VIDEO CAMERA 1995

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HEAD

TRAVELLING LIGHT

 

INTRO

Just how small and light can camcorders get? Rick Maybury argues that theyíve probably reached their limits in this round-up of video-movie making featherweights

 

COPY

Up until 1990 camcorders had been halving in size and weight every two or three years and it looked as though it would continue until... Well, it was anyoneís guess as to how small and light they could eventually become, but then about five years ago Panasonic introduced a note of caution into the proceedings with some research that showed the limits were practical and psychological, rather than technical. It suggested that the minimum desirable weight was just below half a kilogram, with a volume of around 600 cubic centimetres. They concluded that if camcorders were any smaller they would difficult to hold steady, even with advanced image stabilisation systems. However, there was also the underlying suggestion that if they became too small, users ran the risk of looking and feeling stupid, walking around holding tiny palm-sized boxes up to their eye, moreover with so little to see such small -- and expensive --  devices would have little or no Ďposerí value.  

 

Since then camcorder miniaturisation has slowed to a crawl, in fact it may even have gone into reverse as the lightest machines so far were launched more than eighteen months ago. Since then there have been no signs of manufacturers vying with one another again, to see who can produce the smallest machine. If you think size is important, then you can now be reasonably confident that no-one is going to come up with a matchboxed sized machine a week after youíve brought the current featherweight model.  However, size really does matter, if youíre the kind of person who prefers or needs to travel light. With that end in mind weíve put together a selection of potted reviews of the smallest machines on the market, to see how they compare with conventional models, both in terms of performance, and features. Weíve also considered the cost factor, which can be significant, not just for the initial outlay, but for accessories and spares as well. For instance, lightweight batteries cost between three and five times as much as conventional ones.  

 

There are a couple of dozen machines on the market weighing less than a kilogram, however, weíve narrowed this survey to a selection of the lighter models with an all-up weight (i.e. including tape and batteries) of 900 grams or less. By the way, donít forget to add on the weight and bulk of the mains charger and/or extra batteries and tapes - that can come to another kilogram or so, which could be significant if space and weight are at a premium. Some of the machines weíve included are at or near the end of their shelf lives, though theyíre all still available, and itís well worth shopping around for discounts. As a matter of interest in most cases the machines that theyíve been replaced with are usually no smaller or lighter, which underlines our earlier point, about the pace of miniaturisation slowing down.

 

SONY CCD-TR350

The 350 is Sonyís current entry-level machine with a price tag of just £550 (a version with a colour viewfinder -- CCD-TR450 -- is available for £600). Both machines are small, light and rather basic, they also lack manual focus control, which can prove troublesome in poor light, or when the subject has little contrast against the background. In spite of that theyíre up to Sonyís normal high standard of construction, and being so basic makes they very easy to use, which could be an important consideration for those in a hurry, who may not have the time or inclination to mess around with controls and adjustments.

 

The feature list is short, it has a 10x zoom lens thatís protected by a sliding cover -- another plus point for travellers -- a mono sound system and low-light sensitivity of 2 lux. For those who want to tidy up their video movies when they get home it has a Control L socket, so it can be connected to an automated edit controller.

 

On screen performance is rather average, samples weíve seen manage to resolve around 230-lines, though itís difficult to be absolutely precise on machines without manual focus controls. Picture noise levels are low and colour accuracy is good and the exposure system is reasonably agile. Itís not especially tolerant of  knocks or bumps whilst recording (pr during playback). Audio quality is generally good and the microphone has good forward sensitivity.  

 

Outdoor performance is quite good, itís cheap, robust and it travels reasonably well but itís let down by not having a manual focus control, which is necessary for tricky situations. If you can live with that limitation then it is worth considering.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model                               Sony CCD-TR350

Recording format                          8mm

Guide price                              £550

 

OPTICS

Zoom/lens                    10x, f/1.6, 6.2-62m

Filter diameter            37mm  

Min illum                     2 lux   

 

VIDEO DECK

Long play (LP)                yes (replay only)               

Max rec time                   120mins

IR remote control                   no

Edit terminal                            yes (control L)

 

MAIN FACILITIES               

Stereo sound                           no

Manual focus               no       

Programmed AE                    no       

Fader                                       no                   

Manual white balance            no       

Image stabiliser                      no                   

Video light                               no       

Battery refresh                         no                                       

 

ADDITIONAL FEATURES

time/date recording, record review, tally lamp, built-in lens cover

 

