VIDEO CAMERA 1995

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REVIEW

 

HEAD

DIGITAL DOMINATOR

 

INTRO

Itís arrived! Weíve got one of the first DVC camcorders to reach the UK. Rick Maybury puts the incredible Sony DCR-VX1000 super digital camcorder through its paces

 

COPY

Sony say itís no more than a coincidence but ten years ago this month the first 8mm camcorders went on sale, and ten years before that they launched the Betamax format. This month marks another important milestone in the history of home video movie-making with the arrival of the Sony DCR-VX1000, the very first in a new generation of digital camcorders using the DVC format.

 

DVC is more than just a new tape format though, itís part of a much wider revolution in imaging technology, that will take video into the next century and beyond. But more importantly, it finally closes the gap between domestic and professional video equipment,  recordings made on this machine are virtually broadcast-quality!

 

Needless to say it doesnít come cheap, the VX1000 will be selling for £3500, which sounds a lot, but contrast that with the price of the first 8mm camcorders ten years ago which sold for around £1100. Prices will fall -- assuming the format succeeds --  and already Sony have begun shipping the VX700 -- a simpler version of the VX1000 --  and that will be selling for £2700. Next year JVC and Panasonic will be launching their DVC camcorders and we suspect that before too long the price will dip below £2000.

 

However, back to the VX1000. Weíll begin with the outline specs of the DVC format. The VX1000 uses mini-DV cassettes, spooled with an hourís worth of metal evaporated tape (similar to HI8 ME formulations). Mini DV tapes are roughly two thirds the size of 8mm cassettes, but the tape inside is only 6.5mm wide (1/4-inch in old money). Standard DVC cassettes -- used in homedeck VCRs -- are a little larger than 8mm cassettes, and contain up to 4-hours worth of tape. Itís possible mini DV cassettes will be playable on DVC video recorders, either directly, or by using an adaptor, but as there arenít any VCRs yet, itís somewhat academic.

 

The VX1000 looks a lot like the CCD-VX1, their current Hi8 flagship machine; a bit fatter maybe, but it certainly doesnít look out of proportion. The bold in-your-face styling, with its snazzy integral carry handle and large rectangular lens hood is entirely appropriate, and functional. Up front thereís a large 10x zoom lens fitted with Sonyís Steadyshot optical image stabiliser. Behind the lens thereís three CCD 470 k pixel image sensors, for improved colour balance, brightness, contrast and lower noise levels.

 

The deck is on the left side of the machine, the top cover of the deck compartment doubles up as a control touch pad for replay functions, it illuminates when the machine is in the replay mode. On the back of the body of the machine thereís a small display and control panel, that opens to reveal the battery compartment. The machine is supplied with a NP-720 lithium ion pack, that gives around 40-60 minutes or recording time under normal shooting conditions. The downside is that it takes over 3 hours to recharge from flat.  

 

On the back of the display panel/battery cover thereís a slot for the lithium clock and memory backup battery. Buttons for the on-screen menu and switches for secondary functions are also behind the cover. Above that, mounted in the centre of the camera body, is an LCD colour viewfinder and supplementary LCD status display. The viewfinder module is hinged and pivots through 90 degrees. Also on the back panel are the main power/function switch, more secondary function controls and the format-standard DV output jack. Hopefully other manufacturers will use it as well, though from what weíve seen so far the signs are not good.

 

The multi-function control thumbwheel, used to set AE mode, shutter speed, recording level and a host of other adjustments is awkwardly placed, next to the cassette compartment. The focus servo control ring is on the lens barrel, where it should be, itís smooth and progressive, with  plenty of Ďfeelí. Manual exposure is set by a second thumbwheel, located just behind the point where the lens barrel joins the body of the machine. Everything else is more or less where you would expect to find it. Incidentally it looks as though the lens section is detachable -- itís not -- but maybe Sony have something interesting up their sleeves for the future?

 

So much for the outside. The feature list is very extensive, too long in fact to reproduce here, but the most important items include:

 

* manual iris, shutter speed and white balance

* program auto-exposure with aperture and shutter priority modes

* 12-bit stereo PCM audio

* photo recording mode

* steadyshot optical image stabiliser

* fade/overlap

* RC timecode and data recording

* Control L/LANC edit terminal

* slow-speed shutter, down to 0.25 second

* self and interval timers (time-lapse)

* frame-record (animation effect)

* 16:9 widescreen recording mode

* insert edit

* zebra pattern display

* custom presets (colour level, sharpness, WB shift, AE shift, gain shift)

* switchable ND filter

* still and slomo replay, with forward and reverse frame advance

 

Thatís just a brief selection of whatís on offer, most of those features are reasonably familiar, though a few of them are worth looking at in a little more detail. The VX1000 has a 2-channel 12-bit PCM system, this has an upper frequency cut-off of 16kHz, which is about the same as current 8mm and VHS stereo hi-fi systems. In fact the DVC format has two audio standards. The 12-bit system used here can actually accommodate up to four audio channels, and thereís a high-quality 16-bit system, which compares very favourably (so weíre told) with CD.

