If you're a glass-half-full kind of person, it may be enough that the 5-megapixel Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD1's feature list contains several first-to-market wins: it records and outputs progressive-scan video at 720p, it incorporates a dazzling 2.2-inch OLED screen, and it crams a 10X zoom lens into a device that fits into your palm. But once you factor in its slow focus and overly high-contrast, artifact-ridden photos and videos, that glass begins to look emptier by the minute. Still, the HD1 is an important technical milestone, even if it has some limitations. If you're familiar with Sanyo's previous palm-size Xacti camcorders, such as the VPC-C5 or , the VPC-HD1 will feel like an old friend. It has the same overall shape, upward tilting lens, and back-mounted controls, though now it's a bit larger and heavier--4.7 by 3.1 by 1.4 inches (HWD) and 8.3 ounces, to be specific. It still fits comfortably into a coat pocket, a purse, or a briefcase, just more tightly. Furthermore, the Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD1's outer case feels very sturdy. Most of the surface is made of metal, and there was no bending or creaking when we twisted it strongly. Plus, compared to the VPC-C6, the VPC-HD1's extra weight makes it easier to steady with one hand.
The 2.2-inch OLED (organic light emitting diode) screen is one of the best I've ever seen on a digital camera or camcorder. OLED pixels self-illuminate to provide more uniform brightness than do most LCDs. OLED technology also consumes power more efficiently and can render a wider contrast range. The VPC-HD1's screen rotates 285 degrees, allowing for convenient self-portrait, overhead, and low-angle shots.
Most of the controls are clustered together for simple thumb access. While all the buttons felt solid and durable, the small five-way joystick with which you navigate the menus is hard to maneuver. I repeatedly triggered the right or left options when I wanted the center setting. Likewise, I occasionally selected the center setting when I wanted up or down. There's little room for error with this too-sensitive controller, and it may prove a continuing source of frustration when using some of the camcorder's more advanced features.
The VPC-HD1's onscreen menus are bright and easy to read. The settings are divided somewhat arbitrarily onto three pages: Basic, Advanced, and Options. As with the VPC-C6, when you choose an item, it automatically moves to the front of the group, which breaks the otherwise logical arrangement of the icons.
In order to charge the Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD1's battery, you have to park it in the bundled docking station. If you equate small size with a lack of manual adjustments, the Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD1 will surprise you. Not only does it have the full array of program, shutter-speed, aperture-priority, and manual modes, but the system is fairly intelligent as well. For example, if you use the built-in neutral-density filter with any of the exposure modes, the camera will automatically enable the filter when you return to that mode. The camera also has a collection of scene modes: Sports, Portrait, Landscape, Night View, Fireworks, and Lamp (low light). Most perform equally well with video and photo captures.
The 10X optical zoom is a welcome addition to the Xacti line. When combined with the highest-resolution, lowest-compression settings, you have a powerful pocket-size camcorder. The lens has a maximum aperture of f/3.5 across the entire zoom range. While not a great light gatherer, it's unusually consistent across the entire zoom range. The focal length range is 38mm to 380mm (35mm equivalent), which is a bit narrow of an angle. On the other hand, if you favor distant shots, you may enjoy the extra magnification on the telephoto end.
At that long a telephoto reach, it can be difficult to grab a steady shot without a tripod. Fortunately, Sanyo has included an electronic image stabilization system to help reduce the jitter and shake. It works reasonably well, though it's not as effective as the image stabilizers on most MiniDV camcorders. You have to manually switch it on and off, as needed. There are three settings: one for video, one for photos, and an off position that's recommended for tripod use.
The MPEG-4 video recording options include two wide-screen modes (1,280x720 at 30fps, compressing to either 9Mbps or 6Mbps) and four standard modes (640x480 at 60fps, compressing to 6Mbps; 640x480 at 30fps, compressing to either 3Mbps or 2Mbps; and 320x240 at 15fps, compressing to 684Kbps). The photo-capture options include two JPEG compression modes for 5.1 megapixels but only a single compression mode each for 0.3, 1.2, and 2.0 megapixels.
On the docking station, there's a connector for the bundled USB/A/V combo cable; the Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD1 is one of the rare camcorders that supports component and 720p output, as well as both PAL and NTSC. In theory, a tapeless camcorder should be quicker than a MiniDV model to power on and grab your first shot. Tape-based systems have to position the recording head, but with flash memory there are no moving parts. To keep the on/off button from being pressed accidentally, Sanyo designed the button so that it doesn't register unless you hold it down for about 2 seconds. As a result, the Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD1 is faster than tape-based camcorders but not as fast as most digital cameras.
Our tests averaged 4.3 seconds from a cold start to our first video frame, though about 2 seconds of that was spent holding down the button. Using the standby mode that's triggered by closing and opening the display reduced the wait time to 3.3 seconds. In bright light, we measured a 0.6-second delay between pressing the video-record button and the actual start of the shot. In dim light, the delay increased to 0.8 second. For fast-moving sports, kids at play, or other spontaneous activities, this and other fully electronic camcorders have a distinct advantage in capturing the first few seconds of the action.
More important, the VPC-HD1's processor seemed unable to adapt quickly to just about any kind of dramatic change, whether it was a change in movement, contrast, exposure, or focal plane. It sometimes took a second or two to recover the focus when the camera was moved quickly from one subject to another. In an exterior shot where we moved at a moderate pace from one group of flowers to another, it was painfully obvious that the camera couldn't keep up. This problem occurred both with and without the image stabilization system engaged. If you're considering the Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD1, your number-one concern is likely to be how good is the video. Judged purely for its size, the video quality is quite good, though inconsistent. In bright light with minimal movement of either the camera or the subject, you can capture decent video clips. If you prefer not to shoot in a wide-screen format, the highest-quality 640x480 setting provides much smoother video in a traditional 4:3 aspect ratio.
However, once you add movement or decrease the light, the quality becomes more erratic. In moderate light indoors, there's enough illumination to clearly see the subject but often with significant amounts of visual noise, compression artifacts, diagonal jaggies, and discoloration. The camera has poor dynamic range--it significantly clips highlights and shadows--and because that increases the number of high-contrast areas, there's also a serious amount of colored fringing. And the Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD1's photos have that smeary, overprocessed look.