Archive for the 'Reviews' Category
Back in 2008 I wrote that DSLRs were starting to include video features and that these new cameras were set to be hugely popular with the movie-making crowd. Well, it turns out I was right. Indie film makers everywhere are making amazing films with DSLRs, and the professionals are starting to take notice. For example, the upcoming season finale of the Fox show House was shot entirely with a Canon 5DmkII. Yep, that’s right, a major television network used a DSLR camera to film one of their top shows. Pretty incredible considering video on digital cameras started off as more of a “gee-whiz” toy feature than a serious tool.
Last year I was watching this trend develop and watching my old gear collect dust, so I sold most everything and waited for the prices on the new generation of “hybrid” DSLRs to come down. In March I had waited long enough and finally got my brand new toy, a Panasonic DMC-GH1. While Canon’s 7D and T2i were appealing options and are very popular with film makers, I settled on the GH1 because its video is as just as good as any of the Canons, but it also has some very user-friendly features that the Canons are lacking, such as a tilt/swivel LCD and a viewfinder that works while recording videos. It also comes with a video-optimized lens that has silent autofocus and a stepless aperture, which can be very important features when trying to shoot video in the real world rather than on a set.
So far I’m really enjoying the camera. It’s so nice to be able to seamlessly switch between taking photos and shooting video, and I love the flexibility of the camera. The Micro Four Thirds mount means that it can use just about any lens ever made via an inexpensive lens mount adapter. My parents were nice enough to give me some old Canon FD lenses they had sitting in the closet, so I’ve been playing with those and getting some nice results.
The movie below was shot early one March morning in my backyard using the FD lenses as well as the kit lens. The shallow depth of field and fine detail rendered by these lenses makes for some darn nice video. I’m currently working on editing footage from my recent trip to Costa Rica, so stay tuned!No comments
Well, I did it. I bought myself an early Christmas present: the Panasonic DMC-LX3 I’d been drooling over.
It is an interesting camera; when it comes to the specs everyone knows and loves, it doesn’t stand out. Its megapixel count is “only” 10.0, and the zoom is just 2.5x. Novices will shrug their shoulders and move on. In order to appreciate the camera, you have to know what an aperture number means (f/2.0 to f/2.8 anyone?) and have a feel for what a 24mm lens will do for you.
First impressions are very good. It feels nice in the hand, with a smooth metal case and a hefty piece of glass up front. The camera body is only about 1 inch thick, but the retracted lens adds close to another inch. The screen is very large and bright, and the controls seem decent, although the Menu button seems to function different from my brain, as I keep pressing it at the wrong times.
I bought this camera to fill a gap between my DSLR (Olympus E-500) and my little waterproof point-and-shoot (Olympus 770SW). Both cameras are are good in their respective elements, but neither excels at social occasions. The DSLR is too large to cart around to many events and can make people uncomfortable when you point it at them. The 770SW takes nice photos outside during the day, but is quite poor at night or indoors, when many gatherings take place.
So enter the DMC-LX3. With its fast, stabilized lens and small size, it seems to fill the gap nicely.
I played around in the house last night snapping pictures of every little thing I spotted and was quite impressed with the initial images. In macro mode at wide angle it can focus on things that are practically touching the lens, which is fun but dangerous! Below are some samples. Click here for a couple more.1 comment
My cable company recently raised their rates. Suddenly the variety of services they’d managed to sell us was costing almost $150/month! Sure, that got us a lot (digital high-definition (HD) cable with HD digital video recorder (DVR), high-speed internet, and telephone) but $1800/year is an outrageous amount of money to be forking over. In the name of frugality, we decided to take a good hard look at what services we actually use and cut out what we didn’t. Here’s our requirements:
- DVR – We really enjoy being able to watch TV on our schedule, not the networks’.
- “Basic Cable” – All those extra channels occasionally had interesting programs, but we seldom watched them.
- Netflix Watch Instantly – This is a great way to catch up on older shows and movies without waiting for DVDs in the mail. We actually purchased the $99 Roku Netflix Player and loved it, but it would be nice not to have the extra box in the TV stand.
- Internet TV – There are a bunch of ways to watch stuff online, including Hulu (which is great if you don’t mind short commercials), Youtube, podcasts, etc. (I’m sure astute readers can think of some other good ways that I won’t mention here.)
So here we have $150/mo. and $99 invested to watch TV with no quick way to watch the last category. So what to do? There are a variety of “Media Extender” solutions out there (IE Apple TV), but they don’t meet all of our requirements. In order to do all this stuff, we need an all-out Media Center PC with TV tuner card. While I do like Apple products, part of the goal here is “cheap”. A decent refurbished Mac Mini costs $500, which is too much for this project. Plus in order to watch Netflix Instant programming you need Windows. This means Windows Media Center.
