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Sharp VL-Z7U Review

Highs

  • Good digital video quality

Rating

Our Score 7
User Score 6

Lows

  • Digital Still Camera picture quality is poor
With adequate lighting, colors were rendered accurately and with very good contrast.

The VL-Z7U is a very interesting digital camcorder. The video quality under most circumstances is quite good, the LCD is clear in daylight as well as with the backlight on for indoor use. However, the overall perception is compromised by the execution of several features. The menu structure is confusing, low light video performance is only fair, and the still camera feature is quite poor.  The size of the VL-Z7U’s and its unique swivel body are it’s strongest attributes.

Introduction

The Sharp VL-Z7U is a small camcorder with plenty of features. At 3 5/32″ x 3 13/32″ x 4 1/16″ and 1.12lbs it fits nicely into the hand with little noticeable weight.

The VL-Z7U is shaped similar to other compact hand held camcorders, but with one difference. The lens, LCD, and battery are contained in one physical unit while the cassette drive and recording controls are in a different unit. The two units are attached through a 270-degree swivel mechanism that allows the VL-Z7U to be held at a comfortable position for most shooting situations. The VL-Z7U uses a 10x (F 1.8, f =3.8 – 38mm) zoom lens.

The camcorder fit in my hand quite comfortably. The only complaint would be getting the strap adjusted properly so that the fingers align well with the zoom control and record button. Someone with large hands might prefer that the camcorder body were taller. The VL-Z7U should fit easily into a jacket pocket or a purse.
One of the key features of the VL-Z7Uis the still camera mode with built in Multi-media card/ SD memory card slot and electronic flash. This feature enables the camcorder to double as a still camera.

Camcorder Operation

The VL-Z7U was easy to use with the default settings.  But once past the basics, the more advanced features require perusing the menu structure, which was initially confusing.

Unfortunately, a couple of frequently needed features such as the wind filter and display stabilization on/off required navigating the menu settings. Preferably the most common functions would have dedicated buttons that can be operated easily while filming. It’s not uncommon to discover that the wind filter is needed after filming begins.

The menu is activated with the display button above the battery compartment. Once activated, the miniature joystick scrolls through the menu and selects options when depressed.

The connectors under a cover on the back of the VL-Z7U are clearly marked. Connection of the VL-Z7U to a television, VCR, or PC was quite straightforward with the included USB and analog video cables. A miniature IEEE 1394 (DV) connector is also provided without a cable. This connector and a cable will be needed to transfer digital video to a PC for editing and recording onto a DVD. The VL-Z7U can also be used to transfer older analog recordings from a VCR into digital format using the internal A/D converters of the VL-Z7U.

Battery life is specified to be about 1 hour – more if you use the viewfinder often instead of the LCD. The LCD backlight is not needed outdoors in sunlight, which should help extend the battery life somewhat. In order to provide a compact package, the VL-Z7U mounts the battery into a compartment behind the LCD display. Unfortunately, this means that the battery compartment defines the battery’s physical dimensions. Unlike many other camcorder designs, a larger battery with higher capacity cannot be added.

It would be a good idea to carry a couple of spare batteries when using the VL-Z7U; however, this points out another peculiarity of the VL-Z7U. The battery charger is built into the VL-Z7U, so it is not possible to charge a spare battery while recording unless the AC adapter is attached.

There was only one peculiar behavior that I experienced while using the VL-Z7U. While playing back test recordings on a television, occasionally a click could be heard in the audio. After observing the recording several times, it appears that the VL-Z7U emits an audible click when the optical zoom reaches the end of its travel in one direction. The built-in microphone is able to pick up this sound. The sound of the click was easily masked by nearby sounds, but is slightly noticeable when using the zoom in a relatively quiet ambient situation. On the other hand, the VL-Z7U exhibited no undue sensitivity to other internal sounds generated by its drive motors.

The remote control unit that comes with the VL-Z7U includes the expected playback buttons plus buttons to select between tape or memory card playback. During memory card playback the zoom control on the remote can be used in conjunction with the remote shift buttons to navigate across a picture and zoom in.

