VIDEO CAMERA 1996

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FLIPPING DECK...

 

INTRO

JVC started the ball rolling, but Sony seem determined to set the pace with the latest and arguably the cutest pocket digital camcorder to date

 

COPY

In a slightly unusual reversal of roles Sony have found themselves following a trend, rather than creating one. JVC were first into the market with a pocket-size digital camcorder last July, when they launched the GR-DV1. It is one of those very rare products that has achieved an almost instant cult status in the style mags and Sunday supplements, and they’ve been selling like the proverbial hot-cakes.

 

Sony were actually the first to launch digital camcorders, back in late 1995, but they saw it primarily as a enthusiast product. JVC, on the other hand latched onto the format’s potential for miniaturisation, and the rest is history. It’s unfair to regard the Sony DCR-PC7 as a DV1 clone or me-too product, but it’s difficult to ignore the many striking similarities. They both have the lens, colour viewfinder and microphone sitting on top of a rectangular-shaped deck, finished in satin aluminium. Layout and proportions are all very alike, though there’s no denying the PC7 is the prettier of the two. They’re also in the same price ballpark, though the DV1 is the cheaper of the two, selling for £1800; the PC7 has just reached dealers showrooms, bearing a £2000 price tag. 

 

There is one crucial difference though, and that’s the PC7’s 2.5-inch fold-out colour LCD screen. This is also one of the main reasons it costs £200 more than its rival, and gives it a markedly different persona. The LCD screen also puts it in contention with Sharp’s new VL-DC1 digital ViewCam, also selling for £2000, though this machine is a good deal larger and heavier. One feature that is exclusive to the PC7 is a ‘FireWire’  digital output jack, which enables the machine to communicate directly with other digital systems, including PCs fitted with an optional DV ‘cap’ board (rrp £500).

 

However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves now. Back to the PC7 and its video movie-making facilities. The exposure system is designed for ease of use, rather than outright flexibility;  it has none of the trick digital effects found on most of their regular 8mm and Hi8 machines, or, as a matter of interest, the JVC machine, which is dripping with fancy creative facilities. It has all the basics though, there’s a three program auto-exposure (AE) modes, optimised for low-light, backlit and fast action sequences, plus a simple fader. The only significant extras are an electronic stabiliser, zoom facility, which doubles the magnification of the optical zoom to x20, and a snapshot recording mode, though the latter is pretty well a standard feature on all digital camcorders.

 

The LCD screen folds flat to the side of the machine when not in use, when it’s opened it automatically disables the LCD viewfinder, and exposes a set of membrane buttons for the menu-driven on-screen display, screen brightness, and a volume control. The screen follows the normal convention of turning through 270 degrees, so that it can face the subject. The image is inverted, so that it appears the right way up. Most of the rest of the controls are grouped together on the back panel, they include a set of illuminated tape transport keys, similar to the type used on their current TR camcorders. Zoom and auto-focus disable buttons are on the right side, manual focus is via a collar on the front of the lens barrel. The one on our well-used sample was a little sloppy, it could have done with being a slightly stiffer, to give it more ‘feel’. 

 

The AV output sockets and connectors are hidden behind a little flap on the bottom edge of the machine; there’s a combined composite video, audio and headphone jack, a mini DIN socket for S-Video output, and a proprietary multi-pin connector for, amongst other things, DC power the all-important Control L edit terminal and external microphone. They’re available on an external plug-in adaptor unit that attaches to the side of the deck. The DV jack is on the front, protected by a rubber bung.

 

The Info Lithium battery packs clips to the left side of the machine; the standard pack is rated at just 730 mA/hr, which gives only around 20 minutes running time. The bulkier 1350 mA/hr pack (NP-F200, £120) is well worth considering if you want to do some serious shooting. Incidentally, it can be pig to change, a real nail-breaker... The flap covering the tape deck can be quite tricky to open as well, and tape loading can be quite a fiddly business, especially if you’re wearing gloves.

 

Another less welcome, similarity between the DVI and the PC7 is the almost complete disregard for ergonomics. A rectangular box is not the easiest of shapes to hold, the control layout seems to have been designed for a double-jointed alien with six long, thin fingers. It’s a shame Sony have decided to follow JVC down this rather inelegant route. This tiny deck is just crying out for some really innovative case designs.

 

PERFORMANCE

As we’ve said our review sample had been quite well used, so we were prepared for less than perfect performance, nevertheless it did really well. The new 810k CCD imaging chip certainly showed its worth; in good natural light resolution was just over 470 lines. Luminance noise levels are extremely low, in fact the PC7 has one of the cleanest pictures we’ve seen, on any DV machine. Colours are really crisp and well defined and again, there’s minimal noise, even in patches of highly saturated colours. Picture stability is outstanding, and the deck can withstand quite severe physical shock and vibration, before there’s any effect on the picture.

