Test Drive: Sony HVR-HD1000U, Part 1

Sony HVR-HD1000U

I recently had a look at Sony''s new $1,900 HVR-HD1000U single-chip, shoulder-mount camcorder, which I reviewed for Digital Content Producer in the January 2008 issue. That review mostly focused on technical specs and usability. In the first of this two-part series, I''ll lay out some brief background information and describe the operation and quality of the camcorder''s Smooth Slow Rec feature. In the next installment, I''ll discuss how the camcorder compared to the Sony HDR-FX1 and Canon XH A1 in resolution and other quality tests, as well as low-light performance.

The Quick Skinny

First the basic specs. The HD1000 camcorder uses Sony''s 1/2.9in. ClearVid CMOS sensor, which includes approximately 3,200,000 total pixels, of which 2,280,000 are used during video capture. It has 10X optical zoom and electronic image stabilization, and it includes a stereo shotgun microphone that attaches to an integrated microphone holder and plugs into a stereo mini-jack without phantom power. There are no XLR or other external audio connectors, but there are two “cold” accessory shoes—one on the front for a light, the other on the back for a hard disk recorder.

The viewfinder has a .27in. color 16:9 viewfinder with 123,300 effective pixels, while the 2.7in. 16:9 LCD panel, located atop the viewfinder, has 211,200 pixels. The touchscreen LCD panel, which serves as your menu system, can swivel 180 degrees to function as a preview monitor for your subject. The camera uses MiniDV tapes, and it records in HDV and standard (63 minute) and LP (90 minute) DV modes in both 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios, interlaced only.

The camera offers four button controls for manual/auto, nightshot on/off, backlight on/off, and display on/off. There is also a configurable control ring for focus, brightness, shutter speed, auto-exposure shift, or white balance shift. You can also control zoom with the ring, but with two zoom rockers on the camcorder, this makes little sense. All other controls, including enabling and disabling image stabilization, are located in the touchscreen-controlled menu system.

The camcorder is the first I''ve seen with an onscreen histogram, which should prove useful in run-and-gun shoots—although personally I would prefer a waveform monitor. The camcorder also marks the return of the dreamy rule-of-thirds positioning guide frame that graced the DCR-VX2000 but somehow missed the boat for the HDR-FX1 camcorder class, another great tool for realtime videographers.

On the other hand, Sony didn''t throw in a remote or separate battery charger, so you have to charge the batteries in the camcorder. Fortunately, the camcorder uses the same batteries as the VX2000 and HDR-FX1, so you can use batteries or chargers from these units.

Sony HVR-HD1000
Smooth Slow Motion

I should mention that the HD1000 shares many components of Sony''s top-end consumer HDV camcorder—the HDR-HC7, in a larger, shoulder-mount form factor. While this raises some eyebrows on the component side, I''m OK on the feature side. I remember when “professional” camcorders didn''t have silly LCD panels or even color viewfinders, not to mention still-image-capture capabilities. Anyway, one interesting feature that worked its way up from the consumer side is Smooth Slow Rec recording, which lets you shoot 3 seconds of video at 400-percent speed, which the HD1000 stores in a buffer, then spreads over 12 seconds of video, slowing down the video to 25 percent of original speed.

The feature is intriguing for a number of uses, including analyzing fast-moving events such as golf swings or producing high-quality slow-motion video for a variety of uses—weddings, music videos, and instruction videos come to mind. Although all editors can slow your video down to 25 percent on the timeline, often this produces a noticeable stuttering effect.

Smooth Slow Motion recording with Sony HVR-HD1000U

Figure 1. The Smooth Slow Motion function is smooth, but also significantly degrades resolution.
Click here for a larger image

Using the Smooth Slow Rec feature revealed some essential truths about the camcorder—some good, some not so good. Once you turn the feature on, the preview video darkens considerably, no doubt attributable to the high shutter speed necessary for this function. Fortunately, it was a sunny day when I tested this feature, and shooting with my back to sun, I noticed that the HD1000''s LCD was virtually unreadable in direct sunlight and looked like a CSI crime scene, with all fingerprints on the touchscreen clear and distinct. Plan on using the viewfinder when shooting outside. I also noticed that selecting the feature required 27 clicks—fortunately all in the same menu, so it wasn''t confusing, just tedious.

Although most owners of the HC7 love the Smooth Slow Rec feature, they all mention the loss of resolution in the captured slow-motion footage. I spoke about this with a Sony representative, who admitted that there was some loss of resolution, but commented that the resulting video was only slightly lower than SD resolution. I''m not sure what the final numbers are, but my tests revealed significant degradation in resolution. This is shown in Figure 1.

On the left is the normal shot of a resolution chart in DV resolution, with the HD1000 able to resolve at least 400 lines in both axes. On the right, in Smooth Slow Rec mode, you can barely see spaces in the 200 horizontal and vertical boxes. This means a significant loss of resolution that will manifest as blurry video.

Smooth Slow Motion recording with Sony HVR-HD1000U

Figure 2. Real-world slow-motion quality with the HD1000.
Click here for a larger image

Of course, no one buys a camcorder to shoot resolution charts, and the real question is how well the feature performed in a real-world setting. Figure 2, which shows me about halfway through my downswing, is a test of just that. Although the image is a bit fuzzy, the club is crisp, and the detail more than sufficient to identify all relevant swing flaws—including a total (and frustrating) lack of hip rotation in the downswing, which as you know, is often accompanied by the dreaded over-the-top swing action, with its resultant wild slices. Smooth Slow Rec would definitely be a great feature for any coaches who need to analyze 3-second clumps of extremely high motion.

On the other hand, if I were producing a high-definition video for Bridezilla, I''d definitely choose a slight stuttering effect over a fuzzy image. While Smooth Slow Rec may work well in some instances, the lower resolution is definitely a concern. For those who want to see some examples, Google "HC7 'slow motion' and YouTube," and you''ll find several.

That''s it for now. Next time, we tackle quality and low-light performance.