VIDEO CAMERA 1996

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BY THE NUMBERS

 

INTRO

The digital camcorder revolution is now well underway with the arrival of Sony’s second DVC camcorder, the DCR-VX700. Rick Maybury finds out how well the new machine stacks up against it’s more expensive stablemate, the VX1000, featured last month

 

COPY

Sony should have launched the VX700 first. As it is the mighty VX1000 -- reviewed here last month -- has stolen almost all of its thunder. For many this machine would have been a far more palatable introduction to the new DVC format. To begin with the price isn’t quite so intimidating. It’s not that the VX1000 isn’t worth £3500 -- it is, and it’s a bargain if you need that degree of sophistication  -- but few home movie-makers relate easily to that level of expenditure. At £2700 the VX700 is still very expensive for a camcorder, but at least it is in the domestic ball-park, costing no more than a couple of top-end Hi8 machines launched within the past couple of years.

 

The question is, how have Sony managed to shave around £800 off the price, what has been sacrificed? The main differences between this machine and the VX1000 concern their image sensors -- the VX700 has one CCD, the VX1000 has three -- and the relative sophistication of their exposure systems.  The triple CCD array on the VX1000 accounts for the bulk of the price differential. It improves colour accuracy and reduces noise, but has only a comparatively small impact on resolution.

 

Sony have drastically simplified the audio and exposure systems on the VX700; gone are the manual sound level control and displays, shutter and aperture priority modes, manual shutter, digital wipes, switchable neutral density filter, custom presets, zebra-pattern generator and full manual white balance. It still has a manual iris and WB hold though, and there’s a multi-mode program AE system; the four operating modes are:

 

* Portrait -- narrow depth of field to make the subject stand out against a soft-focus background

* Sports -- higher shutter speed for improved slomo replay of fast-moving subjects

* High speed shutter -- even faster shutter speed, for analysing really fast action, like a golf or tennis swing

* Twilight -- improve low-light sensitivity and spotlight compensation, for shooting bight lights in poor light or at night

 

The VX700 has a couple of extra facilities, not found on its dearer stablemate. They include ‘flash’ and ‘slow shutter’. In fact they’re both slow-speed shutter modes; in the flash 1 and 2 settings the image is updated at 1/6 and 1/1.15 second intervals, slow shutter speeds 1 and 2 are 1/12 sec and 1/3 seconds respectively, we’ll look at what they do later on.

 

The centrally-mounted colour viewfinder is the same on both machines but the extra information panel, which was just below the display screen on the VX1000, has gone. The additional indicators have been incorporated on to the main display, which can look quite crowded

 

Overall the similarities between the two machines are far more significant, though. To begin with they share the basic design and layout with smart-looking black on silver/grey livery and from the root of the lens barrel to the back panel they look virtually identical. The shorter lens on the VX700 has meant the machine is a little lighter and Sony have done away with the carry handle with its integral microphone module. That’s one of the few retrograde changes. The mike on the VX700 is incorporated into the body of the machine, just below the lens barrel,  where it’s prone to picking up motor whine from the deck and lens, and handling noises from the user. In fact it is almost impossible to adjust the focus manually without scuffing the microphone.

 

The Steady Shot optical image stabiliser stays, along with the fader and its digital overlap option (recording dissolves to or from a still of the previous shot). The  digital zoom that extends the optical 10x zoom up to 20x magnification, still/photo shot recording facility are the same, and it uses a 2.7Ah lithium-ion battery, which fits inside the machine. This kind of battery pack has a number of advantages; it has a higher power density -- compared with nicad and nickel metal hydride types -- and it doesn’t suffer from power-sapping memory effects. The discharge curve is a lot shallower, so the charge remaining display on the machine is a bit more meaningful. The downside is they are horrendously expensive, and this one takes over 3 hours to recharge. A full charge gives around 40 to 50 minutes recording time with normal stop/start operation, zooming and with the stabiliser on, which is pretty good.

                               

Like the VX1000 it has an interval timer, and it can be programmed to make recordings lasting 0.2, 0.5, 1 and 2 seconds at 30 sec, 1, 5 or 10 minute intervals, for excellent time-lapse effects. Short duration (0.2 sec/5-frames) recordings for stop-frame animation can be manually controlled using the ‘cut’ facility. It’s not quite up to the standard you’d get with movie film, and it is quite jerky, but it’s better than any other video based system we’ve seen, this side of a pro set-up.

 

It has all the most important editing facilities, including the Control L socket for linking the machine to an edit controller. It records RC time and data codes on the tape, and it has a digital output jack, though at the moment there’s no a lot you can use it with. We can only look forward to the glorious day we get DVC video recorders, then the format really will have something special to offer with near perfect digital copies and edits! 

