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With Hi8 prices tumbling and new sub £500 budget machines appearing all the time. could mid-priced 8mm machines become an endangered species? Sony certainly donít seem to think so, as they launch their latest £600 family model



The Sony CCD-TR501 is a classic family machine, in every sense of the word and its own origins can be traced back many generations. In marketing jargon it is known as a Ďstep-upí modelí, one rung up the ladder up from their cheapest Ďentry-levelí machine. It replaces the TR420, which in turn replaced the 450, and so on, back to what was the first ever step-up camcorder, the Sony Betamovie 200, launched in 1985. The model numbers may have changed, but the design philosophy remains pretty much the same. Step-up machines usually have the same basic features as their cheaper stablemates -- on which they are based -- plus a few extra goodies, to tempt would be purchasers into spending just a little more.  And so it is with the TR501, which costs £600 and is the next notch up from the TR401, also launched recently, and selling for £550.


Almost  everything you need to know about the 501 can be deduced from the labelling on the left hand side of the machine. It has a 15x optical zoom, 3-mode program AE system with settings for sports, high-speed shutter and low-light conditions. Incidentally, it will work down to 0.4 lux, though donít expect to see a great deal of detail through the noise. Thereís a range of digital effects, with the usual line-up of mosaic, sepia, black and white, negative, and solarisation modes. It has a thumbwheel-controlled manual focus, pre-set and user programmable titles and a built-in lens cover. For the record it has a mono audio recording system and thereís a switchable recording mode facility, for normal start/stop operation, five second record or anti-ground shooting.  


The LCD display panel on the side is new, so too is the accessory shoe above the lens, but the thing Sony are most proud of is battery life. The machine and box are peppered with Ďstaminaí stickers, proclaiming up to five and a half hours of continuous recording time. Closer inspection reveals this to be achievable using an optional NP-98 pack, rated at 3Ah, costing the better part of £60. Nevertheless, they have managed to reduce power consumption on this, and most of their new machines; the standard nicad battery pack will last in excess of 45 minutes (when new) with normal stop-start recording. Thatís a distinct improvement on the 20 to 30 minutes most earlier machine manage on a supplied nicad pack.


Layout and design are all very conventional, and what you would expect to find on a budget camcorder, though itís good to see features like the illuminated touch-sensitive control panel and high-power, variable-speed zoom, migrating down from higher up the model range. Getting the machine up and running couldnít be much simpler, the only preliminaries are to set the time and date, menu options are chosen using the clever thumbwheel selector on the back panel. AE mode selection is handled by a large dial; some of the other options may be a little more awkward to find, at least until you get used to the button positions.



As you might expect thereís no real surprises, picture quality is generally good with resolution on our early sample just creeping above 240 lines. Colours are cleanly defined in scenes shot in good natural daylight, thereís very little noise, even with the shuttered AE modes engaged, though as light levels fall, thereís a marked increase in grain. Low light performance is good and it copes well with normally lit interiors, though donít read too much into the headline figure of 0.4 lux, which is black cat in coal-hole territory. You can get some sort of an image in these near-dark conditions, but whether or not youíll be able to make anything out in the mush of noise, is another matter. Sony earn a couple of extra bonus points for the nifty power zoom, and the unusually responsive manual focus control.


Recorded sound is in mono, it lacks the depth and semi-spatial feel of stereo, but actual quality is still quite good. Frequency response extends well beyond what is possible with the mono VHS-C soundtrack, and thereís comparatively little hiss.  



Sony rarely take chances with features or performance on key models. The TR501 is a safe and predictable machine, well suited to the kind of family audience Sony know so well. There are cheaper, and on the face of it, better specified machines around, and it has to be said that for another £100 you could have a Hi8 model, but the 501 is still well worth considering if all you want is a simple, easy to use machine thatís capable of making watchable video movies in a wide range of conditions.



With £600 to spend on a camcorder the Canon UC3000 would have to be at or close to the top of our shortlist. Performance is comparable with the 501, but it has stereo sound, and costs £50 less. The Panasonic RX2 is a pretty good deal too, with a few extra bells and whistles, including an image stabiliser. JVC weigh in with the AX670, which weíve yet to test, but it looks quite promising at this stage. Sharpís entry-level ViewCam sells for under £600, itís rather basic but the LCD screen has a certain appeal. Another £30 buys the Samsung VP-H65 Hi8 camcorder, remarkable value for money but if editing is important then the Canon Sony and Panasonic models still have an edge, with their Control L and 5-pin edit terminals.



Make/model                               Sony CCD-TR501

Recording format               8mm

Guide price                                £600



Lens                             f/1.4, 4.1-61.5mm

Zoom                            15x optical

Filter diameter            37mm  

Pick-up device            0.3in CCD

Min illum                       0.4lux  



Long play (LP)                        yes                  

Max rec time                        240mins (LP mode)

IR remote control                        yes

Edit terminal                        yes (Control L)


MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto focus                                yes                                          

Manual focus                 yes

Auto exposure               yes                              

Programmed AE                          yes      

Fader                                        yes                  

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             yes      




time/date recording, record review, tally lamp, built-in lens cover, digital picture effects (sepia, mosaic, solarise, neg-art), anti ground-shooting, backlight compensation,



Viewfinder                       0.7in monochrome

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



Stereo                                       no        

Wind noise filter                         yes                  

Mic socket                                yes      

Headphone socket              no        

Mic                                           unidirectional electret



Sockets                                    AV out (phono), microphone & Control L (minijack)

Dimensions                               111 x 105 x 200mm                      

Weight                          0.8 kg (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            no                    



Resolution                                 240-lines

Colour fidelity                           good

Picture stability                         average

Colour bleed                              negligible

White balance                            good

Exposure                                   good

Auto focus                                  good

Audio performance                   fair

Insert edit                                  manual inserts clean

Playback thru adaptor              n/a



Value for money         8

Ease of use                  9

Performance               8

Features                      7



R Maybury 1997 0104





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