What happened was, we’ve had an HDTV for a while now, and the decent old Canon camcorder wasn’t cutting it, and we’ve got a terrific video opportunity coming up. So I ended up buying a Sony HDR-HC1, which records 1080i High-Def. This was a non-obvious choice for a couple of reasons, and it turns out that home-HDTV is still a pretty bleeding-edge technology. Herewith the narrative, with some pictures but no video samples.

Sony HDR-HC1

Buying The Camera · Right at the moment, there seem to be three choices for consumer-grade HDTV. This camera, just under a year old, was the first-ever; since then there’s been the Sanyo VPC-HD1 and an upgrade from Sony, the HDR-HC3.

The Sanyo looks very attractive; it’s smaller and cheaper than the Sony, and records on a flash card, thus no moving parts. But I poked around the reviews and forums and the message was very mixed; in particular, the low-light performance is apparently just not there.

I’m still mad at Sony over their egregious rootkit abuse last year, and Lauren’s even madder, but there didn’t seem to be any other good options if we wanted to have archival-quality footage of the impending Bundle of Joy.

Poking around the options revealed that a lot of people thought the HC3 wasn’t necessarily a step forward. For example, I was horrified to discover that they’d subtracted the microphone-in jack. As a certifiable audio weenie and owner of a decent (Sony, as it turns out) external microphone, this was completely out of the question.

So the next time I was in an electronics emporium, I asked about the Sonys and they had exactly one HC1 left in stock, heavily discounted because the HC3 was coming in. Impulse buy time.

Sony HDR-HC1

Credit, both camera photos: Sony HDV Info.

The Big Picture · There are definitely things to like:

  • It takes great videos, even in low light; they look wonderful on our HD screen (more below).

  • It’s really easy to use (more below).

Well, you might ask, with these things in the “Pro” column, isn’t the argument over? And, to be fair, design goal #1 has been achieved; we can shoot film that looks terrific on the big screen. But there are multiple flies in the ointment.

  • It’s kind of ugly.

  • The camera has a stupid nonstandard “Active Interface Shoe”, so I can’t mount my perfectly-standard Sony microphone on it. Poking around suggests that you can get a doohickey so that you can screw a standard shoe into the tripod mount socket on the bottom of the camera; an example, I think, is this Audio Technica product.

  • As of yet, there’s no good way to blast HD video onto a disk for playback, so you have to use the camera as a source. That’s OK, it even has a dinky little remote. Presumably, time and either Blu-Ray or HD-DVD will solve this problem. In the interim, I’m going to be nervous about playing the movies too much, tape inevitably wears out.

  • I haven’t managed to produce decent video output for display on a computer screen (more below).

  • The manual is irritating; there’s no reference section. It’s 100% task-oriented, which is nice, but if you want to find out what a button or dial does, you have to go read through the narrative of some goal or another and spot your control’s function.

  • It’s a pity it saves to tape rather than disk or, even better, some form of silicon.

Let’s drill down a bit on the upsides and downsides.

Looks Good! · Here are three stills from the thirty-second test movie I shot on my first day with the camera, no practice; they are screen grabs from iMovie HD. I think they speak for themselves.

Cat on lawn; screen grab from Sony HDR-HC1 output
· · ·
Violet tulips; screen grab from Sony HDR-HC1 output
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Cat on lawn; screen grab from Sony HDR-HC1 output

On the first one, you can see the hairs on the cat and the individual blades of grass shaking in the wind. The second is there for colour variety, and the third is inside after dark, by ordinary incandescent light. Trust me, your kids and pets are going to look outstanding on your widescreen.

Stills Too · This thing shoots stills too at 1920x1440, on a filthy Sony “Memory Stick” of course, but who cares, it’s got a USB. Here’s one, entirely unedited.

Yellow poppy shot with Sony HDR-HC1 (still mode)

All videocams have pretty impressive built-in telephotos, and Doc Searls has used this to good effect to do some terrific semi-stealth portraiture.

Easy · I’ve only ever used one videocam before, that 2000-vintage Canon, so I’m no expert. The Sony’s shooting ergonomics are maybe a little weird (you pull the mode lever down to turn it on, and it’s easy for your shooting finger to confuse that lever and the stop/go button); but I found them easy to pick up, and got some good video of the kid’s ball game without much pain. The zoom control is excellent, silky-smooth and very precise.

I probably would have been a little happier with more buttons on the outside to avoid using the LCD menus. On the other hand, the menu navigation is all touch-screen and really very slick, no more fiddling with up and down and back and confirm buttons.

iMovie HD · iMovie isn’t brilliant software, but it’s OK. On one of my little-league shots, I was standing right by first base and got this great shot of a kid running out a hit, rounding the base, and high-tailing it for second. Looked good on camera playback, but iMovie suffered some serious digital breakdown during the part when the whole screen was filled with the girl in her bright red shirt flashing by.

Anyhow, I didn’t have too much trouble pulling together a movie and blasting it back onto the DV tape so I could hook the camera to the TV to show it. Which is klunky, obviously, but will do for now.

The Output Problem · When I was writing this, I figured I should include a movie, so I told iMovie to export (which is under “File/Share”, Human Interface Guidelines be damned), and selected “CD” quality. Except for, it butchered the movie from 16:9 into 4:3 form-factor and it looked horrible. The Apple support forums have a workaround; that procedure saved the 30 seconds into a 401-Megabyte file which my 1.67GHz PowerPC PowerBook couldn’t play at all smoothly. I spent some time fiddling with the options, told it to use the MPEG-4 encoding again and reduce it to 800x450; at “Medium” compression that produced a 26M QuickTime that looks crappy compared to what I’d been seeing in iMovie. So I tried “High Quality” compression; the file was 80MB and looked better, only the PowerBook couldn’t display it smoothly.

Some obvious conclusions suggest themselves. Maybe iMovie isn’t the right program for making Web-friendly video. Maybe a PowerBook just isn’t a video-wrangling platform. Maybe the idea of using HD-format video on the Web is silly. Maybe I’m clueless about this stuff. [Do ya think?! -Ed.]

But starting now, there will be archival-quality digital footage of the family. Of course, then we’ll be in the backup swamp eloquently described by Mark Pilgrim.


author · Dad · software · colophon · rights

May 08, 2006
· Technology (85 fragments)
· · Video (26 more)
· The World (114 fragments)
· · Family (47 more)

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I am an employee of Amazon.com, but the opinions expressed here are my own, and no other party necessarily agrees with them.

A full disclosure of my professional interests is on the author page.