Shoot Review — Sony HVR-A1U

It's a robust high-definition camcorder with enough horsepower to do the job, yet compact enough to fit in your coat pocket. It's under 3lbs. with battery, XLR adapter, lens hood, and cassette. It's frugal enough on power to run for hours on a tiny onboard battery. In short, the Sony HVR-A1U is the perfect “notebook” camera.

Despite its small size, the Sony HVR-A1U is a full-featured HDV camcorder. Keep it close in a jacket pocket or shoulder bag, and the serious shooter can capture astonishing high-definition images almost anywhere without attracting undue attention. For best audio, a professional-style module mounts elegantly atop the camera.

Use it to shoot reference scenes for your next location project, or as a crash camera Velcroed to a motorcycle helmet, or to achieve a unique perspective when suspended at the end of a fishpole. This camera is as inconspicuous as a professional camcorder can be, a potential key advantage for shooters operating in sensitive environments. On the Santa Monica pier recently, I strolled confidently camera in hand shooting unbothered and unhassled — the gold test of inconspicuousness for any camcorder.

Not a toy

The sophisticated “big” brother of the consumer-oriented HDR-HC1, the A1U's footprint is about two-thirds the size of the Panasonic DVX, which is hardly a Big Kahuna. Clearly the A1U was never intended to replace the Sony's CineAlta line, nor will it approach the functionality and workflow of Sony's much-anticipated high-definition XDCAM models due out this spring. This is a modest HDV camera, after all, with the concomitant strengths and weaknesses: high compression, modest 25Mbps throughput, and long 15-frame GOP structure that lend themselves to various workflow challenges in and out of the NLE.

The camera's size, range of professional features, and revolutionary CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) imager are the real stories here. It enables high-resolution images with an excellent look at very low power levels. The CMOS imager was pioneered by NASA in the Hubble telescope, and it's finally come of age, now significantly refined and perfected by Sony in the A1U.

The A1U integrates a newly developed CMOS sensor that''s capable of very high resolutions, albeit at somewhat reduced low-light sensitivity.

A CMOS future

CMOS imagers offer numerous advantages over traditional CCD sensors — beyond the increased resolution at a relatively low cost. CMOS eliminates the vertical smear from bright highlights that have plagued CCD cameras for years. CMOS sensors also allow for a greater range of frame rates and scanning modes, while utilizing less than 20 percent of the power required for a comparable one- or three-chip CCD system.

In the near term, CCD cameras will continue to offer some advantages in low light, primarily due to the common strategy of line mixing. CCD-type imagers frequently use this strategy to increase sensitivity at the price of reduced resolution.

In my tests, I found the look of the A1U to be quite pleasing and unusually film-like for a single 1/3in. camcorder. The camera's natural presentation may be attributable in part to Sony's EIP (Enhanced Imaging Processor), which separates data according to its texture and brightness components. It's an inspired approach. Sony has realized enormous progress in CMOS imaging in recent years, and that's certainly evident here in the A1U.

The vertical smear characteristic of traditional CCD imagers is eliminated in the A1U.

The single-chip imager

The single-chip-type imager as used in the A1U is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the system obviates the need for a prism, relay optics, and compensating algorithms, therefore it is inherently simpler and less prone to anomalies than three-sensor designs. In three-chip models, the camera processor compensates for the uneven compression in each color channel to avoid hue shifts, as well as variable light loss through the prism that divides an input image into its red, green, and blue components.

While single-chip CCD designs tend to propagate cross-chroma artifacts and loss of resolution, this is not the case in single-chip CMOS cameras like the Panavision Genesis, Arriflex D-20, and the Sony HVR-A1U. The A1U, of course, offers nowhere near the sophistication of a top-end cinema camera, but it does achieve an astonishing level of performance given its small size and state-of-the-art CMOS imager.

The features you need

Despite its small size, the Sony A1U offers many of the features that serious shooters require on a routine basis. Timecode is user-settable, a virtual necessity for efficient handling and archiving of original camera footage. A professional-style audio module is also provided, permitting use of a high-quality balanced microphone or mixer. The module mounted atop the camera occupies the slot where an onboard camera light might go, so some shooters will want to consider this in their purchasing deliberations.