GENERAL

Sockets                            AV out (phono), external mic & Control L (minijack)

Size                                   109 x 109 x 178 mm                       

Weight                             0.8kg (inc. tape and battery)

 

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                    230-lines

Colour fidelity              good

Picture stability            average

Colour bleed                 negligible

White balance               good

Exposure                       average

Auto focus                     poor 

Audio performance       average

Insert edit                      manual inserts clean

Playback thru adapter  N/A

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money          9

Ease of use                    9

Performance                7

Features                       7

 

 

PANASONIC NV-R10B

The R10 is due to disappear in the next few months, but the general specification for its replacement, the NV-R11, isnít significantly different, so you take it as read that most of what follows applies to the new machine. This is one of a range of Ďslimí VHS-C palmcorders that also includes the A1 (to be replaced by the A3), and the R30 (replaced by R33), theyíre all more or less the same size and shape, and the weight differential between the models only amounts to a few grams, so theyíre all worth a close look. Theyíre just about thin enough to slip into an overcoat pocket, and easy to use. Itís also worth reminding you that they use VHS-C tapes, which can be replayed on any VHS video recorder. The R10ís main claim to fame was its anti-ground shooting and power save facilities. The two features are interconnected;  they  prevent unwanted shots of the ground (in case you forgot to stop recording), and shut down power-hungry systems, like the viewfinder and autofocus, when the machine detects that the lens is pointing downwards. They can be switched off, just in case you want to record your feet...

 

The R10 is actually derived from a previous slim camcorder, the R50, with which it shares a number of features, including a 3-mode (sports, portrait & low-light) program autoexposure system, as well as other useful creative aids, like backlight compensation, a manual white balance control and a 5-pin editing terminal. It has a nifty 2-speed zoom and clever single-action power on/record switch, to make sure you donít miss a moment of that once in a lifetime shot. Power is supplied by an unusual 4.8 volt re-chargeable battery thatís unique to Panasonic machines. This type of battery is a good deal smaller, and doesnít appear to suffer from energy-sapping memory effect to anything like the same extent as 6-volt nicads.  On the debit side replacements are still quite expensive though prices are coming down as the accessory companies start to market them, though theyíre still a bit thin on the ground.

 

Although this machine uses one of the smaller quarter-inch CCD image sensor chips, picture quality is every bit as good as its larger rivals. Resolution is in the order of 240-lines, noise levels are low and colour fidelity is good, the only obvious disadvantage is the indifferent low-light sensitivity of 10 lux. There is a low-light mode which increases sensitivity to 1 lux, though at the expense of added grain and picture noise.

 

The VHS-C mono linear soundtrack isnít a patch on 8mmís FM sound, thereís a noticeable background hiss though if youíre mostly recording speech and incidental sounds it really doesnít matter too much. An external microphone socket would have been useful as well, as the top-mounted mike has only mediocre forward sensitivity. All said and done, though, the R10 is a most agreeable little machine, appealing in equal measure to those looking for an idiot-proof point and shooter, and one that allows a degree of creative input. Recommended.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model                   PANASONIC NV-R10B

Recording format           VHS-C

Guide price                     £700

 

OPTICS

Zoom/lens                       10x, f/1.8, 4.6-46mm

Filter diameter               37mm  

Min. illum. (lux)             1 (low-light mode)

 

VIDEO DECK

Long Play (LP)                yes

Max. rec. time                 90mins (LP mode)

IR remote control           no

Edit terminal                          yes 5-pin RMC       

 

MAIN FACILITIES               

Stereo sound                           no

Manual focus                           yes      

Programmed AE                    yes      

Fader                                       no                   

Manual white balance            yes      

Image stabiliser                      no                   

Video light                               no       

Battery refresh                         no                                       

 

GENERAL

Sockets                           AV output (phono), DC in, edit terminal (mini DIN)

Size (mm)                        88 x 118 x 242

Weight                            0.82 kg (inc. tape and battery)

 

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                     240-lines

Colour fidelity               good

Picture stability             good

Colour bleed                  none

White balance                good

Exposure                       average

Autofocus                      average

Audio performance       average

Insert edit                      N/A

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money          8

Ease of use                  9

Performance                9

Features                      8

 

