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The New Camcorders Are Here! (almost)
Sony, Canon & Panasonic to release fall camcorders

By David Tobey

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The leaves are changing color and children the nation over are grumbling again. Summer vacation’s over -- and your kids aren’t the only ones who will be facing a big test soon. Sony, Canon and Panasonic have spent the summer refining the launch of their fall camcorders and will soon be pouring over sales data to see if their hunches as to what camcorder buyers want were on the mark.

As the price of High Definition TVs rapidly falls into the reach of average consumers, HD camcorders are getting more attention from manufacturers. Both Sony and Canon have new HD-capable camcorders that they hope will capture a good chunk of this emerging market. Sony is also betting that the convenience of never having to buy tapes or blank DVDs will spell healthy sales for its new series of camcorders that record to internal hard drives. Similarly, Panasonic has tweaked their tiny SDR-S100 and come up with the SDR-S150 which lets you record video and stills to conveniently small SD cards (including the new larger capacity SDHC cards). So, stuff yourself into a sweater and zoom in on the action as we take a closer look at these three manufacturers' August-September camcorder lineup.

Sonyís standard definition Handycam SR series, targeted to the low-to-middle-end buyer, is part of a new wave of camcorders that record to internal hard drives. The units also keep the realities of daily use in mind by featuring Sonyís G-Sensor shock protection and HDD smart protection system, which help prevent video skipping and data loss even when the unit gets bounced around. These camcorders are small -- compact enough to pack, hold or carry comfortably. And with even the most economical model offering hours of recording time, the Handycams are, well, handy.

According to Sony their entry-level DCR-SR40 stores up to 7 hours of video on its 30GB hard drive when recording in high quality mode. It also boasts a 20x zoom and a sizable 2.5 inch LCD screen -- both unusually generous for a model in this price range. The SR40ís USB and A/V outputs let you easily connect the camcorder to a computer, television or DVDirect recorder.

Sony has also installed its much-touted One Touch DVD Burn button on all units in the SR series. As the name suggests, this feature makes burning a DVD of your videos extremely easy; simply place the unit in its docking station, load a blank DVD into your DVD burner-equipped computer and push the button.

If the SR40 doesnít meet your needs, its sibling, the higher-end SR80, adds some nice features and additional storage space. The SR80 is equally as rugged as the SR40, and its 12x zoom -- while smaller than the SR40 -- is more than adequate for most situations.

Where the SR80 really shines, however, is the larger widescreen LCD (2.7 inches) and 1-megapixel CCD. For a camcorder as petite as the SR80, the versatility to take great video and still-shots means more value for your money. The SR80 also sports a 60GB hard drive, for those needing more storage space, and boasts a shoe-mount to attach larger microphones or lighting.
Arguably, however, the true stars of Sonyís fall lineup are its new High Definition AVCHD-format camcorders, the hard-drive recording HDR-SR1 and the HDR-UX1, which records to dual-layer DVD discs. These models have already generated quite a bit of buzz; many industry insiders think Sony has fielded the units as part of a larger attack on the high-end consumer and prosumer market.

With these units Sony takes the unprecedented step of adding professional tools to its consumer camcorders. Both the SR1 and UX1 feature some half-dozen professional bells and whistles, including dedicated headphone and microphone jacks, HDMI and control-L jacks and the much-coveted multifunction ring, which allows the shooter to control the focus, exposure and various balancing shifts. The UX1 also features a touch-screen on its enormous 3.5" LCD panel, a 10x optical zoom and an 80x digital zoom -- albeit with the expected loss of picture sharpness.

But letís not lose track of the UX1 and SR1ís real glory: vibrant High Definition video. Both models record in true 1080i high definition. Coupled with the new AVCHD format, which encodes at MPEG2, the units have a full 15MB bit rate playback. Because the AVCHD is compatible with Sonyís new Blue-ray DVD format, the company is also hoping itíll encourage sales of its flagship high definition DVD format.

But the Sony techies are no fools: you can always hook either camcorder directly to your HDTV via the HDMI output to watch your HD home videos, or use the bundled software to convert recordings to standard definition for burning to a standard DVD. This kind of flexibility should help attract buyers interested in shooting HD but wary of investing in a Blue-ray DVD player.

