Sony has the widest selection of high-definition camcorders of any manufacturer. At last count they had 12, ranging from $999 to $3,699 USD. The company is touching almost all the high-def format and media bases this year including HDV (tape) and AVCHD using either mini DVDs, hard drives or Memory Stick Pro Duo flash cards. No MPEG-4 720p cheapies for them though, thank you very much. Most of Sony’s HD videomakers—save the $3,699 USD HDR-FX1—use CMOS sensors like the Canon HV10 and HV20 rather than CCD imaging devices. At first I was skeptical of manufacturer hype about the improved quality of CMOS image sensors but the proof is in the low-noise video. Of the most recent models reviewed for Digital Trends, the 3-megapixel CMOS sensors are really delivering the goods. The new Sony HDV HDR-HC7 has a 3.2MP ClearVid CMOS imager, optical image stabilization and lots of other goodies. As usual Sony asks you to pay a bit more for its gear than the competition—list price, anyway. Is the HC7 worth the extra bucks? There’s only one way to find out…
Features and Design
The Sony HDR-HC7 looks like so many other camcorders with its horizontal configuration and silver-toned body with black accents. In fact, it looks similar to the Canon HV20 except the tape compartment is slightly more compact. The two companies are fierce rivals so the look-alikes must come from different factories, right? The HC7 measures 3.25 x 3.25 x 5.5 (WHD, in inches) and tips the scales at 23.2 ounces including battery and Memory Stick Pro Duo card. Tiny it isn’t but it feels very substantial.
The front is dominated by a 10x Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* optical zoom with a reasonable 20x digital zoom; still we suggest you disable the digital zoom since quality drops a bit from pure optical. Below the zoom is a stereo mic and next to it is an input for optional microphones that fit in the hot accessory shoe. You’ll also find an infrared port that beams light when you’re in the NightShot mode. With this feature you can record subjects in complete darkness but they’re a monochrome green. My cat’s eyes looked pretty cool but this is best used for sleeping babies or you can use it as a light walking in the dark, checking things out on the LCD screen! Next to the Nightshot sensor is an auto pop-out flash for still images.
The left side has a bunch of decals proclaiming the format (HD HDV) and a few less obtrusive markings including one that states this is a 6.1-megapixel camera. How does Sony take a 3.2MP camcorder and capture 6.1MP images? With interpolation, naturally, a software enhancement that bumps up native resolution. Does it work? We’ll let you know on the next page. This side is dominated by a 2.7-inch widescreen swing-out LCD monitor rated 211K pixels. This is a touch screen so you have to tap it to access the menu system. I used it a lot and didn’t have any problems with smudging. I did have a problem with some the weird spelling contractions—guess it’s just the old English major in me. Connect has an “o,” not CNNECT and picky stuff like that. And the adjustments could be better organized. More on this in a bit. On the left screen bezel are controls to adjust the zoom (wide/telephoto) and to start/stop recording.
On the lens barrel, you’ll find a key to enter manual mode and a dial to scroll through those adjustments. There’s also a Back Light key and another switch to turn NightShot on or off. On the body, under the LCD is a compartment for the various inputs/outputs including LANC, Firewire, component, A/V and a headphone jack. The HDMI out is on the rear, in case you’re wondering. When the LCD is open, on the body you’ll find a USB out, a slot for Pro Duo cards and a button for the Easy Handycam setting (basically full auto) and a Display/Battery info that removes any clutter on the screen; when on you’ll see how much life is left in your battery to the minute, a terrific real-world feature.
The right side has a comfortable strap, the tape compartment and a key to adjust the flash (on/off). On top is the hot accessory shoe cover, tape eject button, wide/tele zoom switch and a dedicated button for taking stills.
The back of the camcorder has the mode dial (tape/still recording/playback), the record button, HDMI compartment and DC-in for recharging the battery. The battery fits neatly into a slot so it doesn’t protrude (similar to the HV20). Unlike that one, it has a pull-out viewfinder with a comfortable eyecup that can be adjusted with the diopter control. On the bottom are the tripod mount and the battery release switch. All in all, this is a compact, attractive camcorder.
The HDR-HC7 comes with the basics including an AC adaptor, battery, remote, A/V, component, USB and (surprisingly) FireWire cables. You also get a 115-page Owner’s Manual. The software bundle is limited with Picture Motion Browser Ver. 2.0.02 that’s geared for very basic editing of stills and video. Fortunately there are many affordable packages available for editing HDV footage, if you’d like to go that route.
Once the battery was charged, tape and card loaded, it was time to test this baby out.