So here’s the goal: Build a Windows Media Center PC that will pay for itself in less than a year. By canceling unnecessary cable services and returning the Roku Netflix player, we’ll have saved $579 in that time. If we come in under this goal, that’s money in our pockets. So did we do it? Hells yes! Here’s how:
- Computer – Dell Inspiron 530s. This is Dell’s “economy” model in a slim case that’s perfect for our TV stand. By going to the Dell Outlet and using a 15% off coupon, we managed to snag a refurbished model for $289 (+$44 for tax/shipping) that included Windows Vista Home Premium SP1, an Intel Pentium Dual-Core E2200 (2.2 GHz) processor, 2GB RAM, 500GB hard-drive, and a DVD burner. This same system would have cost $579 new.
- TV Tuner – AverMedia AverTV Combo PCI-E. This is a low-profile PCI-Express 1x TV tuner that fits in the Inspiron 530s’ slim case. It it capable of receiving analog cable/TV as well as ATSC (over-the-air) and QAM (cable) HDTV. It includes a nice IR receiver and remote that has buttons for all of Windows Media Center’s primary functions. I paid $94.99 with free shipping on Amazon. (Note that the card has TWO cable inputs, and if you want to receive both analog and QAM cable you’ll need a splitter to hook up both.)
- Wireless Keyboard/Mouse – Adesso 2.4 GHz RF Wireless Mini Keyboard with Optical Trackball. Finding a keyboard and mouse that works well from the sofa isn’t easy, but this Adesso model is awesome. The ergonomics are perfect for holding it in your lap, and I love the layout of the trackball, scroll wheel, and buttons. Once you grab hold it makes perfect sense. Also nice is that wireless reception is excellent even with the receiver plugged into the back of the computer. I paid $64.24 with free shipping on Amazon.
So there you have it! $333 + $94.99 + $64.24 = $492.23, well under the $579 budget. We also used some Amazon gift cards on the keyboard and TV tuner, which brought our out-of-pocket cost down quite a bit. Of course there were some extras, like an DVI to VGA cable, 3.5mm audio cable, and Cable TV splitter, but I had this stuff already.
So what does all of this allow us to do? Everything we’d hoped for! Windows Vista Media Center with the TV Pack works like a champ. For a Microsoft product, the software is intuitive, full-featured, and easy to use. It has a built-in cable guide with search, great DVR functionality, and the network HD channels look great. I also installed MyNetflix, which is a really nice plugin for Windows Media Center that does everything the Roku box did and more. We can also surf the web and play PC games from the comfort of our sofa. I’m quite pleased with the setup; it’s better than what we previously had and our monthly expenditures have dropped. What more can you ask for?
So maybe all this isn’t ultra-frugal. It’s a bit like saving money by buying caviar in bulk. But it’s a heck of a lot of fun, and we are saving some money, especially if this setup works well for a few years. So grab yer popcorn and head on over to my place for some “frugal” TV bliss!No comments
Reader Mike e-mailed me asking for help deciding which HD camcorder to buy. Currently he’s trying to decide between the Canon HF10, HF100, HV30, or HG10, or the Sony SR11 or SR12. The truth is that any of these cameras will record stunning HD footage. The real differences lie in practical matters; which camera will fit best into Mike’s life? Here’s the questions he (or anybody else thinking about such a purchase) needs to ask:
1. Do you have an HDTV that supports the resolution of the camcorder? You’re likely to be disappointed if your HDTV can’t support the native resolution of your snazzy new camcorder. If you have a 720p or lower resolution TV, you may want to consider upgrading your TV or starting off with a lower-end HD camcorder like the $400 Sanyo Xacti HD700 or even the super-cheap $130 Aiptek A-HD.
2. Do you plan on storing/editing the footage on a computer? If not, you’ll probably want an HDV camcorder like the Canon HV30, as you’ll be creating an instant archive on tape that can be stored in a safe place and easily played back. AVCHD camcorders record to hard drives or memory cards, meaning that archiving footage requires either a computer or an external DVD burner specially made for the camera, like the Canon DW-100
3. If you plan on editing, is your computer up to snuff? On the Mac side, you’ll need an Intel machine with at least 1GB of RAM (2GB or more recommended) to edit AVCHD, and you’ll need to set aside about 40 GB of hard-drive space for each hour of footage you want to store in the editable Apple Intermediate Codec (AIC) format. You’ll also need iLife ’08 or Final Cut Express 4.0 to edit AVCHD. (HDV can be edited with the previous version of each on a PowerPC machine.) On the PC side, you should have an 2.0+ GHz processor with 2GB of RAM, a good graphics card, and plenty of hard-drive space. For editing AVCHD in Windows XP or Vista you’ll need Sony Vegas 8.0 or Ulead VideoStudio 11.
