Cheap it may be, but the VPC-HD700 is far from the performer we’d hope it would be. Low light and movement cause all manner of problems. Even for the less demanding audience it’s aimed at, this is likely to still be not quite good enough.
Plenty of features
Great image quality
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Now that the high-definition format war is finally coming to an end, with Blu-ray appearing to have beaten HD DVD into submission, high-def movies are far more likely to grow in popularity.
Whether or not they will enjoy the same astonishing rise that DVD did some ten years ago remains to be seen, but however quick the take-up one thing is becoming clear - HD is here to stay.
High-definition's foothold is good news for those who have already invested in a high-def cam. The good news for the rest of us is that HD videomaking looks likely to become the norm in the coming years.
Though the majority of our reviews are of cams designed for the more discerning videomaker, the £350 Xacti VPC-HD700 is aimed at those looking for a pocket-sized solution. And although it will have many purists turning their noses up at the lack of manual controls and viewfinder, the HD700 reveals itself as a satisfyingly flexible tool.
Design and layout
Though we're loath to use the word, the HD700 is one of those camcorders that screams 'fun'. It boasts jazzy colours, is portable, and aimed more at youngsters and women than your average cam. There's nothing wrong with that, and there's no doubting the advantage of having a cam that can slip easily into your a pocket or a handbag.
The chassis dimensions have more in common with an electric razor than most camcorders and it is held much in the same way. The only handstrap to speak of comes in the form of a piece of string that goes around the wrist to lower the risk of dropping it.
With simple operation in mind, controls are kept to the essentials - buttons for selecting record/playback, record and stillshot, a zoom control and a joystick - and will prove to be frustratingly challenging for anyone with digits bigger than a teenager's.
This isn't a concern for functions that don't require precision (like recording) but it can prove annoying when trying to make smooth, controlled zooms. There is certainly room for a slider twice the size of the challenging one provided.
The joystick is miniscule, but is used more for finding features and controlling playback than shooting and isn't as awkward to use as it first appears.
Fiddly though the controls are, operation is intuitive. Onscreen menus are cleanly designed, features are logically ordered and, provided you turn off the American voice that tells you what feature you've just selected, you should be filming in a matter of minutes.
As is common with pocket-sized cams, the connections are positioned mainly on additional housing that the cam docks into for charging. Outputs include composite and component video connections, USB for PCs and HDMI for playback on HD-Ready TVs.
The HD700 captures its HD footage to SD card - the amount you shoot is limited by the capacity of the card you use. Disappointingly, there isn't one bundled, so this is something you will have to invest in. We'd recommend you select a minimum 2GB capacity, as footage takes up a sizeable chunk of capacity.
There is a choice of two high-definition and three standard-definition shooting modes. At the top of the tree sits HD-SHQ, which has a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels (not Full HD), at 30fps.
You can expect to store just over 28 minutes of footage on a 2GB card. At the other end of the scale, is the Web-SHQ option. With its 320 x 240 pixel resolution; it's best suited for websites and allows just under four hours and 20 minutes of recording.
As is the norm, there is the choice of Simple or Normal shooting modes: the former allowing the user to point and shoot, while the latter affords more control over the cam's faculties. The options on offer are extensive and are almost certainly more in-depth than the average Xacti user is going to require.
In the case of focus, there are Total Range and Macro presets, alongside a manual override. There are four white balance options (Sunny, Cloudy, Fluorescent and Incandescent) and a One Push manual mode.
While exposure offers seven AE modes (Sports, Portrait, Landscape, Night View Portrait, Snow & Beach, Fireworks and Lamp), there is also a manual option and choices of where in the picture frame the adjustments are made. It's also possible to manually control both shutter speed and aperture.
There is a noise reduction mode (for both stills and moving footage), a brightness level adjuster and a feature that counteracts the effects of the wind on the mic. Stills can be saved at resolutions ranging from 3680 x 2760 pixels to 640 x 480 pixels, and there's a host of features ranging from continuous shooting to extracting stills from a movie.
As the HD700 doesn't really have any peers in its price range, it's difficult to assess how good this budget high-def camcorder actually is. The nearest camcorder you'll find in this bracket is of the mini DV variety, but the HD700 doesn't compare that favourably.
Accentuating the positives, as you'd hope from an HD cam, images are stunningly sharp. The lens may be small, but it's capable of incredible detail. Whether it's capturing creases in the spine of a book, the veins on a leaf or the fine sprinkling of dust that seems to sit on everything in the Digital Video office, the Xacti is unnervingly precise.
The auto exposure copes well shooting inside in natural lighting conditions during the day and is at its best outside. Add to that an impressive ability to reproduce colours authentically and to capture motion without blurring, and it looks like we're off to a fine start. Unfortunately, that's where the good news ends and the bad begins.
The biggest problem facing the HD700 is sluggish auto focus. Just panning the cam slowly from left to right seems to throw the focus into chaos, and it takes a good half a second for it to regain its bearings.
Considering that most users will be relying on this system and avoiding the fiddly manual override at all costs, this is far from ideal. The image stabiliser does little to help and has to be one of the most ineffectual we've seen. When displayed on a 42in LCD screen, footage of a slow walk through the woods is a dizzying and, at times, nauseating experience.
Great if you're looking to recreate the terror of Cloverfield or Blair Witch, but a real turn off for everyday documentation.
In darker or artificial light conditions, such as a pub or restaurant, these problems worsen - as we'd expect. However, we've rarely seen a camcorder suffer quite as much as the HD700 does. As you'll see from the stills on the page, images are almost indistinguishable and the levels of grain and noise are more than you'll find on even the cheapest analogue camcorders (remember them?).
The final gripe concerns the built-in mic. Although it has a fairly impressive range, it seems to pick up a whirr whenever the zoom is used and, perhaps worse still, also captures a lot of handling noise. While this can be limited by making an effort not to be too clumsy, the controls don't make this easy.
At around £350, the HD700 is comfortably one of the cheapest HD cams on the market and it's overflowing with features for the price.
The problem is that it's not an especially accomplished camcorder, behaving more like a souped-up mobile phone, and it's doubtful that those using it will really need the functions it offers anyway.
Footage may be sharp, but with a desperately sluggish auto system and practically non-existent image stabiliser, the cam is only any good if moved incredibly slowly, if at all.
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