Looking at Sony’s latest HD1000u on-shoulder camcorder and comparing it to Panasonic’s long-time AG-DVC60 and DVC20 on-shoulder prosumer camcorders, it’s clear where Sony’s inspiration came from. Both shoot on MiniDV tape. Both look more professional than they are. Both offer a stereo microphone, integrated lens, XLR audio input and plenty of space to stick on wireless microphones and other important production gear. Both only have one ring on the lens. But even though the panasonic clearly offers more direct access to control the capabilities of the camcorder, the key difference here is that Sony has taken the design and updated it for HD.
Come and follow me for my hands-on with the HD1000u at the recent Sony event in NYC,
complete with a slew of original photos from all angles…
Let’s start with another look at Panasonic’s DVC-60, which shares many design cues from their DVC100 and DVC30 professional camcorders.
First of all, You can see that Panasonic puts the deck far forward, right behind the imaging block for the lens. Sony does the same. But after this, Panasonic “bends” the camcorder body upward at an odd angle for no apparent reason- because the actual base of the camcorder is still much lower and the shoulder rest is straight back from the front of the camcorder. Sony’s design is straight throughout.
Panasonic also took the Canon L-series approach to battery placement here (as opposed to putting the battery at the rear of the camcorder as they did with the other DVC-named camcorders). The battery sticks out oddly on the side. It also takes up valuable room that would normally be used to velcro wireless receivers or other accessories to the side of the camcorder.
What this does is it opens up the back of the camcorder to mount accessories. There are two screws here where you can mount a plate and start adding on to your heart’s content. This is actually good because adding weight behind the shoulder balances the camcorder on the shoulder and makes it far easier to support for longer periods of time, compared to placing all the weight in the operator’s hand.
But you can see here where there is plenty of room below the flat surface where the battery could have been mounted above the XLR jacks and still left plenty of room for accessories. There was no need to have the battery stick out precariously like this.
The top view clearly shows how the battery is just waiting to to be hit or to hit something by sticking out that far.
The cover for the controls is the LCD, much as we have seen on every prosumer camcorder for quite some time now. Interestingly, the LCD is low and almost quite usable while the camera is on the shoulder. It would be hard to mount it further forward with that body design, so they made the most of it that they could, except for the small size of the LCD screen. Given its placement, the screen could have been considerably larger- useful for studio work- and not require any larger camcorder body for it to snap into.
Now, lets compare this to the new Sony HD1000u.
These images are larger than shown here and clicking on them will bring up the larger versions in a seperate window.
Here you can see a more ordinary, less wonky, “straight” design from front to back. There are far less controls offered for the end user to adjust settings on the camcorder, but we’ll cover this more in depth later.
You can see that you have the single adjustment ring on the lens, padded shoulder, viewfinder and stereo microphone- although Sony’s microphone looks like a single-channel mono microphone, it is actually a stereo mic, which we’ll see a little bit more of later.
The other interesting design element here is the LCD screen over top of the viewfinder- both of which are LCD based. This places the LCD several inches further forward than the Panasonic design, but also considerably higher. Do you want to show everyone what you are shooting? Hmmm. Trade-offs abound in design.
One thing you can’t see very well, and which isn’t mentioned in the brochure at all, is there are three slits in the plastic case where the operator’s right ear would naturally fall when using the viewfinder. Is this a speaker that the shooter can use to monitor the audio while recording without using headphones? That would be a nice feature the DXC-250 (a much more professional camcorder) lacked, but is common on professional camcorders. Or it could just be a common design element with no actual functional purpose. I didn’t think to test it, and Sony’s manual doesn’t say.
Next we see the back of the Sony HD1000u. Very direct and to the point here in comparison to the Panasonic DVC60. The battery is in a sunken well so small batteries are actually fully protected from bumps, while the largest of batteries will stick out a bit. This is great as it also allows for existing battery accessories like Coco, to sit in the battery well and provide 12v power for on-camera lights and other accessories.
Specific kudos to Sony for continuing to use, and refine, the Infolithium-L series of battery- the battery they introduced with the very first DV camcorder, the VX-1000, in 1995. Sony touts that one NP-F970 will run this camcorder for 10 hours. That’s nice.