SANYO VM-PS12

A camcorder for less than four hundred quid, there has to be a catch? There is, and itís the lack of an in-camera replay facility, which means you canít watch what youíve just shot. The PS12 can replay recordings, which will come as a relief to anyone who hasnít got an 8mm VCR -- i.e. most of us --  but only when it is connected to a TV, so you have to wait until you get home. Most of the time that neednít be a big problem, but there are occasions when you want to check the last shot was okay, so think carefully. Getting the price down to £400 has also involved a few other sacrifices. The lens is very basic, itís a fixed-focus type with a simple 3x zoom. Itís a clever design, mind you, with a mechanically-linked variable zoom control, and you get to see the effect in the viewfinder.  There are no creative facilities to speak of, and hardly any controls, just a start/stop button, some hidden buttons for tape replay, blank search and tape eject, plus an LCD screen showing tape count, battery level and warning indicators. Power consumption is very low, you can expect to get between 60 - 80 minutes recording time per charge. By the way the charger has a built-in discharger circuit, which should be good for battery life.

 

Itís a breeze to use, just point it in the right direction, frame the shot and press the go button, everything else, including exposure and white balance is automatic. What you see through the viewfinder is what you get, and being optical, itís in colour as well... Although it qualifies as a lightweight camcorder itís quite a tubby little thing and it would be a bit of a squeeze to get it into a coat pocket. Sanyo appear to have styled it along the lines of Sonyís top-end TR camcorders, so it looks smart, and could easily be mistaken for a much more expensive machine.  

 

Unfortunately picture quality is not so hot and resolution is only around 220-lines, some way short of what we expect from a budget camcorder. To be fair its not too bad at capturing well-lit outdoor scenes but indoor shots can be grainy and noisy too, if you donít provide lots of extra light. Exposure and colour balance are okay, though it doesnít like sudden changes in lighting level.

 

The soundtrack is quite clean though the microphone picks up the noise made by the mechanical zoom, and motor whine, especially when ambient noise levels are low. The most important thing about the PS12 is the low, low price but as weíve said on so many occasions you get what you pay for, and in this case thatís not very much. If youíve only got £400 to spend then this is about all there is this side of the second hand market, but if you can save up another £100, preferably £200, then thereís plenty of well specified machines to choose from, that weight no more than this one, but pack in a whole lot more features, and deliver better looking pictures.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model                               Sanyo VM-PS12

Recording format              8mm

Guide price                              £400

 

OPTICS

Zoom/lens                    3x, f/2.4, 3.6-10.8mm

Filter diameter            n/a 

Min illum                     5 lux   

 

VIDEO DECK

Long play (LP)                        yes                  

Max rec time                        90 mins

IR remote control                        no

Edit terminal                        no

 

MAIN FACILITIES               

Stereo sound                           no

Manual focus               fixed

Programmed AE                    no       

Fader                                       no                   

Manual white balance            no       

Image stabiliser                                  no                                           

Video light                               no       

Battery refresh                         yes                               

 

 

ADDITIONAL FEATURES

blank search

 

GENERAL

Sockets                                    AV out (phono)

Dimensions                              182 x 93 x 105 mm                      

Weight                         0.8kg (inc tape and battery)

 

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                               220-lines

Colour fidelity                           fair

Picture stability                         average

Colour bleed                              fair

White balance                            fair

Exposure                                   average

Auto focus                                  n/a

Audio performance                   average

Insert edit                                  n/a

Playback thru adapter              n/a

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money          7

Ease of use                   10

Performance                7

Features                       6

 

JVC GR-AX60

The AX-60 is a very well equipped mid-range machine, and one of the reasons the VHS-C format has managed to hang on to its market share in the face of some very stiff competition from 8mm. Itís very good value for money, with a powerful 12x zoom lens, 6-mode program auto-exposure system, built in video light, audio dub, self/interval and animation timers plus a useful edit controller, built into the remote control handset. Additional convenience features include a dual mode title generator, built-in lens cover, twin battery charger and a useful power-saving auto-pause facility that kicks in if the machine is left pointing at the ground without being put into the pause mode.

 

The random assemble edit feature is similar to the one used on a number of previous JVC machines, it works by replaying up to 8 selected scenes, and at the same time controlling the record-pause function on a VCR, so the scenes are assembled together in any desired order. The handset contains a library of infra-red commands that operate around twenty different makes of VCR, itís very easy to use, reasonably accurate and an excellent way of tidying up home video movies by chopping out all of the boring and duff bits. More importantly itís an ideal way for newcomers to video to improve upon their video movie-making skills.

