DVD camcorders get all the buzz in the camcorder world. Poor MiniDV is now the forgotten stepchild–even though the majority of digital camcorders in 2006 are still tape based. But, dear readers, the trend is clearly to disk and HDD camcorders with a sprinkling of SD flash memory editions thrown in for good measure. As we reported from the Consumer Electronics Show in January manufacturers are cutting back MiniDV and heading for newer technologies. Industry pundits expect DVD camcorders to make up the majority of camcorders sold by the end of the year, a true sea change. Sony, the dominant camcorder maker, has cut its MiniDV lineup to four–a big drop from last year–and they’ve dropped prices, a favorite trend of ours. This year’s top model is $799 versus close to a grand last year. The DCR-HC96 not only takes MiniDV videos but snaps 3-megapixel (2016 x 1512) stills, making it a reasonable two-in-one digital imaging capture device. Should you go for the convenience of DVD or the quality of MiniDV? Let’s power up and find out.
Features and Design
Before we get into the DCR-HC96 Handycam, let me distill the camcorder shopping experience by taking a quick look at the Sony MiniDV line-up. For occasional birthdays and family gatherings, there’s nothing wrong with the DCR-HC26 for $349. It has a 20x optical zoom, a 680K pixel imaging device and takes videos–period. Spend 50 bucks more for the DCR-HC36 and you basically get the same camcorder with a memory card slot. Why you would want one to capture bogus 640 x 480 pixel stills is beyond me. More appealing is the DCR-HC46 for $499. This one takes fairly decent 1MP stills, has a less powerful zoom (12x) but a more potent CCD. It also has a 2.7-inch widescreen LCD so you can properly frame 16:9 videos. Go whole hog with the DCR-HC96 and you get better lens quality and the ability to take 3.3MP photos because of its potent CCD. Granted there are other features to ponder in this quartet but these broad strokes are the basic roadmap for MiniDV camcorder shopping.
Naturally we’re drawn to the best toys and the DCR-HC96 is it for MiniDV this year–at least from Sony. You can always walk over and check out a Panasonic three-chipper such as the PV-GS300 ($699) that takes 3.1MP images and has optical image stabilization, a terrific feature no matter if you’re buying a camcorder or a digicam. We’re expecting a review sample soon and when we get it we’ll compare it to the HC96. Stay tuned.
The Sony DSC-HC96 is an extremely compact camcorder. Although not as slim or convenient as a digicam like the Sony DSC-T9, this baby is very trim. It measures 2.9 x 3.7 x 4.75 (WHD, in inches) and tips the scales at just 1.2 pounds including the tape and battery. One of the reasons it’s so small is the fact it comes with a docking station that has all of the various outputs (USB, Firewire, A/V) plus it recharges the battery.
The camcorder has a minimum of buttons and nice, rounded edges. It’s not as cool as a Motorola RAZR or an iPod but it’s fairly attractive. The front is dominated by the lens which has a built-in cover so there’s no fumbling with clunky lens caps attached by string to the hand grip. The lens is a 10x Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar T* type (pronounced T star). You’ll also find the mic and flash to enhance still quality. The left side has a swing-out 2.7-inch touch-screen LCD with a 16:9 shape for framing wide-screen videos. Above the lens are three buttons for Backlight, Display/Battery Info and Easy. You use backlight to handle difficult subjects such as a family member standing in a window. Display shows the current settings and battery info tells you to the minute how much juice you have left. We’ve always loved this feature. The Easy Button is basically an Auto switch that non-techies would use all the time since the camcorder makes all the settings and adjustments. You just point, zoom and record. When you pop open the LCD, you’ll find the Memory Stick Pro Duo slot and speaker on the camcorder body. On the bottom of the LCD frame are very handy controls for record start/stop, adjusting the zoom and choosing between standard screen mode (4:3) and wide screen (16:9). The LCD swivels 270-degrees so you can shoot in a variety of positions.