 

The photo recording mode is a spin-off of DVCís rock-solid trick play performance. The machine will make five-second still recordings, which can be processed, using a video printer, to make hard copies or prints of near photographic quality.    

 

Interval timers used to be quite common, theyíre used for time-lapse recordings, such as a flower opening, or compressing a long or slow event into a few minutes. The timer on this machine can be set to take shots lasting 0.2, 0.5, 1 second or 2 seconds at 30 seconds, 1, 5 or 10 minute intervals. The frame-record facility is used for making stop-motion animation recordings. The machine can be set to make single-shot recordings lasting 0.2 seconds (around 5 frames). The effect is a little jerky but a lot better than anything weíve seen before on a non-professional video system.

 

Zebra pattern is a pro-feature, that also appeared on the VX1. Once enabled it superimposes a striped pattern over any parts of the picture that are being over-exposed, itís designed to make manual iris control a lot easier. The custom presets allow the user to set various picture parameters, including colour level, sharpness, white balance, AE shift and gain shift. The last two help to optimise exposure control, and improve the signal to noise ratio of recordings of brightly-lit subjects. The switchable ND (neutral density) filter is another throwback to the VXI. Itís another exposure aid, that prevents over-exposure by reducing the amount of light passing through the lens by a factor of ten.

 

The VX1000ís editing facilities are textbook Sony, with only one obvious omission. Thereís a Control L/LANC terminal for connection with most current edit controllers, the Control L data line carries a standard RC time-code and data code information. Unfortunately it cannot write RCTC data on previously recorded tapes, weíre still not clear why as it appears video data is written on a separate portion of the tape, but itís something weíll be looking into. It has a counter-controlled insert edit feature, and eventually, when DVC VCRs come along, theyíll be able to make use of the DV output, for making near-perfect edits. As a matter of interest this machine does have some anti copy protection built in, and it will not replay pre-recorded software that has been recorded with copyright control signal.

 

OPERATION

Handling and balance are quite good, itís fairly heavy at 1.6kgs, but not excessively so. With so many knobs, buttons and switches youíd be forgiven for thinking you need a degree in cinematography to use the VX1000. Nothing could be further from the truth. All of the exposure systems have automatic overrides. Apart from the usual autofocusing problems when thereís very little contrast between the subject and the background, it behaves impeccably. However, this machine will be selling on the flexibility of itís manual controls, and theyíre very comprehensive indeed, with aperture values, shutter speed and ND filter position shown on the viewfinder display.

 

Welcome back manual recording level control. It is set using the multi-function control dial on the side, the relative level is shown by a small bargraph display on the back panel display. Many of the secondary functions are controlled from a menu-driven display that pops up on the viewfinder screen. The selector buttons are behind the battery cover, which is a little inconvenient, though they only need to be accessed infrequently. In most other respects the VX1000 feels and functions like any other largish camcorder, thereís certainly no sense of the radical new technology and tape format.

 

There are just a few ergonomic niggles. The manual exposure button and thumbwheel are not very well placed. The safety catch on the stop/start button has an extra position, for the photo recording mode. This can catch you out, until you get used to it. The colour viewfinder is one of Sonyís best, but we have to say we would have preferred a mono display. Some of the control routines for the various exposure options are a bit long-winded, but then this is not supposed to be a quick-on-the-draw family snapshooter.

  

PERFORMANCE

So does it really resolve up to 500-lines? Thereís a few ifs and buts, so the answer is a guarded yes. The closest we got was around 480-lines with a studio quality video monitor, connected to the machine via an S-Video lead, with a recording made under near perfect lighting conditions. 500-lines would lie within the 5% error range of the tests. Using a normal composite video link resolution on a normal TV was around 420 lines.

 

However, the most obvious improvement is the almost complete absence of picture noise, resulting in a superbly crisp, clean-looking image, with bright vibrant colours. Another very pleasant surprise was picture stability, still frame is absolutely rock solid, better even than the best VHS/C machines, and slomo is brilliant, no jitter whatsoever, and the recording can be stepped backwards or forwards, a frame at a times with no picture disturbance whatsoever.

