Looking more at home in a handbag rather than a camera bag, Sony?s latest palmcorders come in a range of fashion colours that may appeal to a whole new market. The latest PC55 models are very stylish but are they good camcorders? Peter Blasina investigates the new range of vibrantly coloured camcorders.
Sony?s engineers have been working on some of the smallest camcorders in the company?s range and made them even smaller, more stylish and, in Sony?s words, more ?cosmopolitan?. Sony?s ?PC range? of DV camcorders continues to amaze as they become more compact, while offering an increasing range of features and functions with ever declining prices.
The new PC55s have been stacked with most of the features of the much bigger camcorder cousins in the Sony range, making them the perfect ?put-in-your-pocket? and travel anywhere DV companions.
The camcorders have had a makeover that actually improves their ergonomics and useability. With a ?European? rounded treatment the camcorders have virtually lost all the sharp edges of previous models, which makes them more comfortable to hold and more practical to use. At around 350 g when loaded with a battery and tape they virtually disappear in a pocket or small handbag making them a take-anywhere proposition.
And they come in four ?fashion? colours, some with alliterated names! Glam White, Sleek Silver, Graphite Black and Racy Red, making the selection of a camcorder even harder once you have decided on the model. It?s rather a new level of problem for the intending purchaser when the body colour of the camcorder becomes an important selection criterion.
With a new 3 mm (1/6 inch) 800,000 (gross) pixel CCD the DCR-PC55 delivers over 500 lines of horizontal resolution with crisp definition and subtle colours for both video and digital still images that are, unfortunately limited to 640 x 480 resolution. Still images are recorded to a Memory Stick Duo PRO.
All four camcorders in the range provide access to the numerous modes and features via a huge touch panel. The 7.62 cm (3 inch) 123, 200 pixel Hybrid LCD screen provides access to the entire new menu system and appears wonderfully disproportionate on a camcorder so small.
The touch panel also includes Sony?s fabulous Spot Meter and Spot Focus modes. Spot Meter allows the exposure values to set to the part of the screen 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. The Hybrid Reflective-Transmissive LCD Screen provides accurate viewing in sunlight or bright light, virtually eliminating the ?wash-out? common with traditional LCD screens. This is one of the best screens you?ll find on a camcorder today.
Sony has also moved some of the camcorder operations to buttons on the screen?s surround. These include: the record button, SlideShow Plus (a one-touch image slide show enabler) Backlight, Display information and a button for accessing ?Easy? mode.
Design and layout
Recently, several camcorder users I?ve spoken to have complained that some DV camcorders are now too small to operate. I argued that some of the newer technology makes most buttons and dials redundant and some camcorders are much easier to use than the older, heavier, clunkier, button-laden models of a few years ago!
The design and layout of the PC55 range are perfect example of this. The inclusion of touch-screen technology on the LCD and the new 3D rotating navigation system makes almost all controls on the body of the camcorder redundant. However, placing a row of buttons on the LCD screen makes perfect sense as you would hold a viewfinder, especially one so big, to maintain stability anyway.
The camcorder has been designed so that your hand virtually wraps completely around it. Not only is this comfortable but it makes for a very stable shooting platform, helping to reduce camcorder shake. The controls on the body are limited to the basic Trigger, Zoom and Photo buttons with a few more lightly scattered around the camcorders to control Focus and Backlight.
Interestingly, to reduce size and clutter, the eyepiece viewfinder has been completely eliminated from the PC55 range. The big screen more than compensates for the lack of a viewfinder. However, one caveat about that is that you need to rely exclusively on the LCD screen. That?s not a problem, it does work well in daylight and has excellent definition for focusing. The drawback here is more to do with battery life.
The PC55s have an enclosed battery using the new InfoLithium ?A? series battery. Because you can?t use the huge accessory batteries offered by Sony it means that your recording life is rather limited and remember LCD screens use about two to three times the power of viewfinders. If you do grab any accessory for your camcorder I would suggest a couple of batteries would be a good investment.
A few connection ports ? are found on the right-hand side, however, Sony has chosen to provide these camcorders with a docking station to reduce the connection clutter usually found on a camcorder.
The Handycam Station allows the camcorder to be slotted into the cradle via a simple docking interface that is hidden under a flap on the right hand side of the camcorder. This gives immediate access to high speed USB (USB-2) and i.LINK (in/out) interfaces, S-Video and 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.
One feature sorely missed on these camcorders is a headphone socket. 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 PC55s. Not a good move Sony?
The Intelligent Accessory Shoe synchronises operation between the camcorder and Sony accessories mounted on the shoe. For example, with Sony?s optional zoom mic, the shoe changes the pick-up pattern of the mic to match the zooming position.
The PC55s are compatible with Memory Stick DUO for high-speed digital image capture. Half the size of a normal Memory Stick, the Sony Memory Stick DUO is available in up to 56MB capacity and comes with an adaptor so it can be used in devices that use the larger Memory Stick format.
Like other models in Sony?s ?PC? range, the new models offer a wide range of different picture effects, including B&W, Sepia, Negative Art, Solarisation, Pastel, Slim, Stretch and Mosaic. Digital options include Old Movie, Luminance Key, Flash Motion, Still, Slow Shutter and Trail.