The SR1 also takes impressively accurate still-shots, offering 2.3 megapixels along with its 4 megapixel camcorder chip -- and sports "dual-record" functionality which lets you capture stills while simultaneously shooting video. And if youíre looking for versatility, the SR1 features a 30GB hard drive that offers up to 4 hours of recording time at its highest quality. Add into the mix the ability to transfer still-shots to Memorystick Duo cards, and youíve got a potent mixture of range and storage solutions. Retailing at $1400 and $1500 respectively, the UX1 and SR1 offer professional features and functions at an affordable prosumer price.

But Sony isnít the only game in town.

Canon has been making tremendous leaps forward in offering the latest in feature-rich consumer camcorders, including their much-acclaimed DC22 DVD camcorder. Combined with their forward-looking HV10 model -- the company’s first foray into consumer High Definition recording -- Canon has effectively declared war on Sony’s consumer-level numerical superiority.
The Canon DC22

The DC22 is Canonís long-awaited follow-up to the year-old DC20, building on its predecessors strengths by incorporating more viewing space and a powerful CCD sensor. Rounding out the unit are two other features that have made other Canon models popular: Smooth Zoom, which offers a greater zoom range for a professional touch, and Level Shot, which creates an electronic leveling guide that allows the user to steady the picture on uncertain ground. Canon has also included their DIGIC-DV image processor, various auto and manual exposure modes which, when combined with their bundled software, offers the film editor a slew of desktop editing options.

Where the DC22 really stands apart, however, is its portability and range. With its dual-layer recording capabilities and the relatively inexpensive price of DVD-R DL discs, the DC22 offers near-total independence from a computer, making it perfect for long trips. What about still-shots? With a 2.2 megapixel still-shot sensor, the DC22 can get the job done better than many other camcorders -- just donít count on it to replace your digital camera. You can even stitch together your still-shots with the bundled software, creating a panoramic image. And with a suggested retail price of $700, itís hard to argue that itís overpriced.

The big news from Canon’s camp, however, is its new HV10 -- which the company touts as the "world's smallest HDV camcorder". According to Canon, the HV10 -- like its Sony counterparts -- shoots at true 1080i, giving you eye-popping, crystal clear playback on your HDTV.

The tech specs are equally impressive: instant auto-focus, a 10x zoom and a 1/2.7-inch CMOS sensor with 2.96 gross megapixels (2.07 effective). The CMOS chip also allows 3.1MP still photos at truly massive sizes; few consumer-level camcorders can compete with 2048 x 1536 resolution.

The HV10 has a standard 10x optical zoom but boasts a 200x digital zoom, and a prosumer-level DIGIC DV II processor. For the shooter who likes total control of his or her picture, the HV10 also offers manual exposure and shutter controls, as well as various shooting modes that control white balance and focus. Thereís also a small button that controls focus -- Canonís answer to Sonyís multifunction ring.

One of the other major benefits of the HV10 is its encoding process: like the Sony models, the Canon uses standard MPEG-2, but records seamlessly to MiniDV tape, making it a cheap alternative to DVDs. The HV10 can also store images on MiniSD cards.

It also takes stills while simultaneously shooting video, saving them to a MiniSD card. And, priced at $1299, the HV10 is taking square aim at Sonyís HDR-HC3, its nearest competitor.

Rounding up our overview is Panasonic's SDR-S150 -- a slight upgrade to their popular SDR-S100 camcorder. Although the newer model has grown a tad in size, it is still among the smallest and lightest camcorders on the market. Designed to be held in one hand, the SDR-S150 sports the same high-end Leica Dicomar lens, takes 3.1 Megapixel stills and features an Optical Image Stabilizer (a good thing as small camcorders can be a challenge to hold steady).

The Panasonic
One important difference is that the SDR-S150, unlike its predecessor, supports the new 4 gigabyte SDHC cards which effectively doubles the amount of high quality video you can record to one card to just shy of an hour (note -- the camcorder ships with a standard 2 Gigabyte SD card). The new model's specs also claim 1 lux minimum illumination which hopefully will improve on the SDR-S100's so-so low-light performance.

So whoíll win this seasonís battle for the best and brightest camcorders? Will it be Sonyís larger range of offerings that win the day, Canonís attempt to fuse robust features with competitive prices or Panasonic's tweaks to an already successful model? As more families across the country begin filming their high-schoolerís football games, it will be the weekend shooters who decide the victor. But one thing is certain: regardless of which company sells the most, with these latest offerings from Sony and Canon, itís the consumer who wins.
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