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Sony DCR-PC100 digital camcorder
User Review by Nicholas Newell

(User Review first posted 19 November, 1999)

*
The first camcorder to produce megapixel stills
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1152 x 864 stills have very good color, only 1/3 compression
*
Sharp, very low distortion 10X zoom Carl Zeiss lens
*
Manual focus ring
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Manual exposure
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Excellent macro capability
*
Burst mode
*
Breakthrough video sharpness

Introduction
At the consumer level, a slow convergence seems to be occurring between digital still and video cameras. Manufacturers like Sony, Casio, and Toshiba are including the ability to produce short MPEG or AVI clips on their still cameras, while Sony, JVC, Panasonic, and others are adding still camera features to their camcorders. Now Sony has taken this process a big step further with its introduction of the DCR-PC100, the first video camera to produce megapixel stills. The main focus of this user review will be on the still capabilities of this interesting hybrid.

My Background
I consider myself an intermediate level amateur digital still photographer, and a beginning amateur videographer. My comments about the camera should be weighed with this in mind, and not taken as the final word.

Specifications

  • Lens

    • Type: 10X optical/120x digital zoom, Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar
    • Apertures: f1.8 - 2.2
    • Focal lengths: 4.2 - 42mm
    • 35mm Equivalents:
      • Video "camera" mode:48 - 480mm
      • Photo "memory" mode: 40 - 400mm
    • Filter diameter: Threaded for 37mm attachments
    • Focus: AF/Manual focus ring
    • Shutter speeds: 1/4 - 1/4000 sec. (AE mode)



  • CCD

    • Type: 1/4" Advanced Hole Accumulating Diode(HAD)
    • Size: 1070K pixels
      • Pixels for video: 690K
      • Still resolution:
        • High: 1152x864 = 995K
        • Low: 640x480
    • Scan: Not progressive scan, but "Progressive Shutter System"

  • Viewfinder: 180K pixel

  • LCD Display: 2.5 inch 200K pixel Swivelscreen

  • Exposure Control: AE, 24 step manual

  • White Balance Control: Auto/Indoor/Outdoor/Hold

  • Sound: 12 or 16 bit digital stereo, PCM system

  • Ports: A/V in/out, DV in/out, S-Video in/out, LANC, ext. mic., headphone jack, DC in.

  • Dimensions: 2.50 x 5.00 x 4.88 inches, Weight: 1 lb 3 oz

  • Accessory Attachment: Intelligent hot shoe, works with compatible Sony lights/mikes/flash, HVL-IRH2, HVL-FDH3, HVL-S3D, ECM-HS1, ECM-HM1

  • Other Features: Nightshot 0 lux with slow shutter, Laserlink, picture effects, Super Steadyshot image stabilization, wide 16:9 mode.

  • Supplied Accessories: AC adaptor, NP-FM50 Infolithium battery, wireless remote, cables, lens cap and hood, 4MB Memory Stick, serial port Memory Stick reader, Picture Gear Lite still image software.

  • Optional Accessories: Memory Stick PC card adapter, Memory Stick floppy disk adapter.

  • Price: MSRP $2199, but can be had or $1625 w/shipping (see www.supervideo.com)

    Camera Tour
    The camera body is partly metallic (Magnesium alloy?), partly very durable plastic. The overall feel is pretty solid. On the front of the camera, beneath the Zeiss lens with manual focus ring, we see the Nightshot infrared illuminator and remote control sensor. Below this on the right is a cover that flips up to reveal DV in/out, LANC camera control, headphone, and analog A/V in/out ports. To the right of this cover, on the side of the camera, is an S-video in/out port. This camera is loaded with i/o!



    On the left side of the camera, swung out, we see the 200K pixel LCD display. This nice screen flips 180 degrees back to face forward with the lens, or 90 degrees forward to face straight down. When facing forward with the lens, the screen goes into mirror mode - images are right-to-left inverted so that, facing the front of the camera, you see yourself as you would in a mirror. The camera's excellent menu system, controlled entirely by one dial on the back of the camera, uses the LCD screen to display items. The menu structure to set still picture quality is shown displayed in the picture. To the right of the LCD display, we see many important control pushbuttons. Along the top are the controls for the Memory mode - the mode that records still photos to the Memory Stick. Left to right are the controls to display an image, display an index of six images, delete an image, and step back and forth through images.



