HDR-FX1 review

  • Expert Rating: We rate this 7 out of 10We rate this 7 out of 10We rate this 7 out of 10We rate this 7 out of 10We rate this 7 out of 10 We rate this 7 out of 10

  • Price When Reviewed: £2,150

  • Pros: Exceptional output quality at 1080i resolution. Shape and layout taken from PD170 and VX2100 camcorders, with quick access to most controls through buttons. Offers low-cost access to HD capture.

  • Cons: Limited manual controls. No XLR inputs. Z1 due soon. Menu system tricky to use due to button/screen positioning.

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HDV has caused as much furore among video professionals as its predecessor DV did back in the late 1990s. Differing opinions over its usefulness have lead to heated arguments over whether it’s ‘pro’ or just for consumers, whether the MPEG-2 compression at its heart is better or worse than DV, and whether a compressed version of HD is a stupid idea in the first place.

Enjoyable though a good row can be, this is largely irrelevant. As with all new technologies, it’s how they’re implemented that counts. The first HDV camcorder, JVC’s PD1 (and its pro-but-30fps-only brother the HD10) was a great consumer camcorder, but hardly a pro’s main camera – though it’s light weight gave it niche applications such as when the BBC hiked it up Everest.

Now we have Sony’s HDR-FX1E, which is the first HDV camcorder to record in 1080i, the interlaced variant of HDV that records at 1,440-x-1,080 with a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio. This means that 1080i picture has 70 per cent more pixels than the 1,280-x-720 720p format used by the PD1 and HD10 – though 720p does have the advantage of being progressive. It’s almost four times the resolution of conventional PAL.

The FX1 will be followed in March or April by the £2,950 plus VAT HVR-Z1E, which adds the same features that separated the PD170 from the VX2100, including more manual controls, colour bars and XLR inputs.

The FX1’s design is very much based upon the barrel-shape of Sony’s VX2100 and PD170 – though with a little more weight and few major changes. Firstly, the LCD screen has moved to sit on top of the carrying handle. It’s the best screen we’ve seen on a camcorder in this price range, being extremely crisp and clear. It has a resolution of over 250,000 pixels and, as befits the HDV format, is widescreen. It’s flexible, and has VTR controls underneath.

Sony has used the space vacated by the screen to place the tape unit, which makes changing tapes faster.

Viewing distance

The positioning of the monitor works well apart from when you want to use the menu. The menu buttons and thumbwheel sit in their usual position on the back of the camcorder and using them with your left hand while holding the handgrip with your right is uncomfortable on the wrists – and using them while the camera sits on a flat surface is fiddly in the extreme. There should be a second set of menu buttons on the VTR control block, and there’s certainly room for them there.

What’s good about the FX1’s menu controls is that there aren’t very many of them. Sony’s consumer department seems obsessed with getting rid of buttons and making you change settings through touchscreen displays, which is fine for novice consumers but can slow down pros. Happily, the FX1 is covered with buttons, arranged in a way that those used to the PD170 will be instantly familiar with. The layout is intuitive for those used to other camcorders too, collecting relevant buttons together, such as the manual controls for iris, gain, shutter speed, and white balance. The blue-lit HDV and DV tags that tell you which you’re shooting in are handy too. They don’t do anything else, but look cool and will impress clients.

The FX1 features both zoom and focus rings, with a switch changing between rocker- and ring-driven zooming – though as the zoom ring isn’t itself motorized you can’t use both at once. Both rings are smooth and responsive, and there are markings on the zoom wheel – which is as it should be.

Next to the rings is an all-metal exposure knob. This allows fine control over the iris, with F-stop ratings shown on the screen or viewfinder.

Change from manual to full auto and the FX1 behaves much better than we expected. Considering the number of pixels the camcorder is dealing with in each frame, autofocus should be slower than a sloth on Prozac, but the FX1 is comparatively spritely – though noticably slower than a pro DV camcorder. The SteadyShot stabilization system, being optically-based, works just as well as with DV camcorders.

The level of manual control is slightly disappointing. Compared to the features of a camcorder such as the equivalently– priced Canon XL2, which features individual RGB gain controls, this is definitely a consumer model – though hopefully the forthcoming Z1 will add manual controls to match the XL2.

What really makes this a consumer unit, though, is the lack of XLR audio inputs – though again these will be on the Z1 when it arrives in a few months.

We reviewed the FX1 under two shoot conditions – one ENG set-up focusing on full-auto and quick-set up usage, and one dramatic/presentation set-up where much time was spent fine-tuning both the camera and production elements such as lighting. Footage was reviewed using Adobe Premiere Pro 1.5 with MainConcept’s MPEG Pro plug-in, as well as directly by connecting the camcorder to a Dell W2600 LCD HDTV using the provided component cable.

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All of the captured footage was head-turningly crisp and detailed. Some subjects may not appreciate every wrinkle and mole being made plain – but that’s HD for you. 1080i footage captured in full-auto mode was better looking than you ever believed full auto could be – though the audio through the built-in mic wasn’t great and the lack of SMTPE colour bars will make you wish for the Z1.
It should be noted that these comments are made in the context of our usual reviews of pro-level DV camcorders. There’s a huge gap between the FX1 and even Panasonic’s AJ-HDX400 DVCPRO HD camcorder.
The FX1 proved fast to use in semi-automatic/documentary situations. Given enough time to set up properly, the lack of manual controls was noticable. We also tried out the FX1’s Cinematone Gamma faux-film look, which does the trick but offers much less flexibility than that found on the XL2 or DVX100A.
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