Sony is usually first to market with ground-breaking technology—Walkman, Trinitron, CD players, HDV camcorders–you know the drill. The company, along with Panasonic, created the newer AVCHD high-def camcorder format and had the first models for sale, the HDR-UX1 and HDR-SR1. Those camcorders respectively recorded high-def video onto 3-inch DVDs and hard disk drives. To this observer Sony graciously let Panasonic introduce the first flash memory based AVCHD model—the HDC-SD1, a home video maker I especially liked because of its small size and video quality. Now Sony has finally introduced a flash HD cam but instead of SD cards like the Panasonic, this one use Memory Stick Pro Duo media. Because there are so few moving parts, the HDR-CX7 is also as compact as can be (under a pound including battery). And it’s a beauty. Featuring a 3MP CMOS sensor, a 10x optical zoom and optical image stabilization, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one and immediately ran out to a ball game to test it out (at least that was my excuse to see my beloved NY Mets).
Features and Design
The new HDR-CX7 is beautiful—if a camcorder can be given such a designation. The glossy all-black body has swooping lines and an elegance that lets everyone know you’re holding a state-of-the-art piece of electronics. As a matter of fact, great minds must think alike since the CX7 looks very similar to Panasonic’s newest flash-memory camcorder, the HDC-SD5 ($999 USD, due September). Although the pair looks similar there are very different technologies that we’ll go into a bit. Back to the CX7…
This camcorder is truly palm-sized, measuring 2.75 x 2.75 x 5.25 (WHD, in inches), tipping the scales at 15 ounces including battery, card and strap. As noted, the all-black body has glossy and textured portions that are very attractive. What can I say? I liked it.
The front is totally dominated by the 10x Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar T* lens (pronounced T star). The lens can hit a reasonable 20x digitally but as always, keep the digital zoom turned off since it degrades picture quality. Next to the lens is a flash for still photos; the camcorder does not have an enhancement light but you can easily connect an optional light because there’s a hot accessory shoe on the top of the unit. Also on the top is a 5.1-channel surround sound mic, a zoom toggle switch and a button for taking individual snapshots.
On the left side is the swing out 2.7-inch touchscreen LCD monitor rated 211K pixels. It uses Sony’s Clear LCD Photo Plus technology and the quality is quite good. The company has improved the onscreen menu system and it’s very simple to use offering quick access for changing all the parameters you’d like including nine Scene Modes. To left of the screen are four buttons on the bezel including Home that gets you to the main menu page, wide/tele buttons to adjust the zoom with left hand and a start/stop button. On the body are a number of buttons for engaging backlight compensation, a Display key to change the amount of clutter on the LCD and another for quick access to the scenes you’ve shot. There’s also a Playback button and a switch to engage the NightShot option. This lets you record in almost total darkness but the video is a greenish monotone. The last control is the Easy button that puts the camcorder is full auto mode, the setting the vast majority of people use. Here the camcorder does all the work and you simply hit record, adjust the zoom and you can unleash your inner Brett Ratner. By the way, the action director started his career at 8 with a Panasonic camcorder so there’s always hope! Also here is the Memory Stick Pro Duo card slot. A 4 gig card holds 30 minutes at the highest resolution. Plan on spending around $80 USD for one since no card is supplied. Better yet, if you’re spending $1,200 USD for a camcorder, have the dealer throw one in for free to seal the deal.
When the LCD is closed there are several logos with the most prominent saying the camcorder is an AVCHD model which it means it records 1440 x 1080i video using the MPEG-4 H.264 format. The right side has the comfortable strap and a Handycam logo on the body. On the back is a slot for the rechargeable lithium ion battery which barely protrudes. This is design is becoming much more common from more manufacturers and it’s very welcome. To the left of the battery are compartments for DC-in and HDMI/AV out. You’ll also find the main mode dial (movie, still, on/off) and the record button. There are also three lights on the back edge that indicate which mode you’re in and a charge indicator.
One of the reasons the HDR-CX7 is so compact is the fact it comes with a dock that has connections for USB, A/V, component outs and a DC-in to recharge the battery. There’s no Firewire connection with this one. On the dock is a Disc Burn button that we’ll discuss in a bit.
The HDR-CX7 comes with the basics including the dock, battery, power cord, USB, component and A/V cables as well as a remote. There’s a basic 40-page Operating Guide and a more in-depth manual on the supplied CD-ROM. As readers know, I’m not a big fan of disc-based manuals since most people don’t lug their laptops with them on a shoot. The disc also has Picture Motion Browser Ver. 2.1.01, a very basic—and slow loading–program for importing files. I just wish Sony would cut a deal with a quality video editing outfit and supply a “teaser” program rather than this or even a “lite” version of its Vegas software. I guess it wouldn’t be a day without sunshine if you couldn’t complain about Sony in one way or another. We’ll get to a bigger issue in the next section.
That said, I charged the battery, popped in a 4GB card and went to the ball game to try this one out.
