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Every company wants to get a taste of YouTube's popularity, and Sony's no exception. In a jarring change from the company's Cyber-shot and Handycam lines of digital cameras and camcorders, Sony released the NSC-GC1, a pocket camera/camcorder designed specifically for YouTube and its myriad Web video analogs. At just $200, the GC1 aims squarely at casual users with more interest in style and simplicity than complex photography or video production. As such, Sony clearly designed its black pocketcam for form more than function.
Closed, the GC1 looks more than a little like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its rectangular black form features a glossy finish on one side and a matte finish on the other, giving its all-black color scheme a two-tone appearance. It appears quite dapper, especially when held up against its drab white competitors, the RCA Small Wonder EZ201 and the Pure Digital Flip Video. Its 2.4-inch LCD screen flips open, and can pivot around 270 degrees, providing some much-appreciated flexibility when shooting at odd angles, like over crowds.
Besides its flip-out screen, the brick-shaped GC1 offers few ergonomic considerations and feels uncomfortable in the hand. A small plastic ridge on the front of the camera gives you a place to rest your forefinger while shooting, but at the cost of flash photography; if you hold the GC1 with the plastic ridge between your forefinger and middle finger, your forefinger can easily obscure or outright block the camera's tiny flash. If you want to take photos in anything less than direct sunlight, you need to remember to choke your hand down to keep the flash visible.
The GC1's control scheme takes a similar misstep, with an unintuitive, confusing layout. A tiny joystick navigates the camera's sparse menu system, sitting in the middle of a circular grouping of four buttons. The little control nub alone feels awkward enough for large thumbs, and the cluster of buttons surrounding it only further hurt the interface. The two controls together feel like a standard four-way-plus-OK joypad, and you'll probably spend a bit of time training yourself to use the joystick in the center for both confirmation and navigation of the camera's menus, instead of uselessly tapping the buttons around the stick while trying to select menu options. The joystick and buttons also sit too high on the camera, forcing you to shift your hand up and causing your fingers to block the flash, as mentioned before.
Conversely, the photo and video record buttons sit too low on the camera, below both the joystick and zoom rocker. The buttons feel far too small and shallow and can be difficult for large thumbs to press. Their small design and low placement combine to make the cameras' two most oft-used controls doubly awkward to access. Sony should have made the photo/video buttons larger, and set them higher to better rest under the thumb. Likewise, Sony should have turned the joystick into a full-fledged joypad and set it lower on the camera's back.
Though intended for casual and budget users, the GC1 offers a few manual controls and scene presets for still photography. You can't adjust exposure or focus, but a Program mode gives you access to white balance and ISO sensitivity, two settings found increasingly rarely on budget pocket cameras. While the GC1 lacks a dedicated macro mode, a toggle switch next to the lens lets you physically flip between close-up (0.6 to 1 meter) and normal (1 meter or farther) focus modes.
The camera includes a fixed f/3.5 lens at the equivalent of 42 millimeters for still photos and 48 millimeters for video. You can use digital zoom while shooting, but that function only crops and enlarges the picture to the point that, when you "zoom" in the full 4x, you're looking at 1/4 the picture you should be getting. A cheap 3x optical zoom lens would have been preferable to this nigh-useless system.
Even worse, this pocket camcorder comes with neither internal memory nor a memory card. On top of the $200 price tag for the device itself, you can expect to sink at least another $30 into a 1GB or larger Memory Stick Duo before you can even start shooting photos and videos. Similar pocket camcorders like the Small Wonder and Flip Video include 512MB to 2GB of onboard memory, and retail for far less than the GC1. Though they let you pull stills from video, those competitors lack the GC1's still photo capabilities, but their significantly lower prices make them far more tempting choices for inexpensive YouTube video capture.
At heart, this video camera aims solely at casual users who want to post their videos up on YouTube. While its QVGA and VGA clips look acceptable for the Web, they just aren't very good for much else. Its fixed-length lens forces you to either shoot at one distance, or let your video become notably pixelated and blurry as you digitally zoom in and out. Without a microphone jack, the GC1's tiny onboard microphone presents your only audio recording option, and even when pointed directly at the audio source the recorded sound comes out tinny and muffled. Any sort of motion further degrades the video, filling clips with blur, camera shake, and poor focus. While the GC1's movies might look decent in a tiny YouTube window, don't expect them to hold up well in any other medium.
While not outstanding, the GC1's 5-megapixel snapshots look surprisingly good for a pocket camcorder. It shoots fairly quickly, and its shutter tends to lag for less than a second in most situations. Even with the flash turned on, I managed to take several shots in a row at a decent clip. Typically, portraits and landscape shots turn out well on the GC1, though it falters at subjects with fine details, like text, artwork, and pets. Its disappointing lens and low-resolution sensor simply don't capture textures or small characters nearly as well as a dedicated camera. Its still photos also suffer from the same motion problems as its videos; the slightest camera shake or subject movement can hurt or ruin your shots. The high-speed shutter mode can help counteract shake, but only when using it in direct sunlight or with the flash; the high-speed shutter fires too fast and its ISO sensitivity can only hit ISO 400, rendering indoor shots without the flash extremely dark. The GC1's pictures are fine for e-mailing, posting to the Web, or even making 4x6 prints. If you want to make larger prints or perform any amount of cropping and editing, however, the GC1 will disappoint.
The Sony NSC-GC1 certainly looks stylish, but looks alone can't save it. With a price tag $50 to $100 higher than competing pocket camcorders and equal or slightly higher than far more feature-rich budget digital cameras like the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W55, I simply can't recommend this awkwardly designed, low-quality pocket camcorder. If you want to pop up YouTube videos easily and not do much else, the RCA Small Wonder remains your best bet. If you want a solid camera that can also shoot YouTube-worthy video clips, choose a dedicated digital camera instead. If you do choose the digital camera route and already own a decent-size SD card, you might want to try the Canon SD1000, which costs more than this Sony, but is just barely larger in size and delivers comparable video and 7-megapixel stills.