Preview: Sony HXR-NX5U 1/3" 3-CMOS AVCHD Camcorder

The solid-state cousin to the HVR-Z5U: is HDV dead?
Adam Wilt
By Adam Wilt 01.04.10

Sony's HXR-NX5U, the first in the "NXCAM" line, is a close cousin of the HDV HVR-Z5U, but it records full-resolution AVCHD to Memory Sticks and/or a snap-on 128 GB Flash Memory Unit. I've put a prototype NXCAM NX5U through its paces; let's see how it does, and what it suggests for the future. [Updates: 6 Jan 2010: model #s, prices, availability, SDHC cards, commentary; 7 Jan 2010: FMU price is $800.]

All the prototypes are serial number 0.

Although the camera I saw was a protoype, it looked as solid, polished, and finished as any shipping Sony product. Still, I should warn you that what I'll describe may not match the final product exactly. Sony's protos are normally quite complete, but changes may occur before the production NX5U is delivered.


The HXR-NX5Uis a handheld camcorder recording 1080i, 1080p, and 720p AVCHD, and standard-definition MPEG-2, on solid-state storage. It weighs about five and a half pounds and is generally the same size as other HD handycams; in particular it's very, very similar to the HVR-Z5u, being about an eighth of an inch taller and wider but an eighth of an inch shorter than that tape-based camcorder.

The HXR-NX5U uses the same lens, sensors, and many operating controls of the HVR-Z5u, but differs by adopting solid-state recording and dropping all pretense of backwards-compatibility: its HD images are recorded as AVCHD and its SD pix are stored as MPEG-2; there's no HDV or DV/DVCAM recording, and there's no FireWire port on the camera since there's no use for it.

NXCAM: AVCHD and MPEG-2. HDV? DV? Fuggedaboudit!

This camera looks forward to the tapeless, data-oriented future; the past simply doesn't matter as far as the NX5U is concerned. If this distresses you, Sony (and Canon and JVC) still offer a diverse selection of HDV and DV/DVCAM camcorders. If you're willing to leave the past behind, though, AVCHD recording offers advantages over HDV, both in picture quality and in operational flexibility.

That the NX5U appears to be a solid-state counterpart to the tape-based Z5u makes it all the more interesting: when the camera ships, we'll be able to see very clearly whether the market votes more for the tape-based Z5u or for the tapeless NX5U, since the cameras are very close in all other respects. But don't think the NX5U is a solid-state copy of the Z5u: the NX5U lacks some of the features of the Z5u, and adds some new ones of its own. Cousins? Yes. Twins? No.

Design, Controls, and Handling

The HXR-NX5U is 6-7/8" wide, 7-5/8" tall, and 17-3/4" long, including its removable shotgun mike; it's 13-3/8" long without it. It tips the scales at around five and half pounds with the mike and the stock NP-F750 battery. (Readers accustomed to sensible metric measurements will find the camera is about 173 x 193 x 449mm, or 340mm long without mike, and it weighs two and a half kilograms.)

The operator's side of the HXR-NX5U.

If it reminds you of the HVR-Z5U, that's no surprise:

The operator's side of the HVR-Z5U.

The Z5U is fronted with a hefty, 20x Sony "G" zoom, which appears to be the same one used on the HVR-Z5u except for the addition of a gold stripe. It starts at 4.1mm and zooms to 82mm; in 35mm still-camera terms, Sony says that's equivalent to 29.5mm - 590mm. Compare that to Sony's figures for the HVR-Z7U (32mm - 384mm) or the EX1/EX3 (31.4mm - 439mm). In side-by-side tests I found the wide end to be virtually identical to the EX1's in practical terms, and noticeably wider than the HVX200's 4.2mm wide angle. Of course, the Z5U beats them all on the telephoto end.

The lens has three free-spinning servo control rings, for focus, zoom, and iris. These lack endstops or external scales, though the camera's displays will show you focus in feet or meters (in manual-focus mode only, alas), zoom setting as a bar graph or numbers from Z00 to Z99, and apertures to the quarter stop. Action on all rings is silky-smooth, instantly responsive, and consistent, with little lag and no overshoot; I never felt disconnected from the lens using these servos.

The focus and zoom controls use grippy, ridged rubber rings; they have similar textures and I often mistook one control for the other when finding them by feel. The iris ring is a thinner plastic "gear", readily distinguishable by touch alone.

