When U.S. television switched to broadcasting in high-definition, many shows were forced to change their production design: HD images are so crisp and clear that any blemish on the set – paint jobs, cracks in the wall, the old sofa in the corner – would have jumped out at viewers right away. Hollywood’s plastic surgeons, needless to say, saw a similar boost in business as Home Depot did.
Now the HD revolution is shaking up the world of home video, and while the effect on Botox sales may be hard to predict, it’s certainly easy to believe that high-defintion camcorders deliver the same pristine picture quality known from HDTV. After all, “high-definition” means an image size of at least 1280×720 pixels – roughly three times as many as a standard television picture contains. “Full HD” even stands for 1920×1080 pixels, big enough to make you go “Wow!” on even the largest home-theatre screens.
Unfortunately, a higher pixel count alone doesn’t mean you’ll get a sharper image. In fact, the result can even be inferior to a good SD camcorder.
Xacti VPC-TH1 Indoor video sampleI learned this lesson the hard way when I bought Sanyo’s new Xacti VPC-TH1 before visiting Tarzan’s old buddy Cheeta (hey, you’ve got to be prepared when you interview a Hollywood legend). The TH1 is a step up from super-cheap HD minis like the popular Flip camcorder, but at roughly $275 street price it doesn’t burn a hole in your wallet like many rival, more ambitious consumer camcorders, such as Panasonic’s HDC-TM20 or Samsung’s new HMX-H100.
At about the size of an iPhone, the Xacti TH1 is a nicely compact camcorder – even though it’s much more bulky, of course, than Apple’s slim phone. There’s a grip belt to help you hold the camera steady, and I found that the TH1 fit nicely in my hand, without being too small and fiddly or too big and clumsy. Operating the camera is fairly intuitive, with good placement of all buttons you regularly need. For navigating the menus, as well as choosing video clips in playback mode, there’s a little four-way rocker on the back.
The 30x zoom starts at a film equivalent of 43mm and extends all the way to 1,290mm. In other words, you can get close from very far away. In a nice touch for this kind of camera, the focal range is open to improvement: Sanyo offers a couple of adapter lenses that can give the TH1 a wide-angle view, for example. Filters, however, are at this point only available for certain other models.
The Xacti, like many new camcorders, uses flash memory – SD cards – to store its videos. The big advantage over traditional tape is that you can copy the files to your PC in mere seconds. Also, there’s no waiting for the tape to rewind while you’re reviewing your shots in-camera. Some camcorders store video on hard drives, but hard drives tend to be less robust than flash memory, and they’re heavier, too.
Shooting in HD means files of massive size, so all video the Xacti captures is compressed in Mpeg-4 format, specifically AVC/H.264. The TH1 has a maximum resolution of 1280×720 – the smaller HD version – and can store about 2 hours of best-quality video on an 8 GB memory card. The battery, in my experience, easily lasts this long, and my only gripe is that it needs to be charged in-camera, with a bulky power adapter and a whole lot of cables attached (see image gallery).
For video editing, Sanyo provides Windows users with its own software, called “TotalMedia Extreme”. On my Mac, I could simply use iMovieHD or iMovie ’09, both of which accepted the H.264 files right out of the camera. Any HD editing, however, requires a modern computer – don’t try this at home if your PC can still remember the Y2K scare and has a hard drive whose size is measured in double-digits.
Sanyo brands its new Xacti models as “Dual Cameras”, claiming they are equally adept at taking photos and videos. Feel free to laugh now when you hear that the TH1 takes pictures at the stunning resolution of 2 megapixels. (Yep, that’s “two” – there’s nothing missing.) The TH1’s bigger brother, imaginatively named FH1, boasts 8 megapixels, so perhaps it can serve as photo camera in a pinch. I haven’t tried it, but I certainly wish I’d spent the extra money to buy the FH1 for $500 instead of its smaller, cheaper sibling.
The FH1 does “Full HD”, meaning it also features a bigger image sensor: 1/2.5-inch (1 cm) rather than 1/6-inch (0.4 cm). The difference is eye-popping. Let’s compare, for want of an FH1, my smaller-chip TH1 with Casio’s recently reviewed EX-F1, which features full HD video recording as well and uses an image sensor sized 1/1.8-inch (1.4 cm). While the Casio delivered mostly nice, clean videos under various lighting conditions, the Xacti often disappoints. Even in bright sunlight, artefacts of in-camera sharpening are clearly visible when you look closely. And once you start shooting indoors, image noise becomes painfully obvious.
The autofocus, meanwhile, reminded me of public transportation in San Francisco: just like buses here, it tends to come and go without rhyme or reason. In a number of cases the image suddenly turned blurry even though the camera was mounted on a tripod and the subject did not move. Similarly, the “image stabilizer” seems to have no visible effect – probably because it’s not an optical stabilizer but merely a digital one.
None of this may matter to people who simply want a point-and-shoot camcorder that also does some sort of HD recording. If you find the image quality in our samples good enough, the little Xacti actually offers a lot of value for the money. Handling and battery life turned out to be a nice surprise, and the lens adapters can make the camera much more versatile. But ultimately you get what you pay for – and “high-definition” does not always mean perfect pictures. Sometimes, when you see your recordings, HD may merely stand for “Half-Decent”.
In-depth review by Karsten Lemm