 

The machine has a number of innovative features, including a single switch that combines the functions of power on/off, record/play mode select and record-stop/start. The zoom rocker can be adjusted to suit different sized hands and the pop-up -- an idea borrowed from Canon -- comes in very handy for indoor shots. Thereís a couple of minor ergonomic niggles, the transport controls are located in a most inconvenient position, under a flap built into the handgrip. Manual focus is controlled by the zoom rocker, so you canít zoom and focus at the same time, which is a nuisance, and thereís no external mike socket, so audio dub is not as useful as it could be.

 

Resolution is on or around the 240-line mark, which is about average for a mid-range machine, moreover picture noise and colour accuracy are both good. The autofocus system is fairly laid-back though, and the tricky manual focus control doesnít help.

 

Although the VHS mono linear soundtrack is no great shakes sound quality is not too bad at all and the microphone is fairly well insulated against motor and handling noises.

 

The assemble editing system works very well, accuracy is only around +/- 20 frames or so but thatís quite good enough for most users. Itís a most likeable machine and the gripes concerning the control layout are more than offset by the extensive range of creative facilities, and the very reasonable price.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model                               JVC GR-AX60

Recording format                          VHS-C

Guide price                              £700

 

OPTICS

Zoom/lens                    12x, f/1.8, 5.5-66m

Filter diameter            43mm  

Min. illum. (lux)     2

 

VIDEO DECK

Long Play (LP)                 yes                  

Max. rec. time                 90mins (LP mode)

IR remote control                   yes

Edit terminal                            yes (see text)

 

MAIN FACILITIES               

Stereo sound                           no

Manual focus               yes      

Programmed AE                    yes (6-mode) 

Fader                                       yes                  

Manual white balance            yes      

Image stabiliser                      no                   

Video light                               yes      

Battery refresh                         yes                               

 

ADDITIONAL FEATURES

time/date recording, self-timer,  time-lapse, high-speed shutter (1-speed 1/8000th sec), record review, retake, animation effect, audio dub, random-assemble edit controller, cinema mode, 'instant' titles, adjustable zoom rocker, built-in lens cover, twin battery charger, auto-pause

 

GENERAL

Sockets                            audio and video out (phono), edit and remote (minijack)

Size (mm)                        115 x 118 x 182

Weight                             0.9kg (inc. tape and battery)

 

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                      >230 -lines

Colour fidelity                good 

Picture stability              very good 

Colour bleed                   none 

White balance                 very good  

Exposure                        average

Autofocus                       fair

Audio performance        good

Insert edit                      very good

Playback thru adaptor   very good

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money           8

Ease of use                    8

Performance                  8

Features                        9

 

CANON UC40Hi

In past years Canon have been one of the leading lights in camcorder miniaturisation,  though their most recent machines have all been fairly ordinary when it comes to size and weight. The UC5 is one of their very distinctive Ďuprightí designs with the lens and viewfinder stacked vertically on top of the deck mechanism, making it very slim and highly pocketable.  The Hi8 recording system is partnered by a stereo hi-fi sound recording system, so itís an accomplished all round performer for those who appreciate superior picture and sound quality. Thereís a useful assortment of creative features too, including a 5-mode program AE system, manual shutter, built-in video light and a Control L editing terminal. The optical zoom has 12x magnification and this is augmented by an electronic zoom that extends the range up to 24x, though there is a reduction in image quality once it gets past 15x.

 

The upright layout is a little unusual but you quickly get used to it and all of the main camera controls fall readily to hand. The auto systems are reasonably efficient though the AF can sometimes have trouble locking on if thereís a lot of movement in the picture.

 

The Hi8 recording system does its stuff with a resolution in excess of 380-lines, colour accuracy is very good and the digital video processing circuitry ensures that noise levels are respectably low. The only significant drawback is the price, though this machine is now out of production and there are some useful discounts to be had if you shop around. Recommended, if the price is right.

