Sony?s new DCR-PC1000 is the first camcorder to use three CMOS sensors rather than CCDs. How does the PC1000 perform and will it attract video enthusiasts keen to step into the three-sensor market, are the big questions Sony faces as it breaks new ground. Peter Blasina assesses whether Sony?s new $2,299 3 CMOS camcorder is a revolutionary change.
There is no question that ?three chips? has recently become the key selling point on the retail floor. Panasonic has done remarkably well with its now extensive range of 3CCD models. Three image sensor camcorders were, until recently, exclusively the domain of the enthusiast with a hefty wallet or the rofessional/commercial videomaker.
Then, as the technology became more affordable and started to appear at rapidly decreasing price points the camcorder market changed and the average consumer found that they could very affordably play in the same space as the pros.
Now, this did not mean that suddenly professional camcorders were available to everyone. What it did mean was that the advantages of three chips ? better colour gamut, sharper image definition and more precise focusing ? were available in consumer-priced camcorders. But up till now three chips meant 3CCD.
CMOS, or ?complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor?, chips have been around for some time and became notable in the imaging industry when Canon first used CMOS sensors in its range of digital SLR cameras. Recently Nikon has also released a digital SLR with a CMOS sensor ? apparently sourced from Sony?s CMOS factory.
The word ?complementary? refers to the fact that the design uses pairs of transistors for logic functions. The phrase ?metal-oxide-semiconductor? is a reference to the nature of the fabrication process originally used to build CMOS chips.
Before the PC1000, all camcorders used CCD technology, however, the digital imaging industry is looking to CMOS chips, which are easier and less expensive to produce than CCDs.
In a camcorder the CCD converts the image coming in from the lens into an electronic signal, which can be processed by the camcorder?s digital signal processor into digital information which is then recorded to tape, DVD or flash media. In camcorders, CMOS chips operate in much the same way as CCD chips.
In both, chips the individual light receptors are pixels. Each pixel is sensitive to light, the more light that the pixel is exposed to the greater the amount of energy the pixel ?stores up? during its exposure to the incoming image. This energy that is stored in the pixel needs to be converted to voltage, so that it can be read by the camcorder. The key difference between a CCD chip and a CMOS chip, is that the CCD chip sends all of the ?stored up? pixel energy to a processor outside of the chip where it is converted to voltage, while each pixel on a CMOS chip is able to do this process on its own.
The other major difference between CMOS and CCD chips is that many additional image processing functions can be done on the CMOS chip, whereas with CCD chips those processes must be done via a range of external chips.
One of the biggest hurdles when using CMOS chips in imaging devices such as cameras and camcorders have been quality issues. CCDs offer lower noise levels while CMOS chips offer a better dynamic range (darker blacks and brighter whites). The result is that for camcorders CMOS sensors have typically had problems in low light when compared to CCD-based camcorders.
Like Canon and Nikon with their SLRs, Sony was able to navigate around the major noise problem with CMOS chips by developing a digital signal processor with the catchy title: ?Enhanced Imaging Processor?. Without the processor it would be impossible for Sony to produce video with CMOS chips that was comparable to CCD quality video. This processing chip edge may mean that Sony will be able to hold on to the CMOS camcorder market as the only manufacturer for a while.
In late December, Sony Japan announced it would be investing ¥50 billion to build a new CMOS chip production facility according to Asia Times. It appears Sony is trying to position itself as a leader in the more competitive CMOS production arena. CMOS chips are considered easier to produce because they can be produced on a ?wafer? in high volumes similar to the methods used on many other computer chips.
It will be interesting to see if CMOS sensor technology becomes the next ?big thing? in camcorder imaging. In our view it will be a slow evolutionary process rather than a rapid transition from CCD to CMOS, if it happens at all. Although with the ever-downward spiral of camcorder prices, the cost savings by switching to CMOS may be a welcome advantage to camcorder manufacturers. It will be interesting to see how the technology evolves and which manufacturers embrace it over the next few years.
Design and layout
There are several design features that make the PC1000 a compelling camcorder to use, however, there are also several issues that may cloud the decision to go with this camcorder for some videomakers. Primary amongst the ?issues? is the fact that the camcorder?s battery has been enclosed, limiting its size and virtually all the camcorder?s controls have been relegated to the touch-screen menu system except for an ?interesting? new manual control dial-and-button arrangement ? but more of that later.