 

As LCD screens go the two fitted to this machine are reasonably good, though Sharp still have the edge in this respect and the one fitted to their latest digital ViewCam is the best we’ve seen. Operationally it’s okay, but only if there’s no direct light, and it sucks power out of the battery. More often than not we found ourselves using the conventional viewfinder, which was faster to use, and easier to see. The LCD screen is occasionally useful for a couple of people to watch an on the spot playback. The minute speaker makes a noise, you can just about hear it if you get close, but it’s almost impossible to make it out more than a metres or so away.

 

The top-mounted microphones produce a reasonable stereo image, though for obvious reasons they’re not very directional, and not that well insulated against handling and motor noises. The soundtrack sounds great, plenty of detail, and a wide, wide dynamic range, but it tends to be quite cluttered, with almost equal prominence given to sounds coming from behind and out of shot, which can sound confusing at times. The lack of an on-board external microphone socket is a bit of a nuisance, and an unusual lack of attention to detail for Sony.

 

VERDICT

This is one very smart little camcorder, it performs exceptionally well, but it’s not an easy machine to pigeon-hole. The relatively modest line up of convenience and creative features leads us to suspect they’re targeting Sharp’s digital ViewCam just as closely as the JVC DV1. It’s not the sort of machine to appeal to enthusiasts and serious video movie makers, though picture performance is certainly up to semi pro standards. In the end the PC7, like the DV1 and Sharp DC1 defy simple categorisation, they’re effectively a new species, opening up the camcorder market to a much wider audience and helping to create a new interest in video movie-making.

 

THE RIVALS

It’s a three-horse race, at least until JVC launch their LCD DV cam next spring. The DV1 is the one to go for, if you’re not concerned about the LCD screen, like the idea of a lot of creative facilities, and the slightly cheaper £1800 price tag. Sharp’s digital ViewCam has an odd mixture of exposure options, neither fish nor fowl, with it’s manual exposure system, but no program AE. On balance it probably suits those seeking absolute simplicity and ease of use. The PC7 is a good compromise, what it lacks in tricks and effects it makes up for with the important digital interface, editing terminal and performance, with a choice of viewfinders.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model                               Sony DCR-PC7E

Recording format               Mini DV

Guide price                                £2000

 

OPTICS

Lens                             f/1.8, 4 - 40mm

Zoom                            x10 optical, x20 electronic 

Filter diameter            37mm  

Pick-up device            0.3in CCD (810k pixel)

Min illum                       lux       

 

VIDEO DECK

Long play (LP)                        no                   

Max rec time                        60 mins

IR remote control                        yes

Edit terminal                        yes (Control L/LANC), see text

 

MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto focus                                yes                                          

Manual focus                 yes      

Auto exposure               yes                              

Programmed AE                          yes (3-mode)  

Fader                                        yes                  

Manual white balance yes      

Auto white balance             yes                                          

Manual zoom                             no        

Power zoom                              yes                                                                              

Insert edit                                  n/a       

Audio dub                                  yes

Character generator                       no                    

Digital superimposer                 no        

Image stabiliser                         yes                                          

Video light                                 no        

Battery refresh               n/a                                       

Accessory shoe             yes      

 

 

ADDITIONAL FEATURES

time/date recording, record review, tally lamp, infolithium battery, snapshot mode

 

VIEWFINDER

Viewfinder                       2.5 in and 0.6in colour LCD screens

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

 

AUDIO

Stereo                                       yes      

Wind noise filter                         no                   

Mic socket                                see text                       

Headphone socket              yes      

Mic                                           single-point stereo

 

GENERAL

Sockets                                    AV out/headphone (minijack) S-Video out (mini DIN),

DV out (DV jack),  AV/edit/power (proprietary multi-pin)

Dimensions                               59 x 129 x 118mm                      

Weight                          0.5kg (inc tape and battery)

 

STANDARD ACCESSORIES

Batteries (lithium), 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                                 470-lines

Colour fidelity                           good

Picture stability                         very good    

Colour bleed                              none

White balance                            good

Exposure                                   good

Auto focus                                  good

Audio performance                   average

Insert edit                                  manual inserts clean

Playback thru adaptor              n/a

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money         8

Ease of use                  8

Performance               9

Features                      9

 

---end---

R Maybury 1996 3110

 

 

 


 

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