Editor's note: Though the HDR-FX1 remains an excellent prosumer HD camcorder, the changing competitive landscape has prompted us to retire its Editors' Choice designation. Furthermore, its feature set now suffers in comparison to those of recent models, and we've adjusted its rating accordingly.
Sony's first HDV camera, the HDR-FX1, may turn out to do for high-definition video what the company's VX1000 did for standard-definition video back in 1995--and with a list price of $3,700, it actually costs less! What made the VX1000 so significant was its realization of the awesome potential of DV, which, for the first time, enabled people of modest means to produce video of extremely high quality.
JVC introduced the first cameras to incorporate the HDV standard, a prosumer format that records high-definition video to MiniDV cassettes. Unfortunately, with their single-chip imagers and limited controls, both the GR-HD1 and its slightly more professional sibling, the JY-HD10, did not do full justice to the new format.
The HDR-FX1, on the other hand, incorporates three CCDs and more-advanced controls. It also has some very well-thought-out features that make it an ideal vessel for riding out the transition to HD: it can shoot standard-definition DV, and it can downconvert HD footage to SD for viewing or editing with current standard-definition postproduction systems and distribution formats.
As with the VX1000 before it, the Sony HDR-FX1 is a product of its time with a couple of significant limitations, most notably a lack of progressive-imaging capabilities and pro audio connections. And just as it was initially difficult to do anything with the footage from the VX1000, there are few sophisticated HDV editing options currently available, and high-capacity HD DVDs are still on the drawing board. Another point of frustration is Sony's continuing tradition of dumbing down its consumer gear so that the company can continue to sell higher-priced pro variants. In the case of HDR-FX1, the significantly more capable HVR-Z1 is available for an additional $1,250.
Despite its limitations, the HDR-FX1 is a breakthrough camera, quite possibly the VX1000 of the decade. At first glance, the Sony HDR-FX1 looks like a slightly enlarged version of its standard-definition cousin, the VX2100. Weighing a bit more than four pounds, the HDR-FX1 is about as heavy and bulky as a handheld camera can be; it's too large to operate with one hand, but is easily supported by both. Its magnesium-alloy chassis feels solid and well balanced, and its dark silver-gray finish makes for a nice low-key, high-quality look.
A closer inspection reveals one major variation on the classic Sony Handycam layout: the flip-out LCD screen that normally adorns the camera's left flank has been moved to the front of the handle, just behind the microphone. This frees up space on the camera's left side for the tape door, which has been moved from its traditional spot on the camera's right side. Playback controls occupy the newly created space that is revealed when you flip the monitor open. Bright-blue HDV/DV status lights point up the HDR-FX1's most noteworthy capability: namely, its ability to record both 1080i (1,440x1,080-pixel), 60-field-per-second HDV and 480i DV on standard MiniDV cassettes. Switching between standard and high definition is done via a single menu option.
Otherwise, the configuration remains familiar, with the large lens barrel of the 12X Zeiss Vario-Sonar zoom sitting behind a rectangular shade at the camera's front; a pivoting viewfinder located over the battery at the rear; most of the mechanical controls set in the left side; the handgrip, zoom rocker, and electronic connectors on the right; and a stereo mic along with independent zoom and record buttons on the beefy handle up top.
The new arrangement of the 3.5-inch, 16:9 SwivelScreen LCD looks a bit ungainly, but it actually makes a great deal of sense. Besides freeing up valuable real estate on the camera body, it moves the screen forward on the camera and puts it at the same level as the viewfinder, which happens to be exactly where you would want the LCD if you had the camera resting on your shoulder. While the stock HDR-FX1 is not a shoulder-mounted model, a variety of shoulder-mounting accessories are available and should work particularly well with the LCD.
Several aspects of the camera's basic mechanical design demonstrate that Sony is paying attention to the practical needs of users. The lens hood incorporates a set of lever-actuated shutters--no more easily lost lens cap. Those who wear glasses will appreciate the special rubber eyecup that is included with the camera. And those with an investment in Sony's standard-definition gear will be happy to know that the HDR-FX1 uses the same batteries as the VX- and PD-series cameras.
The HDR-FX1's manual controls are significantly more developed than those of earlier Sony prosumer camcorders, which tended to be optimized for automatic use, with manual overrides operated by tiny, inconveniently located buttons. Here there are more and better-located mechanical controls, most notably independent three-position toggle switches for gain and white balance, a dial dedicated to audio level controls, and three user-programmable buttons. Unfortunately, these manual controls aren't quite as convenient or as effective as those offered by prosumer models from competing vendors. For instance, you still have to go into the menus to select a tungsten or daylight white-balance preset, and you can't control the levels of the two audio channels independently.
The lens controls straddle the line between the consumer and professional worlds. You focus manually with the kind of perpetually spinning, unmarked ring that's typical of low-end cameras, but a helpful readout displays precise focus distances in the viewfinder. You zoom with a nonperpetual ring with focal-length marks, but it's still a servo system that responds only vaguely to user inputs. With the flick of a switch, control of the zoom can be transferred to two rockers.