It would be a wonderful development if IDX or other companies developed drop-in mounts for professional batteries just like they did with the JVC HDV camcorder. These large batteries feature more power than the little batteries and would be more apt to supply both the camcorder and a higher-power on-camera light, as well as other accessories.
The right side of the camcorder is flat and ready for you to velcro on anything your heart desires. From hard drive recorder to wireless microphone. Although you can’t see the LCD screen in this rear view, you can see how tiny the opening is for the viewfinder. We’ll take a closer look at why that opening is so small when I take that cover off and look inside the viewfinder itself later.
So lets swing around front and we’ll find the same lean approach to design here as well. For all intents and purposes, it looks like a normal, capable camcorder. You don’t even notice the LCD screen folded into its pocket on the viewfinder. This screen can be swung around to the front so your talent can see themselves while you can continue to look through the viewfinder. While this is not very different from most prosumer or consumer camcorders, the placement of the LCD screen is far enough forward to make this more usable- except if you have an on-camera light right next to it making it impossible for the talent to see the much darker (compared to the light) LCD screen.
Again, the microphone looks like a very basic mono, short shotgun, type of mic but it is indeed a stereo microphone that you can unplug and replace with your own audio feed. This is important since, unlike the Panasonic, Sony offers no XLR jacks or any other way to get audio into the camcorder. This is quite an unusual omission when Sony calls the HD1000u a professional camcorder. We’ll talk more about “professional” later.
Now for the right side of the camcorder. One nice thing to notice here is that Sony has taken advantage of the extra space on this large camera body and not only provided left and right audio out, composite video out and “S” video out, but there are also three distinct, color coded, component video output jacks.
This is a rarity in the prosumer world of compact camcorders that almost exclusively require specialized and expensive cables to get analogue signals and component video out. It has been nearly a decade since the last prosumer camcorder Sony released with a full set of analogue output jacks. Back on those camcorders, they were also input jacks but I did not have the ability to test to see if these were input jacks on the HD1000u.
This is not the end of the I/O fun, however. Behind another door*, there is a USB port, HDMI output and a Memory stick slot to record those 6.1 megapixel stills. That’s pretty darn big stills from a video camcorder. I didn’t have a memory stick with me to test the quality and actual resolution of the stills. The HD1000u brochure says that your stills are limited to 4.6 megapixels while you are shooting video. The 6.1 megapixels are only available in “photo only” mode. :(
*unlike the other port covers which were hard rubber, but flexible; this door was hard plastic and popped off the camcorder and into my hand before it opened as far as I thought it would, or should, open. Oddly enough, I think it was designed to pop off instead of breaking. The “hinge” that holds it is spring-loaded and, with a thin screwdriver, I was able to slide the door back into place and close the cover. Why not just make it rubberized like all the other covers, or make it open wider? I have no idea.
Continuing to the back of the camcorder, to the right of the battery compartment, there’s another hard rubber door with three more very important jacks- 4-pin Firewire (aka I-Link) a Lanc port and a headphone jack.
There are numerous Lanc controls for prosumer and consumer camcorders and they have proven to be very handy in maximizing the usefulness of your camcorder for a tiny fraction of what it would cost to do the same thing if you had a professional camcorder. Even Sony now offers the RM-1BP Lanc remote with variable speed zooming. My personal favorite is the Varizoom StealthZoom.
The Firewire output offers numerous options to down convert HDV to DV: anamorphic squeeze, edge crop and letterbox. The anamorphic squeeze is particularly interesting because it lets users get the footage into their SD editing systems and then click the option that tells the editing program and DVD authoring program that the footage is anamorphic. Then it is handled properly all the way to the end user’s TV screen. With letterboxed footage, those black bars are in the video frame permanently.
On the left side of the battery is a flat power jack so you can power your camcorder with the AC adapter. As delicate as this plug is, There’s really not much you can do to improve this situation except run for 10 hours off one battery. :)
On top of the camcorder is the battery release, carry strap mount and a second accessory shoe. The HD1000u brochure shows the shoe holding Sony’s own HVR-DR60 hard drive recorder, which is also powered by the Infolithium-L battery. Maybe Sony ought to think of a way to offer accessory power either from the shoe or from other jacks on the camcorder, as opposed to using multiple batteries for the camcorder, the hard drive recorder, the on-camera light, wireless microphone, etc, etc.
