DV User Editor Nigel Cooper reports on his exclusive, early access to a prototype of Sony’s first Professional AVCHD Camcorder.
NXCAM is an all-new professional product brand name and the first NXCAM Camcorder is a new design, but its primary codec is familiar one. Until now Sony haven’t had any serious level AVCHD products, even though Sony jointly invented the AVCHD codec with Panasonic. But all that is about to change with their first professional hand-held AVCHD camcorder under the all-new NXCAM brand. Available to buy from early 2010, I can’t tell you the product’s name but pretty much everything else was pretty clear from a fully functional prototype.
So where will the new NXCAM system fit into the current marketplace? After a few days getting to grips with the NXCAM prototype, I would say that it is aimed at a somewhat varied marketplace, including those who are currently using cameras such as Sony’s own HVR-Z5E or Canon’s XH G1s for example, but who want to move over from tape to an affordable solid-state system. With regard to image quality, this new NXCAM model will produce better images than many HDV offerings as it’s using the very high quality Z5 lens and front end along with the more up-to-date AVCHD codec.
This first Sony NXCAM model will make an ideal up-market corporate camcorder as well as being a perfect weapon of choice for the wedding videography industry. And from what I’ve shot and seen of the image quality so far, I would not be surprised if footage shot on this new camcorder finds its way onto our TV screens.
Terms of engagement
Under the usual Sony NDA terms I was informed ahead of time about this new camcorder and was allowed to spend a few days with the only pre-production model available in the UK; this is my first look at the camera and a very brief overview of this exciting new system from Sony.
First of all, I mentioned Sony’s HVR-Z5E HDV Camcorder which was launched only last year and won a ‘best of show’ award at IBC08 . The new NXCAM will use the same brand new Sony ‘G’ 20 x Zoom lens as the Z5, offering an amazing wide angle of view from 29.5mm; great for filming in tight spots. The 20x zoom Sony G-lens is a newly developed model coming from the Sony acquired Minolta lens division; and what a cracking lens it is too. The optics are super sharp with amazing colour reproduction; you would expect nothing less of these precision optical engineers.
The NXCAM Camcorder will also feature the same 1/3rd inch Exmor CMOS system with ClearVid technology as the Z5E. What is ClearVid I hear you ask? This system optimises both resolution and, most importantly for the target wedding videography markets, low light sensitivity versus more traditional pixel shift CCD’s. It does this by interpolating additional resolution from diagonally-set pixels, on each individual R, G and B sensor, rather than interpolating horizontally and vertically across the three sensors. This ensures maximum resolution, in a smaller sensor, whilst the larger rotated pixels give you that all-important sensitivity. This new NXCAM also utilises the revolutionary Exmor noise reduction processing, which is a highly advanced noise reduction system that gives for a much cleaner image.
NXCAM’s codec is AVCHD, an efficient long-GOP codec using the MPEG-4 H.264 compression algorithm (as used on Blu-ray discs and Sky TV’s HD broadcasts), albeit at a maximum bit rate of 24 Mb/s (variable) including Linear PCM audio - ensuring great images and sound. This AVCHD compression does end up offering better all-round picture performance, although there is an impact in the editing process as this requires a higher level of processing power and therefore you may need to upgrade your editing system!
NXCAM’s nifty features
While the first NXCAM Camcorder is heavily based on the Z5E, that’s not to say it doesn’t have some special features of its own. Unlike other similarly priced AVCHD camcorders, this new Sony model has an Overcrank/Undercrank feature; admittedly, this is limited to 12 seconds in any one take, but a slow-mo feature none-the-less. It also has two slots for Sony MS cards (hot-swappable) as well as an all-new Flash-Drive that slots neatly onto the right/back side of the camera. The flash-drive that came with my pre-production unit was a 128GB affair about the size/weight of a compact mobile phone. The drive has two female sockets on the side, one to connect it to the camera, the other, a small USB to connect to a computer.
For the camcorder itself, it has similar inputs/outputs as the Z5, but with the addition of a HD/SDI output which can only mean that Sony are aiming this camera are professionals as well as prosumers; and with a street price similar to that of Sony's existing Z5, everybody should be very happy.
There are a few other nifty features in this new model; a first for Sony at this level is the all-new GPS system. That's right, I'm talking the same GPS as that used in car Sat-Nav systems. Why would you want this in a camcorder you might ask? I'm sure people will be discussing the endless possibilities on the forums, but to name a few, you could for example be shooting documentary footage all over the country with the exact geographical location being essential to the programme. With the camcorder’s built-in GPS system you will have extra metadata within the file that you can convert and type into Google maps; this will find the exact location to within approximately 25 feet of where you are standing with the camcorder at the time you shot the clip. This feature can be switched off via the switch at the back of the camera.
Then there is the ‘Active Steady Shot’ system. This new NXCAM model has the usual Steady Shot based on an optical damped system, but the new Super version takes it to the next level. Sony claims that this new system removes the need for a body-mounted stabilising system. When you switch the feature on via the menus you’ll notice that the image on the LCD zooms in ever so slightly (by approx. 5% or 6% as per my best guess). It then uses these spare pixels outside the recorded frame area to allow the systems software to hold the central pixels still. It then ‘trims’ the wobbly bits off the edges. A very simple idea, but one that works very effectively with virtually zero loss of detail or image quality; okay, if I have to nit-pick it might lose 5% or 6% of picture quality; on paper at least as I could not see any notable difference.
Having tried the Active Steady Shot system, I found it to be more effective than the lens damped version that has been around for many years, but nobody is going to be putting Steadicam operators out of a job anytime soon. You still need to hold the camera steady, it will only compensate for minor nudges and knocks, anymore than that and it will still show up on in your footage. It’s designed as an aid, not a replacement for a body harness stabilising system; a good move by Sony in the right direction none-the-less.
The camera has the capability of recording to both Memory Sticks and the Flash Drive simultaneously; this means you can give your client the low cost Memory Sticks at the end of the day’s shoot, then return to your edit suite with the flash drive to get on with your edit. Alternatively, you can set the camera up to record to one or the other in numerous ways, such as, pressing the record button on the side grip will record to the Memory Stick, while pressing the record button on the top handle will record to the flash drive; great!
I have to admit I’m quite enthused by this new NXCAM hand-held camcorder - it’s the hand-held camcorder I’ve been waiting for! - reasonably priced (similar to Z5), low-cost media, and outstanding picture quality for the money; a real world-beater!
Oh, before any existing Sony Z5 customers get upset, don’t. This new NXCAM camcorder is not a replacement for the Z5, it’s an entirely new system designed to fit into a different marketplace; a solid-state marketplace. There are still thousands of videographers out there who are committed to tape for various reasons and Sony fully intend to support the HDV tape-based system for as long as there is a market for it; which I suspect will be some time to come.