Performance

Sample shots from the digital still camera function:

VL-Z7U sample shot 1
This first shot is an example of the “fine” setting
(Click on the screenshot for a larger image) Sample shot 2
This second shot is an example of the normal mode
(Click on the screenshot for a larger image) Sample Shot 3
This third shot is with all modes off and BLC Gain on
(Click on the screenshot for a larger image)

Video Quality

The video quality of the VL-Z7U was quite good under most conditions. In addition to the default automatic settings and the manual settings, there is a scene menu with six preprogrammed recording modes. Each of the scene modes automatically sets the exposure, white balance, and shutter speed for the type of scene being recorded.

  • Sport: Scenes with a lot of motion such as sporting events.
  • Dusk: Twilight and sunset
  • Sunlight: Scenes with bright sunlight
  • Party: Variable illumination – spotlights, candles
  • Night Lumi: Scenes with an illuminated object in the dark – fireworks
  • Slow Shut: to make an object in dim lighting appear bright.

Default (Scene Mode off), Sport, and Party were used the most during evaluation of the VL-Z7U. Default was usually fine for outdoors in sunlight, and Party seemed to provide realistic capture of illuminated indoor scenes without giving the appearance of over-brightening. The default mode; however, was disappointing for indoor scenes with low lighting. A higher dynamic range in the default mode would be nice so that the menu system would not need to be accessed when moving between indoors and outdoors while recording is in progress.

In low light conditions, a noticeable amount of graininess was always present whether using one of the pre-programmed modes or the manual settings.

The auto-focus system was spot-on in all but very low light conditions.

With adequate lighting, colors were rendered accurately and with very good contrast. While recording a flower garden on a bright day, a strand of spider web could be clearly seen extending from a bright red flower to a nearby bush.

The digital image stabilization worked fine. The only complaint once again was the necessity for navigating the menu system in order to turn off the digital stabilization when a scene transitioned from little motion to relatively more motion.

Still Camera Mode

The VL-Z7U contains a still camera mode that permits still photos to be taken and stored on tape or on the included memory card. The memory card or tape is selected with a media selection switch on the back of the camcorder above the standby button. Additionally, a frame from a video recording can be selected with pause during playback and transferred to the memory card.

The number of photos that can be stored on the included SD memory card ranges between 20 and 160 depending upon the selected resolution (640×480 & 1280×960) and picture quality setting (fine, normal, economy.)

Still photos taken in bright sunlight exhibited very good color. However, the clarity of the still photos was less than expected from a > 1Mpixel image sensor. An extended period of experimenting finally convinced me that the problem was not operator error or even an auto-focus error, which was originally suspected.

The VL-Z7U contains a built-in flash for still photos and can be set to off, automatic or flash-always. The VL-Z7U includes the expected re-eye reduction feature. What appears to be a connector for an external flash is actually the mount for an optional zoom microphone. The flash resulted in good exposure in all but very low lighting conditions. Here the graininess that was present in low-light video recordings was again quite noticeable.

Over all, the still photo performance of the VL-Z7U was very disappointing, especially since the feature was so nicely integrated into the camcorder.

Software

The VL-Z7U includes a USB driver on the CD ROM. No other software is bundled with the product.

The USB driver installed without trouble on a system running Windows 98. When the camcorder was plugged into the USB cable, the memory card in the VL-Z7U appeared as a removable drive in the directory. Photos are moved from the memory card by dragging and dropping into the desired folder.

In order to do video editing on a PC, an IEEE 1394 cable will be to be purchased as well as the requisite editing application.

 Pros

  • Good digital video quality
  • Good LCD with good visibility in sunlight or indoors with backlight
  • Built-in flash
  • Size – fits nicely in the hand, jacket pocket, or purse

Cons

  • Low light video quality
  • Digital Still Camera picture quality is poor
  • Menu organization is confusing
  • No room for a larger battery
  • No video software to get started

Conclusion

The VL-Z7U is a very interesting digital camcorder. The video quality under most circumstances is quite good, the LCD is clear in daylight as well as with the backlight on for indoor use. However, the overall perception is compromised by the execution of several features. The menu structure is confusing, low light video performance is only fair, and the still camera feature is quite poor. The size of the VL-Z7U’s and its unique swivel body are it’s strongest attributes.

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