                     average

Auto focus                    good

Audio performance            average

Insert edit                    see text

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money 9

Ease of use                  8

Performance                8

Features                      8

 

PHILIPS M870

This is a most peculiar machine, built by Hitachi whoís own version was called the VM-E53 (or possibly the E43), but they decided not to sell it over here. The reason given at the time was that it would have been too expensive for the price -sensitive UK market. Hitachiís decision was understandable, this is a Hi8 camcorder, but with the kind of facilities you would expect to find on a beginners point and shoot model. The high-band/low-feature specification makes sense in some markets, but not the UK, where Hi8 performance is associated with greater flexibility and semi-pro features. Philips are a European brand, maybe they saw wider potential for the E53/870, though we canít recall Philips UK ever selling this machine here.  Although weíve not had a chance to test the E53/870 we do have detailed specifications, and it is based on components used on other Hitachi machines, so itís not a completely unknown quantity.

 

Apart from the Hi8 recording system and stereo hi-fi sound it has very few features. Controls are few and far between, manual focus is adjusted by a pair of recessed buttons on the side. Design-wise it comes somewhere between a palmcorder and a compact machine, and it has to be said itís not a particularly good looking machine. In itís favour £600 is very cheap for a Hi8 camcorder, and assuming it performs as well as other Hitachi machines we know, then picture quality should be quite good, but we canít say itís a particularly enticing prospect, and weíd say Hitachi were right not to have bothered selling it here.

 

First launched:             Late 1983?

Original selling price:             £1000

Selling now for:                   £600

Made by:                                  Hitachi

 

Format:            Hi8

Zoom:              8x optical, 16x digital

Min illum:            2 lux

Audio:              hi-fi stereo

Features:            fader, remote control, digital zoom

Dimensions:            88 x 115 x 268mm

Weight:            1.0kg

 

VC TEST REPORT

Resolution                   n/a

Colour fidelity            n/a

Picture stability            n/a

Colour bleed                n/a

White balance            n/a

Exposure                     n/a

Auto focus                    n/a

Audio performance            n/a

Insert edit                    n/a

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money 8

Ease of use                  n/a

Performance                n/a

Features                      n/a

 

 

YASHICA KXV10

Camera makers like Yashica donít take chances, they know you canít go far wrong with a Sony, though the TR1, on which the KXV10 is based, was not the best of the two rather cute little TR machines that were launched in late 1992 and Spring  1993. The TR1 was the LCD colour viewfinder version of the earlier TR8, in our opinion it was easier to use, and at the time £100 cheaper. The Hi8 recording system and stereo hi-fi sound are complimented by a full set of exposure controls that includes a manual iris, and a 3-mode program AE system. It also comes with a clever docking-station, that simplifies connections to a TV or VCR. The reason itís so small is largely thanks to a high-capacity lithium-ion re-chargeable battery, that fits inside the case. In addition to packing more power into a smaller space these batteries do not suffer from the dreaded memory effect, so they lead a long and healthy life, but be warned that replacements are three to four times dearer than equivalent capacity nicads.

 

Performance is outstanding, about as good as it gets on Hi8 in fact, and resolution is on or around the 400-line mark, with bright, natural-looking colours and very low levels of picture noise. The colour viewfinder is one of the better ones, with a 120k pixel display, even so itís not as clear or as sharp as a monochrome display, which makes manual focusing in poor light a little tricky. Otherwise itís a delight, easy to use and capable of excellent results. The auto exposure and focus systems can be trusted to get it right most of the time, but thereís the flexibility of manual control, when you need it. A brilliant all-rounder, and if youíre in the market for a highly-specified Hi8 camcorder itís a bargain!

 

First launched:             May 1993

Original selling price:             £1200

Selling now for:                   £850

Made by:                                  Sony

 

Format:            Hi8

Zoom:              8x

Min illum:            3 lux

Audio:              hi-fi stereo

Features:            colour viewfinder, manual exposure, 3-mode program AE system, world-time clock, built-in stand

Dimensions:            92 x 102 x 173mm

Weight:            0.9kg

 

VC TEST REPORT

Resolution                   >380-lines

Colour fidelity            very good

Picture stability            average

Colour bleed                none

White balance            fair

Exposure                     very good

Auto focus                    good

Audio performance            good

Insert edit                    manual inserts clean

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money 9

Ease of use                  8

Performance                9

Features                      8

 

 

---end---

R. Maybury 1995 0802

 


 

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