Image Courtesy of Sony
Testing and Use
The HDR-HC7 is a HDV camcorder, meaning it takes 1920 x 1080i high-def video, recording it to a mini DV cassette, compared to 1440 x 1080i for current AVCHD models. Of all the HD camcorders I’ve used HDV delivers the best video so far; its only drawback is the fact it uses a small cassette rather than a HDD like the HD Everio or flash memory (Panasonic HDC-SD1) I’ve “suffered” through the hassles of tape because the payoff on screen is well worth it. That’s the case with the HC7 which uses a 3.2MP ClearVid CMOS sensor—it can’t be stated enough: picture quality is really good. Yes, fast forwarding and rewinding is annoying as is the lack of self-generated index points—but that’s life in the big city.
The camcorder powers up very quickly and with a click of the mode dial you can shoot video to tape or take a still to the card. As usual, I started out in Auto and then moved to the manual options. Sony calls its auto setting “Easy Handycam” and when you’re in this setting, you can’t change anything other than the zoom. Focus for the most part was fast with limited hunting to lock in; the unit had no problems shooting through glass.
I took scenes indoors and out, moving to still mode (6.1MP) along the way. Taking the HC7 out of auto opens a variety of options including manual focus, exposure, shutter speed, AE and WB balance shift. You can assign the dial on the lens barrel to one of these five options (I chose focus). Then you simply turn the dial to adjust. This dial was rather loose and I preferred the Canon. You can also use the touch screen to make adjustments as well. The screen, rated 211K pixels, was decent but I found the colors a bit off. Adjusting it via the menu is highly recommended. Like all camcorders, this one has a number of scene modes to fit that occasion (portrait, twilight, sunrise/sunset, beach and so on). Like better camcorders, the HC7 has a zebra pattern for checking brightness levels, a histogram and lots of other tweaks the vast majority of people will never use. But, hey, it’s nice to know they’re available.
After recording video and stills it was time to see how they performed. As for the video, I was very impressed. In fact, I liked it a shade better than the HV20—just a shade, mind you. The footage seemed to have a bit more depth and detail. Video shot outdoors was very accurate, capturing the vividness of purple pool floats while shots of the sky had no noise whatsoever. Material taken indoors wasn’t as vibrant but dark corners in available light with fairly noise free, just a bit better than the Canon in my opinion.
The HC7 doesn’t have a built-in light so you might want to consider buying one if you plan to do a lot of shooting indoors. For that matter the HV20 has a light but it’s so small to render it useless. Of course, you can use Sony’s NightShot for recording in total darkness but you’ll get a scene that looks like something out of pair of night vision goggles.
This camcorder supports x.v.Color for a wider color gamut but unfortunately you need a new HDTV that can display it (new Sony—naturally–and Samsung HDTVs have it, among others). My older HDTV doesn’t so I can’t comment on the system. (Yes, I know it’s time to bite the bullet and get one.)
Although it has a native 3.2MP imager, Sony uses a variation of interpolation to pump up still resolution to 6.1-megapixels. It’s a bit of sleight-of-hand and it shows in the 8 ½ x 11 prints I cranked out–especially images taken indoors. I was not impressed at that size but 4×6 and 5x7s would be O.K. Canon wins the battle here and I hope they don’t go the interpolation route in the my-spec-is-bigger-than-yours game. And for the record, the Sony stills were better than the 7MP Sanyo photos but that unit is a clunker. But this is all a sideshow—these are video cameras and the HDV footage is delicious.
There is one area where the Canon is a hands-down winner—the 24p Cinema mode. With it, your images take on a more movie-film-like feel. It’s subtle but noticeable since it tones down video harshness. Sony tries to emulate it with its Cinematic mode but it’s not the real deal.
Like the Canon HV20, I have no problems recommending this camcorder even though it’s tape based. Video quality is excellent and stills are, well, camcorder stills no matter if the spec says 6.1MP or 6,000. The HDR-HC7 feels very comfortable and the controls are nicely positioned. The touch screen LCD makes it fairly simple to navigate the menu system but it’s not the most intuitive I’ve used. In the real world of legit online merchants, I found the Sony for about $1000 USD and the Canon for $1,029 USD, basically a 30 buck difference. For that little, it really boils down to your tastes since video in both instances is top-notch. Do you like a touch screen? Go with the Sony. Prefer moving through menus with a joystick? Opt for the Canon. And if that 24p Cinema mode intrigues you, the HV20 is the one. And if it were my thousand bucks, Canon gets my vote by a mere pixel or three.
• Delicious HDV video
• Solid optical Image Stabilization
• Nice feel and ergonomics
• Touchscreen might be a turnoff
• Menus are a bit confusing
• No true 24p mode