Seemingly out of place on a camera of the HDR-FX1's capabilities are a couple consumer-oriented controls, namely Backlight and Spotlight. Three buttons along the top are dedicated to a new Shot Transition feature, which also seems rather amateurish and will be discussed further in Features.
The HDR-FX1 offers the usual assortment of analog and digital ports, with some important additions and omissions. The main addition is a proprietary, rectangular jack used to connect a cable with component HD-outs; this is the connection used to hook up the camera to an HD television. This port cannot serve as an input. The only way to get HD into the camera is through the FireWire--Sony calls it iLink--port, which is also employed as both an input and an output for DV.
In terms of omissions, the HDR-FX1 offers only a flimsy, consumer-oriented minijack for audio, not the robust XLR ports used in professional equipment. Yes, Sony offers XLR jacks in the HDR-FX1's pro variant, the HVR-Z1, and adapters are available to connect XLR plugs to the HDR-FX1's minijack. But we still believe Sony is making a very poor decision by not including real pro-audio capabilities in the stock HDR-FX1. This camera deserves them. The Sony HDR-FX1 brings you high-definition 1,080i, 60-field-per-second video capture by way of two major components: the camera hardware and the HD codec engine. The camera employs three 1/3-inch, 16:9-native, 1-megapixel Super HAD CCDs, and these chips offer much more resolution than those in standard-definition cameras. The codec engine is the processor that compresses all the detailed imagery captured by the CCDs, making it fit into the same amount of space allotted to standard-definition DV footage. Although it can shoot standard-definition, 480i NTSC DV video, the HDR-FX1 does not offer the 720P mode that is also part of the HDV specification, nor does it offer any progressive standard-definition modes. If you want to shoot PAL DV, you can do that with the pro version of this camera, the HVR-Z1.
While DV uses only intraframe compression to compress each frame independently, HDV employs interframe compression, in which differences between proximate frames are compressed and stored. In most video, individual frames share a great deal of information with those that precede and follow them, and since this shared information does not have to be stored more than once, a great deal of space is saved by saving only the changes.
The MPEG-2 compression of HDV is very similar to the compression used to cram movies into the limited space available on DVDs. As is the case with DVDs, extreme detail and motion can overstress the compression scheme, resulting in visible compression artifacts. Another potential weakness of the HDV format is its sensitivity to tape dropouts; while a dropout on a DV tape will affect only a single frame, an HDV dropout will last a full half-second. Because of this sensitivity to dropouts, Sony recommends that HDR-FX1 users stick to its high-quality HD DVC videotape.
In a world where HD televisions are still something of a rarity, it's notable that the HDR-FX1 can downconvert HD video to standard-definition both over its analog outputs and via its DV connection. Furthermore, if you're viewing 16:9 HD material on a 4:3 screen, the camera can take care of the letterboxing. These sophisticated downconversion capabilities ensure that you can not only view HD tapes on standard televisions, but you can also edit them on standard DV editing systems, the only negative being that the superb resolution of HD will not be visible once downconverted. While the camera always records 16:9 wide-screen when recording HD, in DV mode, it can record either 16:9 or 4:3.
As befits a serious prosumer camcorder, the HDR-FX1 does not offer a host of automatic exposure modes, though all functions can run automatically, and you can adjust the responsiveness of the automation via a menu setting. Sony's concessions to users who get in over their heads are the Backlight and Spotlight buttons. You can control the iris, shutter speed (1/4 second to 1/10,000 second), and gain (0dB to 18dB) manually. The only manual-control limitation is the single audio-level-control knob, which makes it impossible to control the two audio channels independently. Full SMPTE color bars are available, but there is no advanced time-code functionality.
The Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* lens covers a very practical 12X zoom range, equivalent to 32.5mm-to-390mm on a 35mm still camera. That makes a wide-angle adapter a special-effects tool rather than a necessity. The lens features two built-in neutral density filters (2.5 and 5 stops) and a Super SteadyShot optical image-stabilizer, which performs well and can be fine-tuned via a menu setting.
The 16:9-shaped color viewfinder and LCD have some special features and limitations: when the LCD is folded open, the viewfinder turns off, and this can't be overridden. In the same spirit, both zebra stripes (settable at 70-to-100 IRE) and nonadjustable focus peaking are available, but only one at a time. This is a significant limitation, as both are essential. Because the 250,000-pixel resolution of both the viewfinder and the LCD is less than one-fourth of the recorded HD resolution, an Expanded Focus feature is available to blow up the center of the frame four times and make focusing easier. Unfortunately, Expanded Focus does not function when the camera is recording. Finally, when you're shooting 4:3 DV, the image appears appropriately scaled in the viewfinder.
Through its 14-bit digital signal processing and sophisticated menus, the HDR-FX1 offers a great deal of image control through such variables as Color Level, Color Phase, Sharpness, Skintone Detail, and White-Balance Shift. Two additional menu options, Cinematone and Cineframe 24 & 30, create a more filmlike gamma and motion quality. Unfortunately, the pseudoprogressive motion of Cineframe is gained at the expense of half of the vertical resolution. This trade-off may make sense for projects ending in standard definition, but it's not a good way to create a high-definition film look.
