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The Road to Sony DCR-HC90 MiniDV Handycam

Fri Apr 22 19:16:02 PDT 2005

Why would I buy another consumer-level digital video camera?

This dilemma haunted me all week as I debated whether to purchase the Sony DCR-HC90 MiniDV Handycam. I already have two other consumer-level digital camcorders. What I really wanted is the more professional Canon XL2 Digital Camcorder. And with a special day coming up soon, I practically have the justification to acquire it.

Instead, with a life-changing event steadily and quickly approaching in just a few weeks from today, I finally made the decision to order the consumer-oriented Sony DCR-HC90 MiniDV Handycam. Being the main character at this event with hundred of guests and thousands of pictures to be taken by them in one day, I would have my hands full just to socialize and enjoy the event itself. It would be practically impossible for me to whip out my favorite professional Canon EOS D30 digital SLR camera that I normally use at these type of events. Just think of the folly if the main character is walking around looking like a photographer on his big day!

Question
Can you imagine James Bond, the 007 of British intelligence, walking through a high-profile party with a camera bag?

Yet, having carried my photographic gears around all day for the past ten years of my life, I can't just walk around on my big day empty handed. Imagine not being able to capture any of the pretty faces, the beautiful smiles, and the interesting personalities of my wonderful guests. So it's decided, I have to carry some type of image capturing device. Should it be a digital camera or a digital camcorder?

Not really a hard choice after all. Without my Canon EOS D30 professional digital SLR camera, a point-and-shoot digital camera that can easily slip into my pocket, such as my Sony DSC-P92, just won't do. By the time I have enough lens attachments on it, it'd be about the size of a SLR camera. And without the lens attachments, I am pretty much stuck with shooting all the faces at my head table only, missing out on all the fun at the other tables. A digital camcorder, on the other hand, comes in a compact package with a 10x to 20x optical zoom. It can record videos or pictures as I wish. Sounds perfect.

I pulled out my two favorite digital camcorders: the Panasonic PV-GS50S Digital Palmcorder MultiCam and the Sony DCR-TRV350 Digital8 Handycam. Both are my favorite in their own rights. And I played around with both of them to see how they would fit the scenario. The PV-GS50S is small and compact. It fits in the palm of my hand. The DCR-TRV350 has a really nice control layout. Custom functions are easy to access and control. The NightShot feature is awesome and great for low-light scenes.

Just looking at the two camcorder physically, I would pick the Panasonic PV-GS50S Digital Palmcorder MultiCam for this event for its sheer smallness in size. The ability of fitting it entirely in my hands, the guests probably won't even notice it. And I can play my role as the man of the day without a large camera getting in the way. The Sony DCR-TRV350 Digital8 Handycam is just too big for the event. If I take it, I might as well shell out the money and carry the Canon XL2 professional digital camcorder on my shoulder the whole time.

Still the Sony DCR-TRV350 Digital8 Handycam is a much much much better low-light performer than the Panasonic PV-GS50S Digital Palmcorder MultiCam. The DCR-TRV350 has a f/1.6 lens compared to the f/1.8 lens on the PV-GS50S. The DCR-TRV350 has the NightShot infrared night vision mode, which can be used to boast the available light in the room. And most important all, there is far less digital noise in low-light situations than the PV-GS50S. After shooting several low-light situations, the quality of the PV-GS50S just isn't my cup of tea. And for a special event, quality is important.

So, I started looking for the "perfect" digital camcorder a few days ago.

With as much equipment as I have wrote about on my web site, you would think that I cared only about playing with gadgets. And this is just another ploy to buy another digital camcorder. There's nothing further from the truth than that statement (although I do like to play with gadgets). I am a true believer that whatever tool used is not significant, but it's the result that counts. To achieve different results demand the use of different tools. And only then is picking the correct tool important. Perhaps that is why I have so many camera gears and why I spent so many hours anticipating the type of gear I need for a particular event.

