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HDR-FX1 Hands-on

>Published : 4th May 2005

>Got a chance to spend several hours last night with Sony's HDR-FX1.

>Following are notes and first impressions :

>The HDV spec for 1080i acquisition is 1440 x 1080 samples, which is what the HDR-FX1 delivers.

>It's 1/3" CCDs are newly developed by Sony for this camcorder. They are 16:9 in shape, 1080 pixels high and 960 pixels across. The pixels are rectangular and squat with a pixel aspect ratio of 2:1. (ATSC Table 3 mandates square pixels for 1080, 720, and 640 x 480 for broadcast and display, not acquisition.) In the HDR-FX1 Sony employs a pixel shift technique to derive 1440 horizontal samples. Red and blue CCDs together are horizontally shifted 1/2 pixel against the green CCD. This offset results in a pixel area overlap of 50% between G pixels and R+B pixels (960 x 1.5 = 1440). In other words, from two adjacent pixels of green and two shifted pixels of R and B, three samples of luminance are obtained. Overall sampling format, per HDV standard, is 4:2:0.

>(Horizontal pixel shifting has its advantages. It makes for larger individual pixels which increases CCD sensitivity. Canon relies on it to increase resolution in its XL1 and GL series. Panasonic uses it likewise in the DVX100 and nifty new DVC30 and has used it in 720P broadcast cameras to reduce aliasing.)

>The HDR-FX1 has two HD outputs, one analog, one digital. The analog is a new multi-pin connector on the far side of the camcorder that resembles a FireWire port; it terminates in breakout cables for analog Y', Pb, and Pr signals. (So I'm told. I didn't actually see the cables.) Since analog signals aren't discrete, clocked samples, they inherently scale to a display. So 1440 samples is no problem here.

>The digital output is iLink (FireWire). The digital signal is made available by a new Sony HDV codec which upon sampling and encoding compresses the Y'CbCr components using ultra-efficient interframe MPEG-2. The resulting signal is also recorded to a conventional Mini 1/4" cassette per the HDV standard. (Sony also uses iLink to output I-frame MPEG-2 in its new XDCAM series.)

>The images I saw last night were from the camcorder's iLink output. Unfortunately they were seen on large plasma screens, not the best way to critically evaluate such images. Each plasma did its own up-rezzing (native res was probably 1024 x 1024) and enhancement, which was terribly apparent. Hard to tell what was HDV and what was plasma. This will be the m.o. of HDV, I'm afraid, at least at the outset. Hard to escape the fact that HDR-FX1 is introduced as a consumer product and HDV, a consumer format.

>(continued...) (Originally over three posts)

>Don't know what 1440 x 1080 would look like on an Apple 23" LCD Cinema Display with one-to-one sample/pixel mapping (HDCAM is also 1440 x 1080, lest we forget). But given all the compression/decompression, interpolation and scaling going on in acquisition, transport, and display these days, true 1920 would seem the exception rather than the rule anyway.

>Audio capture is lossy MPEG-1 Audio Layer II, 48 kHz, 16 bits, per the HDV standard. (Sorry, no PCM.) External input is 1/4" stereo mini-phono. In the consumer HDR-FX1 the two channels cannot be individually controlled. There is a well-designed external auto/manual level switch with a day-glow orange status indicator and a protective cover that prevents bumping the level-control thumbwheel. Well done, Sony.

>Professional mini-toggles for H/M/L gain and Preset/A/B white balance are nice too. Gain can be set as high as 18 dB. There is a single zebra, which can be set as low as 70 or above 100 IRE units (didn't note ceiling, sorry). There are SMPTE color bars with PLUGE bars for both HD and SD, easily turned on by external button. (Rec. 709 or 601 colorimetry? No one had a clue. Nor a clue about when/whether 7.5 IRE set-up is added for SD analog output.)

>Zeiss zoom with T* multicoatings is a thing of beauty. Iris is manually controlled by a unique knurled metal dial which extends from under the lens on the operator's side. Manual zoom feels comfortably solid. Main zoom rocker is pro quality, secondary rocker on handle has settable fixed speeds, but impressively smooth. Slowest is a genuine creep. In the menu settings, the iris's minimum aperture can be limited to f/11, 6.8, or 4. (A weird series... where's 8?) Optical image stabilization, of course. Modest .8x wide-angle, which I tried on for size, is screw-on. Would be reluctant to mount it in front those pristine T* coatings however. Lens shade is bayonet-mount with a built-in, dual-shutter lens capping feature others would do well to copy. Goodbye lost cap!