 

Trials using domestic televisions revealed many of them to be incapable of displaying much more than 500-lines, so itís fair to say that on a lot of TVs, recordings made on this machine will look as good as off-air broadcasts.

 

By the way. Digital video recording systems are inherently more stable than their analogue counterparts. We gave the VX1000 a really violent shaking during recording and playback, with almost no noticeable picture disturbance.

 

Audio quality is fine, despite the slightly muted treble response the audio tracks are almost entirely free of background hiss. The on-board microphone is quite sensitive but stereo separation is fairly limited. This could be easily remedied with an external microphone, though.

 

THE VERDICT

If the other DVC machines weíre expecting to see over the next few months are anything like this one the formatís success is assured. This must surely sound the death-knell for existing high-band formats, and we seriously suggest that anyone in the market for a top-end camcorder should wait a little longer and see what DVC has to offer. Professional video movie-makers now have an alternative to expensive and bulky systems like Betacam and M11. We can foresee DVC cutting right across the low end of the pro-market into broadcasting, for television reporters who need a lightweight, unobtrusive, possibly even disposable, high-performance video recording system.

 

The cost of DVC still has a way to go before it provides any serious competition for the existing high and low band formats, but thereís every reason to suppose that will happen, given the usual economies of scale, and that within four or five years it will have wiped out Hi8 and Super VHS-C.

 

The VX1000 is a genuine landmark in video movie-making and it marks the beginning of an exciting new era that will empower more people than ever to produce professional-looking video recordings, just in time for an expected explosion in the number of new TV channels, that will be looking for ways to fill their schedules. How very convenient.  

 

THE RIVALS

There isnít any, but watch out for Sonyís other DVC camcorder, the DVR-700. This has just reached the shops and it costs £2700. Itís similar to the VX1000 but has a single CCD sensor. Both JVC and Panasonic will be marketing DVC machines next year, and as yet there are no firm details of prices or availability, watch this space.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model                               Sony DCR-VX1000

Recording format              mini DVC

Guide price                              £3500

 

OPTICS

Lens                             f/1.6, 5.9 - 59mm

Zoom                           x10 optical, x20 electronic

Filter diameter            52mm  

Pick-up device            3 x 0.3in CCDs

Min illum                     4lux    

 

VIDEO DECK

Long play (LP)                        no                   

Max rec time                        60mins

IR remote control                        yes

Edit terminal                        yes

 

MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto focus                               yes                                          

Manual focus               yes      

Auto exposure             yes                              

Programmed AE                    yes      

Fader                                       yes                  

Manual white balance            yes      

Auto white balance                       yes                                          

Manual zoom                           no       

Power zoom                            yes                                                                              

Insert edit                                yes      

Audio dub                                no

Character generator                     no                   

Digital superimposer               no       

Image stabiliser                                  yes                                          

Video light                               no       

Battery refresh                         n/a                                      

Accessory shoe                 yes      

 

 

ADDITIONAL FEATURES

time/date recording, self-timer,  high-speed shutter (1/4 sec to 1/10,000th sec), record review, retake, tally lamp, frame-record, switchable ND filter, aperture and shutter priority, still, slomo, 16:9 recording mode, custom picture presets, zebra pattern display, fade/overlap, photo shooting mode, RC timecode and data recording, manual audio recording level control

 

 

VIEWFINDER

Viewfinder                       0.6in colour LCD

Viewfinder info               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, shutter speed, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, title, zoom/exposure ND filter, head clog

 

AUDIO

Stereo                                      yes      

Wind noise filter                                         no                   

Mic socket                                yes                  

Headphone socket              yes      

Mic                                           single-point stereo

 

GENERAL

Sockets                                    AV out (phono), S-Video out (mini DIN), digital video

out (DV jack), microphone, headphone and Control L (minijack), DC power in (4-

pin)

Dimensions                              110 x 144 x 329 mm                      

Weight                         1.6kg (inc. tape and battery)

 

STANDARD ACCESSORIES

Batteries (nicad and lithium), straps, AC charger/power supply, large eye-cup

AV lead                        yes      

video light                   no                   

remote control            yes      

cassette adaptor            n/a                  

RF Converter             no       

SCART adaptor            yes                  

 

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                               500-lines

Colour fidelity                           excellent

Picture stability                         excellent

Colour bleed                              none

White balance                            excellent

Exposure                                   excellent

Auto focus                                  average

Audio performance                   very good

Insert edit                                  clean

Playback thru adaptor              n/a

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money *****

Ease of use                 ***

Performance                *****

Features                      *****

 

---end---

R Maybury 1995 1710

 

 

 


 

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