If you're a glass-half-full kind of person, it may be enough that the 5-megapixel Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD1's feature list contains several first-to-market wins -- it records and outputs progressive-scan video at 720p, it incorporates a dazzling 56mm (2.2-inch) OLED screen and it crams a 10x zoom lens into a device that fits into your palm. But once you factor in its slow focus and overly high-contrast, artefact-ridden photos and videos, that glass begins to look emptier by the minute. Still, the HD1 is an important technical milestone, even if it has some limitations.
If you're familiar with Sanyo's previous palm-size Xacti camcorders, such as the VPC-C5 or VPC-C6, the VPC-HD1 will feel like an old friend. It has the same overall shape, upward-tilting lens and back-mounted controls, though now it's slightly larger and heavier -- 36 by 119 by 79mm (WHD) and 210g. It still fits comfortably into a coat pocket, a small bag or a briefcase, just more tightly. Furthermore, the Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD1's outer case feels very sturdy. Most of the surface is made of metal, and there was no bending or creaking when we twisted it strongly. Plus, compared to the VPC-C6, the VPC-HD1's extra weight makes it easier to steady with one hand.
The 56mm OLED (organic light emitting diode) screen is one of the best we've ever seen on a digital camera or camcorder. OLED pixels self-illuminate to provide more uniform brightness than do most LCDs. OLED technology also consumes power more efficiently and can render a wider contrast range. The VPC-HD1's screen rotates 285 degrees, allowing for convenient self-portrait, overhead and low-angle shots.
Most of the controls are clustered together for simple thumb access. While all the buttons felt solid and durable, the small five-way joystick with which you navigate the menus is hard to manoeuvre. We repeatedly triggered the right or left options when wanting the centre setting. Likewise, we occasionally selected the centre setting when we wanted up or down. There's little room for error with this too-sensitive controller, and it may prove a continuing source of frustration when using some of the camcorder's more advanced features.
The VPC-HD1's onscreen menus are bright and easy to read. The settings are divided somewhat arbitrarily onto three pages -- Basic, Advanced and Options. As with the VPC-C6, when you choose an item, it automatically moves to the front of the group, which breaks the otherwise logical arrangement of the icons.
In order to charge the Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD1's battery, you have to park it in the bundled docking station.
If you equate small size with a lack of manual adjustments, the Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD1 will surprise you. Not only does it have the full array of program, shutter-speed, aperture-priority and manual modes, but the system is fairly intelligent as well. For example, if you use the built-in neutral-density filter with any of the exposure modes, the camera will automatically enable the filter when you return to that mode. The camera also has a collection of scene modes: Sports, Portrait, Landscape, Night View, Fireworks and Lamp (low light). Most perform equally well with video and photo captures.
The 10x optical zoom is a welcome addition to the Xacti line. When combined with the highest-resolution, lowest-compression settings, you have a powerful pocket-size camcorder. The lens has a maximum aperture of f/3.5 across the entire zoom range. While not a great light gatherer, it's unusually consistent across the entire zoom range. The focal length range is 38mm to 380mm (35mm equivalent), which is a slightly narrow angle. On the other hand, if you favour distant shots, you may enjoy the extra magnification on the telephoto end.
At that long a telephoto reach, it can be difficult to grab a steady shot without a tripod. Fortunately, Sanyo has included an electronic image stabilisation system to help reduce the jitter and shake. It works reasonably well, though it's not as effective as the image stabilisers on most MiniDV camcorders. You have to manually switch it on and off, as needed. There are three settings -- one for video, one for photos and an off position that's recommended for tripod use.