Though "budget" isn't a term that readily applies to a AU$5,499 camcorder, you might think of Sony's Handycam HDR-FX7 as a budget version of its older sibling, the AU$5,999 Handycam HDR-FX1. Like the HDR-FX1, the HDR-FX7 is a three-chip, "prosumer" HD video model; they have roughly the same design and feature set. That's where the similarities end, however, as the HDR-FX7 has completely different sensors and optics that effectively make it an altogether different camcorder.
Many of the changes make this a more consumer-friendly model or, to be more specific, a consumer-sales-friendly model. For instance, the HDR-FX1 has a practical, 12x zoom lens with an excellent (for a camcorder) wide-angle start of 32.5mm (35mm-equivalent). For the HDR-FX7, Sony sacrifices some wide-angle attitude for a more marketing-driven 20x zoom monster.
Rather than the three CCDs of the HDR-FX1, the HDR-FX7 uses a trio of Sony's 1-megapixel ClearVid CMOS chips, the same sensor technology used by the single-chip . CMOS technology typically draws less battery power than CCD does, and Sony rates the HDR-FX7's battery life at about 8 hours, compared with the HDR-FX1's 6.5 hours. Each of the HDR-FX7's sensors has a lower resolution than the , though.
Its smaller body and streamlined feature set also ground the FX7 more firmly in the prosumer category. It weighs about 1.5kg with tape and its 2,200 mAh NP-F570 battery. If the battery seems lost in the huge cavity designed for it, that's because the camcorder can accommodate the 6,600 mAh NP-F970, as well, for triple the battery life. The battery lasts a reasonably long time, but it won't charge while the camcorder is on, which can be quite annoying. If you think that would annoy you as well, you'll probably want to spring for the external battery charger.
Shooters accustomed to midrange camcorders will have little trouble adjusting to the HDR-FX7; using it is very much like using models such as the older HDR-HC1 or the Panasonic AG-DVX100B. When shooting at eye level, your right hand controls only zooming and snapping still photos. The bulk of the operational burden--and the weight of the camcorder -- falls on your left hand.
On the lens barrel are servo-controlled zoom and focus rings and a dial for adjusting exposure. Focusing via the ring works very well, especially when used in conjunction with the Expanded Focus button that falls under your left thumb; popping into EF mode zooms the view of the middle of the area for easier manual focus. A one-push override provides an autofocus lock that you can tweak manually, which makes it much faster to focus on hard-to-lock subjects; just use the override to focus on something nearby, then manually adjust for the subject. There's also a two-step neutral-density filter control, which I really like.
Sony compromised on the location of frequently -- but not ubiquitously -- used options. Buttons for backlight and spotlight compensation and shot transition presets are gone, replaced by six buttons (three on the barrel, three under the LCD) to which you can each assign one of 15 controls, including Steady Shot, colour bar display, and focus peaking. I think a couple of those still deserve their own keys, such as Steady Shot. However, the company did address one of our complaints about the HDR-FX1, so you can now use focus peaking and Zebra stripes simultaneously. Gain, shutter speed, and white balance still have their own dedicated buttons. And a handy Status Check button, which sits next to the custom-setting Picture Profile control, pulls up all your current settings, because there's a lot to remember.
I'm not crazy about the zoom-ring operation, however, which in typical servo fashion has no defined beginning or end point. I much prefer the zoom rocker, which has a nice, responsive feel. A lens cover is built into the bundled lens hood, which is great if you leave the lens hood on all the time. If you take it off, as I do, it's not so great.
Sony packed enough features into the FX7 that you should feel like you're getting your money's worth. It records 1080i HD video, as well as standard MiniDV, to tape. Each of the three, 1/4-inch ClearVid sensors has a 1.1-megapixel gross resolution, for effective video and still resolutions of 1 megapixel for 16:9 and 778K in 4:3 mode. The 20x Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* lens -- one of the good Zeiss lenses -- covers the 35mm-equivalent angle of view as 37.4mm-748mm (16:9) and 45.7mm-914mm (4:3), with a nice maximum aperture of f/1.6-2.8, and the camcorder supports a shutter speed range of 1/4 second to 1/10,000 second. As you'd expect, it incorporates Sony's Super SteadyShot optical image stabilisation technology.
Though it has a cold (unpowered) accessory shoe, it does have a powered mic minijack -- a completely undocumented and ambiguously labeled mic jack and accessory shoe. In fact, the audio support on this model is seriously underwhelming; it basically consists of the built-in mic, the aforementioned jack, and a single input volume control which doesn't allow for adjusting the stereo channels individually. Call me cynical, but it seems intentionally limited to keep from cannibalising the market for the almost identical pro model, the HVR-V1P, which provides 2 XLR inputs (and some other stuff) for another AU$1,500 or so. There is a headphone minijack, however.
Other ports include a LANC terminal for controlling external devices, component and HDMI output, and a FireWire (i.Link) connector. You can snap stills to a Memory Stick Duo Pro and download them to your PC via the USB 1.1 connection.
Overall, the HDR-FX7 performs quite well. It has a smooth, responsive zoom, a quick autofocus system and a usable manual-focus mechanism, combined with a bright 3.5-inch LCD that's pretty good in direct sunlight and excellent eye-level viewfinder. Similarly, the video quality in both bright sunlight and dim interiors is pretty impressive -- within the limitations of the HD video format.
Because of its weak audio options, as well as a lack of time-code controls and other editing-friendly essentials, I wouldn't recommend the Handycam HDR-FX7 for budding indie filmmakers, despite the attractive price for those users. The admittedly more expensive, by at least AU$2,500, Panasonic AG-HVX200 remains my top choice for prosumers who put the emphasis on "pro." But if you want lots of video adjustment options and have only basic audio needs, the HDR-FX7 will can make a great HD starter camcorder for early-stage wannabes.