Normally, I’m rather mean to Sony. Usually, they deserve it. Prepare to have your collective internet minds blown.
The Sony XDcam EX is the best camera you can buy for less than $15,000. It’s my new favorite camera. It’s the first camera in years that I’ve actually wanted to own personally. Read on to find out why. Thanks very much to Pat Hart at AVI Systems for making this camera available to me.
First impressions do a lot to dictate a camera’s place within the industry. Is it amazing “out-of-the-box,” or do you need to work hard to extract the joy? There is no clearer example of this than the Panasonic HVX-200. It shoots absolutely beautiful imagery from the moment you power it on. While a Canon XL-H1 will look desaturated and overly sharpened, video from an HVX-200 will be rich and smooth. I think Sony must understand that, because my out of the box impressions of the EX were excellent. I didn’t feel the need to immediately dive into the many ‘picture profiles’ to customize the image. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s start by looking at the physical shape and form factor. The EX is heavy, but not too heavy – around 5lbs. The size is similar to the HVX-200, though it’s less of a fatty. The front half the camera is dedicated to the lens. With no tape drive, the rear half is much more compact than the Panasonic, and only a bit chunkier than a Sony Z1U.
The screen flips out from under the microphone, which puts it pretty far forward on the body. This is an excellent placement, as it means the camera can be braced against your shoulder without making you cross-eyed. The screen itself is incredibly crisp.
The button layout is one area that disappoints slightly. With apologies to Clarkson, it looks a bit like someone stuffed all of the buttons up their nose and then sneezed on the camera. Things are very spread out, and the scroll/click wheel for the menus is difficult to use without a lot of concentration.
The hand grip on the right side of the camera is a thing of genius. By pushing a release with your thumb, it rotates through a full 120 degrees, from parallel to the ground, past perpendicular. This means you can shoot down low, and move up high, without changing your grip. This is a great sign of the thought that Sony put into this camera.
Around back, there’s an HD-SDI output, covered by a far-too-easy-to-lose rubber cap. All the other video outputs are on the side, under a cover, and are fed via Sony mini-connectors for composite/component. I don’t mind this too much – it’s the 21st century folks. Go HD-SDI or give up.
Below are some stills of the camera, followed by a video tour of the body.
The lens is claimed to be by Fujinon, and is a very, very nice bit of kit. It’s essentially a standard professional lens that’s been glued to the body. So you get full manual ring control of aperture, zoom and focus, with stops and scales and everything. All of the controls can also be set to servo-controlled auto, with manual override on the focus.
Perhaps I just had a particularly good sample, but I’ve found the lens to have less chromatic aberration and distortion than any other HD camera I’ve tested, including more expensive lenses on other XDcam-family cameras. There’s a very slight amount of vingetting, though I found it to be barely noticeable. Breathing was moderate, and about in line with what I’d expect.
There are two physical ND filters which can be rolled in via a switch on the body. When you’re running auto-iris, the screen will prompt you to add or remove filters as necessary.
The imagers are three 1/2″ ‘Exmor’ 1920×1080 CMOS chips. You read that right – full raster HD. There’s definitely some rolling shutter artifacts present in shaky footage, as you’ll see later on, but it’s not nearly so bad as lower end CMOS cameras.
Tape is dead. I finally believe that for real. The P2 workflow was good, but the storage density wasn’t there. The XDcam disc workflow had good density, but meant the cameras were big and clunky. XDCam EX changes everything. Take 35mbit XDCam HD footage (essentially HDV with VBR and less aggressive quantization tables), write it to an 8 or 16gig Expresscard/34 card. When you’re done, pop it in the Expresscard slot on your MacbookPro or other modern laptop. Click. Drag. Done.
Pricing is still a sore spot for flash memory-based acquisition, and Sony hasn’t solved that issue quite yet. An 8gig card will record about 30 minutes and set you back around $500. A 16gig card will run $900.
But there’s a big asterisk here. Sony has promised, repeatedly, a firmware update that will allow the camera to take advantage of third-party memory cards. These cards currently retail for well under half the cost of the Sony cards. Sony has also discussed the possibility of a validation process, so that you’d know the card would be able to keep up with the camera. If they follow through on their word, that’ll be a huge step forward.
If you don’t have an appropriate laptop, you can connect the camera directly via USB, or get a USB expresscard reader. The expresscard slots are hotswappable, so you can offload one card while recording to another, and then swap them back.
For those still living in the dark ages, there camera also has a firewire (err iLink) port. When recording in “standard quality” mode, the camera will output a normal 25mbit HDV signal over firewire, so you could use this camera with an older NLE or with a Firestore or similar device. But really, if you’re going to do that, just buy a lesser camera.
Now that we’ve covered the physical characteristics and workflow – how does the image actually look? Damn good. I’m going to do some resolution tests later this week, but suffice to say it’s incredibly crisp.
The camera has a wide range of configurable features. You can do multiple custom settings for image controls, gamma curves, etc. You can choose 1080i60, 1080p30, 1080p24, 720p60, 720p30 and 720p24. In the 720 settings, you can overcrank up to 60fps, for true slow motion.
The samples section at the end of this review has a number of high-resolution videos to help you gather just how good the camera looks.
As a cynic, I can’t do a review without mentioning some negatives. As I noted earlier, the menu scroll-wheel is difficult to operate. The menus are also laid out in an awkward fashion. If you’re shooting 1080p24, and suddenly decide you want to shoot some slow motion, you need to dig into the ‘others’ menu to set the resolution to 720p24, then go into another menu branch to set the overcrank. The ‘video format’ menu option is also right above the ‘format media’ menu option, which has more than once gotten me close to accidentally wiping my memory card.
The white balance control gives you a switch between preset, a or b. However, the preset is always fixed to 3200K. I wish they’d gone the Panasonic route on this one and let you toggle between 3200 and 5600 on the preset.
The power switch is difficult to operate, particularly when wearing gloves, though I understand this is to make it more difficult to accidentally turn it off.
Startup times are rather slow – around 10 seconds from power on to being able to start recording. Why does it take so long, when there aren’t physical tape heads to engage?
Battery life isn’t stellar – I was expecting amazing runtimes, thanks to the lack of moving parts. However, I’m seeing more like 2 hours of ‘real world’ use on a charge with the included battery.
The CMOS sensors inevitably lead to some rolling shutter issues, though they’re not terrible.
That’s about it. In all honesty, the negatives are easy to work around and are far outweighed by the positives.
I love this camera. It is everything I have dreamt of in a video camera. This, for me, is the new top-dog. $6699? A bargain.
Thanks to an abundance of bandwidth here at the University, I’m able to host files that other reviewers can’t. So here goes.
For each clip, I’ve posted a web-sized flash version, a 720p quicktime vesion, and the original XDCam file. You’ll need Final Cut Pro 6.0.2 installed to view the XDCam files.
1080p24 – Child Walking in the Snow
720p24 – Overcranked at 60 – Snow on Bricks
720p24 – Overcranked at 60 – Slow Motion walker. Note some rolling shutter distortion due to the snow (or not? see this thread)
720p24 – Overcranked at 60 – Dude walking.
1080p24 – Failed Diet Coke Fountain. Notice the way the CMOS sensors handle the light bloom. Wouldn’t want to do this with a CCD.
1080p24 – Long zoom at the train museum – very low light shot, with 6db of gain
1080p24 – Trains undercranked at 6fps
1080p24 – 16 frame ‘frame accumulation’ shot
1080p24 – On the set of TechTalk
1080p24 – On the set again, spinning around