Image Courtesy of Sony
The rear has a small color viewfinder with diopter control for those times you can’t use the LCD which is rated a so-so 123K pixels. It pulls straight out but that’s the only adjustment. There are keys for adjusting the flash (red eye, on/off and so on) as well as one to enable the NightShot feature. NightShot lets you take videos in almost total darkness as if you were taping a reality show but the quality is a greenish monochrome. You’ll also find the record button and battery that lasts about an hour in typical use. Above the record button are three LED lights that tell you which mode you’re in (tape, card, playback) There’s nothing on the right other than a very comfortable wrist strap since it’s the cover for the tape mechanism as well as a compartment with two ports for A/V out and a LANC jack for controlling the tape transport of devices connected to it.
The top of the DCR-HC96 has slot for a hot shoe, Sony’s only MiniDV model with one. If you’re even thinking about buying accessory lights or mics, this is one to get. Also on the top is the zoom toggle switch, a separate shutter to take stills and the mode dial. With this dial you turn on the camcorder and get it ready for whatever task you have in mind–record to tape, memory card and playback. The position of this dial is a bit problematic since it’s so close to the zoom toggle that I found myself inadvertently moving it. There’s also a tape eject button. For those who place their camcorders on tripods, the tapes are conveniently top loading. The bottom has a tripod mount and a docking station connection slot. All in all, a very logically designed camcorder other than that annoying mode dial.
The DCR-HC96 comes with everything you need to start taking and enjoying videos other than a tape, memory card and Firewire cable. You’ll get a power adapter/in-camera charger, battery, docking station, remote, A/V and USB cables and a CD-ROM with Picture Package v1.5 software. It also comes with a confusing 140-page owner’s manual that’s also the guide for two other MiniDV models. After charging the battery and loading a one-hour tape and one-gig card, it was time to play Spielberg.
Even though it’s tape-based, this camcorder is ready to go in less than two seconds. I initially set the camcorder in the Easy mode then used the Program AE settings and manual adjustments, shooting indoors and out. I found the camcorder a pleasure to use, once I got used to the placement of the zoom, snapshot and mode buttons. The LCD is OK at best, having trouble in bright sunshine; the viewfinder saved the day though.
Once I did my taping, I reviewed the videos on a digital TV through the A/V inputs and downloaded the material using Movie Maker 2 to the PC. The quality of the clips was good without the digital noise found on many DVD camcorders. Outdoor blossoms and skies were accurate but the auto focus took longer that it should to lock in on a subject. Leaves from a weeping cherry tree gave it fits but that’s a tough one for any camcorder. Indoor shots were good too without too much noise.
There’s been some buzz on the ‘Net about the onscreen menus of the DCR-HC96, complaining they are confusing. Although hardly as elegant as iTunes, they’re pretty easy to follow. Just remember to have a tissue handy to wipe your fingerprints off the LCD.
As for still quality, the DCR-HC96 is not going to win many awards although the 4×6 prints of tulips we made were good enough. Remember it takes 3MP files (2016 x 1512 pixels) and most digicam makers don’t even sell them anymore (4MP is the entry level such a Canon Powershot A430 for $149). Still it’s better than the vast majority of camcorders other than Canon Optura 600 and miles ahead of cell phones.
I have no problem recommending the DCR-HC96 for the vast majority people who will use it for what most home video-making folks do–recording vacations, birthdays, babies, kids–the things camcorders are purchased for. Video quality is very accurate in daylight and under low light conditions. Now I get to answer one of the questions raised earlier–how does it compare to a DVD camcorder? Quality-wise it wins hands down. Ergonomics are better too. Yet eliminating the need to download clips to a PC is quite a bonus since most people don’t edit anyway. Although it doesn’t have the convenience of a DVD camcorder, DCR-HC96 makes up for with quality video–and if you’re taping your first child, quality is king (or queen). I must note that we just received a Panasonic VDR-300 DVD camcorder ($999). It uses three 800K CCDs and has the potential to close the quality gap with MiniDV. We’ll let you know as soon as we put it through its paces.
- Extremely comfortable, compact
- Takes quality videos, decent stills
- Very simple operation
- LCD quality could be better
- Confusing onscreen menus
- Poor placement of the mode dial
- No tape, card or Firewire cable supplied