From an ergonomic perspective the PC1000 is very comfortable to use for a vertical style camcorder. Sony has effectively reduced the body size but reconfigured the shape to deliver quite impressive handling. Fingers agreeably wrap around the body providing a good grip. Because of its contours and layout the camcorder is remarkably stable when handheld.
Button placement is logical and easily accessible, with your thumb easily hitting the buttons located in the back of the camcorder. The new record and zoom buttons on the LCD panel make it easy to hold the camcorder with two hands with the left hand holding the LCD screen and operating the camcorder.
It?s very easy to forget that this is a 3-chip camcorder, because the PC1000 is very compact and portable. While not the smallest of this genre camcorder, it is nonetheless an effective design, very neatly accommodating the exceptional wide screen viewfinder and larger lens assembly required to cope with the three-chip block.
The camcorder is decked out in a stylish dark grey ?pearlised? colour scheme, which does add to its ?professional? look. The PC1000 is dominated by a ?snub-nose? lens barrel, which has been highlighted by a silver surround. This surround actually houses a remarkably small flash directly above the lens. The lens has a motorised built-in lens cover which automatically springs open when the camcorder is switched on and closes when playback is selected or when the camcorder is powered down. Initially the silver surround on the lens gives the impression that it may be a focus ring. Unfortunately, manual focusing is done with the more cumbersome dial-and-button system.
Navigating the PC1000 reveals that it quite is similar to other vertical-style Sony camcorders. However, unlike most previous models, Sony has put the battery slot on the right side, which is great for hiding it, but impractical for camcorder usage because it means that the battery for the PC1000 is non-expandable. The slim battery slides into a fixed size compartment. Obviously, this means that you can?t use larger batteries to enhance the 90 minute life of the included battery ? unless Sony release a more powerful version of the fixed size A-series InfoLithium battery used in the PC1000.
The high-tech silver and grey left side of the PC1000 houses two unique features: its very cool 16:9 aspect ratio LCD screen, and a new manual control dial which can be used to provide quick access to one designated manual control at a time. Like most recent models, there are no controls underneath the LCD screen as the camcorder uses Sony?s characteristic touch screen menu system.
The manual control dial is divided into two parts. The first part is a dial, which is used in conjunction with a button, used to turn on manual control of whatever function the jog dial is be controlling. Using the on-screen menu this manual control can be set to provide instant access to Focus, AE Shift, Exposure and White Balance Shift functions.
While we are talking of manual focus, a neat feature on the PC1000 is the expanded focus mode. When selected in the touch screen menu system, this feature implements a 2x enlargement of the LCD image during manual focus adjustment (either using the dial or touchscreen menu) making it easier to pinpoint focus. This feature was imported from Sony?s high definition HDR-FX1.
Being on the camcorder?s left side, when you are likely to be holding the LCD screen for balance and because there is access to record and zoom controls, the forward position of the manual system is somewhat cumbersome. When used with the eyepiece viewfinder it works remarkably well.
The excellent LCD screen is a clear indicator of a major trend in camcorders over 2005 ? real widescreen or 16:9 format recording and viewing in the camcorder. The PC1000 uses a 123,200 pixel 6.86 cm (2.7 inch) LCD, and it includes a wide select button on the screen?s lower edge for easy toggling between widescreen and 4:3 modes. Sony is making a strong statement by placing a natively widescreen LCD on the camcorder.
On the widescreen LCD, black bars appear on the left and right of the image when it is switched to 4:3 mode. In widescreen mode, these bands disappear, and the sides of the image slide over to fill the entire LCD.
The LCD screen is bright, sharp and crisp and its on-screen menu touch functions are very responsive. The camcorder?s electronic viewfinder can also achieve both widescreen and 4:3 aspects. It produces a good image, however its fixed position and lack of rotating ability make shooting through the viewfinder quite awkward.
On the opposite, right side of the camcorder, is the Still Photo button and less responsive diagonal operating zoom switch. These are towards the front of the camcorder within easy reach of the your index finger. Behind these buttons is a hard plastic cover, which snaps off to reveal Sony?s proprietary U-shaped A/V connector and surprisingly, a Control-L jack.
Now here lies one of the serious issues the target prosumer buyers of this camcorder will have with connectivity. The PC1000 has an almost never used Control-L socket; it does not offer an external microphone input socket! This is a serious omission! While there is a top mount intelligent hot shoe, you can only use this with Sony microphones. Sure, Sony makes great mics, but there are precious few available for the PC1000. Not a good move Sony?