The focus ring can be set to allow manual override when autofocus is in use; this "AF Assist" mode is quite helpful when the autofocus decides to track the wrong subject.

The iris ring's direction can be reversed (clockwise brighter or clockwise darker as you prefer), but unlike the HVR-Z5's ring, it can't be set to control overall exposure.

The lens takes a 72mm filter and comes with Sony's excellent shutter-equipped lens hood: a lever flips open top and bottom shutter panels serving as a built-in lens cap. The hood bayonets in place, locking with a pushbutton instead of a thumbscrew, so it's latched securely in place yet can be removed with a minimum of fuss when necessary.

The NX5U's 20x G-series lens and its frontmost controls.

Just behind the lens, a four-position slide switch controls three levels of ND filter: 1/4, 1/16, and 1/64, or 2, 4, and 6 stops of compensation. Conventional focus-selection controls follow: a manual/auto selector with a momentary infinity-focus position (which, like the same control on most other handycams, is too easy to accidentally activate when toggling from auto into manual), plus a "push auto" momentary autofocus button.

Six of the camera's seven assignable buttons are arrayed above and behind these lens buttons. Three run across the upper edge of the left side, three run down the side, and the one remaining sits atop the handgrip just behind the zoom rocker. Auto/manual pushbuttons for gain, white balance, and shutter speed run along the lower edge of the body. Below them are the iris auto/manual pushbutton, three-position flip switches for manual gain and white balance selection, and a white balancing pushbutton.

A molded vertical line divides these frontmost controls from those on the rear half of the body.

Controls on the rear half of the NX5U's left side.

Audio controls sit behind a protective flip-down panel, which surrounds the two input gain dials without covering them: you can mash your finger down on the dials and rotate them, but they're recessed below the cover so that you won't bump them by accident.

An auto/manual switch toggles the camera between all-auto operation and set your-own-controls mode. Beneath it, there's a thumbwheel for menu operation; it pushes in to select things, and left/right arrow keys on either side let you move into and out of submenus easily. The feel of this thumbwheel is much improved over that of the Z5u's, mostly because it's not tucked under the edge of a protruding tape door.

Behind the thumbwheel, there's the MENU button to show and hide the menus, a MODE button to bring up the mode-selector touchscreen menu (yes, this camera uses a touchscreen, in addition to hardwired buttons) so you can choose whether to shoot, edit, play, or manage clips. Finally, there's a PICTURE PROFILE button to call up the Picture Profiles (a.k.a. Custom Presets, or "look" setup and selection menus), and a STATUS CHECK button that brings up eight pages (!) of useful data, like how your assignable buttons are set up, how audio is configured, how much time is left on your battery or any of three possible recording media, and which record buttons do what (more on this later).

Audio level and channel selection controls behind a flip-down guard.

Flip down the cover on the audio controls, and you have easier access to the gain dials, which have knurled sides for secure gripping. Each channel can be set for auto or manual gain, and for input source: the internal stereo mike, or an XLR input. Channel 2 can also be set to take its sound from input #1, handy if you have a mono source and want to lay it down on both channels simultaneously.

While we're here, notice that graphic at the top of the camcorder's left side:

The NX5U has a built-in GPS receiver.

Sony has made GPS-enabled Handycams before, but this may be the first professional video camera with geotagging as a standard feature.

There's a 1/8" stereo headphone jack at the base of the carrying handle, above the Sony logo.

A flip-out door on the left rear corner reveals two slots for Memory Stick PRO Duo cards (either PRO Duo or PRO-HG Duo can be used, but full-sized Memory Stick media can't be).

I hear you: "Oh, no, not Memory Sticks! Why is Sony forcing me to buy their weird proprietary media?"

Well, come on. It is a Sony, after all. What did you expect: P2 cards? At least Sony's not making you shell out for SxS on the NX5U! And you can choose SDHC cards, if you prefer.

I dunno 'bout you folks, but I've long since given up on being able to stock one card type exclusively. I have four still cameras, each of which uses a different type of card (CF, SD, Memory Stick, and MS Pro Duo; two of the cameras are Nikons, and there's no prize for guessing who makes the other two). I own one video camera that uses solid-state media (P2), and we have five video and digital cine cams at work that use three media types between them (SDHC, CF, and SxS cards).