I did a lot of research in just a few days. I wanted to pick a good performer, with customizable features, and in a small package. I didn't want to buy another MiniDV camcorder haphazardly like I did with the Panasonic PV-GS50S Digital Palmcorder MultiCam (read about it in my "Video Transfer from Digital Camera to Camcorder" article). The low-light capabilities of the Sony camcorders made a believer out of me so I begun my research on the SonyStyle web site. Plus, I have tons of Reward points on my SonyCard. It's about time to cash in. To keep my information from being too biased, I researched the Panasonic, JVC, and Canon web sites as well.

Sony almost had the perfect camcorder for this event. Their new line of DCR-PC55 MiniDV Handycam is tiny and slick. It could probably fit in my pocket when not needed. And its four different colors (red - DCR-PC55/R, blue - DCR-PC55/B, white - DCR-PC55/W, silver - DCR-PC55/S) are perfect for the life of the party. It even has a big aperture f/1.7 lens. But it is the only Sony Handycam in the line-up that doesn't offer the acclaimed NightShot feature. If it only had NightShot mode, I would have probably gone with this cool digital camcorder. It has a fairly decent 1/6" sensor. I could have overlooked the 640x480 still picture resolution. But I can't pass-up the NightShot feature that I think I need for this event.

I researched on the Panasonic, JVC, and Canon web sites as well. Although the Panasonic 3CCD camcorders look interesting, I have read elsewhere that 3CCD sensors (not just Panasonic's sensors) are worse low-light performers than the one CCD consumer camcorders. JVC's EverioDigital Media Camera line-up that uses the Microdrive looks awesome. The new GZ-MC500 has a 1/4.5" 3CCD chips and a 1.33 megapixel still picture mode. But there nothing in the specs that can convince me that it is a good low-light performer. Its two other siblings, the GZ-MC200 and the GZ-MC100, seem to have more low-light potential than the big brother. Both of them have a 1/3.6" chip that can produce 2 megapixel still images. Even so, nothing in their specs says that their low-light performance will beat other digital camcorders on the market. Plus, the DVD compression will produce lower quality videos than the DV format.

Note
Bigger digital sensors are generally better low-light performers, because they have more surface area to capture light than the smaller chips. In low-light situations, the smaller sensor will generally produce more digital noise given that every other factor, such as lens aperture, stays equal.

I didn't really see anything that is particularly good for low-light shooting in the Canon line-up of digital camcorders either. Their models are somewhat boring looking and not really all that compact. Nothing really stood out for this event on the Canon's web site. Do you think I overlooked a good Canon camcorder candidate? Let me know.

At this point, I was ready to give up my search. The industry hasn't achieved the technology that I need for the event of my lifetime. Anything that would produce a spectacular result costs over three thousands dollars and is a big hunk of metal. Even if the cost is not a factor, which I am willing to make non-factor in this case, they just don't have the sleekness that James Bond requires when he attends a high-profile party.

Ready to save money, money that I didn't want to spend in the first place, I went back to the SonyStyle web site for one last look. Lo and behold, hidden on the bottom of the page, I noticed the Sony DCR-HC90 MiniDV Handycam. It has a 1/3" Advanced HAD CCD imager with 3.3 megapixel still image capability; something I haven't noticed before. I have no idea what Advanced HAD (Hole Accumulation Diode) means. But its digital sensor is the biggest I have seen on camcorders (the same size as the Canon XL2!), which is generally only found on the higher-end professional models. With such a size, it has the potential to produce quality low-light images with low noise. Plus the 3.3 megapixel capability would allow me to capture pictures that are the same resolution as I could have with my Canon EOS D30 SLR digital camera. I haven't seen any digital camcorder that could produce bigger still images than 2 megapixel.

I looked more carefully at the specification. It has a Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* Lens, which can faithfully reproduce color and contrast in the scene. Other reviewers (see Related Links) have performed tests and agreed that is the case. But the largest aperture is only f/1.8, similar to my Panasonic PV-GS50S. It has the NightShot infrared system that I am biased to. But it uses the new Memory Stick PRO Duo. I have invested in several Sony digital cameras and camcorders. All uses the Memory Stick PRO, which I have plenty of. But if I go with this new digital camcorder, I would have to buy the newer Duo version. Well, at least I can use the Duo sticks with my other cameras.