 

LAYOUT AND HANDLING

It is a little lighter than the VX1000, which improves handling and balance slightly, though the layout of some of the controls could be better. The exposure thumbwheel in particular is badly placed, and the fade/overlap button on our sample was quite stiff, requiring a fair amount of pressure to make it work. The manual focus ring on the lens barrel has a very positive feel to it, though the actual ring is quite narrow, and as we’ve said, far too close to the microphone. The menu-driven on-screen display is controlled from a set of buttons behind the back panel display, they’re incredibly small and difficult to get at.

 

Of course it has its good points;  it is very easy to use, most of the controls are where you would expect to find them and the illuminated control panel on the top of the tape loading hatch is a very good idea. It’s also worth repeating the observation made in the VX1000 review last month, that it looks, feels and functions pretty much like any other top-end camcorder, you really wouldn’t know it was using a revolutionary new digital recording system and tape format, until you look at the screen that is...

 

PERFORMANCE

The single CCD sensor on this machine is a one third inch device with 470K pixels, of which 440k are actually used to generate the image.  The VX1000 has three CCDs, also with 440k pixels apiece, giving over 1.3 million pixels, so the picture is three times clearer? Wrong, it doesn’t work that way, the three CCDs are used one for each primary colour, so there’s no more actual detail, but the lower noise levels of the triple CCD sensor does have an effect on image sharpness. Resolution on our sample was very slightly down, to around 480 lines or so, but this is such a small difference that it is unlikely to be obvious except on a very few TVs and monitors, that can resolve that amount of detail.

 

Side by side, on a typical living room TV, showing material shot in good natural light we doubt many people could tell the difference, firstly between the VX700 and the VX1000, and secondly, between material recorded on this machine and that shot on semi professional, and even some professional broadcast quality recording systems. The only small give-away, and the main justification for spending the extra £800 on the VX1000 is a slight colour bleed in areas of high saturation, it’s most noticeable on bright greens and reds. We had expected to see more colour noise, it’s insignificant in good light, though it becomes a little more obvious as light levels fall.

 

It is clear that the two machines share the same deck mechanism and a significant proportion of the video processing circuitry. Still frame and slow-motion are immaculate, no jitter or noise disturbance whatsoever. The only time digital artefacts are obvious is during fast picture search, when the image develops a blocky

texture.

 

The ‘flash’ and slow shutter modes we mentioned earlier can be used to create some stunning visual effects. The best one is the second slow-shutter mode; zooming or panning produces the archetypal streaking much beloved of video promo and horror movie directors.

 

Sound quality is good too, though the lack of insulation on the microphone means that in quiet surroundings the deck motors can be heard whirring in the background, along with any handling noises.

 

VERDICT

Once again picture performance is excellent, DVC is proving itself to be several light years better than standard VHS-C and 8mm, and it blows the socks off S-VHS-C and Hi8. It’s so good in fact that we’ll now come right out and say it. If you’re thinking of buying a high-band machine in the next six months we seriously recommend you wait to see what other DVC camcorders are in the pipeline. If you were considering a Sony VX1 or Canon A2 Hi now forget it, unless you can find them dramatically cheaper than the VX700, and don’t mind compromising on picture and sound quality!

 

THE RIVALS

The ticket prices of the Sony CCD-VX1 and Canon A2 Hi are identical to the VX700 but neither of them can compete with it in terms of picture and sound performance. The A2 has an interchangeable lens system, which might count for something with some users, and the triple CCD sensor on the VX1 makes it a useful studio camera but it really is no competition and we suspect this machine will see them both off fairly quickly.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model                               Sony DCR-VX700

Recording format               Mini DVC

Guide price                                £2700

 

OPTICS

Lens                             f/1.6

Zoom                            x10 optical. 20x electronic

Filter diameter            52mm  

Pick-up device            0.3in CCD (440k pixels effective)

Min illum                       3 lux    

 

VIDEO DECK

Long play (LP)                        no                   

Max rec time                        60 mins

IR remote control                        yes

Edit terminal                        yes (Control L)

 

MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto focus                                yes                                          

Manual focus                 yes

Auto exposure               yes                              

Programmed AE                          yes (4-mode)  

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, 16:9 recording mode,  photo record mode, interval timer, ‘flash-motion’ (shutter presets), record review, tally lamp, animation effect, RC time and data code recording

 

VIEWFINDER

Viewfinder                       0.6in LCD colour

Viewfinder info               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, shutter speed, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, zoom, 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),  DC power in

(4-pin) Control L, external mic & headphones (minijacks),

Dimensions                               110 x 114 x 278mm                      

Weight                          1.4kg (inc. tape and battery)

 

STANDARD ACCESSORIES

Batteries (Lithium ion, lithium & alkaline), straps, AC charger/power supply,

AV lead             yes      

video light                      no                    

remote control            yes      

cassette adaptor n/a                   

RF Converter             no        

Scart adaptor                 yes                  

 

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                                 480-lines

Colour fidelity                            good

Picture stability                         excellent

Colour bleed                              slight

White balance                            good

Exposure                                   very good

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 2711

 

 

 


 

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