 

SPECIFICATION

OPTICS

Make/model                    Canon UC40 Hi

Recording format         Hi8

Guide price                     £1200

 

OPTICS

Zoom/lens                    12x optical/24x electronic, f/1.8, 5.4-65mm

Filter diameter             46mm  

Min. illum. (lux)           3

 

VIDEO DECK

Long Play (LP)                         yes

Max. rec. time                                          240mins (LP mode)

IR remote control ?                                  yes

Edit terminal?                                              yes (control L)

           

MAIN FACILITIES 

Stereo sound                                       yes

Manual focus                                       yes      

Programmed AE                                yes (5-mode) 

Manual white balance                       no

Fader                                                   yes

Video light                                           optional          

 

ADDITIONAL FEATURES

time/date recording, 16:9 recording mode

 

GENERAL

Sockets                          audio and video out (phono), S-Video out (mini DIN) edit and ext. mic (minijack

Size (mm)                                 73 x 134 x 195        

Weight                          0.8kg (inc. tape and battery)

           

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                     380-lines

Colour fidelity               very good

Picture stability             average

Colour bleed                   negligible

White balance                 average

Exposure                         good

Autofocus                       lively

Audio performance       good

Insert edit                       manual inserts clean

Playback thru adaptor   N/A

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money 8       

Ease of use                         8

Performance                     8

Features                            7

 

SONY CCD-SC5

The SC5 ĎVisioní is Sonyís response to the Sharp View Cam, which was the first machine to have a built-in LCD monitor screen, instead of a conventional viewfinder. The SC5, and itís stablemate, the soon to be replaced SC7 Hi8 variant (review soon/this issue), fly in the face of conventional camcorder design with their upright layout and lack of creative facilities, but it makes it look a lot less threatening, and it is exceptionally to use.  

 

However, the big selling point is playback (with sound) on the spot, so you and your friends can see what youíve just shot. It turns video movie making from a solitary into a communal activity and is guaranteed to draw a crowd whenever its used. Unlike the View Can, though, thereís no plug-in TV tuner option, which is a shame as it could be a useful extra for camping and caravanning holidays.

 

It is very basic,  it doesnít even have a zoom lens, just a switchable tele/wide setting. Exposure and white balance are fully automatic and the lens is a fixed focus design. The LCD screen can be used as a viewfinder, though thereís an optical viewfinder built into the top of the machine, which also saves power. Itís powered by a lightweight lithium ion rechargeable battery and with the screen switched off it will give recording times up around 45-minutes. The only slight disadvantage of this type of battery (apart from the cost of replacement) is the charge time of around 2-hours, thatís almost twice as long as a nicad of equivalent capacity.

 

Thereís only a couple of controls to worry about, the mode switch and stop/start buttons are on the top, next to the tele/wide switch, and the tape transport buttons are located behind a hinged flap on the left side of the body. It has a full set of AV inputs and an external mike socket but a set of contacts on the base mate with a optional docking station which carries all of the AV outputs, and a Control L socket, so it can be used with an edit controller. This costs an additional £120.

 

Basic it may be but picture quality is well up to Sonyís usual competent standard with resolution of 240-lines. Playback through a TV looks very clean with little noise and well defined colours. Replay  on the LCD screen is okay, though the picture looks quite coarse, and the image is washed out if thereís too much incident light; a sun-shield is provided, though itís at its best in subdued light. Sound quality from the microscopic built-in speaker is a bit tinny, but thatís to be expected; heard through a TV it sounds fine, though the microphone is not especially sensitive. This kind of camcorder is ideal for those who have been put off by the perceived complexity of conventional machines, or donít want the fuss and bother of manual controls. Within its limitations itís fun and easy to use, but this level of simplicity has a price, itís not very flexible and for the same money you could get a proper camcorder...

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model                                    SONY CCD-SC5      

Recording format                          8mm

Guide price                              £900

 

OPTICS

Zoom/lens                    n/a, f/1.2/12mm, f/1.4

Filter diameter            N/A 

Min. illum. (lux)     5

 

VIDEO DECK

Long Play (LP)               yes (playback only)               

Max. rec. time                 120mins

IR remote control                   yes

Edit terminal                            no (see text)

 

MAIN FACILITIES               

Stereo sound                           no

Manual focus               no       

Programmed AE                    no       

Fader                                       no                   

Manual white balance            no       

Video light                               no       

Battery refresh                         no                                       

 

 

ADDITIONAL FEATURES

time/date recording, tally lamp, built-in LCD screen and speaker

 

GENERAL

Sockets                          AV out, microphone & headphone (minijacks),

AV/power/control (20-pin slide connector on base)

Size (mm)                      105 x 141 x 84

Weight                           0.79kg (inc. tape and battery)

 

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                     240-lines

Colour fidelity               good

Picture stability             good

Colour bleed                  negligible

White balance                good

Exposure                       good

Autofocus                      n/a

Audio performance       average

Insert edit                      n/a

Playback thru adaptor  n/a

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money          8

Ease of use                   9

Performance                8

Features                       7

 

---end---

R Maybury 1995 2703

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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