    Below the memory mode controls are a couple of controls for video: the end search function, and the digital effects(old movie, slow shutter, etc.) activator. To the right of this is the display button which controls on screen display of information. Below these is the volume control for the small speaker, the menu activator button, and a button that adds titles to your video. As far as I know, the "Memory Stick" window to the right of these buttons does nothing. Below the buttons is the supplied NP-FM50 Infolithium battery, and below this is the DC in power port.



    The back of the camera is loaded with controls. Invisible beneath the viewfinder hood is a diopter adjustment. Beneath the hood on the left is the Memory Stick ejector button, and visible beneath this is a Memory Stick in its slot. Moving to the right, below the self-timer button, we see the main mode selector button, with the video START/STOP button superimposed. The modes are: VTR, Off, Camera, and Memory. In VTR mode, the orange indicators below the dial are lit, as shown, and the PC100 becomes a compact but functional digital video tape machine, with many more controls than are visible here accessible through the wireless remote. In Camera mode, the PC100 saves video or stills to tape. In Memory mode, the camera saves stills to Memory Stick. To the left of the orange VTR controls we see a fader button, and below this the open/eject button. When this last button is pressed, the plastic part of the body swings away from the metallic part to reveal the tape assembly.

    Just to the right of the main dial, with its locking switch, is Sony's SEL/PUSH/EXEC dial. This dial completely controls the navigation and selection of the menu items on the LCD, and also sets the manual exposure level. Below this dial lies the manual exposure activator, and the BACK LIGHT button, which is apparently Sony's name for spot metering on a camcorder.



    Along the top of the camera, we see the intelligent hot shoe and the stereo microphone. Just below these is the Nightshot activator switch, with its associated slow shutter button to the right. Below these are the microphone jack, the photo shutter, and the zoom control, with the Laserlink signaler and the manual focus button nested beneath them. Finally, on the plastic body of the camera, we have the anti-ground shooting selector, which allows you to shoot video only when the video shutter release is depressed.

    Camera Operation
    The PC100 is very small for a video camera, and fits nicely into the palm of your hand. I found an excellent and cheap padded belt pack, made by LowePro, and, although it is a bit bulky on the belt, I can take the camera with me anywhere. Sony also makes a belt pack, the LCM-PCX.

    The electronic image stabilization (Super Steadyshot) works well in video mode, but does not function in still mode, since the camera then needs all of the pixels on the CCD for the image. It can be a challenge to handhold 10x zoom still shots, but its possible if there is not too much wind. The digital zoom, which seems to use a nice interpolation routine, is also quite effective in video mode, but not functional in still mode.

    In many ways the camera is a pleasure to use. Sony packed a lot into this little unit, and still managed to make it simple. The menu system is terrific - once the menu is activated, all navigation and feature selection is down by turning the SEL/PUSH/EXEC button, and pressing the edge in with your thumb. The control layout, with a main mode dial supplemented with the set of illuminated VTR controls, and manual exposure and spot metering quickly available to the thumb, works very well. The main dial itself can be a bit awkward to turn, because it is a bit small, but practice helps with this.

    To take still shots, you depress the PHOTO button on the right side of the lens barrel halfway to set focus and exposure, then all the way to take the shot. Total shooting time is about one second, and the camera takes about three seconds to store the image. The PC100 has a very nice burst mode that allows you to take 4 full resolution stills at approximately 1/2 second intervals. To shoot video, you depress the video START/STOP button. If you select anti-ground shooting, the camera will only shoot video for as long as you hold the button down.

    In addition to storing stills to Memory Stick, the camera will capture stills directly to tape. The camera will also copy stills from the Memory Stick to tape, copy stills from the tape to Memory Stick, and capture stills from any video source. But all of these transfer operations are limited to 640x480 resolution.

    Macro ability on this camera is very good. I was able to achieve a field of view of 3.4 x 2.5 cm without any attachments. With a Raynox 4x macro attachment, I could obtain a field of view of 7mm x 5.25 mm! This corresponds to a magnification of 60x in a linear dimension when the image is viewed on a 17 inch monitor at 800x600. I've started to make macro movies of the ants that plague my kitchen. This is a shot of a $1 bill with the Raynox attachment. This image, along with all the others in this review, is straight from the camera.



