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It might be Sony’s newest budget 8mm camcorder, but the CCD-TR401 is far from basic...



It’s usually possible to spot a budget camcorder at a hundred paces. There’s something about the styling, maybe it’s the lack of controls, or the bold, space-filling  labelling, that says cheap and cheerful. You have to get quite close to the TR401, close enough to read the model number, before it becomes obvious that this is Sony’s latest economy model.


In fact the only real clue that this is a bargain-basement product is an external dew indicator, just above the viewfinder module; we haven’t seen one of those for years. Everything else about the 401 has come to it via more expensive models in the range. On the side there’s an informative LCD panel, below that is a program auto-exposure dial, and on the top, tape replay is controlled by an illuminated, membrane keypad. If you stare really hard, you might just notice the lack of any manual focus controls, and the panel on the back, where you normally find a collection of menu and secondary function controls, is largely empty, but there’s no doubt the general impression is one of quality.


The big question though, is what corners have been cut? The simple answer is none, apart from the lack of manual focus. In fact, compared with its immediate predecessor, the TR330, the 401 is a better looking, better specified and better performing machine. Zoom power has been increased from 10x to 13x, low light sensitivity is down from 0.6 lux to 0.5 lux, it now comes with remote control, improved controls and displays and there’s a dry battery case in the accessory pack. The 401 has also benefited from Sony’s efforts to improve battery running times, by reducing power consumption; the supplied nicad pack lasts for a good 35 to 40 minutes, with normal stop/start shooting.


A few things stay the same. The 3-mode program AE system has the same options, namely ‘sports’ -- higher shutter speeds to reduce blur on fast motion; ‘high-speed shutter’ -- even faster shutter speeds, for action sports, and ‘twilight’ -- gain up, for extreme low-light conditions. The only other exposure aid is a backlight button, where the subject is strongly lit from behind. It has a couple of creative options too. There’s a simple title generaor with ten choices, ranging in naffness from ‘How Pretty’ to  ‘Birthday Fun’, it’s there if you want it... It has a Control L/LANC edit terminal and the other handly extra is a 5-second recording mode; in our option that can do more to improve the look of a video movies, than armfuls of digital special effects.



It’s the sort of machine your old granny can pick up and use right away. The only preliminaries are to charge the main battery. The clock battery is factory installed and once you’ve set the time and date it’s ready to go. Incidentally,  the clock battery lives in a little compartment just behind the microphone, along with three tiny switches for the remote control, beeper and setting LP or SP recording speed. The viewfinder display has an abbreviated range of indicators, there’s nothing to tell you what shooting mode you’re in, and you can’t have date and time on the screen at the same time. It has a two-speed zoom and like virtually all Sony machines, there’s an edit search facility, so you can easily insert new sequences, or trim back on the last scene.



Normally we’d begin with the picture parameters but it’s always difficult to make precise resolution measurements on a machine that doesn’t have manual focus, so we start by talking about that. The AF system on this machine is quite slow but it is accurate, and there’s minimal overshoot. Provided you don’t wave it around, and the subject doesn’t stray too far from the centre of the screen, it’s livable. However, no system is perfect, this one can and does make mistakes, and it becomes even less reliable in poor light, when contrast levels are lower. So whilst the low-light figure looks impressive, in poor light focus can be indecisive.


Bearing in mind that the margin for error increases when assessing resolution, our sample still did quite well with a figure of just over 240-lines. Generally speaking picture quality is good, colours are sharp and well defined, and there’s lower than average levels of noise in the picture.


The microphone is quite well insulated against handling noises and motor whine, forward sensitivity is good and there’s minimal background hiss on the mono soundtrack.


Deck stability is nothing to write home about and a rapid pitching movement during record or replay will disrupt the picture.  



From the outside the 401 looks more like a mid-market machine, and recordings made in good light do nothing to alter that impression. However, its limitations can become apparent in difficult conditions. We’ve never been very happy with auto-only focussing; the AF system on this machine is better than most but it still can’t be relied upon in poor light, which ironically is one of the areas where this machine has the potential to out-perform its rivals. Nevertheless the 401 remains a rather likeable little machine, that will suit anyone looking for an inexpensive camcorder that’s easy to use and going to give a good picture in undemanding situations.



Sony prefer to call the 401 an entry-level camcorder, rather than a budget model, which rightly indicates that there are plenty of cheaper machines on the market, but are they as good? Samsung’s VP-K60 closely matches the 401’s specification, and it costs over £100 less, but the picture quality isn’t as sharpo, and it lacks any sort of edit terminal. The K70 is a little more advanced but Sony still have the edge when it comes to performance and editing. JVC’s representitive at this end of the market is the newly launched GR-AX270, this £500 machine looks quite enticing, look out for a review soon. The Panasonic NV-RX1 is worth thinking about, though the VHS mono soundtrack isn’t as clean as the Sony’s FM system. However, the 401’s closest rival has to be the excellent Canon UC3000, which also costs £550. It out-features the 401 on almost every count, with extras like stereo sound and a colour viewfinder, the icing on a most impressive cake.  



Make/model                               Sony CCD-TR401

Recording format               8mm

Guide price                                £550



Lens                             f/1.8, 5.5-68.9mm

Zoom                            x13

Filter diameter            37mm  

Pick-up device            0.3in CCD

Min illum                       0.5lux  



Long play (LP)                        yes                  

Max rec time                        240mins (LP mode)

IR remote control                        yes

Edit terminal                        yes (LANC)


MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto focus                                yes                                          

Manual focus                 no        

Auto exposure               yes                              

Programmed AE                          yes (3-mode)  

Fader                                        no                    

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                         no                                           

Video light                                 no        

Battery refresh               no                                        

Accessory shoe             no        



time/date recording, record review, tally lamp, built-in lens cover, 5-second record, backlight compensation, dry battery pack



Viewfinder                       0.6in monochrome

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



Stereo                                       no        

Wind noise filter                         no                   

Mic socket                                yes                  

Headphone socket              no        

Mic                                           unidirectional electret



Sockets                                    AV out (phono), microphone and LANC (minijack)

Dimensions                               115 x 103 x 207 mm                      

Weight                          0.94kg (inc. tape and battery)



Batteries (nicad and 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                  



Resolution                                 240-lines

Colour fidelity                           good

Picture stability                         average

Colour bleed                              negligible

White balance                            good

Exposure                                   average

Auto focus                                  good

Audio performance                   average

Insert edit                                  manual inserts clean

Playback thru adaptor              n/a



Value for money        9

Ease of use                 9                     

Performance              8 

Features                     7



R Maybury 1997 1704





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