In the area of compactness, the Sony DCR-HC90 Handycam comes close, but is no match, to my Panasonic PV-GS50S Multicam. The DCR-HC90 has a dimension of 66 mm x 91 mm x 110 mm. The PV-GS50S dimension is 66 mm x 83 mm x 110 mm. The width and length of the two camcorders are exactly the same. Except the Sony DCR-HC90 is 8 mm taller than the Panasonic PV-GS50S. It's too bad that it is slightly bigger than the PV-GS50S. I had hoped that the newer technology would give it a more compact size for me to hide it in my pocket.

The DCR-HC90 also uses a new small InfoLithium A-Series Rechargeable Battery Pack. I have two concerns with this new type of battery pack. One, my other camcorders uses the larger standard InfoLithium batteries, so I have a few that I won't be able to reuse with this camera. Two, how is the smaller A-Series batteries going to hold up charge compared to the larger ones? My larger ones will last only one hour on a full charge. And the event is an all day thing. The battery pack is also fully enclosed in the digital camcorder, so you can't increase the battery capacity by increasing its physical size.

After looking around, I saw a typo on the Amazon web site. It claimed that the NP-FA70 InfoLithium A-Series Rechargeable Battery Pack has 12200 mAh of capacity. The huge NP-FM90 standard InfoLithium battery only have 3900 mAh capacity. How can a tiny little A-Series battery have 12200 mAh. I checked the specification on SonyStyle again. It turned out that the 12200 mAh is not a typo! In fact, Sony also have a NP-FA50 InfoLithium A-Series Rechargeable Battery Pack that is rated at 6800 mAh! How is Sony able to cram so much capacity in these tiny batteries that blow the older bigger batteries out of the water? I have no idea. But at this point, I have made my decision to purchase the DCR-HC90 camcorder and its largest battery pack for the event of my lifetime and to find out if the battery capacity claim is true or not.

Update
It turned out that the 6800 mAh and 12200 mAh ratings on the SonyStyle (and every other web-site) are typos! The NP-FA50 is actually 680 mAh and the NP-FA70 is actually 1220 mAh. But what really surprised me is that these batteries have the same capacity as the standard M-series batteries and last just as long.

The DCR-HC90 is so new that it just started shipping to retailers. The SonyStyle web site doesn't even have all the information yet. I am glad that they are on the shelf right before my big day. So in all, I bought a Sony DCR-HC90 MiniDV Handycam, a Sony NP-FA70 InfoLithium A-Series Rechargeable Battery Pack, a Sony MSX-M512N 512 MB High Speed Memory Stick PRO Duo, and a 3 packs of Sony MiniDV tapes.

I am still quite skeptical on whether this digital camcorder will perform to my expectations. A few major questions that I can't wait to have answers:

1. Will it be a good low-light performer?

2. Will the NP-FA70 battery allow me to operate the camcorder all day?

Update

I was still quite surprised that the thinner NP-FA50 battery pack has as much capacity as the thicker NP-FM30 battery pack that came with my DCR-TRV350. But it occurred to me that the A-series batteries are thinner, but not necessary smaller by volume. So I proceeded to measure the dimensions.

Dimension
NP-FA50: 45 mm x 74 mm x 7 mm = 23310 mm^2
NP-FM30: 38 mm x 56mm x 20 mm = 42560 mm^2

Electrical
NP-FA50: 7.2 V, 4.9 Wh, E160814 Li-ion
NP-FM30: 7.2 V, 5.0 Wh, E160814 Li-ion

The A-series battery is about 2/3 the size of the M-series battery, but provides comparable operating time. It's amazing that Sony is able to produce a battery that is about 2/3 times smaller in volume than previous generations and still deliver almost the same amount of operating time.

The technology used in both batteries seems identical. They are both lithium ion. They both provide 7.2 volts. And they both have the same number of interface pins: +, -, and C. D is not connected. Just think what the M-series batteries can do, if Sony made their performance characteristics like the A-series batteries.

3. Will the 3.3 megapixel pictures be as good as the ones produced on digital still cameras?

I guess I'll find out in a week. Feel free to tell me what you think. Is my expectation is too high? Did I make a folly with this purchase?

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Copyright © 2005 by Chieh Cheng. All Rights Reserved.