As DT readers know, I’m a huge fan of high-def camcorders. Video quality is so much better than standard-def, it’s a joke. What’s not funny is the fact HD camcorders are expensive compared to their SD brethren. About the most affordable one is the Canon HV10 for around $800 USD. Fortunately, the introduction of new models is pushing overall prices down a bit. Still, standard definition camcorders are much, much cheaper. Enter the Sanyo VPC-HD2 Xacti HD camcorder for $699 USD list (around $600 USD in stores). This Secure Digital card based camcorder records 720p video versus 1080i for all the other HD competitors. Still it is officially high-def and uses MPEG-4 compression. Not only does it record high-def video it takes 7.1-megapixel stills, the best of any camcorder on the market. In theory, the Xacti should be the ultimate two-in-one device at a great price. That’s the theory, folks. Now it’s time to put the theory to the test…
Features and Design
The Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD2 doesn’t look anything like a traditional camcorder—no matter if they’re SD or high-def–a pocket flashlight is more like it. It’s very small thanks to the fact it uses flash memory cards as recording media like the Panasonic HDC-SD1 and the soon-to-be-released Sony HDR-CX7. Those camcorders weigh close to a pound while the HD2 is 8.3-ounces including battery and card. Compact indeed, measuring just 1.4 x 4.7 x 3.1 (WHD, in inches). In reality, the Sanyo is shaped more like Panasonic’s $999 SDR-S150 SD-based camcorder except S150 is standard definition quality, not HD.
Featuring a dark gun-metal gray body, the Xacti has an upright form factor I’m not too fond of. Still it’s not as thick as the Canon HV10 and easier to grip. Looking at the front, the camcorder is dominated by a 10x optical zoom (100x digital). Below it is an infrared sensor for the supplied remote and a nice silver accent. There’s no AF Assist lamp, unfortunately. On the top is a manually operated pop-up flash.
The left side features a swing out LCD monitor that’s 2.2-inches and rated a so-so 210K pixels. The reason I say that is the screen doesn’t handle bright sunshine very well. Fortunately there’s a shortcut to adjust screen brightness, but it still has difficulty with direct sunlight. Since this is a high-def camcorder one would think it would have a 16:9 format screen. But no, this one is 4:3 and letterboxed when you’re shooting widescreen. Hopefully the next generation will have a wider, better screen. Three buttons are found under the monitor on the main body: power on/off, HD/norm for shooting high-def or SD and High Sensitivity that bumps up the ISO when you’re shooting stills or video. When you close down the LCD, you see a few decals touting the 10x zoom power and 7.1MP stills. There’s also a stereo mic.
The key controls are located on the top rear and are primarily thumb operated. Here you’ll find a wide/tele zoom toggle as well as individual keys for taking stills (left) and recording video (right). There’s a menu button and a small joystick that you toggle to move through the various options. This little stick was a big pain as sometimes it made adjustments and others it didn’t. Just be careful if you buy it to make sure the change you want is in place before you proceed on your merry way. You also find the SD or SDHC card slot (8GB maximum). The final switch is a simple mode key to change from record to playback. Everything else is done by the menu system which O.K.—nothing more or less. Many adjustments have brief text descriptions but an iPod it isn’t. Keeping the Owner’s Manual nearby is a smart move, especially when first using the camcorder.
The right side features a mic-in jack for optional microphones, a small speaker, the flash pop-up button and access to the battery compartment. On the bottom are the tripod mount and a connection for the supplied dock.
One of the key reasons this camcorder is so small is the fact all of the connections are made from the supplied docking station. It’s here you place the Xacti so the battery charges up and you can view your recordings on TV or download them to a PC via USB. To its credit, Sanyo supplies component and S-video cables. The company sells an optional HDMI cable for this package.
Opening the Xacti’s carton to prepare it for recording made me laugh since I felt like I was putting a jigsaw puzzle together. The box is packed with the camera, a case, strap, battery, A/V and USB cables, AC adaptor and power cord, a docking station, remote, a battery for the remote, a microphone connection cable, cable adaptor and three metal cores to reduce interference. That’s not counting the two software CD ROMs, safety manual, quick guide and 250-page Owner’s Manual. Last but not least was my favorite—a lens cap with strap. How companies can make high-definition camcorders and still need a lens covering tied by a piece of string is truly beyond me!
