Product Review

Sony HDR-HC3 High Definition (1080i) Camcorder

Part I

July, 2006

Ofer LaOr





● Formats: HDV (1440x1080) and DV

● Imaging Device: One 1/3" 2.1 MPixel CMOS

● Lens: 10:1 Optical Zoom, f/1.8-2.9

● Media: MiniDV Cassette

● Recording Time: 60 Minutes

● Monitor: 2.7" 16:9 Touch Panel

● Viewfinder: Color, 123 k Pixels

● Still Image Resolution: 2304 x 1728 (Stored on
    Memory Stick)

● HDMI and S-Video Output

● Dimensions: 3.25" H x 3.1" W x 5.5" D

● Weight: 1 Pound

● MSRP: $1,499 USA




So, you recently purchased a brand new HDTV plasma, LCD, rear projector, or front projector. You've been watching HDTV for a while, either via cable, satellite, DVHS, OTA or, more recently, with your new HD-DVD player.

You're getting ready to show off your home videos and . . . er. . . they don't look too hot, do they? That's because your SD camera, even though it's digital, is still SDTV limited to 480 lines.

To get your home videos up to spec, you need a 1080i camera, and that's where the HDR-HC3 comes into the picture. Sony has quite a few professional and prosumer 1080i cameras, but the HC3 is only their second 1080i consumer camera. The previous model, the HC1, was less compact and with less options and no HDMI output.

The Design

The first thing you notice about the HC3 is how small it is. It can easily pass as a digital snapshot camera.

The HC3 uses standard MiniDV tapes, which record roughly 60 minutes of FULL HD content. These same tapes hold roughly 60 minutes of SD content, when recording in SP mode, so it's interesting that when working in HDV mode, they can carry the same amount of recording time. This is due to the low compression rate of the DV format vs. the high compression rate of the HDV format. DV uses 25 Mbps to record SD content as *.avi files, but HDV can use the same rate with MPEG-2 compression, for 1080i recordings as *.mpg files.

There are two variations of the HC3. The US version runs at 60 Hz, while the European version, the HC3E, runs at 50 Hz.

There are additional differences the HC3 can record SDTV MiniDV in NTSC format, and the HC3E records it in European (PAL) format. The only other difference I could pinpoint refers to the unit's video outputs, which are 1080i50 and 576p instead of the HC3's 1080i60 and 480p outputs.

Quality wise, both seem identical. The bit rate for the HDTV MPEG2 stream is about 25 Mbps (I measured it at 26 Mbps for the movies I recorded). This is a very high bit rate, given that some HDTV transmissions (e.g., ABC's Lost) can go as low as 9 Mbps, which is just above the DVD maximum video bit rate, running at roughly 8 Mbps.

The magic is done with a small 2 megapixel CMOS sensor that has a ratio of 4:3 (1440x1080). In the last few years, CMOS sensors have improved reducing sensor uniformity issues, smearing and various other issues they were plagued with. This sensor is coupled with a Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar T lens, which provides a very clear picture. The only issue I had with the lens was how long it took for the unit to adjust to varying light conditions. A dark room with a bright window can cause problems when the camera is shifting conditions. The camera also has the typical SteadyShot mechanism to reduce trembling and movement in the image, but this needs to greatly improve for more professionally steady shots HD makes everything more noticeable.

Optical zoom is 10X, but the digital zoom (80X) is usable primarily for SD recordings. The fact that this camera can shoot in MiniDV SD as well as HDV HD modes is neat, but I find it difficult to understand why anyone would want to use such a camera without exploiting its best feature, assuming you bought it because you have an HD display.

The camera can play back standard MiniDV tapes, and transcode HDV into MiniDV if you're interested in doing so (you might want to copy over your content to DVD). The camera's iLINK connection (Firewire for non-Sony users) can transmit HDV or transcode on the fly to DV format, which is fully compatible with most DVD recorders and computers. If you're not transcoding, you can transfer the content to DVHS tapes, or move to your computer through a program that is capable of reading HDV format (several NLEs - Non-Linear Editors - can capture the HDV content from your camera so that you can edit it).
There are also simple techniques one can use to download the content to your computer. Microsoft's GraphEdit program, bundled with a dump filter can easily be connected to dump the content of the HDV tapes to an MPEG2 transport stream file.

In Use

The results? Dazzlingly beautiful just think about the best HDTV transfers you've seen and now imagine your own home movies looking almost as good (1440x1080 is almost as good as 1920x1080).

Still shots are quite nice, and I also liked the fact that I can take still shots simultaneously with normal video operations. The shots come out at a maximum of around 4 megapixels (click here for a full size example).

The 2 megapixel shots can easily pass the still camera challenge, at least in normal light conditions. The camera also supports low light conditions, but as with all CMOS cameras, video noise becomes an issue.

The night shots are interesting. Imagine shooting such videos in pitch black conditions at HDTV resolutions. The still shots are accompanied by a bright flash during low light conditions, which does improve still shot PQ (picture quality).

Still shots go into the Memory Stick Duo Pro drive. It's nice to see Sony determined to push forward this memory interface, which receives absolutely no support from any other manufacturer. Come on Sony, you lost this one, just switch to SD memory cards, no one will hold it against you (except, perhaps, a few snickering journalists). Still shots can be retrieved either by taking out the Duo Pro card and putting in a card reader, or by connecting a mini USB connector to the computer. Nice to see Sony standardize on a few things here and there.

Click Here to Go to Part II.

Copyright 2006 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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