Image Courtesy of Sony
Testing and Use
It’s a good sign when the security guards want to “confiscate” your camcorder before entering the game; this was good-natured New York banter and after a few laughs it was pretty obvious even these guys knew I had something really cool in my bag.
Powering up the HDR-CX7 takes slightly less than two seconds and you’re ready to record. As always, I began in the Easy Handycam setting which is basically full auto. Since this camcorder is so light, it was very easy to hand hold while zooming in on the players and various crowd/stadium scenes which I used to check out the color. After moving the mode dial to still it was a no-brainer taking snapshots that also get saved to the Pro Duo card. Even though the camcorder has a 3MP sensor, it takes 6.1MP files using interpolation, a feature I’m not fond of since quality is not anywhere near as good a true 6MP digicam from a name brand.
When I returned from the game it was time to delve a bit deeper into the camcorder’s options including a variety of scene modes which are the usual you’ll find on any camcorder (portrait, fireworks and so on). On the manual options front you can tweak the focus, exposure and white balance. You simply tap the screen to make the adjustments. For those who are really serious about their videos, there’s a zebra setting to measure brightness. This camcorder is about as easy to use as you’d imagine—once you check out the PDF file on the CD-ROM. I just wish Sony would supply a longer printed manual.
Playing back your videos is very simple—just connect the HDMI or component outputs to your TV. You then highlight the scene you want to watch on the touchscreen or with the remote and sit back to enjoy the show. This is exactly what I did and for the most part I was very pleased. There was barely a spec of noise and colors were very accurate and lifelike—for the most part. The camcorder did have problems with strong reds and yellows; the colors weren’t smeared, just off reality but this could’ve been the lights at Shea Stadium throwing things off a bit. Focusing was very quick and the OIS really smoothed out my jittery hands. The 5.1-channel mic was fun as it captured fans yelling behind my for the rear speakers. Just as I was very happy with the quality of Panasonic HDC-SD1, I really enjoyed watching the baseball game again (since the Mets won). Besides the footage shot at a night game at Shea Stadium, I also recorded indoors and out around my home. The results were quite good although shooting indoors with low light there was a lot of noise. If you plan to record indoors, I’d definitely recommend an accessory light. With good daylight, the CX7 did a fine job and the backlight switch was good capturing my cat in her window seat. Close-ups and detail were spot on. Moving into Tele Macro for some close-ups of some fresh gladiolas was a marvel. The shots were terrific as were scenes taken outdoors in the sunshine. You’ll be very happy with the results. When I saw this footage and how good it was, I forgave the slightly off colors from the lights of the stadium.
Image Courtesy of Sony
Testing and Use Cont’d
I must point out one area Sony has missed the boat is compatibility with its flat panel TVs. With Panasonic SD card HD camcorders you can just slip the card into a compatible plasma set and instantly watch videos. This is way, way cool. As of this time, no Sony TV has this capability. Of course, you can sneak your hand in the back of the set and connect the CX7 via HDMI. But what’s easier than sliding a card into a frame and using the remote to playback scenes? Come on, guys, get on the ball. Another note: the new Panasonic HDC-SD5 coming out in September records 1920 x 1080i video, the best quality AVCHD has to offer and the same spec as HDV. My guess Sony will bump up the quality in 2008. We shall see…
On a more positive note, Sony recently introduced a new burner that handles AVCHD video. The DVDirect ($229) is a breeze to use. Simply pop in a blank recordable DVD, connect the camcorder via USB, follow the prompts and you’ll have a finalized disc before you know it. This disc can then be played back in any AVCHD compatible Blu-ray player. The supplied camcorder CD-ROM has viewer software so you watch the AVCHD disc on a PC—just make sure you have a potent computer as my older laptop jerked the video a bit. DVDirect is an affordable way to create discs without dropping a BD drive in your computer. Amazingly although it has a Memory Stick slot it can’t read videos–only JPEGs. One would hope Sony would rectify this omission the next go around.
The “disc burn” button on the supplied dock works with the supplied Picture Motion Browser to create discs on your PC but they are only SD quality. Sony figures you’ll use the software that came with a Blu-ray burner if you want to make AVCHD discs. Whatever.
As for the photographs, don’t expect the best quality. Your snapshots will be OK as 4x6s, especially if you’re using the flash. Other than that, interpolated images are always filled with noise and these are no exception.
A final note: this camcorder is one of the few that uses the expanded x.v.Color system that records a wider color gamut; I do not have one of these televisions so I can’t comment.
With the HDR-CX7 Sony has introduced a high-quality HD camcorder that records to flash memory—and it’s a winner for all my nitpicking. The overall video quality is outstanding. The camcorder focuses quickly, smoothes out the shakes thanks to OIS and is a lot of fun to operate. If Sony just took care of a few things, the CX7 would be at the top of camcorder heap, circa Summer 2007. Yes, I’d even give up a little resolution of the Canon HV20 for the small size, instant index marks and a camcorder that even a Shea Stadium security lusts after.
• Very good video quality
• Beautiful design
• Intuitive menu system
• No compatible card-playing TVs
• Poor supplied software
• Interpolated stills