4. How will you play back edited footage on your HDTV? AVCHD camcorders are a one-way street. Once you edit the footage, you can’t put it back on the camcorder. You will need to play it back on a computer connected to your HDTV or on a media device that supports HD, such as the Sony Playstation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360, or Apple TV. Some Blu-Ray players can also play back properly exported movies. With HDV camcorders and the right software, you can export edited footage back to a tape and then play the tape back from the camcorder on your HDTV.
5. How important is portability? Are you the type of person who loathes the thought of carting around a camera bag everywhere you go? A small, flash-memory based camcorder may be your best bet. The “World’s Smallest Full HD Camcorder” champ is the Sony HDR-TG1, which promises to be a very good little camera when it is released in May. If it’s features you want in addition to small size, the Canon VIXIA HF10 or HF100 would be a great choice. Be warned though: These cameras sacrifice some features and usability for their small size. Neither has a viewfinder, which makes filming in bright light difficult, and only the Canon duo has prosumer features like an accessory shoe and microphone input.
6. How important are still photos? As shown in my article Can a camcorder beat a camera at its own game?, the Sony Sony HDR-SR11 and HDR-SR12 can take some darned good still photos. If you want one device that takes great video and good stills, these camcorders are for you! (The best still a Canon camcorder can produce is only 3.1 megapixels, compared to the interpolated 10.2 megapixels of the HDR-SR11 and HDR-SR12.)
AVCHD camcorders are new technology, and this is a double-edged sword. AVCHD is the way of the future and will eventually replace HDV, but you need a good computer and media hub to make AVCHD a practical choice. HDV is tried and true and is the best choice if you don’t mind the hassle of tapes and have older equipment to work with. Keeping all this in mind, here are my picks:
- Flash-Memory AVCHD Camcorder: Canon HF100 (Pros: Amazing video quality and prosumer features in a pint-sized package. Cons: No viewfinder, low-resolution still images. Conclusion: Best choice if portability is more important that features. Buy this and some cheap SDHC memory cards and forget the HF10.)
- Hard-Drive AVCHD Camcorder: Sony HDR-SR11 (Pros: Amazing video quality, great stills, built like a tank, viewfinder. Cons: Larger and heavier than the HF100. Conclusion: The best all around HD camcorder. Forget the more expensive HDR-SR12 unless you truly need all that extra HDD space.)
- HDV Camcorder: Canon HV30 (Pros: The benchmark in picture quality, viewfinder, manual controls. Cons: Smaller zoom, tapes, low-resolution stills, tapes.)
As you know by now, I recently got a Sony HDR-SR11 camcorder. This model proudly proclaims in big bold letters “10.2 MEGAPIXELS Still Image Recording”. Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? A camcorder with more megapixels than most digital cameras! So can a camcorder really beat a digital camera at its own game? Let’s find out.
The Megapixel Game
Digital camera manufacturers would have us believe that the more megapixels a camera has the better photos it will take. Even today’s dinky point and shoot digital cameras post megapixel numbers that would embarrass DSLRs from a few years ago. But I guarantee that the old DSLR will take a better photo than that new-fangled point-and-shoot camera. Optics, sensor size, and onboard processing are all a lot more important to overall image quality than megapixel count. Sure, more megapixels means bigger prints, but who among us ever makes sheets of wallpaper from our vacation photos?
Sony felt that they had to join in on this game with the HDR-SR11, and in order to insure an astounding megapixel number they actually cheat! You see, as I mentioned in my first impressions review, the camcorder has a 5.66 megapixel sensor. So how does a 5.66 MP sensor produce a 10.2 MP image? Simple, the same way you’d create a larger image in Photoshop: interpolation. The camera uses onboard processing to automatically stretch the image. Cheesy, no?
What to Compare?
