Based on the HDR-TG5V’s diminutive size, some folks might be tempted to think of Sony’s new ultra-compact HD Handycam as being little more than a Flip with an inflated price tag. But that’s just not so. This little marvel of consumer-grade camcorder engineering has most of the same features found in Sony’s portlier high-definition video cameras, including SteadyShot image stabilization, manual focus, and even a relatively large internal solid-state drive capable of holding hours worth of gorgeous, highest-quality 1080p video. Plus, it’s got at least one trick up its sleeve that you’re not likely to find in any other HD camcorder, ultra-compact or otherwise: GPS geotagging. Tantalized yet?
Roughly the size of three iPod Touches stacked on top of each other, the HDR-TG5V is perfectly jeans friendly. We carried it around in our front trouser pocket for hours and only occasionally noticed its presence.
It’s also pretty. The brushed titanium casing is cool and smooth to the touch and remarkably resistant to scratches—it shared space in our pocket with a key ring and showed nary a scratch at the end of the day. What’s more, a pair of snap covers conceals the power and video out jacks, the memory card port, and even the battery, keeping the HDR-TG5V’s lines sleek and tidy.
Indeed, the unit is a happy marriage of minimalism and utility. The chassis is adorned by only three physical controls: A zoom wheel at the top of the rear edge that rests under the user’s thumb; a large, red-ringed button inside the wheel that initiates and arrests recording, and a small square button situated to the lower left side of the wheel that toggles the device to camera mode and doubles as a shutter release for still photography.
The rest of the camera’s not inconsiderable functionality can be accessed via the bright and clear touch-enabled 2.7-inch TFT LCD screen, which pops out of the camcorder’s left side. Pulling the screen out powers up the camcorder in a little over a second, and on-screen icons lead users into a series of intuitive menus.
Simply put, it’s both beautiful and accessible. We were shooting video within a couple of minutes of taking the camcorder out of the box.
Ultra-compact camcorders are typically streamlined and stripped of the sort of luxury functions found on larger video cameras. And, indeed, the HDR-TG5V is missing some of the features that that Sony Handycam fans will be accustomed to seeing. There is, for example, no 5.1 surround sound and no nightshot mode for capturing video in pitch black scenes.
That said, Sony has still managed to pack in an awful lot of handy functionality, such as the Japanese manufacturer’s lauded face and smile recognition systems. The HDR-TG5V can find, track and remain focused on multiple faces, indexing them so that users can later view all of the faces that appeared in each clip using Sony’s Motion Picture Browser software (a bit more on this software later).
Meanwhile, a function called Smile Shutter, when switched on, automatically snaps still images of subjects being captured on video whenever they smile. The images are only a couple of megapixels in size and not on par with what you’d capture even with most entry-level dedicated still cameras, but it’s an undeniably useful feature when you don’t have a second person handy to focus on photography while you do the video.
And, in addition to a more than a dozen automatic modes (including Smooth Slow Record—always useful for analyzing the details of golf swings and embarrassing skateboard stunts), Sony has also provided advanced users the ability to manually control exposure and focus. The company has even thrown in a few basic white balance settings from which to choose.
But the HDR-TG5V’s killer app, so to speak, is its easy-to-use GPS geotagging functionality. Tap on the satellite icon on the touchscreen, and a map of your local area will pop up. When switched on, all video and pictures captured will be stamped with exact position information. What’s more, these files become searchable on the map, which means you can find clips based on where they were taken rather than date/time or file names.
The GPS features are child’s play to use (just toggle the GPS switch above the battery to on and everything else is automatic) and act a tangible user benefit. Based on our experience with the HDR-TG5V, we expect GPS functionality to become the norm rather than the exception as camcorder tech moves forward.
Much of the technology that has earned praise for Sony’s larger HD consumer camcorders has been stuffed inside the HDR-TG5V’s tiny chassis, including a ClearVid CMOS with an effective widescreen video resolution of 1.4 million pixels, Carl Zeiss Vario Tessar glass, and SteadyShot image stabilization (though of the digital rather than optical variety).
Not surprisingly, given these specs, the high-def video we captured was quite satisfying. Outdoor shots were vibrant, highly resolved, and smooth—even when we had the camcorder’s 10x optical zoom pushed to the maximum—and auto-focus was smart and quick. It felt like high-quality, high-definition camcording for the masses.
Indoor shooting was, as one would expect, a bit less impressive. Footage came out grainy and showing subtle digital artifacts, and the lens took a bit longer to focus. That made us want to start playing with some of the manual settings, which helped considerably—though we ended up occasionally missing brief scene opportunities since we had to spend a few seconds navigating the touchscreen menu system rather than simply working physical controls. (An unfortunate downside of the HDR-TG5V’s attractive, but minimalist design.)
Functioning as a camera, we managed to eke out a few decent 4 megapixel shots, but generally wished that our photos has been taken with a dedicated digital camera—as we do with most all pictures captured by any video camera. The images were sometimes blown out, sometimes grainy, sometimes noisy. Most users will take photographs with the HDR-TG5V only as a last resort.
The 16GB hard disk drive, which can hold up to six hours of HD video (and more than ten hours of the SD variety) ought to provide enough room for any trip or vacation. And in the unlikely event you do run out of space, just start popping in Memory Sticks (this is a proprietary Sony product, which means, alas, no SD cards). The unit ships with a 4GB card and a USB adapter though, in the off-chance that your computer doesn’t have a slot for Sony’s proprietary expandable memory.
The battery gave us almost 90 minutes of operating time, but took only an hour or so to fully charge.
Of course, the hitch in dealing with HD video comes in editing and playback. Common, readily accessible video editing applications like Microsoft MovieMaker still don’t recognize AVCHD files (the burgeoning standard for consumer HD video), which means we’re forced to either purchase pricey prosumer software or use the manufacturer programs prepackaged with most HD camcorders.
In Sony’s case, that means the Motion Picture Browser utility mentioned above, which is designed to work specifically with Sony Handycams and accessories. It’s a fairly simple system—just plug your camera into the included charging dock which connects to your PC via USB, then follow a few simple instructions to move the video from your camcorder to your PC library.
But Sony’s software isn’t particularly powerful. The AVCHD player is useful, but PMB’s high-def editing software, while easy to use, is so low on features that it makes MovieMaker look like a Hollywood editing suite. Unless you pick up a third-party application, chances are you won’t do much with your HD video aside from stringing together clips and attaching titles and credits.
Sony is positioning this particular camcorder as a traveler’s friend; a device for people on the move who want to be able to slip their video camera in their pocket as easily as they might a still camera—and without obvious sacrifice to image quality. The GPS geotagging feature is the icing on the cake, and ought to prove particularly enticing for folks who spend a lot of time on the road.
The only thing that might give these consumers pause is the HDR-TG5V’s steep price tag: $1,000. Sony and other manufacturers now offer a wide selection of bigger, cheaper HD camcorders for a fair bit less. Keeping this in mind, the device’s sleek design and GPS functionality are great additions, but if these features aren’t high on your list of necessities, you’d likely be better off investing in a less expensive video camera instead.
- Great quality HD video, especially for an ultra-compact
- Has several advanced functions usually found only in full-sized camcorders
- Clever minimalist design.
- Bundled software is functional, but not particularly empowering
- Touch screen controls for exposure and manual focus, though elegant, are slower to access than physical buttons