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.
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 artefacts. 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 half a 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 analogue 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 colour 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 five stops) and a Super SteadyShot optical image-stabiliser, which performs well and can be fine-tuned via a menu setting.
The 16:9-shaped colour 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 centre 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 Colour Level, Colour 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-customisable sets of menu settings. They provide a very handy way to keep and switch between several different looks. The customisability 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 of 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.