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Small Camera, Big Sensor, More Possibilities: Appraising the Performance of Sony’s PXW-X70

They say good things come in small packages. That’s certainly the case with the PXW-X70, the smallest camera to date in Sony’s XDCAM lineup.

They say good things come in small packages. That’s certainly the case with the PXW-X70, the smallest camera to date in Sony’s XDCAM lineup.

This successor to the PMW-100 and HXR-NX70U cameras is a palm-sized powerhouse. Based on a single 1 inch Exmor R CMOS sensor, it offers full auto or manual functionality and records with Sony’s new XAVC Long GOP codec. Its Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* lens sports 12x optical zoom at f/2.8-4.5 apertures. Wireless functions allow for Wi-Fi monitoring and remote control. Future updates promise live streaming, file transfer and proxy upload via Wi-Fi. There’s a four-position ND switch in addition to 3G-SDI out.

A Multi-Interface (MI) shoe is equipped on the PXW-X70 to connect the XLR handle unit. (The XLR handle includes record button, zoom lever and two XLR inputs for professional microphones.) When the handle is detached, the MI shoe can be used to connect other Sony products supporting the MI interface (such as Sony’s line of wireless mics). Note that you cannot use a MI wireless mic and the handle simultaneously. The shoe atop the handle is not MI.

I was able to shoot an early production model of the PXW-X70 and was impressed with a number of features. I never use digital zoom, but I found the camera’s 24x digital zoom feature to be very sharp. Since the X70 is positioned as a field correspondent camera, in my opinion, I would not hesitate recommending the digital zoom to get a long shot. Resulting footage will reproduce more than adequately for broadcast or web use. Using the Digital Extender, you can double the range again to 48x zoom.

And speaking of broadcast, the camera’s codec specs makes it suitable for ENG work. The XAVC-L codec (not to be confused with the consumer XAVC S codec used in cameras including the Sony A7S mirrorless camera) comes in variants including 50 Mb/s 4:2:2 10-bit up to 1080 60p, and 35 Mb/s 4:2:0 at the same resolutions.

The camera in fact records XAVC Long GOP in an MXF wrapper, as well as AVCHD MTS and SD files wrapped as AVI. The camera records to SDXC cards (two slots). I used a SanDisk Extreme Pro SDXC 64 GB in my test (under $90) and did not experience dropped frames.

Slow and Quick Motion modes in XAVC and AVCHD run from 1 to 60 fps at 1080p frame rates only. Thus the slowest motion available would be 1080 24p 60 fps. And it looks good.

Sony has promised a 4K upgrade path for internal XAVC-L 4K recording. The update is expected to be available in early 2015.

The zoom/focus switch is located between the flip-out LCD screen and the lens ring.

The 1 inch CMOS sensor is larger than Super 16 and smaller than Super 35, giving a nice depth of field compromise suitable for field or documentary work. Its sensor uses a rolling shutter, making it sensitive to aliasing and skew. I wouldn’t call the effect in the PXW-X70 “severe,” but, as with any CMOS rolling shutter camera, you have to shoot it properly and be aware.

Native ISO seems to be around 800; with its zoomed-in f/4.5 aperture, it isn’t a low-light king, but it does have the night shot function found in many Sony cameras, so it’s adequate.

The camera can be controlled manually or automatically. In manual mode, function push buttons on the side and a wheel at the bottom left adjust settings. While the buttons are small (owing to the camera’s small size), I didn’t have problems making adjustments.

My experience was not as positive with the zoom/focus switch, which is located between the flip-out screen and the single lens ring. When shooting manually, you’d use this switch to toggle between focus and zoom. With the LCD screen extended, I had difficulty reaching the zoom/focus switch, even with my small fingers. A larger-handed operator will have problems. I pointed this out to Sony product managers, who sent the feedback up the command chain.

My only immediate concern with the X70 is codec compatibility. Sony XAVC has been around for a while and is well supported in nonlinear editing systems, but the camera’s Long GOP variant (XAVC-L) is just being introduced. Support is not yet available in Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve. Apple Final Cut Pro X requires a third-party MXF module, but there is no codec support for the Long GOP variant. Likewise, there is no AMA import module for Avid. Adobe Premiere Pro CC and 2014 read the files without a problem on both PC and Mac. Sony’s own NLE for PC, Vegas, also reads the files. Sony’s Content Browser software will open and read the files and transfer to media drives from the cards; however, it performs no transcode functions.

As the XAVC-L codec is put into use by more Sony cameras, I expect software vendors will increase their support for it. Having said that, Premiere Pro can edit XAVC-L files now, and Adobe Media Encoder could be used to transcode for other NLEs.

Audio quality is amazing for a camera of this size. The included handle/audio module has two XLR inputs, gain dials, 48V phantom power and selectable inputs. Since it connects (and connects securely, with two screws) via the MI shoe on the camera, there is no need to run a cable from the audio unit to the camera.

There is only one thing I want to see added to the PXW-X70 (and this goes for most Sony cameras): a waveform monitor. Histograms are nice but some of us prefer to expose via WFM.

Finally, the price. At a list price of $2,599 (with an estimated “going price” of $2,299), the PXW-X70 is positioned as a high-end prosumer camera with the specs and quality required for field correspondent work. Its small size makes it ideal for documentary work or for covering difficult location shooting scenarios. Even with the addition of the audio module and a mic, it is lightweight and well balanced. (The camera weighs about 3 pounds with lens hood, handle, eye cup and battery.)

While this may be only a first look, the PXW-X70 is definitely worth a second.