HomeSoftwareArchiveTop TipsGlossaryOther Stuff




Introducing the world’s smallest and lightest Hi 8 camcorder, it’s also got an LCD screen and a smart battery, but how will the new £1300 Sony SC55 fare in a market where digital camcorders are now selling for less than £1800?



Sony’s ‘Vision’ series of camcorders started to appear three years ago. The first one was the CCD-SC5, a direct response to Sharp’s innovative ViewCam with its built-in LCD viewing screen.  Everyone hoped the ‘LCD Cams’ would help revive the flagging camcorder market, then dogged by falling sales and rising prices. There’s no doubt they were a great idea, they permit on-the-spot replay, with sound, that several people can watch. They’re fun and easy to use but as it turned out, the screens imposed considerable cost penalties, consequently they’ve had only a fairly limited success. Nevertheless Sony have stuck with it and their range has been steadily refined, though at least two model generations, culminating with the SC55. Sony clearly believe there’s still some mileage left in the concept in general, and analogue high-band technology in particular, Hi8 still has a distinct price advantage over the new digital format, but for how long?


It could be another year or so before the price of DVC camcorders dip much below £1500, and it will be quite a while before the format has any impact on the budget and family camcorder sector. However, the CCD-SC55 is a top-end machine, aimed at discriminating users who are willing to pay a premium for high quality pictures and sound, convenience and ease of use, and that’s precisely the audience DVC camcorder manufacturers -- including Sony -- are now turning their attention to, now that the format has established a foothold in the semi-professional and enthusiast market. To be sure the SC55 has got a job on its hands, so what can it do?


The most striking things about the new machine are the shape and size, it’s a radical departure from its high-band predecessor, the SC8, which to be charitable, was a bit of a lump. The SC55 adopts the horizontal layout of its rivals from Sharp and JVC, this gives it a much neater appearance, and makes it easier to hold. The lens is now on the far left side of the body, and the screen can now be folded forward, so it faces the subject (the image is automatically inverted), for so-called ‘mirror’ recording. The screen also has a much wide range of movement and can be see from above as well as below. The SC8 was a point-and-shoot machine with only a limited range of creative facilities; the SC55 is far more versatile with a 6-mode program AE system, 8 picture effects, a title generator, SteadyShot image stabilisation, variable-speed 10x optical/20x digital zooms, RC timecode recording -- we’ll come back to that in a moment  -- and tape-tuning.


The program AE covers a number of commonly-encountered shooting conditions, they include:

* spotlight -- exposure compensation for brightly-lit subjects

* sports lesson -- high speed shutter to capture fast movement

* soft portrait -- subject stands out against a soft-focus background

* beach and ski -- exposure compensation for bright backgrounds

* sunset and moon -- for capturing sunsets and fireworks

* landscape -- for shooting landscapes through a window or wire net fence


There are no manual exposure controls but it does have a separate backlight compensation function. Used judiciously the picture effects can give added interest  to home video movies. They are:

* mosaic -- ‘blocky’ digital texture

* solarise -- colour contrast deliberately exaggerated for a cartoon-like effect

* B&W -- black and white recording

* sepia -- monochrome pictures with an ‘old-tyme’ sepia tint

* neg. art -- colour reversal

* pastel -- recordings are rendered with light pastel colours  

* slim -- the picture is compressed horizontally for widescreen viewing

* stretch -- the picture is stretched, for no apparent good reason...


In addition there are two ‘cinema; modes, the first one superimposes black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, the other one compresses the image so that it will fill the entire width of the screen, when viewed in the ‘expand, mode on a 16:9 TV. The title generator has 8 pre-set displays (hello!, happy birthday, happy holidays, congratulations, wedding, vacation, the end, and a rather naff ‘our sweet baby’), plus two user-set pages consisting of one line of 22 characters; these can be superimposed on one of 7 background colours. SteadyShot is an electronic image stabilisation system, it works quite well, eliminating minor camera shake but there is some loss of quality.


Tape tuning or ORC is a new feature. The machine makes a short test recording lasting about 10 seconds, whilst it works what type of tape is being used and optimises the recording conditions accordingly. NTSC replay is another unusual feature and it could come in handy for anyone with camcorder-owning relatives in North America or the Far East.


Now for some rather bad news. RC timecodes are automatically recorded on all tapes, and there’s also the option to write timecode on previously recorded tapes. Sounds good, but the instructions make no mention of assemble editing, and there’s no Control L/LANC socket on the machine. The spec sheets say there is an LANC connection on a 26-pin connector mounted on the side of the machine. Unfortunately Sony tell us there are no plans to make use of this facility, either by an adaptor lead, or with a docking station, like the ones available for previous Vision models. This seems like a major oversight, what on earth is the point of RCTC if you can’t make use of it? Sony say they expect the SC55 to be brought by the sort of people who do not want to be stuck behind a viewfinder, and are more interested in point-and-shoot and snapshot recording, than putting together polished video movies. It seems like they’ve got little choice...


The SC55 is powered by a lithium ion re-chargeable battery, the one supplied lasts for a good 40 to 50 minutes, with normal stop and start recording. This is a new kind of battery pack, called ‘infolithium’, which means this, and other compatible machines can give a reasonably accurate prediction about time remaining, in minutes. We found it to be a little optimistic but it’s a whole lot better than the usual vague segmented battery symbol.


