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 it actually costs less. What made the VX1000 so significant was its realisation of the amazing 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-PD1 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.
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 2kg, 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 89mm (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 optimised 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 of 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 analogue 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. 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.