In addition, videomakers can combine still pictures and video to create unique effects by choosing from Memory Chroma Key, Camera Chroma Key and Memory Luminance Key.
Both camcorders include Sony?s Super SteadyShot Image Stabilization System. An advanced version of the regular SteadyShot system, it controls an even higher range of shake and vibration frequencies, to achieve a higher level of smoothness without degradation of video quality.
The PC55s have a gross pixel count of 800,000 pixels, in Camera Mode 400,000 pixels are effective and in Memory Mode (recording to the Memory Stick) there are 400,000 effective pixels. The CCD has a minimum illumination of 5 lux.
From a video perspective, the total number of pixels used are reduced thanks to PAL video?s conventional 720 x 576 pixel requirement, along with the Electronic SteadyShot system that ?floats? the image across the CCD to reduce camcorder shake. The effective figure for the CCD in video mode is 690,000 pixels.
Streaming live or recorded video is easily accomplished by connecting the camcorders to a PC and deploying the USB Streaming feature. This feature turns the camcorder into a Webcam by using a USB connection and video conferencing software like Microsoft?s Windows NetMeeting application.
There is a growing desire to provide videomakers with the tools to not only show their videos using conventional media, but to look at media like the Internet as an additional medium. Of course there were some obstacles to overcome in bringing this to market.
Video and the Internet have always been uncomfortable bedfellows. The data rate of both analog and Digital video has always been at odds with the rather slow modem and general transfer rates capable to most domestic users. In fact, the conventional or standard domestic Internet connection of 56K is some 62 times slower than the minimum throughput rate required for DV. It appeared that the idea of streaming video taken directly from a camcorder was an interesting but impossible idea until very fast broadband connections become available universally.
Of course, videomakers could always capture their footage to a computer, edit it and the using one of the several compression algorithms and software programs convert it into an Internet friendly format and size. While this is now relatively inexpensive and easy to do, research has shown that the majority of consumers are not necessarily keen to be burdened with a method requiring several steps to move video from a camcorder to the Internet.
One of the unique aspects of the PC55 is its ability to record native MPEG-1 movie clips, with up to 42 minutes of clips possible on a 64MB Memory Stick.
The PC55 makes it possible to transfer the MPEG clips directly to a PC or Mac. The clips are already in a format ideal to email, publish to a website or use in multimedia displays on a PC. The MPEG movie function, allows videomakers to record MPEG movie clips directly on to a Memory Stick in Video mail mode (160 x 112) or Presentation mode (320 x 240). There is also a transcoding capability, making it possible transfer video from the DV tape in the camcorder or from an external camcorder or VCR (analog or digital), transcode it, and save it in MPEG movie format on the Memory Stick in the PC55.
The important thing to remember about the PC55?s MPEG-1 movie mode is that the video clips are meant to be viewed on a computer screen in a presentation environment and they are optimised for transmitting over the internet or as e-mail. This means that file size, screen size and even the frame rate has to be minimised as much as possible along with removing redundant information from the footage. It would be wrong to compare these small video files with the pristine images the camcorder delivers in its conventional DV mode.
That said, when comparing ?apples to apples?, the MPEG-1 files are reasonably good for using over the web or even placing on an internet site. The higher resolution MPEG video is very good in terms of smoothness and image quality while the lower resolution video is only average. If there is a lot of action, the clips at either resolution tend to be rather jerky as the MPEG scheme compensates for the lower redundancy by lowering the frame rate. With clips that have little movement the frame rate approaches real time.
MPEG Movie EX
The camcorders also come equipped with MPEG MovieEX mode, which allows it to capture video clips with audio onto Memory Stick media up to the length of the media?s capacity.
Video clips can be captured directly onto Memory Stick media or shot on tape, then converted in the camera to MPEG1 format. These clips can be transferred to a PC and sent as e-mail attachments or included on Web sites and in office presentations.
The PC55?s CCD combined with the Carl Zeiss (Vaio-Tessar) lens system offers a sharper, brighter picture that is, Sony claim, capable of delivering up to 520 lines of resolution. Our test bench results agreed with this, providing a horizontal resolution line reading of over 500 lines.
Some videomakers will find the lens system pedestrian on both models, with only a 10x zoom coupled with the option of 120x digital zoom that works well to around 40x before pixellation becomes obvious. To boost the digital zoom?s performance Sony has incorporated improved interpolation technology.
The PC55?s 800,000 pixel 3 mm CCD offers the advantage of a 5 lux low-light performance.
Overall, the PC55 is excellent to use and has a practical layout that assists good moviemaking by making it easy to access functions while recording. It has a good range of functionality and the Memory Stick system is a gem.
Performance is superb from these tiny camcorders, with all delivering great video in a variety of situations.
Low light performance was particularly good, with the CCD proving to lift dim environments remarkably well. The VGA still images were crisp and sharp when printed at 100% ? their appropriate size. The conventional DV video, under good conditions was crisp and clean and the MPEG video was of reasonable quality.
For those needing a full range of functionality in a camcorder that includes MPEG video and high quality DV performance in a tiny package the PC55 is hard to beat.