VIDEO CAMERA 1998

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SHARPER SHOOTER?

 

STANDFIRST

Sharp’s response to the latest raft of pocket digi cams is a new version of the DC1 digital ViewCam. The VL-DC3 is priced at just under £1500, so it’s off to a good start, but how does it compare with the competition?

 

COPY

In case you need reminding how quickly things change in digital camcorderland, cast your minds back to about this time last year, when we reviewed the Sharp VL-DC1. This was Sharp’s first digital ViewCam, it had a £2,000 price tag, which we considered to be a fair, if unexciting price. Back then the DC1 was the second cheapest digital camcorder on the market, and the first to sport an LCD monitor screen. A lot has happened since then! Almost every new DVC pocket cam now has a fold-out screen, advanced semi-pro facilities and as predicted, prices have tumbled. This left the DC1 looking expensive and light on features, Sharp had to do something, and fast, to stay in the running.

 

They have, it’s called the VL-DC3, a sleek-looking update of the DC1, that will be selling for just under £1500. Lopping £500 off the price was a bold move for Sharp. They’ve consistently maintained that ViewCam is a premium product; it was, when they were the only one making camcorders with LCD monitor screens, but the world and his wife caught on to the idea and they’re facing some tough competition these days.  

 

The VL-DC3 looks a lot neater than the old DC1, which had lumps, bumps and curvy bits all over the place. The general specification is still basically the same, though there have been several minor changes, and one rather interesting new development, which we’ll come to in a moment. But first the basics. The standard ViewCam layout remains the same, with the swivelling camera/handgrip module mounted on the side of the deck.  The deck and 4-inch TFT screen can be turned through 180 degrees to face the subject, (it actually rotates through 270 degrees, for overhead and low-level shots); whilst self-recording, the image and on-screen graphics are automatically inverted.  The zoom lens now has a 10x magnification, that can be digitally extended to 25x; that’s slightly less than the 12x/30x on the DC1, but low-light performance has been improved, from 8 to 5 lux, and it now comes with an infra-red remote controller.

 

Most of the controls stay pretty much the same, though the large zoom rocker on the DC1 has been replaced by a simpler thumb control on the DC3. It looks a lot better but it has made it even more difficult to use one-handed -- not that it was easy to begin with! You need to be almost double jointed to move your thumb from the stop/start button to the zoom lever, without dropping the thing... It’s also quite hard to keep the index finger out of the picture, when getting used to the machine. The four-way menu control switch is a bit fiddly too, and difficult to use when wearing thick gloves.

 

Audio dub is one of the new features. One of the two 12-bit PCM stereo soundtracks can be replaced, though there’s no provision for mixing or adjusting the sound levels whilst recording or during replay. In common with its predecessor the DC3 doesn’t have the alternative higher quality 16-bit recording mode, that most other DVC machines now have. The DC3 can replay recordings with 16-bit soundtracks, though they’re mixed in with the 12-bit soundtracks. Another new facility is the IEEE 1394 FireWire output jack, but there’s no input, or at least it isn’t enabled on the UK PAL machine. However, it does have an external recording facility, via the back door as it were. It depends on an optional ‘Digital Still’ unit called the VR-3SUP. This contains a 4 megabyte flash memory, it clips onto the side of the camcorder. We understand it will cost somewhere in the region of £300. It works like this. Digital stills, and stills captured from moving video can be transferred from the DC3 to the VR-3SUP, and from there downloaded to a PC, using a supplied serial cable and software. Now for the clever bit, Sharp tell us that it also works the other way around, and still images from a PC can be downloaded to the flash memory, and recorded on tape. Unfortunately this is a bit speculative, samples of the VR-3SUP were unavailable at the time of going to press, so we can’t say whether it works or not, and what the potential is for getting other forms of video into the machine. We’ll keep you posted.

 

Exposure options are quite limited -- no change from the DC1 -- there’s a manual iris override, manual shutter and backlight compensation, but no program exposure facilities, and only a handful of effects. They’re confined to strobe recording, gain-up and cinema mode, with the usual black bars superimposed on the top and bottom of the screen. There are a couple of unusual replay effects. A variable zoom control allows you to move in close on any part of the screen, and there’s something called still image overlap, that inserts a dissolve between a sequence of snapshot or still mode recordings.

 

At this point in a review we normally devote a few lines to the machine’s editing facilities. Well, on the DC3 there aren’t any. It records a timecode, but without an edit terminal there’s no means of controlling replay, other than the usual manual transport controls.

