Think of the future. Think Jetsons. Now imagine the camcorder you'll be carrying around with you. It would be pocket-size, tapeless, and equally adept at recording video and photos. In theory, you can buy that product today in the form of the Sanyo Xacti VPC-C6. It's the latest incarnation of Sanyo's slim-and-small digital movie camera, and you have to give the company credit for steadily improving the line. The sensor is now 6 megapixels (up from 5), and the zoom is much quieter than before, which is critical when shooting video. Other features include a 5X optical zoom, a digital image stabilizer, 60fps television output, and advanced low-light video recording. As with most devices this small, there are trade-offs. While much improved and relatively decent as far as MPEG-4 goes, the video still falls short of MiniDV quality. If portability nudges out image quality among your top criteria, this might just be your future camcorder. According to Sanyo, this is the world's thinnest, smallest, and lightest video camera that has both a megapixel-or-higher image sensor and an optical zoom lens. The sturdy metal-and-plastic outer casing is 2.7 inches wide, 4.3 inches high, and 0.9 inch deep. The Sanyo Xacti VPC-C6 weighs just 5.6 ounces and comes in three colors: gold, red, or black. The gold is actually more of a champagne color.
Thin, small, and lightweight are desirable qualities for a camcorder, though there are design trade-offs. The LCD screen is a cramped 2 inches. Fortunately, it's relatively bright, it holds up well in direct sunlight, and it has a high resolution (210,000 pixels) for its size. The upward slope of the lens is meant to let you tilt the camcorder for easy access to the small back-mounted controls. That complicates mounting the device on a tripod, as it requires you to tilt the tripod head forward to compensate.
The Sanyo Xacti VPC-C6 feels comfortable for single-handed shooting. Its LCD screen swivels over a 270-degree range, which makes this lightweight model well suited for overhead or low-angle shots. All the controls, with the exception of the on-off switch, are clustered on the back near the top. The tight configuration places the vertical zoom button awfully close to the dedicated video and photo shutter release buttons. Similarly, the five-way button that controls the menus is smaller than we prefer.
The Sanyo Xacti VPC-C6's onscreen menus are bright, well delineated with color highlights, and logically organized by function. One menu feature took some getting used to: when you select an item from a horizontal fly-out menu, it automatically moves the selected item to the first position, even if the items had been logically grouped. For example, it displays video resolutions in descending order, except for the first position, which is always the current resolution. Why change the order--especially when you can see the current resolution displayed on the screen while shooting? Sanyo provides a fair amount of user control for the VPC-C6. You can switch among three exposure systems: center-weighted, spot, and multi-area. Similarly, you can choose either a center-based spot focus or a five-point multi-area focus. There's also a manual focus option. It isn't continuous, though the 16 incremental positions give you some flexibility.
The Sanyo Xacti VPC-C6's 5X zoom lens, the 35mm equivalent of a 38mm-to-190mm zoom, doesn't offer as wide an angle of view as we'd prefer. Furthermore, with the aperture completely open, the lens is rated f/3.5 at wide and f/4.7 at telephoto. That's below average these days and could result in darker than expected exposures in some low-light situations.
Like its MiniDV cousins, the C6 has a built-in image stabilization system. It worked reasonably well to distinguish handheld jitters from small movements by the subject. There are three settings: off (which you'll want to favor when shooting with a tripod), A (best suited for video stabilization), and B (best suited for photo stabilization). As you can see from the choices, you can't simply leave it on one setting.
The Sanyo Xacti VPC-C6 records stereo audio, which it encodes with the MPEG-4 video as an AAC audio track. AAC provides more efficient compression than the typical MP3 audio track. There's a standby feature that brings the device back to life quickly when you reopen the LCD screen. And the camera's built-in 30fps-to-60fps conversion provides for smoother playback for the device's TV output via the supplied docking station and video cable.
Sanyo touts the ability of the C6 to snap photos while shooting video. In most cases, however, it leaves a gap in the video. Because the Sanyo Xacti VPC-C6's video recording system is nonmechanical--there are no moving parts--we decided to apply two of our photo tests to the video side. In theory, a solid-state video recorder should be faster than a mechanical one, because you don't have to wait for the recording heads to move into place or rev up to speed. Our shot-to-shot and burst mode tests wouldn't be appropriate for video. However, our wake-up and shutter-lag tests could give you a pretty good idea of how quickly you'll be able to grab a video shot, which is especially important if the action has already begun.
Our wake-up-to-first-shot test was complicated by the fact that you have to hold the power button down for at least a second in order for the unit to respond. Even with that extra time, the C6 averaged 5.7 seconds before we were actually recording. That would be slightly below average for a digital camera but fast for a camcorder. When the C6 woke up from its standby state, it was even faster, though not dramatically so. It averaged 4.5 seconds from a standby wake-up to the first frame of the video recording.
Similarly, the Sanyo Xacti VPC-C6's shutter-lag times of 0.8 second in bright light and 1.1 seconds in dim light would be considered somewhat slow for photos. For video, it would be extremely responsive. Setting aside the issues of image quality and cost of storage, this camcorder would be ideal for spur-of-the-moment shots, even if the device was turned off completely.
On the other side of the ledger, the focus felt a bit slower than we're accustomed to with MiniDV camcorders. It was particularly sluggish and less accurate in low light situations. Video recording with Sanyo's Xacti series has shown a steady improvement. While improved, however, the C6's video is, at best, VHS quality. There are also the trade-offs between storage and quality. At anything less than the best setting, you'll get below-VHS quality. At the highest quality settings (640x480 at 30fps, compressing to 3Mbps), the Sanyo Xacti VPC-C6 can save only 20 minutes of video to a 512MB card or 41 minutes of video to a 1GB card. (Sanyo does not include an SD card in the box.)
The Sanyo Xacti VPC-C6's video also suffers from some common maladies. For instance, its white balance could use some work; some of our daylight exterior shots displayed a reddish cast that made a white dog appear almost pink. And while the compression artifacts when panning were far fewer than previously seen in this series of devices, movements by the camera or the subject can still cause a noticeable blurring.
Where the C6 really shines is in moderate- and low-light environments. Sanyo claims an ISO 3,600 sensitivity for this camera due to its advanced 9-pixel mixture technology. (Each video pixel is derived from the light gathered by nine sensor pixels.) While we couldn't verify that claim, we were still impressed. In a darkened room with a single 40-watt lamp, we captured reasonably detailed video. As you would expect, the result had poor color reproduction and a considerable amount of visual noise, but the video was still usable.
The Sanyo Xacti VPC-C6's photo quality was more consistent, though the focus was sometimes off, even in bright light. When the focus was accurate, the 6-megapixel images were sharp with even tones. Colors were usually accurate and not overly saturated, and the contrast range was very good. They did exhibit many of the postprocessing artifacts common in budget or combo cameras, however. Compared with other consumer-priced hybrid devices, the overall quality of both the Sanyo Xacti VPC-C6's video and photos was well above average for this class of device.