Sanyo's So-So Xacti
San Francisco - There are only two reasons to buy the Sanyo Xacti VPC-WH1, but they're good reasons: It's inexpensive ($400 as of 9/25/09), and it's waterproof. For some people, those two factors will offset the camera's mediocre image quality.
Compared with footage from the best 1080p HD camcorders, the VPC-WH1's 720p HD video (at 30 frames per second) exhibits noticeably—but not disastrously—reduced resolution, sharpness, color accuracy, and motion. The VPC-WH1's overall video image quality is middling. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the camera's 1.1-megapixel still images, which suffer from low resolution, inaccurate exposure, and noticeable image distortion.
Results from the PC World Test Center's jury evaluations confirmed the VPC-WH1's video and still-image shortcomings in comparison with more-expensive, higher-resolution camcorders. Among our test group of six camcorder models, its video quality under both bright light and low light trailed the rest of pack, earning an overall video-quality score of Fair. Still images didn't fare even as well as that, showing distortion and a lack of sharpness; for stills, as a result, the VPC-WH1 received an image-quality score of Poor.
That's the kind of image quality you might expect from a camcorder with a single, tiny 1/6-inch CMOS sensor, though. And the sensor isn't the only compromise in the VPC-WH1. The electronic image-stabilization system doesn't remove user-induced shake as effectively as the optical or dual-stabilized systems in more-expensive camcorders do. The 2.5-inch LCD panel is also nowhere near as bright or sharp as the screens of better camcorders. Costlier camcorders provide more automatic and manual control, as well, and offer broader frame-rate and data-rate options.
On the upside, the camera is easy to use, the 30X-optical-zoom lens works well, the camera records to inexpensive SDHC cards, and the battery runs significantly longer than those in many other small HD camcorders. In PC World Test Center battery evaluations, the VPC-WH1 lasted more than 3 hours on a single charge of its battery—more than twice as long as some competitors—earning a battery-life score of Superior.
Although the VPC-WH1 does not record video to the increasingly common AVCHD format, the camera's MPEG-4 video files use the same codecs (MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 for video, and AAC for audio) as standard AVCHD does. The bundled TotalMedia Extreme for Sanyo software works well with files from the VPC-WH1, as you would expect. But some editing applications may require a time-consuming conversion of the MP4 files to another format before you can start working with the footage.
The camcorder's low price and waterproof construction at least partially offset its drawbacks. Sanyo says that beneath 10 feet of water, the VPC-WH1 will remain waterproof and functional for 1 hour.
My informal tests in a pool, under sprinklers, and at an ocean beach confirmed Sanyo's claims. Macworld editor Roman Loyola also tested the VPC-WH1's underwater chops in a swimming pool, and found the camcorder's shallow-water performance to be very good, with a couple of caveats: The LCD is hard to see underwater, and during playback the footage shot underwater doesn't look much better than standard-definition video.
While waterproof housings are available for other small camcorders, they typically cost at least as much as the VPC-WH1 does. The Sanyo Xacti VPC-WH1 is a good choice for use in and around water, including under rain and snow, and for situations where you don't want to risk recording with a more-expensive camera.
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