I tend to buy memory cards of a specific type to fill the slots of the camera that needs them, and maybe one or two spares to allow swapping and data wrangling while shooting, and that's it: a momentary pain, and then years of productive use. The cards just stay with their cameras, and their initial cost is soon amortized. It's not a big deal.

Furthermore, MS Pro Duo isn't the oddity it once was. It's available from SanDisk and Lexar as well as Sony. And while it's still about 50% more expensive than CF or SDHC cards of comparable speeds and capacities, it's not likely to bankrupt you; if you can afford this camera, you can splash out another $120 for a couple of 16 GB MS Pro Duo cards, which will hold nearly three hours of the NX5U's highest-quality AVCHD.

Again, keep things in perspective: that's $40/hour, which is a darned sight cheaper than either SxS or P2; and memory cards are reusable thousands of times, so it's more like a capital investment than an expensive expendable. Quit whining.

Don't let MS Pro Duo scare you off from the NX5U.

Even if you really don't want to buy Pro Duo cards, read on: the NX5U has a couple of other tricks up its digital sleeves...

The shipping camera will also accept SDHC cards; I'd assume it'll want Class 4 or faster cards.

Card loading slots with activity LEDs and slot-select buttons; I/O port covers on the right.

Each slot has a bicolor LED (green when the slot is selected, red when reading or writing data) and a button to select that slot and make it active. The door, which is spring-loaded to stay open or closed, has windows making it easy to see when a card is loaded in each slot and whether its LED is illuminated.

The stock battery, an NP-F770, fits deep within the central well at the back of the camera. I also popped in the bigger NP-F960, and it filled out the well flush with the back of the camera.

The right rear corner of the camera holds most of the I/O connectors, behind two hinged panels and a tethered, pop-off cap.

Back-panel connectors, and input controls on the XLR pod.

Standard RCA plugs behind the first panel supply composite video and stereo audio outputs. The second panel covers a mini-D-shell analog component video output, a mini-USB connector, and a full-size HDMI output.. The pop-off cap covers an HD-SDI connector, which includes embedded audio and timecode.

Conspicuous by their absence are i.Link (a.k.a. FireWire, IEEE 1394) and Y/C connectors. The camera shoots no FireWire-compatible formats, and if you need better monitoring than composite gives you, well, these days monitors with component and/or SDI connectors are readily available and increasingly affordable.

While SDI and HDMI jacks may be used simultaneously, they're the only ones: HDMI/SDI, component, and composite outputs are mutually exclusive.

The backside of the XLR pod, mounted at the front of the carrying handle, has switches to set each of the two sockets to mike or line level and to enable +48v phantom power. These are protected behind a flip-open cover. The right side of the pod has two XLR jacks, each with its own tethered cover.

A channel-select slider under the EVF sends channel 1, channel 2, or a stereo mix to the headphones and the monitor speaker.

There are two slide switches on the right rear of the camera, a GPS ON/OFF switch, and a RELEASE slider for the HXR-FMU128 Flash Memory Unit, an $800 option.

The NX5U's optional HXR-FMU128 Flash Memory Unit docked to the camera.

The HXR-FMU128 is a 128GB solid-state drive. It snaps onto the right side of the camera and lets you capture 688 minutes of 24 Mbit/sec AVCHD and two channels of linear audio: that's over 11 hours! Drop down to 5 Mbit/sec video with Dolby compressed audio and you can cram over 51 hours of media onto the FMU. The mind boggles.

The FMU has a multipin camera connector and a USB 2.0 port for computer I/O.

Pop the FMU off the camera, and plug it in to a Mac or PC via its mini-USB 2.0 port, and it mounts as a USB-powered drive, ready for use in the NLE of your choice.

The FMU connects to a computer via a single USB cable.

The right side of the NX5U, with the optional Flash Memory Unit.

The camera comes with a blank panel covering the FMU's mounting point.

The right side of the NX5U, without the FMU.

The right side of the camera has the usual molded handgrip and handstrap, surmounted by a proportional zoom rocker. The rocker allows steady zooms of at least 70 seconds duration, with a smooth ramp up to a top speed of 2.5 seconds in the default setup or 1.5 seconds in "speed zoom", which allows faster travel at the expense of a bit more motor noise. I found the zoom rocker quite usable, although it has a fairly large "deadband", requiring a fair amount of rocking before the motor was engaged. The need to traverse the deadband before getting any actual zoom action made it tricky to engage a slow zoom on demand. I don't know if my prototype camera was atypical in this respect, or if it's just that the very slow zooms this camera is capable of made it more frustrating for me to engage those slow zooms on a timely basis.