Handling is generally good, though the unusual layout of the start/stop/mode and zoom controls takes a little getting used to. The machine can be used one-handed, two are better, but care needs to be taken to prevent fingers on the user’s left hand from straying into the shot. The rest of the controls are fairly well located, some of them are small and quite fiddly, especially if you’re wearing gloves. The menu-driven on-screen displays are easy to use, though some of frequently-used options, like the SteadyShot enable are well down the list, resulting in a fair amount of button prodding. The microphone is mounted well out of the way on the front of the machine; it’s fairly obvious it’s not going to produce much of a stereo image but it has an external mic socket for those who want to make more of its sound recording facilities.



The LCD screen is clear and bright, even when viewed in strong daylight, though the clip-on shield is needed in direct sunlight. Resolution is in the region of 370-lines, however it’s difficult to be precise without manual focus. Sony have a lot of faith in their auto-focusing systems, to be fair the one on the SC55 is not too bad but it suffers from the usual problems when confronted by scenes with more than one subject to lock on to. There is a focus lock function but it’s no substitute for a proper manual focus control. Colours are clean and well defined, accuracy is good in natural light and noise levels are low. White balance is automatic, it works well but recordings made under fluorescent light have a reddish tinge.


The microscopic loudspeaker mounted on the side of the case is surprisingly loud, there’s enough volume for two or three people to hear what’s going on. Recorded sound quality is good, though as we mentioned earlier the stereo image is quite narrow and there’s very little separation on the right and left channel more than a metre or so away from the microphone. It’s quite well insulated though, motor whine and handling noises are quite well suppressed.



The SC55 has arrived at a time when the camcorder market is about to undergo some fundamental changes, and it has appeared within a few weeks of the remarkable JVC GR-DV1 digital camcorder. It’s unfair to draw too many comparisons between these two machines, to begin with the DV1 costs £500 more, but they do have a few things in common. They’re roughly the same size and weight (the DV1 is actually a little smaller...), they’re both easy to use, go-anywhere designs, targeted at discriminating movie-makers who take picture and sound quality seriously. When you consider the performance, editing and post-production benefits offered by the DVC format --and the sorry lack of them on the SC55 -- the price differential may not be quite so significant. The times they are a-changing...



It depends on your priorities. If the LCD screen and ease of use are key features then the SC55’s main rival has to be the Sharp VL-H420 ViewCam, which has a

 list price of £1200. It has a larger screen but fewer creative facilities, and like the SC55, no editing features to speak of. The slightly more advanced Sharp VL-H460 costs £1500 and it’s notable for having a video line input but it’s still poorly equipped for editing, and we’re straying perilously close to DV1 territory. Other Hi 8 camcorders with LCD screens include the Sony TRV60 and 70. They’re conventional ‘shoe-shape’ machines with secondary black and white and colour viewfinders; they sell for £1000 and £1400 respectively. They’re both due to be replaced soon by the similarly specified TRV61 and 91 at £1000 and £1300. If high-band recording quality is the main consideration then prices start a good deal lower, at just £700 for the Samsung VP-H65, with other models such as the Hitachi VM-H510, Panasonic NV-S70 and Canon UC8 Hi selling for between £800 and £900.



Make/model                               Sony CCD-SC55

Recording format               Hi8/8mm

Guide price                                £1300



Lens                             f/1.8 - 2.9, 4.2 - 42mm

Zoom                            x10 optical, x20 digital

Filter diameter            n/a

Pick-up device            0.3in CCD

Min illum                       4 lux    



Long play (LP)                        yes                  

Max rec time                        240mins (LP mode)

IR remote control                        yes

Edit terminal                        yes (Control L, see text)


MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto focus                                yes                  

Manual focus                 no (lock only)    

Auto exposure               yes                              

Programmed AE                          yes (6-modes)

Fader                                        yes (2-modes)            

Manual white balance no        

Auto white balance             yes                                          

Manual zoom                             no        

Power zoom                              yes                                                                              

Insert edit                                  no        

Audio dub                                  no

Character generator                       yes                  

Digital superimposer                 no        

Image stabiliser                         yes                                          

Video light                                 no        

Battery refresh               no                                        

Accessory shoe             no        




time/date recording, picture effects (mosaic, solarize, b&w, sepia, nega art, pastel, slim, stretch), tally lamp, 5-sec recording mode, backlight compensation, tape tuning, RC time code recording, index mark/scan, NTSC replay, ‘infolithium’ battery pack, demo mode



Viewfinder                       3-inch colour LCD

Viewfinder info               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, AE & effects mode, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, title, zoom position, dew screen brightness, stabiliser, mirror mode



Stereo                                       yes      

Wind noise filter                         yes                  

Mic socket                                yes                  

Headphone socket              yes      

Mic                                           stereo unidirectional electret



Sockets                                    headphone, microphone AV out (minijack), S-Vidfeo

                                                out (mini DIN), DC power, Control L, data (26 pin 

                                                proprietary connector)

Dimensions                               140 x 101 x 76 mm                      

Weight                          0.8 kg (inc. tape and battery)



Batteries (lithium-ion and AA dry cells), straps, AC charger/power supply,

AV lead             yes      

video light                      no                    

remote control            yes      

cassette adaptor n/a                   

RF Converter             no        

Scart adaptor                 yes                  



Resolution                                 370-lines

Colour fidelity                           good

Picture stability                         good

Colour bleed                              negligible

White balance                            average

Exposure                                   good

Auto focus                                  average

Audio performance                   fair

Insert edit                                  manual inserts clean

Playback thru adaptor              n/a



Value for money         7

Ease of use                  8

Performance               8

Features                      7



R Maybury 1996 1806





[Home][Software][Archive][Top Tips][Glossary][Other Stuff]

Copyright (c) 2005 Rick Maybury Ltd.