Unlike Canon’s XH-A1 and XH-G1 HDV camcorders that put the battery inside the camcorder, behind a door (a design that Sony abandoned after its first such camcorder- the VX-1000), the positioning of the battery release and the battery itself is similar to other prosumer camcorders and enables changing the battery in just a few seconds. There’s nothing to complain about here.
Continuing up the right hand side of the camcorder, you can see that I removed the eyepiece to see what was going on inside this viewfinder. Needless to say, I was surprised by the infinitesimal 0.27″ LCD screen. Do what you want with optics, but this diminutive screen only has 123,200 pixels. That’s very low resolution considering that you’re shooting video with 2,280,000 active pixels.
The 2.7″ LCD screen on top does a little better with 211,200 pixels, but spread out over a much wider area, the pixels per inch is still pretty low.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the screen itself.
Here you can see a close-up shot of the screen and the set Sony put together just for this event. Please excuse the different color balances because the LCD has cold cathode fluorescents behind it and the set was lit with tungsten lights.
You can see the battery meter giving minute readings. Audio levels are displayed, the backlight compensation is on, there’s no tape, and there are two icons down in the right hand side that are the dead giveaway of where this camcorder came from.
No matter that the HVR-Z1U, HVR-V1U, HDR-FX1, HDR-FX7 camcorders have “p-menus” too, the difference is that there is a dedicated button to access the p-menu, versus the menu, versus selecting manual control of iris, gain, shutter, focus, white balance, audio level, and more. There is a button for each feature on a pro camcorder because when you need access to that feature, you need it now. Not after poking around for some time in the menus. This is not possible with the HD1000u because, at its core, it is a consumer camcorder and uses the consumer touch-screen menu system to access all those manual features- except one.
Which one? Well, you have to go into the menu and decide what the “manual” button makes manual. Is it focus? Is it iris? Zoom? AE Shift? White Balance shift? What will that single lens ring control?
The problem with these camcorders is that making just one thing manual is generally useless. Yes, manual focus is fine. But if you decide the ring will be manual iris, then the camera will just crank up the gain to make a dark image brighter. Or if you are trying to overexpose the image, the camera will just crank up the shutter to make it darker. You would have to make ALL THREE (iris, shutter, gain) of those controls manual to be able to control the image at all. It is a magical balancing act that requires immediate access to numerous capabilities in rapid succession. You simply can’t do that with this camcorder. It is hobbled by the consumer core, as evidenced by the touchscreen LCD.
Oddly, the only two other button controls are backlight compensation (not spotlight?) and immediate access to NightShot (where infrared lets you shoot in complete darkness.) How useful is one-touch access to nightshot for professional shooters? Let’s just say it’s way the hell down there on the needs list. Of all the features I have used on my other NightShoot capable camcorders, I’d have to say NightShot has been used the absolute least. Less than the digital effects of sepia tone, trail and strobe. And that’s saying something.
Sure, there will be a small pocket of camera users who need infrared capability.
But they should have all bought Panasonic’s DVC30 camcorder, with three chip capability and a dedicated, massive infrared illuminator, the DVC30 is the camcorder that does infrared NightShot shooting right. But, given that Panasonic has discontinued this excellent camcorder, it is a testament to the fact that all 30 videographers who really needed high quality NightShot have already bought their camcorders.
Let’s continue on our tour, shall we?
On top of the front of the handle are a simple zoom, record start/stop and another cold shoe, ostensibly for the light. This is where a hot shoe with direct connection to the battery in the back would be nice. Heck, the camcorder is actually wide enough that you could put two Infolithium-L batteries side by side and run that power in parallel. More than enough to run every accessory you could possibly use with this camcorder- all at the same time.
But the key with this camcorder is how long it runs. 10 hours. If you turn off the LCD screen, which has a dedicated switch to do just that. Of course, this completely defeats the purpose of the LCD screen as your main, and only, access to the menu system. Are you good at looking through a low resolution viewfinder and touching the LCD screen above your head without looking at it. Hmmm. Got to think about that one.
