Not quite pocket-sized enough to class as a pocket camcorder, yet not fully featured enough to compete with the big boys, Toshiba's Camileo SX500 occupies a space somewhere between two distinctly different types of video device. Its low price (£175) makes it an affordable option, though we've learned the hard way not to get too excited when claims of 1080p high-definition video and 10-megapixel photos get bandied about. Could this curious cross-breed be the one to bridge the gap between the budget and mid-range models?
Hip to be square
The Camileo SX500's odd, boxy barrel-grip design echoes certain brands of old Super8 home movie cameras from the 1970s, but this look is given a modern remix with a 2.7-inch fold-out LCD screen and a front-mounted LED lamp. The body is shiny black with silver accents, in line with the majority of Toshiba's current clutch of camcorders. The colour scheme works fairly well here, though a closer look reveals a slightly more plasticky build quality than you might assume from a polite distance.
There's no proper grip strap -- instead, you have to hobble together a grip strap substitute by screwing the wrist strap into the tripod thread underneath the device. This makes it a little harder to get a firm, comfortable hold on the unit. Though it's very small and light, it's quite often necessary to hold the device in two hands to keep it steady, especially when using the zoom rocker, which is so small and stiff it's hard to operate when filming without inadvertently giving the camera a nudge.
Grip strap aside, the SX500 packs a healthy selection of bundled accessories, including a universal (EU/UK/US) power adaptor, a cloth carry case and an HDMI cable. Similarly, the Camileo comes with more than most other budget cams in terms of features and options. The 5x optical zoom may be relatively short compared to higher-end models, but it’s quite a bonus at the entry end of the market, where users usually have to put up with digital-only magnification that can severely degrade picture quality.
You won't find anything as exotic as a touchscreen user interface, but menus are nevertheless simple to navigate and reveal further useful options, such as manual focus and white balance, as well as face-chasing and colour-targeting tools. A negligible amount of internal memory is provided, so you will need to obtain an SD card if you don't already have one. Interestingly, the SX500 supports SDHC and SDXC cards of capacities up to 64GB.
In our tests, we found that 1080i was the superior video quality setting, even though the SX500 goes right up to 1080p. At 1080i you get the benefit of a higher frame rate -- 60 frames per second (fps), as opposed to 30fps for the progressive 1080 setting -- which seems to help the camcorder cope with motion somewhat better. For reasons we're not entirely able to ascertain, the 1080i setting also provides much better colour reproduction and sharper edges with less distortion.
That's not to say footage from the SX500 would compare well with, say, a £300 Panasonic or Sony model. It's not the manufacturer that's the issue, either. It's more due to the fact Toshiba's inexpensive video device doesn't use the same advanced AVCHD codec for processing its high-definition recordings that more expensive camcorders tend to employ, which may account for some inferiority image-wise. Telltale imperfections include blockiness occurring in moving shots and an odd crystalline effect around the edges of objects, though, again, these are less noticeable at 1080i.
We would alert anyone who's considering the Camileo as a potential purchase that the electronic image stabiliser is probably best left set to 'off'. Our test footage produced some highly unsatisfactory motion when using the stabiliser, almost as if it was attempting to sporadically freeze the image.
Another culprit is the SX500's autopilot, which frequently fails to hit its mark. Autofocus, for example, sometimes struggles to work out what to actually focus on, while auto white balance seems to randomly flit from one setting to another, causing colour warmth to fluctuate wildly, even during a locked-off shot. In low light, though, the auto settings do a fairly good job of compensating for loss of illumination compared with other similarly priced camcorders -- and even some more expensive ones.
Still photography is better than average, too. Test shots taken at both standard (5-megapixel) and interpolated (12-megapixel) settings were detailed with natural colours. The only problem here is framing your shots. There's no dedicated photo mode and the LCD monitor defaults to 16:9. It's only when you start to press the shutter button that the screen switches to 4:3, at which point it becomes horribly apparent that your original framing was way off the mark.
In some ways, it is entirely unfair to expect a £175 camcorder to compete with models that are almost twice its price. A more realistic comparison would be cheap pocket video devices, such as the Flip Video Ultra HD and Toshiba's own S20 or H30. Against this type of product, the Toshiba Camileo SX500 holds its own very well indeed, offering a comparably superior image (as long as you set it to 1080i and switch off the stabiliser) as well as a greater selection of features for a roughly similar price.
Toshiba's SX500 was never designed for the demands or expectations of expert users -- picture quality and range of features is limited in that regard. But within those limitations, the SX500 succeeds where other budget camcorders fail, balancing its video and photo abilities with accessibility and affordability much better than most sub-£200 products.
Edited by Emma Bayly