This morning Zbyszek Twarog (Chief Engineer at Rule) offered a hands-on session with the new Sony HDR-FX1 as part of Rule’s weekly “Tuesdays with Twarog” series. Zbyszek ran through the various features and capabilities of this new camera from Sony.
This is the first three-CCD HDV camcorder to hit the market and unlike the JVC GR-HD1, a single-chip consumer oriented entry, this camcorder is a contender. The HVR-Z1U, a similar camera with more professional features (e.g. XLR audio inputs with separate controls, more image control options, use of DVCAM tapes, ability to shoot PAL or NTSC SD in addition to HDV, etc) is expected to be available in February for both rental and sales. I suspect many pros will wait for the HVR-Z1U before they spring for an HDV camcorder.
The HDR-FX1 records using standard MiniDV tapes providing a 1080i/60 fields image recorded in the MPEG-2 format. Audio is recorded using MPEG-1 Layer II. This camera features three 960×1080 pixel 1/3-inch CCDs, so it’s not a full resolution HD image, but at a price around $3,800, who’s complaning? A casual look showed good low light performance and very nice manual controls. Sony has added a gratuitously shiny metal iris control knob for some reason. Most of the controls are accessible with real buttons, unlike the flat touch panel on earlier camcorders in this class. One cool thing they did from an ergonomic standpoint is to move the LCD display towards the front of the camera, making it easier to hand-hold at eye-level close to the body. There’s a cool feature that magnifies the image in the viewfinder as a focus aid.
Another cool feature is called shot transition, allowing you to assign a particular gain/focus/exposure/white-balance setting to the two buttons for smooth transitions from one set of settings to another, or as a clever aid to pulling focus between two pre-sets. One significant feature missing from this camera is true progressive. Sony is careful to say that their 24 frame mode is not true progressive. We’ll have to continue to wait for true 24p from Sony, so in this price class the true progressive options remain the Panasonic DVX-100A and the Canon XL-2.
As far as image quality goes, I plan to do some comparison tests this weekend with the camera along with the Panasonic DVX-100A and the Canon XL-2 and will comment on the results a week or so later. I’m especially interested in seeing how Sony’s “cine gamma” and 24p looks. Without some additional experimentation with the camera, I can’t come to any definitive conclusions about the video performance. What I can say is that, under the controlled situation I saw the camera, the video it produced looked awesome. I’ve seen my share of HD and certainly quite a lot of SD, I can certainly say that the HDR-FX1 is a huge leap in video quality from other $3,000 camcorders on the market. HDV allows you to see lots of detail in the wide shots that are usually the bane of small formats. I believe we’re going to see some pretty awesome video out of this camcorder in spite of the MPEG-2 artifacts. I can’t say exactly how good the video quality is until I do a more detailed test this weekend, however, I can say that I was incredibly impressed by what I saw at Rule today.