The Sony VX1000 was among the first 'prosumer' camcorders to be employed professionally. Sony followed it years later with the VX2000 series. The secret to success in both cases was the following recipe: a handheld camera that, although expensive in consumer terms, cost peanuts to professional outfits.
In a climate where fly-on-the-wall documentary flourished, the VX series of camcorders were perfectly poised to go places where shoulder mounted cameras simply couldn't - and at a fraction of the price.
Naturally, nowadays this market segment attracts all the big manufacturers. The closest competition to the FX7 is perhaps the Panasonic AVG-100B. However, the FX7 seemingly trumps that model in one very important area: it provides HDV recording.
The FX7 looks very similar to a VX camera. Users familiar with those models will feel immediately at ease with the FX7. Sony has wisely adopted a 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' policy. Everything on the camcorder is placed exactly as one might expect.
The front of the FX7 features a Carl Zeiss 20x (optical) zoom lens. This can be guarded by the supplied, but removable, lens hood. This hood also features a built-in lens cover so there are never 'where have I put the lens cap' moments.
Freewheeling focus and zoom rings sit behind the lens, with a push button autofocus and exposure/iris button with adjustment wheel also here. Just before the LCD is a switchable off/1/2 neutral density filter and three programmable Assign buttons.
Beneath the LCD are expanded focus and focus buttons, a MemoryStick Pro, USB, HDMI and earphones port, and picture profile and status check buttons. The 3.5in LCD is a 16:9 ratio display, accompanied by the usual transport controls. In addition is a Zebra off/70/100 slider switch.
Three Assign buttons here also double as MemoryStick play, index and delete controls. Gain, shutter speed, white balance and menu changes are all initiated by pressing the relevant push button at the rear of the camera and then altered using the push-button dial wheel beneath.
More socketry at the rear, to the right of the battery, includes componentout, AV-out and DV/HDV. The DC socket sits below these. The only addition to the usual grip and zoom rocker affair on the right of the camera is the LANC socket.
It is all carried about by a sturdy handle at the top of the camcorder with an accessory shoe, record button, zoom rocker and microphone jack. It's a camcorder that looks purposeful and has a nice sturdy feel in the hand. The weight of the camcorder is balanced well. It remains comfy to shoot handheld for longer than expected.
A final point worthy of praise is the inclusion of an additional full-size eyecup. This is included as standard, rather than an upgrade.
The FX7 features six image-processing settings known as Picture Presets. Two are fully user programmable, the remaining four are pre-defined. The existing Picture Presets are: Portrait, Cinema, Sunset and Monotone. Each facilitates a good degree of tweaking.
It's possible to alter colour level and phase, sharpness, skin tone, white balance shift and cinema tone gamma (on or off). It's then possible to name and save the preset as desired.
Another handy feature is the SMTH SLW REC feature. As one might imagine, this stands for Smooth Slow Recording and allows a burst of frames to be captured, minus sound, to produce a slow motion effect.
The results are more impressive than we expected. It's perfect for one-off fast or dramatic events: a car or plane passing at speed, an explosion or stunt. Suffice to say it lead to plenty of 'what can we try this on next' moments!
It's also possible to record stills to MemoryStick while shooting. The resolution (1MB) is meagre by today's standards, but for some this will be a welcome addition.
There are some clever touches on the FX7. The most useful not always being the most obvious. For example, the lens hood with a built-in lens cap: simple but highly practical. When performing a lot of start-and-stop shooting, hoping to catch quick shots, it really speeds things up.
Similarly, the built-in, selectable level, Neutral Density filter provides an effective must-have feature. Furthermore, when things get too bright the LCD/viewfinder flashes the recommended filter number in the display. You can then choose to heed or disregard the warning.
The price of ND filters are not always considered when purchasing a camcorder, so having them built into the FX7 is one less hassle to deal with.
It's also great to have a 'minutes left' number in relation to the remaining battery life. Again, not necessarily appreciable when comparing camcorder specifications, but it makes all the difference when actually using the FX7 in the field.
However, the FX7 is not without its shortcomings. For starters it is not cheap. At £2,499 this camcorder finds itself in a pretty precarious position; it is neither truly professional nor is it merely consumer.
As such, potential owners must weigh up the lack of XLR audio ports, the relatively narrow lens angle (if planning to shoot primarily indoors), the lack of a progressive shooting mode and the lack of USB streaming.
The quality of the visuals generated by the FX7 are generally very good. The camcorder is limited to interlaced modes so, whether shooting DV or HDV, the aesthetic only really suits 'real' situations.
The use of 1/4in CCDs rather than 1/3in does occasionally become apparent as the FX7 can crush blacks without plenty of light. For the majority of conditions, however, detail in HDV mode, especially when lit correctly, is impressive.
The built-in ND filters work extremely well in the field, enabling a quick shift, if necessary, between off, 1 and 2 on the fly. Try doing that and not missing a shot with screw-on filters! The autofocus is also very smart and only occasionally stumbles.
Once the autofocus locks a subject it rarely loses it, even with multiple distractions passing through shot. For on-the-go shooting the FX7 is a joy to use. Its solid construction should suit users wishing to take a camcorder to fairly harsh locations.
Audio is perfectly acceptable for an in-built microphone and unless in a perfectly silent environment it doesn't pick up any noise from the camcorder. Despite the inclusion of an accessory shoe, the lack of any XLR ports makes an external microphone connection a flimsy affair.
With so many well thought out additions (such as the built-in lens cover) it was a disappointment to find the FX7 employed on-camera battery charging. A separate quick charger (part reference AC-VQ1050D) can be purchased separately, but it's frankly mean of Sony not to include it as standard.
Battery life runs around two hours from a full charge and using the LCD rather than the viewfinder didn't seem to affect this significantly.
A curious but minor irritation is the onscreen menu system. Although intuitive, none of the menus loop around. Get to the bottom of a section and there is no easy way to get back to the top.
The user either has to scroll back up or exit the menu and enter again. This problem could be easily addressed in a firmware update, so perhaps later revisions will see it amended.
Getting HDV footage off the camcorder proved hassle free in Final Cut Pro 6. A quick change of the capture presets and 'log and capture' performed as expected.
The FX7 is a good, solid performer. However, it doesn't represent the 'revolutionary' nature of its predecessors. Whether the FX7 is a worthy purchase depends largely on its intended application.
It feels good in use, looks purposeful and the HDV footage it produces looks significantly better than interlaced DV footage, especially when feeding a Plasma or TFT from the HDMI port.
For wedding videographers, serious hobbyists and low-to-no-budget documentary crews, here is a camera that will doubtless perform, week in week out, with little complaint.
The thorn in the side of the FX7 for many will be the lack of a progressive recording mode. The want and need for such a feature in HDV, especially for low-budget filmmakers, shows no sign of tiring. A 720P HDV/AVCHD version of the FX7 would really present a tantalising product.
As it is, although the FX7 nods to independent filmmaking with its Cinema preset, it only offers interlaced recording. Therefore, despite the lower resolution, such users will still be better serviced with a true progressive based model like the DV-only Panasonic AG-DVX100, that also enjoys XLR connections. It's clear that the manufacturer who manages to get a sub £2,000 720p based camera out first stands to clear up in this niche market.
That's not to say that consumers wanting a robust, high-end cam shouldn't consider the FX7. It's comparable with other camcorders at this price point, even if it doesn't rise above them.
However, professionals hoping for a breakthrough cost saving product like the VX1000 and VX2000 need to reckon in the lack of XLR ports and the potential 'interim' nature of 1080i HDV footage.