The Sanyo Xacti HD1A is a pocket-sized direct-to-memory camcorder. The Xacti line has grown to encompass a number of cameras, ranging from around $350 to the HD1A, which retails for around $600. All of the cameras boast direct-to-memory recording in an MPEG-4 format, using SD memory cards.
The HD1A distinguishes itself, as the name might suggest, by being capable of recording HD video. I’m resisting the urge to put HD in sarcastic quotes (“HD”) as the HD this camera records is a bit of a joke. But more on that later.
Read on for the rest of the review…
The HD1A is an extremely pocketable device, about the same size as many small digital still cameras. It has a flip out LCD panel, an integrated flash, and a relatively long 10x optical zoom. In the box, you get the camera, a rather nice carrying case, a docking station, as well as a charger and assorted USB cables. The HD1A uses an integrated rechargeable battery, so I was very excited to have a dock for charging and syncing with the computer.
When powering on the device, the first thing you’ll probably notice is that it talks to you. Literally. It was “Camera Mode” and “Going to Sleep” and whatnot. Frankly, I found this very entertaining, but I’m a sucker for stuff like that.
The HD1A has two trigger buttons on the rear, one for recording movies and one for recording stills. This is actually a clever way to avoid having to specifically switch between camera and movie modes as is required on so many other devices. You don’t have to decide in advance whether you want to shoot some video or take a still.
The rear also provides menu access, zoom, and a very manual override controls. The HD1A gives the user a surprising amount of manual control for a camera in this market segment. Not only do you get manual focus, but also manual control of exposure, white balance, ISO and shutter speed. With the exception of focus, these need to be accessed through the menu system.
The camera records in a standard MPEG-4 file format for videos, and JPEG for stills. The quality can be adjusted from the full HD resolution, which will put about 15 minutes of video on a 1gb SD card, all the way down to 320×240 at 15fps, which will pack nearly four hours of video on a 1gb SD card. If you select “640 HQ” or below, the files generated by the HD1A can be transfered directly to a Video iPod, without reencoding. This is a major feature if you need to bulk produce video podcasts.
Now, about that HD claim. The camera can indeed record video at 1280×720 (720p), so they’re not wrong in calling it HD. However, there’s so much compression and interpolation going on, it’s really not usable for anything which demands quality. Frankly, I can’t think of a situation in which you’d be better off using the HD mode versus the SD modes.
I’m suspicious that this lack of quality may not be due to the compression, but rather due to the imaging chip itself. All of the images produced by this camera have a distinct feel over being interpolated up to a higher resolution, with an extreme amount of digital sharpening added. I think that it would be possible to do a direct-to-memory HD capable camcorder in this form factor while still retaining HD quality, but this camera isn’t quite there.
That’s not to say the camera is total crap. You just shouldn’t buy it expecting a pristine image.
There’s one other feature of the HD1A which deserves a mention, and for which Sanyo deserves applause – It has an external mic input! So many cameras these days have done away with external microphone inputs entirely, so I was rather shocked to see one on the HD1A. The jack itself is a 2.5mm plug (sub-minijack) but they include a 2.5mm to 3.5mm (minijack) adapter in the box. I was able to plug a Beachtek into that, with an AT Shotgun hooked up to the Beachtek, and the audio I got was surprisingly acceptable.
Being able to bring in an external microphone feed, including a nice balanced mic with the help of a Beachtek box, makes this camera far more useful than it otherwise would be. It takes the camera from toy to tool. Now, you can go out and shoot a video podcast with decent audio, dump it into an RSS feed and be done. No transcoding, no conversion, no audio syncing. Record, copy, done.
In all, I think the Sanyo HD1A is a nice camera, so long as you don’t expect too much from it. It’s not a real HD camera. The quality will not match anything in the HDV world. You trade quality for convenience – no tapes to deal with, no log and capture, just hook up the USB cable and go. It’s not for everyone, but it’s not junk either.