The HDR-UX1 is one half of a dynamic duo of camcorders that Sony hopes will showcase the potential of both high-definition video in general and, more specifically, the AVCHD (Advanced Video Codec High Definition) format.
AVCHD is being touted by several manufacturers, including Sony and Panasonic as a more efficient and effective recording technology than MPEG2, as it uses the increasingly popular MPEG4 (H.264 codec) compression in order to record its high- definition images.
The UX1's other half is the Sony HDR-SR1. What marks the difference between the two cams, however, is the choice of recording medium. The SR1 uses a 30GB hard drive to store video, while our UX1 can capture its movies to a variety of 8cm DVD media, including the higher capacity Dual Layer discs.
This offers consumers an intriguing choice. A 30GB hard-disk drive provides between four and 20 hours of video storage, but it's all on one hard disk - and you'll have to hook up the camcorder to a computer or other device to transfer your footage. Using DVDs there is less space on a disc, meaning an investment in blank media, but it does enables you to build a library of discs and your standard-definition discs can be prepared in the camcorder for playback in a computer drive or home DVD player.
You notice we don't say high-def discs; because it's here we unearth a thorny issue about HD and AVCHD in particular. Currently the problem for consumers is that if they choose this cam, record in HD onto DVD, and finalise discs for playback in other devices, then those 'other devices' are going to be in short supply. The reason? Well to play back AVCHD discs you'll need a compatible, hard-to-find player.
It's a significant drawback for the UX1 - as to enjoy HD footage you'll have to connect via HDMI and watch the footage direct from the cam on an HD-Ready TV, or import footage to a PC, use the basic supplied software to edit, and create a full-size DVD - negating the need to record on AVCHD discs in the first place!
The UX1 features exactly the same design as the SR1, the only notable difference being the housing for the 8cm discs, which here is on the right flank of the machine. It's a sensible layout and one that makes for stable shooting, easy access to controls and a nice recording experience.
Users can choose to record on several types of DVD media: DVD-R, -RW, RW and DVD R DL. The DVD-RW and RW discs need to be used if you want to create playlists from your footage, while these discs can also be 'unfinalised', allowing you to add footage to a disc you had previously 'completed'.
The UX1, like its colleague the SR , can record both high definition (HD) and standard definition (SD) footage but, depending on the disc you are using, you might have to choose the mode in advance. If you're using DVD-RW and DVD RW discs you'll be asked to format them before you can begin recording. You'll also have to decide if you want to record high- definition or standard-definition images on them. Once you've made your choice you can't change midway through recording.
The camcorder has four HD recording modes (HQ , HQ, SP and LP) offering variable bitrates from a maximum of 12Mbps to 5Mbps and recording times vary from 15 minutes (best quality) to 32 minutes (LP mode).
In SD mode there are three quality modes (HQ, SP, LP) again with variable bit rates (this time from 9Mbps to 3Mbps) and recording times range from 20 minutes at the top resolution to 60 minutes in LP.
These figures are measly in relation to the numbers we're used to from mini DV, and now hard drive, and we can't even ease the burden by saying the media is affordable - we bought a three-pack of DVD-R discs for £12.99.
A look at the UX1's menu system will highlight the wide array of features on offer from this camcorder. And many have been picked to suit the enthusiast, such as manual controls for focus, exposure and white balance.
There's also neat flourishes in the addition of an Over Exposure Warning mode, 16:9 or 4:3 recording and a three-second slow-motion record setting. We also particularly liked the Guideframe mode - for video and stills - which places a grid over the frame to allow you to compose your shots more competently.
One of the up-sides of moving away from tape recording to DVD and hard drive has been the introduction of playlists. You can group together favourite or important shots and compile your own running order for them, without affecting the original footage. With the UX1 it's also possible to erase a scene from your playlist and divide a movie within the playlist into two clips.
Along with HDMI and USB, the UX1's other connection options include component and AV-out, a mic input, headphone output (3.5mm jack) and an accessory shoe that takes its power from the camcorder.
Stills are also part of the features list, with four-megapixel images being the top resolution. Photographic features such as red-eye reduction and a three-model flash are also on board, with your JPEG stills being recorded to Memory Stick Duo or Memory Stick PRO Duo.
In HD mode, using RW discs, our test footage looks absolutely superb when played back using HDMI. The sheer level of fine detail on a guitar's fretboard and headstock is bewildering. Footage is packed with clarity and sharpness and our video is bursting with colour - despite the grey London weather.
Autofocus is excellent, with little in the way of hunting, though the autoexposure seems to be too high for our liking - we chose a more subdued setting using the manual modes.
Picture stability is also healthy, with few artefacts, pixelation or fuzziness around the edge of the frame. The only evidence of jitter or picture instability was seen in SD mode, where there is noticeable movement on a cafe's Venetian blinds, a red London bus and a red 'Sale' sign.
Otherwise SD footage - watched via component output - is just as spellbinding, with high levels of clarity and detail. The UX1's audio performance is as impressive as its visuals. It's very rare to find dynamic, deep and rich sonics, but this camcorder delivers a very noteworthy output for a built-in mic.
We find ourselves conflicted by the UX1 because, like the HDR-SR1, it's capable of truly eye-catching visuals and impressive audio and if that's enough to clinch things for you, then so be it. Our problem resides with using AVCHD and DVD in tandem.
It just seems that the hard drive version, or even Panasonic's HDC-SD1 option of recording to SDHC cards, delivers a better all-round proposition. One for further investigation it would seem.