Sony's first entry in the minicamcorder arena was 2007's NSC-GC1 Net-sharing Cam. That model didn't fare too well in our review, but Sony seems to have learned from that experience as evidenced by its new line of YouTube-friendly budget camcorders, dubbed "Webbie HD" models. The MHS-PM1 Webbie HD follows in the footsteps of models like the Flip Video MinoHD, with a vertical, almost cell-phone-like design. (Sony also makes a horizontal, more traditional and slightly more expensive version, the MHS-CM1, which features a 5x zoom lens.)
It may not be quite as small as its Flip Video and Creative competitors, but it's compact, measuring 4 inches tall by 2.2 inches wide by 0.9 inch deep and is lightweight at 4.2 ounces with battery. It's attractively styled and easily fits in a pocket. Currently, it comes in three colors: purple, orange, and silver.
Most notably, the PM1 records H.264 compressed HD video using MPEG-4 encoding in 1080p resolution at 30 frames per second as well as the more typical 720p and space-saving VGA resolution. As we say about all these minicamcorders, while they may be billed as HD models, they really can't be compared with true HD camcorders that cost hundreds of dollars more. A lot of factors go into creating an image, most importantly a good lens, not just a 5-megapixel CMOS sensor capable of capturing an image at a certain resolution. The other key feature is the PM1's swiveling, fixed focal-length lens that provides some shooting flexibility and lets you record yourself while self-admiring in the sharp 1.8-inch LCD. The shoot yourself feature is also good for small children, who can view themselves in the LCD as they record video. Another benefit: when swiveled shut, the lens is protected; and when you swivel the lens open, you turn on the camcorder.
The PM1 comes with 12MB of available internal memory--effectively nothing--so you'll have to spring for a Memory Stick Duo card, too. For HD video, you'll want at least a 2GB card and preferably a 4GB card, which can hold a little more than 2 hours of video in 720p mode or about 1 hour 15 minutes in 1080p mode. (The length of a clip is limited to 25 minutes, regardless.) The camcorder lets you know exactly how much recording time you have left in each mode, which is nice. The addition of a memory card will tack on some extra bucks to the cost of the camcorder, though the price for higher capacity memory cards has come down. That said, Sony Memory Stick Duo cards tend to cost more than their SD counterparts.
A removable lithium ion rechargeable battery powers this model, which is good. However, you can't charge the battery in the camera; it requires the bundled battery charger. Similarly, there's no integrated flip-out USB connector, which means you have to use a cable. Also, it lacks the HDMI connector found on some competing models.
Sony has made an effort to make its Webbie HD line simple to use. And it mostly has, with relatively well-labeled, well-placed buttons that have some differentiation in size. However, when it comes to these types of camcorders, there are degrees of simplicity and this is where Sony falls on the more complicated side of simple. Part of the reason is that it includes a few extra features that some competitors omit. For instance, you can display a histogram. You also get a self-timer and four scene modes (Sports, Landscape, Low Light, Backlight), as well as an auto mode.
The real issue with the interface is that there are two buttons on the side that activate menu options and then there's a button on the front that appears to be a "return" button--but you have to actually read the documentation to discover that it's for Sony's proprietary Sharemark image tagging, used only by the bundled Picture Motion Browser software. You'll figure things out after some trial and error, but the whole setup is just a little quirky and could have been a little better thought out.
If the video quality was outstanding, we'd be willing to overlook those small interface gripes--but it's just OK. We viewed the video and photos on both a computer and an HDTV via the bundled component cable. The good thing about having the higher resolution is that you can blow up images and video and they'll maintain some reasonable degree of sharpness (again, though, we use the word generously here). As with all minicamcorders, you have to hold the unit very steady to get rock-solid video, or attach it to a tripod via the threaded mount on the bottom. Overall, we found the image a little soft compared with the video produced from competing models. It also doesn't adjust exposure or compensate for backlighting quickly enough, and the indoor white balance under various lights is visibly off. We recommend you don't drop it below the highest quality video setting. On a more positive note, the sound is good, provided there's no wind, and the unit's small speaker plays with ample volume.
Still images turned out OK. They're a small step up from what you'd get from a cell phone camera, but there's a pronounced shutter lag. As you might expect, images were a little soft and noisy in low-light conditions.
Unlike the MinoHD, the camcorder's software--the same one-size-fits-none product that ships with all of Sony's camcorders--isn't bundled into the camera; it comes on a separate CD. It's overly complex for this product and does annoying things such as persistently attempting to analyze and assimilate all the media files on your hard disk for its face and smile detection filtering and Movie Tracer, which lets you "play back videos tracing the movement of your camera while you were recording the video." Simple tasks like trimming video don't support undo (though it doesn't overwrite the video). It does support basic media organization, with filtering and tagging, however, and the video uploading is pretty simple--once you figure out where to find it in the menus ("YouTube" isn't even a search term in the online manual).
Webbie HD camcorders are compatible with Macs and PCs, though the Picture Motion Browser software only works with Windows PCs. If you have a Mac (or Windows PC for that matter), you can simply drag the video and still image files off the memory card to copy them to a folder on the desktop. Then you can upload them to sites such as YouTube and Photobucket if you want.
In the final analysis, Sony's Webbie HD MHS-PM1 has some nice things going for it: an attractive design, expandable memory, a swiveling lens, and a rechargeable lithium ion battery. But despite offering 1080p 30fps video capture, the quality falls a little short to that of competing models and you may find the annoying software and Sony Memory Stick Duo definite drawbacks. It's not a bad little camcorder; it's just not a great one.