Assignable button 7 sits just behind the rocker, beneath your index finger; its default function is EXPANDED FOCUS. Just to the right of the button there's a LANC remote-control jack.

The camera sits happily (if a bit heavily) in the hand. It's perfectly balanced front to back, and though it's side-heavy, it's not intolerably so. The handgrip has a sort of faux-leather texture on the palm area that provides good traction.

The front of the handgrip has another RCA jack, concealed behind a tethered cap:

TC LINK lets you jam-sync timecode between cameras.

This TC LINK jack lets you sync one NX5U's timecode generator to that of another. Sony cautions us that this isn't a genlock function: the slave camera's TC generator is set to the timecode of the master camera's generator, but the slave camera doesn't continuously lock to or chase the master camera. It's designed so you can sync up the timecode clocks of two or more cameras that then go their separate ways. Sony tells me that the TC LINK port can accept input from any SMPTE LTC source—not just another NX5U.

The NX5U from above, with its LCD flipped out to reveal a control panel.

The camera's carrying handle is fronted by a fixed stereo microphone pod with an accessory shoe on top. Yes, if you want to strip the camera down, you'll always have sound.

Behind it sits the 3.2" (8cm) flip-out LCD, which when flipped out can be rotated from forward-facing through 270 degrees to facing straight down (and then folded back on top, facing up, if you wish). The LCD covers a top-mounted control panel with playback and menu keys. Compared to the HVR-Z5, the HXR-NX5U loses index-marking buttons (which the NX5U lacks the ability to do), and adds MENU, MODE, and a four-way menu selector keypad in their place.

To the right there's a shockmount for the supplied ECM-XM1 mono directional mike; it lacks the stereo imaging of the built-in mikes, but it's more directional, and somewhat better isolated from camera handling noises.

Aft of the panel, there's a START/STOP trigger with a rotating HOLD switch to prevent inadvertent activation, and a small zoom rocker with its own three-way switch: it can be turned off, set to a fixed speed (any of eight fixed speeds can be assigned in the menus), or set to variable mode—yes, this top-mounted zoom rocker gives you fully-variable zooming, though it's a bit twitchier than the larger, handgrip-mounted lever (I wasn't able to get a slow zoom any slower than 30 seconds end-to-end, for example). Sony put a similar zoom lever on the HVR-Z7 and HVR-Z5, and quite frankly I don't see a good reason not to have a fully variable zoom rocker on top of the handle: if you're going to have a zoom control there, it should be goodfor something, darn it! Here's hoping Sony makes these rockers standard across all their future Handycams, at least those big enough to have a carrying handle in the first place.

Towards the back of the handle there's a 1/4"x20 tapped socket for screw-in accessories, and the NX5U comes with a second accessory shoe with four tiny screws you can affix atop this socket, if you have two things that need shoes or just prefer the rearward location.

The NX5U's EVF brings up the rear. It can pivot up 90 degrees, in case you want to scrunch up your eye to the EVF in low-mode shooting.

It's worth talking about the MODE button and navigation before we move on. MODE is as important as MENU on the NX5U; many functions accessed on other cameras through the MENU key reside under the hierarchical MODE system on this camera.

At the top level, MODE presents you with five choices:

  • Camera: video shooting; either normal movie mode or smooth slow recording.

  • Play: playback of clips in sequence or from a playlist.

  • Edit: define playlists; divide clips in two; extract stills from clips (photo capture); protect clips from deletion; delete clips.

  • Dub/Copy: dub clips from memory cards to the FMU.

  • Manage Media: format cards or the FMU; set up USB connections; repair a damaged media database on card or FMU.

The top-level MODE screen.

Note that the choices are arrayed as buttons or touch targets, not as linear menus. MODE is fully touchscreen enabled. If you're not a fan of poking at your LCD, no worries: you can also navigate MODE just as you do MENUs, with the four-way pad on the top panel of the camera, or with the left/right buttons and the thumbwheel on the left side.

Menus on the NX5U will be familiar to current Handycam users, although the menu display has been updated with an elegant, shaded 3D look.

The NX5U's menus add a shaded 3D look without sacrificing functionality.

Picking an item from a submenu.

Next: Performance and Features...

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