At the recent Asia Pacific launch of Sony's HDR-FX1 HD-capable Handycam in Tokyo, we had the chance to have a quick evaluation of the HDR-FX1. It won't hit our shores in a retail sense until November, but it's certainly a product that's likely to shake up the existing pro-camcorder market when it does.
Upside: The major upside for the HDR-FX1 is pretty simple, really. It lets you record video footage in HD quality, up to the 1080i specification, with a maximum resolution of 1440x1080. The HDR-FX1 records using standard DV camera tapes, and in a neat bit of engineering, can record the same length of SD or HD footage onto a tape.
While it's certainly much larger than the average consumer camcorder -- the initial market is more likely to real video enthusiasts and even possibly for more professional use such as on-the-spot news features. The engineering on the HDR-FX1 has taken into consideration the fact that consumers are less likely to tripod mount the camera. It's weighted well in the centre of the camera, so it's less likely to tilt around too much when being held, although its size and weight does make it difficult to hold unless you prop it onto one shoulder.
It took us some time to get to grips with the HDR-FX1's button layout -- practically every surface you look at controls one function or another, with just about every setting enjoying either manual or automatic modes that worked well in our brief time with the camera. The HDR-FX1 supports user-defined profiles -- Sony calls this feature "Picture Profile" -- so you don't have to remember the precise details of each setting you used in a particular shoot.
Sony's employing two proprietary technologies in the HDR-FX1, Cinematone Gamma and Cineframe, that allow you to simply give your shot footage a real movie look, changing the frame rates and colour tones to better give you that professional film-like look. In our quick test, we found the HDR-FX1's zoom capabilities to be quite slick, with the 12x optical zoom working smoothly either in hand-held operation or on the optional tripod. There's a pretty chunky array of accessories for the HDR-FX1, although it's not clear how many of the Sony-branded accessories will be available in the Australian market. A number of prominent editing software packages, including those from Apple, Canopus, Ulead and Adobe either support HD format video editing natively, via a plug-in, or will do in future revisions.
Downside: There's always a penalty with being the first to market, and in the case of the HDR-FX1, there's a single major quirk you'll have to deal with, although it's not really the fault of the camcorder itself. The HDR-FX1 is quite far ahead of the technology curve, and as such, the facilities to do things such as burn your home movies in HD format that'll be playable don't yet exist. As yet, the specification for HD DVD is still totally up in the air, so although you can record content onto DV tape, and transfer it over onto disc for storage, there aren't any DVD players you could then play that content back onto. You can directly connect the HDR-DV1 to a television -- via component or i.link, depending on your exact feature set -- to play back content, but at the time of writing, the main reason to get an HDR-FX1 would be to capture content today that you should be able to watch on the DVD formats of tomorrow.
Outlook: Putting it simply, you can't buy a camcorder with better visual quality than that of HDR-FX1. Exact pricing has yet to be set, but Sony Australia representatives told CNET.com.au that they expected it to come in at under AU$7,000, so if you were hoping for a completely inexpensive solution, you'll probably have to wait for a few years for the technology to filter down to the lower end. Early adopters who want to archive what's happening now, however, should be well pleased with the HDR-FX1 when it launches in November. We'll have a more comprehensive review closer to that date.