Although tape-based MiniDV camcorders offer a superior image clarity and longer record times than DVD camcorders, there is something uniquely pleasurable about popping a DVD straight out of the Sony Handycam DCR-DVD7E and into your home player. While DVD camcorders have yet to breach the walls of MiniDV's stronghold, they still represent the quickest way to get your footage onto today's most popular home format.
Anyone who enjoys editing footage will balk at the idea of committing what they shoot straight to DVD in a relatively linear fashion, but if you're looking for a hassle-free system and have little interest in becoming the next Tarantino, a DVD camcorder like this 7E makes a viable choice. What you lose in features you more than make back in convenience.
The 7E is essentially a small DVD burner with a lens, CCD and LCD ingeniously bolted on. Its form is almost completely defined by the need to accommodate half-size 80mm DVDs as a storage medium. As a result, the camcorder is shaped roughly like a hamburger: you effectively pop open the two halves of the bun and insert a DVD like the meat.
For quite a bulky device, it's surprisingly elegant. The front panel uses the same glossy black plastic we're familiar with from Sony's PSP and some of the VAIO range. This is a luxurious-looking finish, but it collects fingerprints like Sherlock Holmes. After shooting with the 7E for a few minutes, you'll be disgusted by the amount of grease that's built up on the front panel -- keep a cloth handy.
Being burger-shaped, the 7E is comfortable to hold in the hand. Long shoots may have you begging for a wrap-around hand grip, but the body of this camcorder is relatively light, so only the truly weak will succumb completely. The record button is placed in the centre of a jog wheel which controls zoom -- the position of both these controls seem natural and we didn't have any problems with them.
The battery on the 7E is like a small chocolate bar which slots into the side of the burger through a hatch (don't worry, that's our last food metaphor for this review). This is a proprietary battery specially designed for the 7E's shape. The battery is removed by pulling with some degree of force on the exposed end. You're likely to charge it while it's still in the camera, so unless you're swapping batteries in the field, you can probably forget it's there.
The 7E's DVD drive has an electronic hatch, which uses small motors to unclip one half of the camcorder so that you can insert a disc. The disc clips into place on a plastic spindle like the ones in portable CD players. The remainder of the 7E's chassis is relatively clean and uncluttered. This is because most of the camcorder's control buttons are presented as touch-screen options on the built-in LCD.
Although footage shot by the 7E is inevitably degraded by the compression methods used by the camcorder to write video to DVD, the 7E's hardware is fairly impressive. The obligatory Carl Zeiss-endorsed F1.7-2.2 lens is coupled with a single 1/6-inch CCD. Exposure metering can be set to either spot, for difficult exposures where the central part of the frame defines the exposure of the whole, or matrix, where an exposure is set based on a dynamic range estimated for the whole frame.
Shooting modes on the 7E include Landscape, Spotlight, Beach & Ski, Sports mode, Portrait mode, Sunset and Moon. These settings determine various shutter speeds to best suit the environment you're capturing video in. Zoom capabilities on the 7E stretch to 10x optical, which is more than enough for any sensible video capture. Zoom any more and your footage would be pretty unintelligible most of the time. Sony hasn't made the common mistake of burdening this camera with frivolous show-off features of little practical purpose.
Playback controls on the 7E are controlled via the touchscreen LCD built into the rear of the camcorder. These include fast-forward and rewind functions as well as basic editing and burn features. DVDs can only be played in a home DVD system once the 7E has 'finalised' the disk. This process, during which the table of contents is written to the DVD, is also controlled by the touch-screen menus.
Sony has bundled a remote control (with battery) as well as a composite AV cable and USB cable. This cable is designed to transfer still photos from the 7E -- there is no FireWire connection on the camera. This makes advanced editing more or less impossible. You could rip the footage from your finalised DVDs and then convert the DVD codec into something editable, but to be honest this type of jiggery pokery is unlikely to be undertaken by the casual user the 7E is aimed at.
Much of the appeal of the 7E is its simplicity of operation. We had the camcorder up and running a few minutes after taking it out of the box. Recording functions are easy to understand: a single press of the record button will begin writing video to disc; a second press will stop it.
Exact recording time will vary depending on how complex your scenes are. As with many video compression methods, the amount of data needed to describe a single image will increase as the detail of the scene increases. A blank wall with a single subject against it will use relatively little space on the DVD; a bustling crowd scene will use lots of space. Although this is nothing to worry about when shooting, it does explain the slightly erratic running lengths of your recordings. If you're used to the fixed recording times of MiniDV tape then you'll need to bear in mind that Sony's stated 30-minute standard record time can vary.
Sony claims that the 7E's battery should last 190 minutes. In our informal test, the battery lasted for more than two DVD's worth of shooting, or over an hour, which should be more than enough for most home filmmakers. This certainly compares well with other DVD camcorders we've tested. Because of the shape of the 7E's battery slot, however, you can only fit one larger size of battery in the camcorder. We don't know how much longer that'll last, so chances are you'll have to carry another cell with you if you want a longer shoot.
Once you've shot video, the DVD 'finalise' process takes around six minutes to complete. This is a less than instantaneous, but it would feel cruel to level criticism at a six-minute wait. Perhaps we're just too impatient in this world of broadband and microwave ovens.
DVD-based camcorders cannot hope to rival MiniDV camcorders at the moment, but with every new generation we see slight improvements in the overall image clarity. The 7E is certainly better than a VHS camcorder, but even footage shot on a cheap MiniDV camcorder, such as Canon's MV800, will shame what the 7E is capable of.
We found the camcorder had a tendency to occasionally blow out bright areas under strong strip-lighting. In one case a blue wall was so over-exposed it appeared white. This was not a consistent problem and we were generally impressed by the accuracy of colour and sharpness of the 7E's footage. Under low light conditions -- such as inside a house in the late evening -- the camcorder coped exceptionally well. Despite the lack of ambient light, the 7E shot extremely presentable video, although the autofocus did struggle at times to lock on a moving background with low contrast. These are quite hefty demands to place on what is an emerging technology, and given the problem of compression artefacts on DVD footage shot in this way, the results were surprisingly good.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide