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UHD Recording, Advanced Codecs, Streaming Capabilities: The Sony PXW-X70 Is Expertly Engineered

Sony’s PXW-X70, the smallest camera to date in Sony’s XDCAM lineup, is the successor to the PMW-100 and HXR-NX70U cameras. It is a palm-sized powerhouse with a single 1.0-inch type Exmor R CMOS sensor, full auto or manual functionality and Sony’s new XAVC-L codec. Its Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar T* lens sports 12x optical zoom at f/2.8 to f/4.5 apertures.

Wireless functions allow for Wi-Fi monitoring and remote control of the camcorder, and newly released updates offer live streaming, file transfer and proxy upload. There’s a four-position switchable ND filter and 3G-SDI out. A multi-interface (MI) shoe provides power and audio interface to the included handle/audio module combo as well as to Sony products supporting the MI interface, such as the company’s line of wireless mics. Note that you cannot use an 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 was subsequently given access to a pre-release camera updated with the 2.0 firmware and optional (extra cost) UHD 3840 x 2160 recording option. The free 2.0 update is now available and the optional UHD feature is scheduled to be available this month (June 2015).

I never use digital zoom, but I did find the 24x Clear Image Zoom feature sharp. Since this camera is, in my opinion, positioned as a field correspondent camera, I would not hesitate recommending the digital zoom to get a long shot. It will reproduce more than adequately for broadcast or web use.

Speaking of broadcast, the codec specs make the camera suitable for ENG work. The XAVC-L codec (not to be confused with the consumer XAVC S codec such as in the Sony a7S mirrorless camera) comes in two variants: 50 Mb/s 4:2:2 10-bit up to 1080 60p, and 35 Mb/s 4:2:2 at the same resolutions.

In fact, the camera records XAVC Long GOP in the MXF wrapper as well as AVCHD MTS and SD files wrapped as AVI. The camera accepts Memory Stick Pro Duo and SD/SDHC/SDXC cards, but media will be SDXC cards when recording in XAVC-L. It will record XAVC only to SDXC cards, in fact, and inserting a standard SD card will bring up an error message. In my test, I used a SanDisk Extreme Pro 64 GB SDXC (under $90) and never experienced any dropped frames.

Slow & Quick Motion functionality in XAVC and AVCHD runs from 1 to 60 fps at 1080p frame rates only. Thus, the slowest motion available is 1080 24p 60 fps. And it looks good.

The 1.0-inch type sensor is larger than Super 16 and smaller than Super 35, providing a nice depth of field compromise suitable for field or documentary work. It is a rolling shutter CMOS sensor and thus sensitive to aliasing and skew. I wouldn’t call it as severe as I have seen in other cameras, but like any CMOS rolling shutter camera, you have to shoot it properly and be aware of its limitations.

Native ISO seems to be around 800, and 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 its light handling is definitely adequate.

The camera can be controlled manually or fully automatically. In manual mode, the shooter operates via buttons on the side and a wheel at the bottom left. While the buttons are small (because of the small size of the camera overall), I did not have a problem making adjustments. What did cause me trouble was the zoom/focus toggle between the flip-out screen and the single lens ring. In manual mode, you would use this to toggle between focus and zoom. With the screen extended, it’s difficult to access the toggle even with my small fingers. A larger-handed operator may have some problems. I pointed this out to Sony product managers and they sent the feedback up the command chain.

The camera’s XAVC-L is supported in current releases of Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2014, Avid Media Composer and Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve. Apple Final Cut Pro X v10.2 supports XAVC-L only if no other codecs are present on the same SDXC card.

Audio 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 cable from the audio unit to the camera.

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

The free 2.0 firmware update adds features to make this camera even more useful as a field production tool. Data can be streamed live from camera at either 1280 x 720 or 640 x 360. XAVC proxy recording is enabled, which allows a low-bit-rate version to be recorded and then transferred, if desired, by the FTP transfer function also added in this firmware release. Finally, with the optional network adapter kit CBK-NA1 (list price $189), data can be transferred via wired LAN connection if Wi-Fi is unavailable.

UHD recording is enabled by an optional $500 4K Upgrade License, providing 4:2:0 8-bit UHD at frame rates of 30p/25p/24p. It should be noted that all Long GOP Sony UHD codecs are 8-bit 4:2:0. (Only XAVC-I UHD is 10-bit 4:2:2 in cameras such as the FS7, F5 and F55.) The UHD images are sharp and surprisingly free of compression artifacts. Of course, like any 8-bit 4:2:0 footage, I would advise not attempting to push grading and VFX too far. Still, the PXW-X70 produces an excellent UHD image suitable for web use, for downsampling to HD or for windowing. It is as free of aliasing and jello-vision as the HD footage the camera shoots.

Finally, the price. At a street price of $1,995, plus $500 for the optional 4K Upgrade License, the PXW-X70 is positioned as a high-end prosumer camera that also has 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 $500 price of the 4K Upgrade License seems steep at first glance, particularly when you consider that the whole camera sells for just $2,000. However, comparable UHD cameras from other manufacturers sell for around $2,500, so in that regard the price is competitive. If you don’t require UHD capabilities, then the $2,000 price point represents a remarkable value for quality of this level.

This summer, Sony will introduce a hard case with rigid foam cut-outs for camera and accessories. List price is under $200.

Product:Sony PXW-X70

Score:

Pros: Compact form factor. Well balanced. Excellent image. Choice of codecs. Wi-Fi and wired LAN functions. Excellent Zeiss optics. Removable handle. Sony MI shoe for compatible accessories.

Cons: Controls are a bit small for big fingers. Must switch manually between controlling manual zoom and manual focus. UHD unlock might be expensive to some. Limited low-light sensitivity.

Bottom Line: A perfect documentary, field correspondent or carry-cam. It will cut well with other Sony models. Great image and suitable for broadcast, web or as a B-camera.

MSRP: $1,995, 4K Upgrade License $500

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