With prices of HD-ready LCD and plasma screens falling, and the dawn of HDTV, HD DVD and Blu-ray breaking, it won't be long before high definition appears in homes throughout the UK. But a far greater development is the long-awaited arrival of affordable HD filming for the consumer.
Enter Sony's £2,500 HDR-FX1E HDV/DV camcorder.This little beauty can record and play back 16:9 HDV 1,080i (50 interlaced frames per second) and mini DV 576i footage. What's doubly exciting about this latest semi-pro cam,apart from the fact that it still uses standard mini DV tape, is that it can be found for as little as £2,170 online.
Compared to JVC's GR-HD1 HDV/DV camcorder,which is only available in the US and records HD at 1,280 x 720 progressively (720p) to a video bandwidth of 19Mbps,the Sony HDR-FX1E captures high-def pictures at 1,440 x 1,080 interlaced (1,080i) to a larger bandwidth of 25Mbps.This bandwidth is also identical to standard mini DV,hence the same tape duration is used, regardless of whether you record to HDV or DV.But HD content has more information and a higher resolution to store than DV PAL's 720 x 576 pixels, so it's compressed as a type of MPEG2 video.This process of capturing HD as MPEG2 video to mini DV tape gave birth to the new and much raved about 'HDV format'.
Decked out in pro-style charcoal grey,the HDR-FX1E means business and resembles Sony's PD170 DV/DVCAM camcorder,but is slightly larger.The 3.5in colour widescreen LCD panel is uniquely positioned across the front of the carry handle, behind the onboard stereo microphone,and covering various VCR and LCD controls,plus a button for outputting and recording colour bars at the start of tape.The handle has a small,two-speed-adjustable zoom rocker beside a record button for low-angle filming.
All the necessary manual controls are within easy reach on the body, namely a volume level dial,large silver iris (exposure) dial,and focus, gain,shutter,white balance and twolevel ND filtering controls.Assign buttons store set-ups and the Expanded Focus button zooms in on the frame for checking focus before recording.The lens hood and shutters (instead of a lens cap) shield the 12x optical zoom f1.6/72mm Carl Zeiss lens with its focus ring and zoom ring with end stops.
The HDR-FX1E records 16:9 HDV footage using three 1/3in (1.07-megapixel effective) widescreen 1,080i HD CCDs, processing four times more information than traditional DV camcorders to give sharper,richer pictures.HDV content can be tweaked in Picture Profile using Cinematone Gamma and Cineframe features to add warmer,smoother contrasting and film-motion effects to video.HDV audio is recorded as twochannel 48KHz/16-bit MPEG1 layer 2.
With Auto selected in the VCR HDV/DV menu,the HDR-FX1E automatically plays back HDV 1,080i or 576i,depending on a screen's native resolution,via the component video output,or the HDV/DV i.Link (Firewire) port that's also used for dubbing and capturing to a HDV/DVcompatible editing system.
The HDR-FX1E was too heavy to hold as a handycam after a time, and needed the support of a tripod or Sony's optional £300 VCT-FXA shoulder brace.The headphone socket is in an awkward position as our headphone jack and cable got in the way of operating the main zoom rocker during hand-held filming.But the camcorder was ideal for low-angle filming using the handle zoom,record controls and the suitably positioned LCD panel.
Monitoring 16:9 HDV pictures in native widescreen,rather than anamorphically (vertically stretched) proved invaluable.So,too, did the focus and zoom rings when the HDR-FX1E was mounted on a tripod for pulling focus.The LCD's picture and detail still remained reasonably clear under strong light.
HD footage via component on a 45in Sharp LC-45GD1E LCD TV and a 43in Pioneer PDP-435FDE plasma screen bowled us over.The footage was simply stunning for a domestic cam. Images were crisp and incredibly detailed,rich in colour and tone. Detail was picked out in landscape woodland scenes and distant shop signs that would normally be a soft mush of colour in 16:9 mini DV.
Even widescreen DV pictures looked better than anything we have seen before. But once HDV has been experienced, there's no going back to DV. Reds and skin tones looked true to life.Cinematic features boosted warmth and contrast,and added a jittery film effect.Standard motion was smooth,but the all-familiar interlacing artefacts and jagged edges were visible during motion sequences.
The over-sensitive onboard microphone picked up all operator movements on the plastic handle, though this problem could be alleviated by covering it with a rubber grip.The HDR-FX1E doesn't have balanced XLR inputs like its professional version,the HVR-Z1,but audio recorded via an external Sennheiser ME-66 mic and Beachtek DXA-6 beachbox connected to the mic/line-in mini jack was acceptable.
This is merely the beginning of affordable consumer HD filming. We are keeping our fingers crossed for a three-chip HDV 720p (progressive scan) model with detachable lens that does away with interlacing issues. In the meantime, HDV is slowly killing off mini DV, even though it records to the same tape stock.
The deciding factor is not only going to be cost, but whether the means of editing and storing the HDV content are available. Sadly, it's the video editing side that's flagging at present, and software makers must make every effort to catch up and produce affordable consumer products - just like this gem of a camcorder.