Despite the fact that Sony are big-time cheaters, let’s go ahead and compare the images from the HDR-SR11 to a digital camera. I don’t think a DSLR would be a fair comparison; the still-photo feature of the camcorder is more akin to a typical point-and-shooter in terms of features. Luckily, I happen to have a decent point-and-shooter handy. It’s the Olympus Stylus 770SW, which is a 7.1 megapixel ruggedized digital camera. It takes great pictures despite its small size and robust nature, and since the HDR-SR11 doesn’t really have 10.2 megapixels it seems like a fair comparison. I took a bunch of photos simultaneously with both cameras in full auto mode. To aid in comparison, I’ve resized the images from the 770SW so they are the same resolution as those from the HDR-SR11. You’ll see some difference in zoom due to the fact that the 770SW has a wider angle lens. Okay, enough tech talk, on to the photos…
Yesterday was a big day… As soon as 5:00 PM hit, I was out of the office and on the road to go pick up my new toy. It arrived at my house on Friday but nobody was home, so the meanies at UPS held it in their warehouse all weekend. Waiting was painful, but it was certainly worth it. This is one awesome piece of kit!
After spending a significant amount of time mulling over all the pros and cons of HD camcorders, I finally settled on the Sony HDR-SR11. It is an AVCHD camcorder that records to a built-in 60GB HDD. It features a 5.66 megapixel 1/3″ CMOS sensor, 12X optical zoom lens, 3.2″ touchscreen display, viewfinder, 5.1-channel mic, and plenty of other fun features like Nightshot and Slow Motion Recording.
The first thing I noticed when taking it out of the box was that it has a bit of heft, much more so than the Sony DCR-HC48. This is not a bad thing; it feels very solid and well-built. All of the ports are covered by very robust doors, and the on/off/mode switch, zoom toggle, record button, and other controls feel very substantial and well placed. I like the knurled metal knob at the front for doing manual adjustments of focus, exposure, AE shift, and white-balance shift. The touch screen is beautiful; it’s larger than most and has 921,000 pixels, over four times as many as typical camcorder displays. The touch-screen interface seems straightforward, but it can be difficult to find certain settings at first.
Video Quality and Playback
Video quality is stunning; I took it out in the yard and made some quick videos of flowers and trees, then plugged the camcorder’s USB port into the Playstation 3. I was able to play back the AVCHD files via the PS3 without a hitch, and Mel (my wife) and I were both blown away by the beautiful picture. Color representation seemed very good, as did contrast and sharpness. The zoom is also excellent; at 12x optical, it bests most HD camcorders. The amazing thing is that the digital zoom seems completely useable up to 25x. I noticed no picture degradation, likely because the camera is using the sensor’s extra pixels for the zoom. (Remember, HD video only requires 2.1 megapixels, and this camera has 5.66.)
Editing on the Mac
Without loading any software or drivers, I simply plugged the camera’s USB port into my MacBook Pro, which is a 2.2 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo “Santa Rosa” model with 2GB of RAM and OS X 10.5.2. Since I took a few still photos, iPhoto launched automatically and offered to download the pictures to my library. That process went very smoothly, just like with any other digital camera.
Next I launched iMovie ’08, which immediately recognized the camcorder and showed a thumbnail of each clip on the camcorder’s HDD. iMovie also allowed me to play back previews of the clips and to deselect any unwanted clips prior to transfer. This sure beats tape-based camcorders! I recorded only 1 minute and 20 seconds of video, but it took around 5 minutes to transfer and transcode. So far this seems to be the only real downside to AVCHD. The video also ate up a whopping 1.36 GB of disk space… Ouch! Once the video was on my computer, editing was very snappy; moving clips around and adding transitions and effects seemed as fast as with SD footage from the DCR-HC48. The only time I noticed some slight hesitation was during transitions when previewing the movie full-screen.
I used Quicktime to export the movie at 720p for upload to Vimeo using the instructions found here. Exporting the 51 second movie took about 10 minutes and resulted in a 32.2 megabyte file. You can watch the video in SD Flash below, or click the link to go to Vimeo and watch in HD Flash or download the Quicktime file (bottom right corner of Vimeo page).
Overall I’m very pleased with the camcorder so far. I’m looking forward to spending more time with it this weekend. Because this camcorder touts “10MP still images”, I plan on doing a little write-up on the still photo performance soon. Hopefully someone out there is interested in all this gobbledegook, but at least I’m having fun being a geek and playing with my toys!
UPDATE 3/31/08 The still image testing of the HDR-SR11 is now available here.52 comments
Looking for a great conversation starter? Try “Prius”. It’s not easy to make a box with four wheels, four doors, and four seats so polarizing. It seems that everybody has an opinion about the Prius, but few people talk about what it’s like to actually drive the thing. I mean, isn’t it still a car? It seems to be made of metal, plastic, and glass like every other car on the road. But what if the truth is much more insidious? What if driving one of these things makes you into a smug jerk? What if it makes you part of the Hollywood elite? What if it subliminally brainwashes you into voting Democratic? What if the radio only tunes in to NPR? Curiosity got the best of me; I had to find out.1 comment