Essentially a clone of Panasonic's Scene Files, the HDR-FX1's six Picture Profiles are user-customizable sets of menu settings. They provide a very handy way to keep and switch between several different looks. The customizability of the HDR-FX1 also includes three different user-assignable buttons and a P-Menu, a minimenu in which you can store whatever options you access most frequently. Finally, there is the programmable Shot Transition feature, which smoothly returns the camera to either of two preset exposure/white-balance/zoom/focus points at a predetermined speed. While technically clever, Shot Transition seems more a gimmick than a useful feature.
The audio section is definitely the least-developed aspect of this camera. As previously noted, there is no independent control of the audio levels of the two channels. There are also no built-in XLR jacks, no phantom power, and no way to send the onboard mic to one channel and an external mic to the other. As soon as any mic is plugged into the external mic minijack, the internal mic is completely defeated. Surprisingly, the minijack input is mic/line switchable via a menu selection.
The HDR-FX1 has no Memory Stick slot and no photo-capture capability, nor does it come with any editing software. The Sony HDR-FX1's automatic functions--focus, exposure, white balance, and audio levels--are all very accurate and fast-acting, about as good as automation gets. Going one step further, the camera enables you to adjust the responsiveness of the automation via menus, though frankly, it is not clear to this reviewer why you'd want anything other than the fastest setting.
What is crystal clear is that a camera with the HDR-FX1's capabilities deserves great manual controls. In terms of responsiveness, the manual controls meet expectations; the camera reacts instantly and precisely to inputs. Unfortunately, the ergonomics of the controls, while better than previous Sony offerings, are still not as good as those offered by the competition. For example, Sony takes a step forward by providing a toggle switch to select white balance but also a step backward by having the white-balance preset controlled by a menu setting.
The only area in which manual control is outright disappointing concerns the lens. The servo focus and zoom rings provide only a vague simulation of a mechanical linkage to the lens elements. The focus-distance information that appears in the viewfinder is a welcome aid to manual focusing, but the focus ring is far too sensitive, making subtle focus adjustments extremely challenging. Similarly, with regard to the zoom, the focal-length markings on the zoom ring are helpful, but the motorized zoom lags far behind fast "snap" zooms. In contrast, the zoom rocker is a pleasure to use, enabling silky-smooth zooms from full wide to full telephoto and from as fast as two seconds to as slow as two minutes.
With the exception of its mediocre control rings, the lens really shines. As with the optics in Panasonic's DVX series, the sharp and contrasty Zeiss lens sacrifices a rarely used extreme telephoto for a much more generally practical wide-angle view. The optical image stabilizer works well, and its sensitivity can be tweaked via a menu setting.
The viewfinder and the LCD are among the best we've seen, although still not quite up to the new challenge posed by HD. With 250,000 pixels, the viewfinder and the LCD don't have even the full resolution of standard definition, let alone HD. To address this weakness, Sony has incorporated peaking and an Expanded Focus feature, but they are not a substitute for a viewfinder of adequate resolution. On the plus side, the LCD's hybrid technology makes it extremely bright, readable even in full daylight. However, perhaps because of this impressive brightness, exposure was somewhat difficult to judge with the LCD.
Within the limitations of the HDR-FX1's nonprofessional audio system, the sound seemed clean, with none of the hiss that has plagued recent Sony camcorders. The built-in mic performed adequately; it was effectively isolated from camera noise but was not very directional.
Sony's InfoLithium battery technology continues to be the best in the business. The HDR-FX1 was able to run for more than two hours on the very small battery that is supplied with the camera and should be able to shoot all day with the largest available batteries. To put the icing on the cake, the camera's AccuPower feature accurately forecasts how much shooting time remains in minutes. Since the Sony HDR-FX1 shoots both HDV and DV, the image quality of each of these modes must be evaluated independently.
When viewed on a wide-screen HD television, the HDR-FX1's high-definition imagery meets expectations. The detail is noticeably superior to that of any standard-definition video, and the color is both saturated and accurate. In theory, HDV's highly compressed imagery should be strained when dealing with extreme detail and motion, but we were unable to detect any significant artifacts.
If there is any downside to the HDR-FX1's HD picture, it is its video-ishness. Offering only interlaced video and, due to its small chips, a generally deep depth of field, the HDR-FX1 is not a good choice for narrative shooters striving for a filmlike cinematic look: movies shot with this camera will look more like soap operas. The camera does offer a faux-24P mode, but the corresponding loss in resolution is an excessive sacrifice in a camera expressly designed to deliver HD.
In standard DV mode, the HDR-FX1's imagery is comparable with interlaced video from the Panasonic DVX100A and the Canon XL2. However, the HDR-FX1 lacks its competition's progressive modes and some of their advanced image controls.
In both HDV and DV, the HDR-FX1's latitude, or its ability to handle a range of brightness without blowing out details, is only average. Its low-light ability is also less than spectacular, between one and two stops slower than its standard-definition brother, the Sony VX2100. This is probably due in large measure to its very small pixel size; the more pixels there are on a chip, the smaller the individual pixels, and the smaller the pixels are, the less sensitive they are to light.