I particularly liked the camera's unusual lens hood with a built-in lens protector. The arrangement is ideal for a notebook camera that is constantly being handled or pulled from the bottom of a carrying bag. The integrated design also means never having to say you're sorry for a lost lens cap. It bears repeating: The A1U says “never again” to lost lens caps. Thank you!

The HVR-A1U''s single CMOS sensor contributes to the camcorder''s small size. It obviates the need for a prism and relay optics.

The A1U's Tele Macro feature is also especially useful. Many times on a production we need to document fine details such as the layout of props, the fine print on a label, or the configuration of a camera cable or jack. Even if used for B-roll in the course of the actual production, close-ups are the DV/HDV's shooter's bread and butter, so it makes sense that the camera should facilitate capture of images in this perspective.

In my camera and lighting classes, my students and I spend considerable time discussing the pros and cons of the various camera menu options. The on-screen display (OSD) is therefore a valuable feature for those of us who also serve as educators between regular gigs. And speaking of menu options, the A1U features a single general-purpose ASSIGN button, a feature many of us are already familiar with on higher-end gear. In the A1U, the external button is a handy way to instantly gain up or alter color balance mid-scene without having to stop the camera or drill down through multiple menus.

And speaking of menus, the A1U utilizes a nifty LCD touchscreen to facilitate setup of key camera options. I didn't try using this system in freezing temperatures with my customary polypropylene gloves, but under normal conditions the functionality of the touchscreen seemed smooth and intuitive. The inevitable accumulation of fingerprints mandates a good supply of screen wipes at all times.

The not-so-great

Compromises in some shape or form come with the territory, and that's certainly the case in a camcorder with such a tiny footprint. Perhaps the A1U's most notable drawback is the inconvenience of the bottom-loading cassette. When the HVR-A1U is mounted on a tripod, in order to exchange cassettes you must not only remove the camera from the tripod, but unscrew the quick-release mounting plate as well. Sony states that this bottom-loading feature was specifically designed to accommodate the camera's small size with the thinking that the camera is primarily intended for handheld applications. And I agree. This is a camera that loves to be held. Nevertheless, for shooters with a propensity for using sticks in many situations, the bottom-loading cassette can be a significant hassle.

The camera's seemingly useless focus ring is another sore point. Inexplicably, the ring turns continuously and pointlessly in both directions, producing little if any effect on screen. Impractical focus rings were once common in early Sony camcorders, including the DSR-PD100a model, but here it is again five years later in the HVR-A1U. It would be nice if this dastardly ring behaved more rationally, but for a notebook camera like the A1U, the PUSH to FOCUS button on the side of the camera functions better anyway. (For its part, Sony states that the ring can indeed be effective at longer focal lengths at wider apertures.) Just don't try to mount a professional follow-focus rig on this baby. It's just not that kind of kid.

Compared to CCD-type camcorders from Sony and other manufacturers, the A1U's low-light performance is relatively weak. The CMOS is inherently less sensitive, and that accounts for most of the reduced performance. For a notebook camera intended to record impromptu scenes under a variety of conditions, the less-than-stellar low-light capability may be a considerable drawback. Of course the shooter has to weigh this against the many positive attributes of the current CMOS imager. I think it captures a vastly preferable overall look under most shooting conditions.

In summary

Savvy shooters recognize the need for a robust notebook camera. The A1U's ease of use, miniscule footprint, and beautifully textured images are certainly compelling points. So are the many professional features that make this camera feel at once familiar and reassuring to use and handle. Like any other craftsman, the serious shooter always seeks the right tool for the job. You're not going to use the Sony HVR-A1U to shoot your next Hollywood epic, but as the camera you reach for in a pinch — as the notebook in your pocket — it truly can't be beat.


Company: Sony
Park Ridge, N.J.; (201) 930-6000

Product: HVR-A1U

Assets: CMOS imager captures film-like HDV, low power consumption, accepts a high-quality mic or mixer, under 3lbs. fully loaded.

Caveats: Bottom-loading cassette, awkward focus ring, relatively weak low-light performance.

Demographic: Any shooter who needs a versatile, high-res notebook camcorder.

PRICE: $3,500


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