    The autofocus on the PC100 can be a little bit sensitive - when an image lacks detail, the focus can move in and out a bit. But if the autofocus doesn't do the job, the nice manual focus ring is always an option.

    The Nightshot infrared mode works for stills, and can be amusing. You can shoot in Nightshot with or without the infrared illuminator.

    I use a 32MB Memory Stick (just $59) with Sony's MSAC-PC2 PC card adapter. This works like a charm in my ActionTec Camera Connect Pro flash card reader, transferring about one top quality image a second.

    I am very impressed with the battery life and charging times, even with the supplied battery. The manual quotes a charging time of 2 1/2 hours, and a typical running time of 1 hour when recording with the LCD screen on. My impression is that performance is at least this good, and Sony makes an optional battery, the NP-FM90, that will let you record with the LCD screen on for 3 1/2 hours! And these Infolithium batteries give you a continuous and pretty accurate count of the number of minutes of use remaining.

    Many owners of this camera have noticed that, when the camera is in VTR or OFF mode, the lens rattles when you tilt the camera back and forth in the direction parallel to the lens barrel. If you look into the lens as you do this, you see internal elements freely sliding back and forth! The manual mentions the rattle, and states that it is not a malfunction, but does not explain the cause. A posting on rec.video, which included a response from Sony technical support on this issue, has provided a very interesting answer to this riddle. Apparently, instead of using an ordinary motor and gear system to move the lens elements during zoom, Sony uses a linear electromagnetic motor, with an internal tube containing the lens elements acting as the ?armature?! So the reason that the lens rattles when the camera is not in a shooting mode is that there is no field applied to the internal tube at that time, and it can move freely. One wonders why Sony couldn?t have just mechanically secured the lens when the zoom mechanism is inoperative?

    I have two significant criticisms of the operation of the camera, and one of these may not be the fault of the camera itself. The first criticism involves the zoom control slider on the right side of the camera. In the first place, it is too low down for my average-length Anglo fingers to operate comfortably. It may be fine for average Japanese fingers, though, so I can't complain too much about that. But the slider also has insufficient purchase for my fingers, and it moves too easily - it doesn't provide enough spring-loaded resistance. To top this all off, it accelerates the zoom as you slide it further. All these factors, working together, make it a challenge to get smooth, slow zooms.

    The second criticism I have is with the operation of the camera with the optional HVL-FDH3 flash/video light. The PC100 has no built-in flash, and a flash is necessary for indoor shooting to avoid noisy images. The HVL-FDH3 seems to be the only flash compatible with the intelligent shoe. I hope Sony or someone else will correct me if I am wrong, or if the problem described below can be solved any other way. The problem is either that the flash doesn't provide enough light, or that the camera sets the exposure too low when working with the flash. The result is that indoor flash images are consistently too dark. And the camera design has not made it easy to correct this. There is no manual "exposure compensation", just an absolute manual exposure control. And, once you activate the manual control, the exposure system no longer knows about the flash, so, in dim light, the initial absolute exposure value is set very high, and the flash then washes everything out. To fix this, you have to guess how far down to take the exposure from its initial setting to compensate for the extra light of the flash. I have found 5-6 clicks to be about right, but it varies with subject. So it takes some trial and error to get good exposures with this flash, and, paradoxically, you must adjust the exposure downwards in order to brighten the image. It is possible that the problem is just with my particular flash unit or my camera. If so, I hope someone will point this out.

    The Lens
    The quality of the lens on the PC100 is extremely high. Any barrel distortion at wide angle, or pincushion distortion at high zoom is very minor, and the lens is capable of producing very sharp images. There is none of the indistinct "video look" that images from camcorders usually exhibit. And the 10X zoom is a real luxury for stills, seeming to give the shooter the ability to be in many places at once.

