Sony will begin selling its first high-definition video camcorder in Japan on October 15, and worldwide by the end of the year, the company said in an announcement Tuesday. While the camcorder is compatible with Japan's HDV high-definition digital video format, users cannot store video on Sony's Blu-ray Disc format.

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The HDR-FX1 camcorder is Sony

The price in Japan is ¥400,000, and $3,700 when the camcorder goes on sale in the US in November (around £2,100), said Masashi Imamura, senior general manager of Sony's IT & Mobile Solutions Network Company. The release day for the US market in November has not been decided, but the camcorder will be on sale internationally by January 1 2005, he said.

The HDR-FX1 has three recording modes: the HDV (high-definition video) mode has 1,080 horizontal interlaced lines with 1,440 vertical lines resolution at widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio; a DV mode, also at 16:9 aspect ratio, has 480 horizontal interlaced lines and 720 vertical interlaced lines, and a DV mode with 4:3 aspect ratio has 480 horizontal interlaced lines and 720 vertical interlaced lines. Each mode shoots at 60 frames per second with video data rates after compression running at 25M bps (bits per second), said Imamura. The camcorder records video in MPEG2 (Motion Pictures Expert Group) and audio in MPEG1 AUDIO Layer II in HDV mode and uses miniDV cassettes that provide 60 minutes of recording time, the company said.

The camcorder has a 0.33 inch, 1.12 megapixel CCD (charge coupled device) that has 1.07 megapixels of effective resolution, a Karl Zeiss lens and a 12x optical zoom. The colour monitor is a 250,880 pixel, 3.5-inch liquid crystal display (LCD) screen. The camcorder weighs 2.0 kilograms without batteries.

Three batteries are available; a 2.1 kilogram battery provides 65 minutes of recording time on both HDV mode and DV mode; a 2.2 kilogram version provides 130 minutes of recording time on HDV mode, and 240 minutes of recording time on DV mode. The 2.3 kilogram NP-F970 provides a maximum of 205 minutes of recording on HDV mode and 215 minutes of recording time on DV mode. The batteries are sold separately.

The camcorder has the best resolution and features that Sony can make at the moment, but the HDR-FX1 is still a work in progress, Sony said.

Canon, Sharp, JVC, and Sony agreed on HDV as a standard for Japan in September 2003. HDV has many features common to DV, allowing companies to use some of the same mechanical components in production today.

Backward compatibility is an essential element to promoting HDV, as people realize they can still use their miniDVs, said Shoji Nemoto, president of Sony's Solutions Network Company.

The camcorder's price means that Sony does not expect to sell beyond semiprofessional and high-end consumers, and the company will only be initially producing 5,000 units a month, said Kiyoshi Shikano, corporate vice president of Sony Marketing Japan.

The rollout of high-definition television (HDTV) broadcasting internationally is encouraging TV replacement, Sony executives said. The U.S. has already begun HDTV broadcasting and the US Federal Communications Commission requires all TVs to be equipped with a digital TV tuner by 2007. Japanese public broadcaster NHK began digital broadcasting in December 2003 and will achieve national coverage in 2005. Australia and Korea have already started test broadcasting. This rollout will stimulate consumer demand for HDV products, Shikano said.

Camcorder prices will drop over the next three years as the other HDV backers release models, Imamura said. JVC released its first HDV compatible model in July 2003. Many others from HDV backers and other companies will follow, perhaps some in time for the year-end shopping season, he said.

While products have yet to be announced by Canon and Sharp, HDV is also backed as a standard by Apple, Adobe, Avid, and 25 other companies, Nemoto said.

Sony believes HDV will take about five years before becoming the first-choice format for Japanese camcorder buyers.

The HDV format also has two resolutions: a 720 horizontal line progressive scan, with 1,280 vertical pixels, or a 1,080-horizontal line interlaced scan video, with 1,440 vertical pixels. In terms of image quality, the use of 1,080 horizontal interlaced lines means the camcorder is compatible with the highest resolution high-definition digital TVs, which will add to the camcorder's appeal in its two primary markets, Japan and the US, said Imamura

The 1,080 interlaced horizontal scan version of HDV also makes for less stutter than the version of HDV that uses progressive scan, meaning that very high picture quality can be maintained when users swing the camcorder around, he said.

"There is high-definition at 720 horizontal line progressive scan, but true high-vision comes at 1,080, and this is widely agreed to be the standard for high-definition broadcasting," Imamura said.

The company wants HDV camcorders to join its lineup of Wega brand LCD TVs and its Blu-ray Disc format, to become the third main audiovisual consumer product of the decade, Imamura said. Digital rights management and fears of piracy both by Sony and contents providers, including Hollywood movie studios, have stalled Sony IT & Mobile Solutions Network Company's progress on technologies to transfer HDV into Blu-ray, he said.

"I, personally, definitely want to realize the ability to record HDV on Blu-ray. We are working hard towards this but there are many copyright issues and many technical issues, but I think we can come to a resolution at some point in the near future," Imamura said.

Imamura declined to name a year.