Note: although this is an SD card-based camcorder, no card is supplied so definitely budget $35 or so for a 2GB high-speed card. Sanyo states the HD2 uses a gig for every 21 minutes of best-quality video so that size card will give you 40 minutes or so.
Putting it all together didn’t take that long and after charging the camcorder in the dock, it was time to start shooting some high-def video and capturing some 7.1-megapixel stills.
Image Courtesy of Sanyo
Testing and Use
It’s definitely a weird spot for the power button, but once you flip out the LCD and hit it, the camcorder boots up in less than two seconds. And once you turn it on, opening and closing the LCD turns it off and on. A nice little surprise was the female voice that tells you what mode you’re in.
Since this is a two-in-one device, I started off in Auto for stills and videos in highest quality then moved to the more advanced options. The HD2 uses a 7.1MP CCD as an imaging device, compared to CMOS sensors by most of the competition. As noted earlier, this camcorder records 720p video rated 1280 x 720 pixels progressive at 30 frames per second with a 9 Mbps bit rate maximum. Other high-def camcorders record at 1440 x 1080 interlace as well as 1920 x 1080i with bit rates varying by format but they can be as much as three times faster. In other words, quality for the competitors is much better but you will pay more for it.
Recording video is as easy as can be. Just hit the movie key and you’re in business. Placement of the zoom switch was good, making for simple one-handed operation. After shooting in Auto, I tried out some of the six Scene Modes which are the usual (sports, portrait, fireworks and so on). The camcorder also lets you adjust the shutter speed, aperture and focus.
To play back video, you place the HD2 in the dock and connect it directly to your TV or A/V receiver. Since I have an older HDTV with component inputs, I connected that supplied cable to my set and settled in to watch my “creations.” (Note: the first sample I had did not work with my television but the second one did.) Video was pretty good in bright sunlight. Colors were fairly accurate but there were times when it got washed out. Footage shot indoors in the High Sensitivity mode was very noisy, much worse than the recently reviewed JVC-GZ-HD7US that was worse than the Canon HV20. Still there were minimal artifacts when recording outside with that option turned off. Overall the colors looked fairly natural, in particular the green of tree leaves, a red Japanese maple and the aqua color of the water in a pool. Still I wasn’t bowled over by the quality. Is it as good as HDV or AVCHD? No, but it really couldn’t be using MPEG-4 compression.
Image Courtesy of Sanyo
The HD2 has a 10-megapixel still setting using interpolation to bump up from the native 7MP. Interpolation is a fool’s game (quality is bad) so I just used 3072 x 2304 SHQ to give the camera a fighting chance.
As for the photographs, you’ll never favorably compare the output of this two-in-one device to any quality 7.1MP digicam from Canon or Sony. Colors were off on some of my prints–especially for subjects shot indoors. My Norwegian Forest Cat was still cute, but her colors were off and there was a loss of shadow detail for indoors shots with available light. Popping open the flash helped but you’d never mistake the shots from the $249 USD Canon Powershot SD1000. I took some images of plants in bright sunshine; colors and detail were good here. In other situations, this camera desperately needs an AF Assist lamp and image stabilization beyond its basic electronic circuitry in order to speed focus and reduce blur. Although the shutter is fairly responsive there is a lag as the unit saves images to the card—another instance where there’s not enough processing power to handle the files. The camera does offer a few photographic manual adjustments that are easy to access via the menu.
And when anyone tells you all lenses and cameras are the same, point to this one and its disappointing photographs and video. But let’s be fair. I don’t know of any camcorder save for a hardy few that take decent stills. That said, the Xacti does cost close to $600 USD and is touted as a two-in-one device so you should expect more.
The search for a really good two-in-one imaging device continues. The VPC-HD2 is not the Holy Grail, not even a Monty Python version of it. In fact I suggest you pick it up at the store, marvel at its small size then put it back down. Then if you can afford the extra cash, buy a 1080i HD camcorder from Panasonic, Sony or Canon.
• Compact, lightweight
• Good ergonomics
• Decent video when shot outdoors
• Video tends to wash out
• Stills are O.K., again taken outside
• Needs AF Assist lamp, more processing power, OIS