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CES: Camcorder wrap-up

For camcorders, 3D video and built-in pico projectors were the highlights of CES 2011. And lies, lies everywhere.

The Sony Handycam HDR-PJ30V has a built-in projector. Sony Electronics

I was really hoping to start this show wrap-up with a look at the good and/or interesting things to come out of CES 2011. But as I was assembling my thoughts to work on it, I was assaulted anew by the continuation of a consumer-hostile trend which initially started--or at least which I first noticed--with the Canon HF R series launched last year. The trend: marketing camcorders that have an effective sensor resolution of less than 2.07 megapixels (1,920 x 1,080) as "Full HD" models. This is the equivalent of marketing your 3G network as 4G. And the manufacturers are playing so fast and loose with the specs that I keep getting confused--it must be heinously confounding for the typical consumer.

To recap why this a problem: When you capture video with effectively 1.5 megapixels, you have to make stuff up to reach the 2.07 megapixels required by a 1080 HD frame. Having to make stuff up is never a good thing in imaging. It then gets compressed by the codec. As a result, video captured by these camcorders simply looks awful for HD and is full of artifacts. You might as well pay a lot less for the standard-def models.

But you've got to love the irony: by convincing the public that this is what HD camcorder video is supposed to look like, manufacturers are making it impossible to sell even the modestly more expensive camcorders that produce significantly better output.

And this year, there will be an explosion of them. Out of Panasonic's seven announced mid- to entry-level models, five are obviously too-low resolution; without more specs, it's impossible to tell about the last two. JVC has at least five. Not only does Sony have three entry models (for which you really have to dig into the specs to realize it's low-resolution), but its lowest-end projector model--which costs $700--also falls into this camp. Think about it: paying $700 for an HD camcorder that will likely deliver video quality somewhere between SD and HD. In another irony, though, Canon is the one manufacturer that's not doing this anymore; its Vixia HF R2xx series does have a 2.07-megapixel effective resolution this year, as long as you don't turn on the Dynamic image stabilization.

Rant over. For now.

Projections for 2011
Although it was probably inevitable, Sony is the first to integrate a pico projector into its HDR-PJ line of its camcorders. Nikon and General Imaging have camera models that incorporate a projector, a capability that's not exactly helping them fly off the shelves, but I think the feature is more compelling in a camcorder. Especially since, unlike the cameras, the two higher-end Sony models will likely deliver no compromises on video quality, which happens with the cameras. Had I realized sooner that Sony was playing specification games with the HDR-PJ10 I might not have been so sanguine about electing this series as Best of CES for digital imaging, but you know what they say about hindsight.

Sony Handycam HDR-TD10 Sony Electronics

And then there's 3D. With the exception of Sony's Bloggie 3D, a $250 Flip-style model, the bulk of 3D camcorder announcements at CES targeted prosumers and experimental indies; that is, gadget hounds with deep pockets and pros looking for relatively inexpensive (for them) models to start experimenting with.

Panasonic, JVC and Sony all announced models costing upward of $1,400--well, Panasonic didn't announce prices, but its TM900 will likely cost as much as the current TM750, if not more--though JVC and Sony's approach is quite different than Panasonic's. The latter essentially introduced new versions of several of its prosumer models that support the company's VW-CLT1 3D lens, which shipped last summer in conjunction with the HDC-TM750.

JVC Everio GS-TD1 JVC America

Panasonic's scheme uses two lenses but only a single sensor and produces a sub-HD-resolution side-by-side 3D video stream. One of the main benefits of this approach is compatibility--the format is supported by AVCHD and is a required part of the HDMI 1.4a spec--as well as the ability to remove the lens to use the full-size lens for shooting 2D. Both Sony and JVC incorporate the dual lenses directly into the camcorder, along with two sensors, and produce two full left and right HD streams, combined using a technique known as "frame packing." While the latter should produce a full HD 3D stream, JVC and Sony have to use proprietary recording formats and support is optional in HDMI 1.4a. (I'll likely do a longer post on remaining nonstandards and incompability problems for video in general in the near future.)

Canon XA10 Canon USA

Finally, there are the camcorders for people who actually like to shoot video. Canon announced a new uber-prosumer line--the "uber" adds at least another $100 to the price--utilizing one of its pro sensors, which the company has retrodubbed "HD CMOS Pro," and tossing in a robust complement of pro features, but in a body the size of the HF S series. The new Vixia HF G10 also has a sibling, the XA10, which has an add-on run-and-gun handle that adds some useful features, including XLR microphone inputs and IR shooting capability.

Annoyances and frustrations aside, based on the announcements at CES 2011, it looks like spring 2011 will certainly deliver a lot more interesting and challenging camcorders to test than spring 2010 did. That's good, right?