>Both viewfinder and LCD flip-out screen--wonderfully mounted atop the handle, surprisingly practical placement--are 250K pixels, 16:9, and color. Both are bright and sharp. The LCD is transflective, backlit in darkness and reflective in sunlight. The viewfinder has a unique 4X button near the rocker switch which momentarily magnifies the image times four for focus check. But the viewfinder is so crisp I didn't require the use of it, nor the single peaking level available by an external switch. In fact, if the pro version of this camcorder is introduced with a black-and-white viewfinder, I'll stick to the consumer product over this issue alone.


>Physically, the HDR-FX1 is perhaps the best-balanced Handicam-style camcorder I've ever held. A little over 4 pounds, it bears direct comparison to Panasonic's AG-DVX100, similarly a bit thicker and heavier than Sony's PD150/VX2000 series. Both HDR-FX1 and DVX100 accept 72mm threaded filters compared to 58mm of the smaller PD150/VX2000.

>The optional flip-out shoulder brace, pricey at $400, is light-weight and brilliantly designed. I've NEVER used a shoulder brace, don't like them, but this may be a departure. I tried it and liked it and want one.

>The fit and finish are superb. This is the best-designed "consumer" camcorder I've encountered. Down to the smallest detail. Menu displays with transparent graphics. Big, easy-access control panel under LCD "swivel screen." Generous viewfinder with large exit optic. Blue LED status lights for DV and HDV in two places, no less. Three assignable buttons. Truly solid shoe-mount at handle's end for accessories.

>Now, the realm of caveat emptor: HDR-FX1 is rated 3 lux, same as the DVX100, compared to 1 lux rating of the PD170 and 2 lux of the better-known PD 150. Couldn't adequately judge noise levels last night given the shortcomings of the plasma displays I viewed images on. Images looked reasonably smooth however. In 4:3 SD mode, which somehow we couldn't get to display properly, resolution I'm told is 530 horizontal lines, same as DVX100 and PD150/VX2000. Note that SD mode enjoys the same internal 14-bit signal processing as HDV... DVX100, by comparison, is 12-bit.

>Cineframe 24, for what it's worth, I'm told is a 2:3:3:2 field cadence, akin to Panasonic's 24P Advance Mode, and Cineframe 30 a slower shutter speed with consequent motion blur, probably 1/30th second.

>Overall impression of image quality: good color, crisp detail, clearly HD, not HDCAM or Varicam. Price paid for challenged horizontal resolution?

>Still, an amazing fist full of technology for US $3,700.

>I understand that extended features of the pro model, set for release first quarter 2005, will be announced at IBC. Exhibition opens tomorrow. Would someone there poke around and comment?

>Kind regards,

>David Leitner
New York City

>Nicely done David, thanks!

>I guess there are a few advantages to living in NYC after all. Did you perchance come away with some frames that "you" shot that you could share with us? Doesn't sound like Sony is going to get around to the West Coast contingent for quite a while.

>Scott Billups

class="Paragraph">>Cineframe 24, for what it's worth, I'm told is a 2:3:3:2 field cadence, akin >to Panasonic's 24P Advance Mode

>So is it progressive, or isn't it? Can we extract progressive frames? It's really annoying that they have to be so shady about this feature.

>Jason Rodriguez
Post Production Artist
Virginia Beach, VA

class="Paragraph">>Overall impression of image quality: good color, crisp detail, clearly HD, >not HDCAM or Varicam. Price paid for challenged horizontal resolution?

>So, are you referring to tape playback image quality, or camera direct output?

>I've yet to see this stuff played back on a real monitor, they were afraid to do it at NAB.

>Course, if tape technology had advanced at all in the last ten years, a DV cassette would hold half a terabyte and this massive compression wouldn't be necessary. This looks like it'll have the market lifetime of Quartercam.

>Steven Bradford
Collins College
Phoenix AZ

>Steven Bradford wrote :

class="Paragraph">>This looks like it'll have the market lifetime of Quartercam.

>You are being too cruel.

>ReCam/Hawkeye, maybe.

>Jeff Kreines