A Sharp-Shooting Camcorder


By Jay Greene

TECH & YOU PODCAST

For home-movie makers of old, it was enough just to capture your baby's first steps or your daughter's wedding. It didn't matter whether you shot in Super 8 film or Hi8 video -- you just wanted some way to relive those moments. But with Sony's (SNE) new high-definition camcorder, the HDR-HC1, the scene may actually play second fiddle to the picture quality.

This is the first high-definition camcorder aimed at the consumer market, and with a list price of $2,000, it may be pushing the limit for many families. But just as expensive high-definition TVs are winning converts among folks who never once complained about ordinary TV picture quality, HD cameras could prove alluring.

PLUGS INTO TV. Unlike professional HD cameras that you have to hoist over your shoulder, the HC1 looks and feels just like any other camcorder. Weighing just 1 pound, 7 ounces, the barrel-shaped device fits in a coat pocket and can be whipped out at a moment's notice.

Of course, there still aren't any consumer DVD or video players that can show the high-definition footage you shoot. Sony takes care of that by letting you connect the HC1 directly to the red, blue, and green component jacks on the back of your HDTV set. Then you can play back the HD video that the camera has recorded on standard Mini-DV or DV tapes. I watched my masterpieces on a Philips (PHG) HD set I bought a year ago, and I marveled at the flawless images.

This camcorder has all the features most consumers would want, controlled through a 2.7-inch LCD touch screen that flips out from the body. You use the screen as a viewfinder, then scroll through the menu's various choices, such as fading in and out or adding sepia tones. The battery lasts for a remarkably long 90 minutes.

BLU-RAY PUSH. The HC1 won't be ideal for everyone. Videophiles may carp about its having only one image sensor rather than three, as on high-end HD cameras. This can sometimes produce grainy shots in low-light situations.

Another concern is how to store your home movies over the long term. Sony, Toshiba (TOSBF), and other tech companies are battling over the standards for high-definition DVDs, which will eventually supplant today's digital videotapes for HD recording.

Sony and its tech allies are pushing a format called Blu-ray, and sources at Sony anticipate that it will be easy to burn HD footage onto a Blu-ray disk -- as long as you purchase the burners and blank disks. But if a rival format known as HD-DVD takes root instead of Blu-ray, owners of Sony's HD camcorders may be stuck forever plugging their cameras into HDTV sets.

"FAR FROM INTUITIVE." For now, the bigger headache is editing. Don't bother trying to do this on the camera itself. Because the images are on tape instead of a disk medium, there's no way to splice together two scenes shot at different times without first moving those videos to a PC. And without that step, you can't overlay music to play in the background of your home movie.

Even editing on a personal computer is a challenge. While Apple Computer (AAPL) offers inexpensive tools for editing HD video, Windows (MSFT) users are stuck with much more expensive software, geared to professionals -- at least until this fall, when consumer software will arrive.

The two programs I tried -- Ulead's $300 MediaStudio Pro 7 and Sony's $600 Vegas 6 software -- produced some nifty effects. Using the programs, however, was far from intuitive. And when the editing is done, you still have to upload the finished product onto digital tape to view it on a TV.

ADDS VALUE. Headaches aside, the videos are spectacular. My family doesn't have a new baby whose every move we want to document, but we did just get a puppy, and I was there, HC1 in hand, for her first bath and the first time she sat on command.

I can't swear that high-definition is what makes these little movies so powerful. But it sure doesn't hurt.

Greene is BusinessWeek's Seattle bureau chief


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