    Still Image Quality
    Before this camera was released, there was concern amongst some that upping the density on a 1/4" camcorder CCD to the point where megapixel stills could be produced might involve a tradeoff: higher
    resolution from the larger number of detectors, but greater noise, because a larger area of the chip is taken up by connections and other non-detector surface. From the point of view of still image quality, I think this concern is partly justified. I think that the still images from this camera show a bit more noise than images from the current crop of good digital still cameras. But I feel that the tradeoff was worth it. When the images are viewed at 1/2 size or smaller (9.5 x 7.1 inches at 800x600 on a 17 inch monitor), the noise is subtle, but the extra detail from the higher resolution is very evident. Viewed at full size, this image shows some noise, particularly on the dark ocean:



    Images from the PC100, when viewed at full size, can also show some "jaggies", particularly on diagonal lines. But these become undetectable as the images are viewed at smaller sizes, and, in any case, their existence is not surprising, given the borderline 1 megapixel resolution of the camera. Its possible to view the images at their full sizes, essentially without jaggies, by upsampling them with cubic spline interpolation, then viewing them at 1/2 of their new size. My final criticisms of PC100 image quality involve overexposure and color artifacts. The camera tends to burn out light colored surfaces that reflect bright sun, and sometimes, when a very bright area is adjacent to a dark area in an image, there is some color artifacting on the bright area. This effect is evident between the windows on the building at right in this image:



    As can be seen, the artifacts display a range of color. This problem is similar to the purple halo problem exhibited by the Olympus C2000 and some other 2MP digital still cameras, so the PC100 is in good company here. Sony makes a neutral density filter, VF-R37K, expressly to deal with overexposure, and I am hopeful that this filter will help with the color artifacting problem as well.

    Now the good news about picture quality. At the top quality still image setting (about 600KB in size), images undergo only a minimal compression - Sony claims just 1/3. This is a lower level of compression than any digital still camera that I am aware of, excluding uncompressed settings of course. And, indeed, compression artifacts on PC100 images are practically nonexistent.

    I can't provide Dave's usual set of comparison pictures, but I can compare the PC100 directly against my Olympus D400 digital still camera. These two images of the same scene at the same time were taken with each camera in full auto:



    The PC100 shot ( On the left ), viewed at full size, has some jaggies and a bit of color noise, but, on the other hand, it represents the fall colors of the scene faithfully, while the D400 mutes the colors. Indeed, the color of PC100 images compares favorably with that of many current digital still cameras. Although the resolution of this camera is barely one megapixel, it is capable of taking some pretty pictures(please excuse the framing - I didn't want to alter the pictures by cropping):
    l




    Video Quality
    The PC100 is my first DV video camera, so I am not equipped to compare its video quality with other digital video cameras. But it uses 690,000 pixels for video, which is at least 50% more than other 1 CCD cameras. Jan Van Der Meer of global-dvc.org says it is in the 3 CCD league in terms of video quality. It may actually have better sharpness than many 3 CCD cameras. My impression is that the video quality is very good. Jan noticed a problem with "notches" on thin diagonal lines on video from his sample camera. A poster on rec.video has also independently noticed this problem. I have not been able to duplicate the problem with my production unit, but then I have only been able to view the video on my 12 year old TV so far. Jan's camera also "smeared" light down across the image when shooting into bright lights. I can confirm that this happens, but I don't think its a serious problem, as shooting into bright lights is not usually a good idea anyway.

    Overall Impressions
    Sony has created, in the PC100, a camera that combines small size and great video sharpness with the ability to create stills of a quality that will be acceptable to many consumers. I was filming video of ships in the harbor a few days ago when a seagull landed right next to me, setting up a nice still opportunity. I just turned the camera dial, swung the camera over and shot the still. It felt like the next great thing.

    Pros and Cons
    Pros:

    • Great lens - tack sharp, no obvious distortion, powerful zoom and macro ability.

    • Great menu system, and external buttons for quick access to key controls like exposure and "spot metering".

    • Some nice still features - manual focus ring, burst mode.

    • Megapixel stills with very good color.

    • Excellent battery and memory system.

    • Superb video sharpness.

    • Lots of i/o options.

    • Small size.

    Cons:

    • Zoom slider is awkward to control.

    • Images are too dark with optional flash, and not simple to brighten. Sony should just add a flash to the unit.

    • Camera tends to burn out bright areas on still images, and can show color artifacts on bright areas as well. Stills are also a bit noisy.

    • "Notches" on thin diagonal lines in the video image?

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