 

PERFORMANCE

There’s been a few small improvements to picture quality since the DC1. Resolution remains at or around the 460-line mark, but there’s a reduction in picture noise, particularly at lower lighting levels, and colours seem a touch crisper. Nevertheless, recordings made indoors, under normal room lighting, are still quite grainy, more so in the gain-up mode. Still frame and slomo replay is as smooth as ever and snapshot recordings look very good indeed. We’re also very impressed with the LCD screen, Sharp are the leaders in this field and the one on the DC3 provides one of the brightest images we’ve seen. It works well in daylight too, it cannot compete with direct sunlight but the outfit includes a fold out-sun shield. As an added bonus the screen has been treated with an anti-smear coating, that resists sticky finger marks.

 

Although the DC3 has only the format-standard 12-bit stereo soundtracks, they have a wide dynamic range and very low levels of background noise, far lower than the stereo hi-fi soundtracks on analogue camcorders. The microphones have good forward sensitivity and are reasonably well insulated against handling and motor noises but the stereo image is very shallow.  

 

VERDICT

Sharp are doing their best to chase a number of fast-moving targets. Recent digital camcorders from Sony, JVC and Panasonic -- in particular -- have set a cracking pace, that leaves the DC3 struggling to keep up. The DC3 has some good points, and existing ViewCam fans will probably regard it as an old friend, but without any editing facilities it has little to commend it to serious video movie-makers. The paucity of program exposure facilities is another limiting factor, this time for family users, accustomed to a helping hand in difficult situations.

 

THE RIVALS

The DC3 is up against the excellent Panasonic NV-DS1, and the JVC GR-DVX, the latter has an LCD monitor as well, albeit half the size of the Sharp machine. For another £100 there’s the smart little Sony DCR-P7, another well appointed machine with a fold-out LCD screen. For £200 more than the DC3 there’s the outstanding Panasonic NV-DS5 and quirky but likeable Canon MV1.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model                   Sharp VL-DC3H

Recording format               mini DVC

Guide price                                £1500

 

OPTICS

Lens                             f/1.8, 4.5-45mm

Zoom                            10x optical, 25x digital

Filter diameter            30mm  

Pick-up device            0.25in CCD

Min illum                       5 lux (gain-up mode)  

 

VIDEO DECK

Long play (LP)                        yes                  

Max rec time                        90 mins (LP mode)

IR remote control                        yes

Edit terminal                        no

 

MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto focus                                yes                                          

Manual focus                 yes

Auto exposure               yes                              

Programmed AE                          no        

Fader                                        yes                  

Manual white balance no        

Auto white balance             yes                                          

Manual zoom                             no        

Power zoom                              yes                                                                              

Insert edit                                  no        

Audio dub                                  yes

Character generator                       no                    

Digital superimposer                 no        

Image stabiliser                         yes                                          

Video light                                 no        

Battery refresh               n/a                                       

Accessory shoe             no        

 

ADDITIONAL FEATURES

world clock time/date recording, high-speed shutter (5-speed up to 1/10000th sec), manual iris, snapshot recording, strobe recording, cinema mode, self recording, timecode, still image overlap, playback zoom, backlight compensation

 

VIEWFINDER

Viewfinder                       4-in colour LCD (TFT matrix)

Viewfinder info               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count timecode, shutter speed, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, title, zoom mode

 

AUDIO

Stereo                                       yes (2 x 12-bit PCM stereo)

Wind noise filter                         no                   

Mic socket                                yes (via clip-on AV pack)                       

Headphone socket              no        

Mic                                           single point stereo

 

GENERAL

Sockets                                    DV out jack (FireWire IEEE 1394), AV out, DC power,

microphone etc (proprietary multi-way connector). Clip-on AV pack: AV out (phono),

S-Video out (mini DIN), microphone (minijack)

 

Dimensions                               169 x 101 x 73mm                      

Weight                          0.8kg (inc tape and battery)

 

STANDARD ACCESSORIES

Batteries (lithium-ion and lithium), straps, AC charger/power supply, sun hood, AV pack

AV lead             yes

video light                      no                    

remote control            yes

cassette adaptor n/a                   

RF Converter             no        

SCART adaptor              yes      

 

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                                 460-lines

Colour fidelity                           good

Picture stability                         good

Colour bleed                              none

White balance                            good

Exposure                                   fair

Auto focus                                  average

Audio performance                   average

Insert edit                                  n/a

Playback thru adaptor              n/a

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money            7

Ease of use                   8

Performance                  8 

Features                       7

 

---end---

R Maybury 1997 2511

 

 

 


 

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