Digital Nerd

Thursday, August 11, 2005

A Look Ahead at HDTV

Via NYT:

WHEN it comes to attitudes toward high-definition TV, you can pretty much divide the world into three camps. Group A thinks HDTV is the greatest invention since the microwave, and counts the hours until the nation's transition to HDTV is complete. Group B thinks that HDTV is an enormous boondoggle, a bald-faced government-industry conspiracy to milk the citizenry for billions.

And Group C would just like somebody to explain what HDTV is.

No problem, C. HDTV is a new, improved video format. The picture is wide, like a movie screen. And it's so sharp, you can practically count the actors' pores. For many people, one look at the stunningly clear, realistic picture is enough to - well, to push them into Group A.

The trouble is, of course, that switching your life to the HDTV format involves buying all new TV sets, camcorders, VCR's and DVD players. (This, of course, is the part that irks Group B.)

In April, Sony indicated its interest in assisting with this problem by releasing the semiprofessional HDR-FX1 camcorder ($3,300) - a camcorder whose video is so brilliant and immaculate, TV stations and production companies fell head over heels in love.

Unfortunately, the FX1 is much too big to use as an everyday family camcorder; walk into the school play with this on your shoulder, and people will think you're shooting for HBO. What the world really wants - well, the world of forward-thinking picture-quality nuts, anyway - is a high-def camcorder with the size, shape and price of a regular camcorder. Is that so much to ask?

Not anymore. Sony's new HDR-HC1 is the world's smallest and least expensive HD camcorder. At 7.4 by 2.8 by 3.7 inches, it's about a third the size of previous HD models, and small enough to pass for an ordinary digital camcorder. At $1,750 online, it's about half the price of the FX1. And as if price and size didn't make the HC1 distinctive enough, here's the best news of all: it's also an absolutely terrific camcorder.

FOR one thing, it's beautifully designed. It announces its differentness quietly and tastefully, through a sleek, shiny black body. Because it's the first high-definition camera that can be operated with only one hand, Sony thoughtfully put the most important controls right where you expect to find them.

The jacks (like FireWire, U.S.B. and video outputs) are also conveniently placed, in a neat line along the lower-left edge, hidden behind protective doors. The lens barrel is graced by a manual focus-zoom ring - a rarity in consumer cams - that makes possible certain shots that you can't achieve any other way.

Transitional times call for transitional camcorders, and the HC1, like its larger predecessors, offers all kinds of flexibility. For example, it's a so-called HDV camcorder, meaning that it records all that high-def goodness onto ordinary MiniDV tapes, which you can grab at a drugstore for $5 each.

To make matters even more flexible, this camcorder can record in high-definition or standard format. (The flip-out, 2.7-inch liquid-crystal display is shaped to fit the wide-screen HDTV picture; when you record a standard-format, squarish picture, black bars appear at the sides.)

And as a final courtesy, the HC1 can play either kind of recordings - standard or high-def - on either kind of TV set. You won't see HDTV clarity on your 1985 Zenith, of course, but at least you'll see something.

If you have a high-definition set, though, you'll see a lot more than something. You'll see a spectacular picture in a format the geeks call 1080i high-def. The video is so clear and sharp, it's not so much a home movie as a flashback.

The camera is well-stocked with features, too. Some are typical for Sony - a "minutes remaining" display for the battery, for example, and an infrared, "night-vision goggles" mode that lets you record in complete darkness.

The 2.8-megapixel still photos are better than on most camcorders, although still no match for dedicated digital cameras. The HC1 even inherited a junior version of a clever FX1 feature: you can ask it to memorize two zoom, focus or exposure settings, which you can think of as Start and End. Then, at the touch of a button, the camera smoothly glides from one to the other - a very professional effect.

So if the HC1 is so wonderful, who would bother paying nearly twice as much for the FX1?

More at source.


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