Shooting and Watching in 360 Degrees
From a hardware perspective, there’s not as much to Sony’s 360-degree wizardry as you might think. It’s all in the optics. A snap-on lens shaped like a bottle cap captures light from all directions and funnels it into the image sensor, producing a ring-shaped video that’s almost dizzying to look at prior to conversion. After dumping this unwieldy donut of footage to the computer, software “unwraps” it into an extremely wide strip of video that you can scroll left and right through to simulate looking around.
Watching 360-degree footage feels like getting carried around in a hamster cage and looking out a webcam. A webcam from 1998 that is. You can’t look up or down to any degree, you get bounced around a lot, and the quality is atrocious. After testing it in the office, it was actually bad enough that we had difficulty telling which room we were in on playback. Sharing the panoramas is also problematic because viewers will need Sony’s Picture Motion Browser software to “navigate” them. It’s also worth noting that the “unwrapping” software uses some serious computational grunt to produce the panoramas, so you’ll need to devote some serious time to let it crunch pixels if you shoot a long panoramic video.
Video from pocket cams never approaches the output from optically stabilized, much larger camcorders that cost two or three times as much, but they typically provide high-quality footage that’s impressive relative to their size and price. The PM5K delivers acceptable video on par with many of its peers, but suffers from many of the same flaws, too.
The motion blur that plagues this class of camcorder is just as pronounced on the PM5K as on Flips’ MinoHD, Creative’s VadoHD or Kodak’s Zi8, but we noticed a another issue, too. Panning the camera quickly seems to warp straight edges, creating almost a whiplash effect known as “rolling shutter.” A vertical object in the frame – like a column – will appear to warp and tilt during a quick turn. All CMOS devices suffer from this effect to some degree, but Sony’s seems to be one of the only ones that demonstrated it in normal use.
Low light performance on the PM5K is particularly abysmal. Stepping into a dim room feels like stepping into the slow motion jutter of a strobe light, as the camera’s sensor drops exposure time dramatically to compensate. Other cams do the same, but manage to maintain fluid video. Even with a still shot, the blocky, poorly exposed image still lags well behind what other cams manage to do with the same lighting.
Even with good indoor lighting, video from the PM5K looks hazier in comparison to the 1080p output from Kodak’s Zi8, and even 720p output from Flip’s SlideHD and Creative’s VadoHD, with fuzzier details and more muted, inaccurate colors. Fluorescent lights, especially, seemed to throw the PM5K for a loop, making scenes look dingy and yellow.
Although Sony provides more digital zoom than some competitors, most users will find quality so blocky and poor when using it that it’s rendered nearly useless – a universal truth across pretty much every pocket camcorder.
Oddly enough, the PM5K has been capped at 29 minutes of recording, which can become a major nuisance if you’re attempting to record a longer event, like a concert, without interruption.
Shooting videos in 360 degrees just doesn’t pan out the way we hoped it would, and the regular performance of the PM5K doesn’t provide much to make up for it. Even if you discount the 360-degree capabilities completely by going with the $150 PM5 model (which includes no add-on lens), the $180 Zi8 mops the floor with it on image quality for only a little more. Small size and a swiveling lens just don’t make up for major drawbacks like awkwardly placed controls, capped recording times, and subpar image quality. Although Flip’s MinoHD shoots better looking video, the PM5K can handle 1080p, offers a much lower price, and accepts SD cards, substituting some versatility and practicality for quality.
- Shoots full 1080p video, 5-megapixel stills
- Swiveling lens provides protection, versatility
- Compact and lightweight
- Large 2.4-inch screen
- Reasonably priced
- Accepts SD and Memory Stick Pro Duo cards
- Subpar video quality
- Dismal quality on panoramic videos
- Pronounced rolling shutter effect, motion blur
- No HDMI output
- Awkwardly placed record button
- 29-minute recording cap