Like most vertical style Sony camcorders, the back of the PC1000 is where most of the camcorder?s buttons reside. The back features the camcorder?s primary record button, on/off and mode switch, the tape-mechanism open switch, and a cluster of buttons which includes buttons for the display change/battery info, the Backlight control, toggle between flash options, and access to the camcorder?s ?Easy? mode.
Below the camcorder?s electronic viewfinder is a MemoryStick Duo PRO slot. The Memory Stick is used to record digital still JPEG images or MPEG-1 video.
Up on the topside of the PC1000 is the camcorder?s stereo microphone as well as an accessory hot shoe. The mic placement at the top like this means that it is not optimally positioned to pick up sound from in front of the camcorder. While the built-in mic does a reasonable job, a fussy videomaker would insist on better audio supplied by an accessory microphone. As mentioned above, your options here are limited.
The hot shoe is covered with a cover, which lifts off to reveal the newer, non-standard, more slender shoe seen on many of this year?s Sony models. It is incompatible with non-Sony products, but it can accommodate Sony?s new 4 channel surround sound microphone (ECM-HQP1). This is a wonderful mic and I would suggest that if you were buying the PC1000 the surround sound mic would be an invaluable addition to your camcorder kit. However, if you want to use the PC1000 with a shotgun mic or a lapel mic, you are out of luck.
And the bad news doesn?t end there! The PC1000 also lacks a headphone socket, so you cannot monitor the recorded sound.
Like most DV camcorders, the PC1000 records 12 bit and 16 bit audio. Also available is a Wide Stereo mode, which records two channel stereo sound with added intensity. During playback audio can be manipulated using the audio mix feature, which allows for the balance between the front and rear levels to be shifted.
The PC1000 includes a Handycam Station allows the camcorder to be slotted into the small cradle via a simple docking interface on the base of the camcorder that gives it immediate access to high speed USB (USB-2) and i.LINK (in/out) interfaces, an audio/video (A/V) connector for TV and Video use, as well as DC power for charging the battery.
While charging in the Station, the camcorder can be used to play and record video as normal and has the added bonus feature of IR remote control. The PC1000 features DV-IN function onboard, which allows video from another DV camcorder or video edited on a PC to be recorded back to the camcorder?s tape.
Like it?s predecessors, video captured using the camcorder in full auto mode is excellent. Automatic assessment and adjustments to focus, exposure, and white balance are all fast and accurate. Under most conditions the video captured in full auto cannot be faulted.
Both automatic and manual settings for focus, exposure, and white balance are all available by navigating the camcorder?s touch screen menu system. Also available in this menu system are options for Program AE (Auto Exposure) presets, this provides automatic exposure adjustment based on conditions found under Spotlight, Portrait, Beach/Ski, Sunset/Moon, and Landscape environments.
The PC1000 also includes an Auto Shutter feature, which is usually set to ?On? as a default. Auto Shutter assesses and then adjusts the shutter in bright light environments. The manual mode dial also allows for easy adjustment of the auto exposure mode, and I would recommend that next to manual focus, having exposure selected would be a great advantage to your moviemaking. The PC1000 also has an AE Shift mode, which either increases or decreases the brightness of whatever AE mode the camcorder is in.
AE shift and White Balance shift features are excellent additions to the camcorder and make for precise adjustments to recorded video. Providing a more professional tone to the camcorder, there is also Zebra Pattern (IRE70 and IRE100) to highlight overexposed areas of the scene and a very rare on-screen histogram, which can be used both in video and digital still mode.
Sony has included its Spot Metering and Spot Focusing functions in the PC1000. Spot Meter allows the exposure values to set to the part of the screen corresponding to the scene you are recording you touch or with the Spot Focus mode accurately focus the part of the scene you want in sharp focus with a touch of the LCD screen.
For a 3 chip camcorder the PC1000 offers limited manual controls. There is no manual shutter speed control. So annoyingly, there is no way to get extremely slow or fast shutter speeds with the PC1000.
The DCR-PC1000 offers a total of 24 steps of exposure control. Unfortunately, unlike focus, no numerical values are shown during the exposures adjustment.
Standard white balance options of indoor, outdoor, one push, and auto are available, via the DCR-PC1000?s touch screen menu system. Sharpness can be controlled within the touch screen menu, and tapping a cursor across the screen controls it. Colour intensity can be similarly adjusted by using the Camera Color function. Colour