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 us 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 motorised 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 stabiliser 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 colour 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 artefacts.
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.
Edited by: Aimee Baldridge
Additional editing by: Nick Hide