Does it really need its own switch? How about you just close the LCD screen and it shuts off- like on every single other camcorder ever made…
For instance, whose idea was it to make a camcorder this big and not put XLR jacks on it… or ANY other way to get audio onto your tape? As I mentioned in my Dream Camcorder columns, having separate inputs for each channel is what we need. It doesn’t really matter as much the specific jack- I’ll accept two different 1/8″ mono inputs. But just one audio input jack?
Here you see where you plug the included stereo microphone into the body of the camcorder. This is where you’ll plug in any external audio. Of course, there will likely be no selecting between mic or line level audio. You can also count on the fact that adjusting audio levels, if at all possible, is made incredibly cumbersome by the consumer menu system on this camcorder.
Continuing around the front of the camcorder, the large lens shade you saw before is deceptive. The actual light gathering lens on this camcorder is very small. Again hearkening back to its consumer camcorder roots.
Its almost like the little boy playing in dad’s clothes. Sure, he can get around the house, but he’s clomping along in dad’s shoes and not getting around very quickly because he’s tripping over himself.
Based on this, I’m going to say that the low light capability of this camcorder will not be what the target market (low end event videographers) needs to produce quality video. This is on top of the poor performance CMOS imagers have already delivered in low light compared to their CCD brethren. Not only are do you currently loose a couple stops of light compared to CCD’s, a single imager is much noisier than three because there’s less pixel interpolation between chips to mathematically extrapolate and eliminate the noise.
On the right is the zoom rocker and the photo button. Again,the camcorder can take 4.6 megapixel stills while shooting video and 6.1 megapixel stills in photo mode alone. Typically the zoom controls on Sony camcorders are pretty decent. I tested this at the Sony event and found the HD1000u to be right in at the low end of the prosumer camcorders- where you would expect it to be. No real slow zoom, but there are few steps from slow to fast so it’s not as bad as the zoom rocker on the handle, or the itty-bitty tiny zoom controls on the consumer camcorders.
Here’s what I mean about Photo mode. These camcorders have a rocker switcher around the record button that let you choose what mode the camcorder is in. From VCR playback, to OFF, to tape recording, to recording to the memory stick. As much as I can divine from reading the literature and playing with the camcorder, it will not record video to the memory stick. This is just for stills, as it has been for many generation of prosumer camcorder.
A nice feature that has been around for many years is the little physical lock “nubby” that slides into place and keeps you from accidentally sliding the power rocker into memory mode, when you wanted it to be in tape mode. Interestingly, as odd as it looks, I’ve had the experience of using these for years and they are very easy to manipulate with just your thumb- slide the power rocker down to “play,” flick the lock to the right, and then slide the power rocker into memory mode. You don’t need to use a paper clip, even though that is how small that little piece of plastic looks.
Several key features to point out here are the design of the door such that you can’t put the cassette between the inner and outer doors. Also, Sony has long been good at the ability to push the inner door closed with the outer door. This is a dramatic departure from Canon who have the XL series where the outer door can close without the inner door closing and loading the tape, or the XH A1 I tested where pushing the outer door actually catches and prevents the inner door from properly loading the cassette.
Unfortunately, it’s still a waiting game- you have to push the outer door against the inner door till it latches, wait till the tape mechanism lowers down into the body of the camcorder, and then you can close the outer door.
I have only seen one MiniDV device with a door that avoided this delay. It was the MiniDV “Walkman” GV-D900 (and D300, without the display). These were designed so that the inner door and outer door tolerances matched. Closing the outer door closed the inner door with one movement. Then you could hear the tape load inside. I wonder why, after so many camcorder re-designs, that none have perfected MiniDV tape loading.
The Sony HVR-HD1000u review
Warts and all.
I like: the form factor, the concept, all the output jacks that don’t require expensive, unique cables, the Infolithium-L battery use and placement, the decent still image capability, the two accessory shoes, the cassette door.
I dislike: limited to MiniDV, only one mic audio jack, cumbersome touch-screen LCD menu system, incredibly limited user buttons, only one lens control, expectedly poor low light capability, only a 10x optical lens.
I really look forward to getting my hands on the newest Sony HDV camcorders shown at IBC in September.