What's the ideal digital camera? For many, it would be a pocket-size model that captures high-quality photos and video. No one expects a tiny camera to outperform a large semipro SLR, but you also don't want to be embarrassed by its output. Replacing the , the Sanyo VPC-C4 isn't much larger than some cell phones, yet it can capture remarkably sharp and vibrant photos. It also records some of the best MPEG-4 video we've seen from a consumer-priced hybrid device. Add in a 4.23-megapixel sensor, a rotating LCD screen, the ability to shoot video and photos simultaneously, and a 5.8X optical zoom that's fully functional when shooting video. If you're waiting for the other shoe to drop, here it is: there are surprising omissions, such as no red-eye-reduction mode, no continuous shooting for stills, and few manual settings. Outside in full daylight, it's a joy to use. Inside with moderate lighting, it can be more of a challenge. Like the two-seater sports car that's ill equipped for a family vacation, the VPC-C4 has limitations you should be aware of before you buy. The Sanyo VPC-C4 has an unusual upward-tilting lens that could take some getting used to. It may seem counterintuitive to tilt the camera slightly in order to make the lens level. Except for the power switch, which is revealed when you swing out the LCD screen, all the controls are conveniently clustered around the upper-back part of the case, where you can access them with your thumb. Separate photo- and video-capture buttons make it simple to move between the two functions.
The 1.8-inch LCD screen folds out and swivels approximately 280 degrees, allowing overhead, low-angle, and self-portrait shots. That's great for right-handed users, but lefties may find that the screen bumps their hands as they position their thumbs over the controls. Whichever hand you use, you'll have to be careful not to place your index finger in front of the lens.
The case consists mostly of a champagne-colored plastic that has the appearance of brushed metal. You can also purchase the camera with a gold, blue, or orange case. Despite its modest size (2.72 inches wide, 4.25 inches high, and 1.34 inches deep), the VPC-C4 weighs a fairly hefty 6.3 ounces. That won't feel too heavy in your pocket, but it's substantial enough to make the camera easy to hold steady. The VPC-C4 felt comfortable when supported for long periods with only one hand.
A five-way minijoystick-style button lets you navigate the menus. It's so small we occasionally overshot the menu we wanted or selected left when we wanted up. The colorful and brightly illuminated menus are easily distinguished. Unfortunately, each set of menu options is spread over two pages. Some cameras, such as the competing Casio Exilim EX-P505, let you use the menu button to back out of the menu hierarchy. With this model, you have to go to the bottom or the top of a menu list in order to move to the next page. If you like to experiment with various manual settings, you may be disappointed with the Sanyo VPC-C4. There are no aperture- or shutter-priority modes. There's only a single exposure-metering mode--a multispot approach that combines readings from different portions of the frame. In addition to a fully automatic mode, there are six scene selections for sports, portrait, landscape, night, fireworks, and low-light photography. There's no continuous-shooting mode. And there's no red-eye reduction, though you can force the flash on or off.
On the other side of the ledger, this camera has a built-in digital image stabilizer. It reduces the effects of camera shake, which can be a real problem when shooting video with a long zoom. This feature is commonly found in camcorders but is still rare on hybrid cameras. Also unusual is the VPC-C4's ability to shoot full-resolution stills and video images simultaneously. Too bad the process isn't seamless--it introduces an approximate 1.8-second gap into the video recording.
The 5.8X optical zoom is unusual on such a small camera. It's fully functional during video captures, which greatly enhances its value. The f/3.5-to-f/3.7 lens offers a 35mm-equivalent focal-length range of 38mm to 220mm zoom. We would have preferred it to be skewed toward the wide angle. The camera has a manual focus mode as well as a macro mode that focuses down to 0.79 inch.
All photos are saved as JPEG files, and all video files are saved as MPEG-4 files. The photo-resolution options include an 8-megapixel setting that interpolates a native 4-megapixel photo to the higher resolution. It doesn't add true detail to the image but could be useful for smoothing out jaggies if you intend to go for oversize prints. We found the Sanyo VPC-C4 slower than average by many performance measures. The wake-up-to-first-shot time was a subpar 4 seconds. We spent about half this time pressing down the power button to coax the camera to wake up. Shutter lag was a bit sluggish at 1.2 seconds in bright light and 1.9 seconds in dim light.
One performance element was difficult to measure but frustrating nonetheless. When you press the photo shutter release to engage the prefocus mechanism, the view on the LCD screen suddenly shifts to a more wide-angle view. It's a little disconcerting when you compose the subject in the frame, then have the composition suddenly change. Two workarounds are to always use the prefocus or to always allow a few seconds for recomposing the shot. Both solutions make it hard to grab spur-of-the-moment photos. While we can't quantify the extra time involved, it affects the camera's performance and could prove irksome if you prefer to carefully compose each shot. The prefocus view matched the captured photos, which is good because this camera doesn't have an optical viewfinder.
The autofocus was relatively fast in both well-lit and low-light environments. It slowed down in low light but not unreasonably. Though small, the LCD screen was bright and sharp. It didn't fade out completely in direct sunlight, and it performed surprisingly well in dim light when we switched to the low-light mode. The zoom, which has only one speed, takes about 1.2 seconds to travel from one extreme to the other. The zoom motor is fairly noisy. You can hear it on video recordings that don't have enough ambient sound to mask the noise. Most of our exterior photos from the Sanyo VPC-C4 were well saturated, almost to the point of being a tad unrealistic. In the best shots, the images were razor sharp, taking full advantage of the 4.2-megapixel sensor. Skin tones were spot-on, and green leaves were vibrant with subtle color variations. The photos exhibited a broad tonal range with rich, dark hues, though there was white burn-out in some high-contrast areas. That's the good news. The not-so-good news is that even in bright sunlight, under the best possible conditions, the focus could be inconsistent. The focus wasn't completely inaccurate--just somewhat off-kilter in some photos. Because the other photographic qualities were accurate, the focus defects were more obvious. We also experienced an excessive amount of purple fringing along borders of extreme contrast, such as the edge of a roof set against a bright sky.
As we moved indoors and the light levels diminished, focus accuracy suffered even more. To the camera's credit, visual noise was low, even in dim light. Many of our flash shots were uniformly lit, with a near-perfect exposure. The wild card was usually the focus, which caused us to discard some otherwise excellent interior shots.
The MPEG-4 video recorded by the VPC-C4 was greatly improved over the MPEG-4 video recorded by the FVD-C1, the model it replaces. This is evidence that the video quality of consumer-priced hybrids may eventually match that of standard MiniDV camcorders, although we're not there yet. The video from the VPC-C4 held up very well in stationary shots. When the camera panned or the subject moved, there was some blurring and an increase in compression artifacts, though far less than we expected. At more moderate light levels, the video captures were dark, yet the colors remained true, and there was only a small increase in visual noise. In low-light situations, the recorded video was too dark to use.