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

The solid-state cousin to the HVR-Z5U: is HDV dead?

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.

Overview

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…


Performance and Features

Optics

The 20x G lens shows a fair amount of geometric distortion, but it’s a winner in sharpness, chromatic aberration, flare, and flatness of field.

The lens makes a crisp, sharp image throughout its zoom range. Its sweet spot is around f2.8; wider apertures show a very slight loss of high-frequency detail on the test charts, and below f4.4 resolution starts to fall off due to diffraction effects (as happens on all 1/3″ HD cameras), but practically speaking, keeping the aperture at f4.8 or wider will give you pin-sharp pictures throughout the zoom’s range.

Fully wide the lens shows a bit of mustache distortion: barrel distortion on the center of the image, with some slight pincushioning towards the edges that partially corrects the barrelling. As the lens zooms in, the barrel distortion recedes such that it’s counteracted by the pincushion, so that straight lines at the edge of the picture are pretty much straight overall (if a bit wavy) around Z10 (on the zoom’s displayed scale of Z00-Z99; actual focal lengths aren’t shown). Zoom in more, and pincushion distortion predominates, being worst around Z30-Z50 and then diminishing to Z80, after which distortion isn’t noticeable.

But, folks, it’s a 20x lens—this isn’t bad given the zoom range. I see comparable distortions in cine zooms costing 10 times what this camera costs. The NX5U wouldn’t be my first choice for architectural videos, but in most other situations it should be fine.

The optional VCL-HG0872K 0.8x wide-angle adaptor‘s slight barrel distortion works against the pincushioning to almost perfectly correct the lens throughout most of its range on the HVR-Z5, and I would expect it to do the same on the NX5U, though I wasn’t able to test this.

The lens opens up to F1.6 aperture at full wide angle, and ramps smoothly down to a max aperture of 3.4 at full telephoto. Setting F3.4 on the iris preserves a flat exposure from Z00-Z89. I wasn’t able to see a constant exposure through the entire zoom range at any indicated iris setting; zooming into the final 10% of the range (Z89-Z99) always caused a loss of about half a stop regardless of f-stop, visible on a waveform monitor if not apparent in the picture. Of course, if the camera is auto-exposing, it’ll compensate automatically as you zoom; this is only an issue when shooting in fully manual exposure mode.

With FOCUS MACRO on, near focus (M.O.D.) is under an inch in front of the lens, or right where the lens hood’s shutter panels sit, at zoom settings from Z00 to Z81, ramping to 2.6 feet at Z99. With FOCUS MACRO off (you might turn it off to reduce autofocus hunting, or to prevent focus-shift surprises when zooming in), M.O.D. is a constant 2.6 feet or 0.8 meter.

There is no perceptible vignetting (an smooth and even falloff of illumination towards the edges of the image) or portholing (an obvious circle of brightness with a dark surrounding) anywhere in the zoom range, even with the aperture wide open. Furthermore, I wasn’t able to see any corner darkening from the optical stabilization no matter how I shook the camera. This is a great lens for greenscreen work.

Chromatic aberration is well controlled. Some lateral green/magenta fringing is just barely noticeable full wide, and is slightly more present from Z90-Z99, but in the broad middle of the zoom’s range it’s imperceptible. Prism-induced vertical green/magenta fringing on out-of-focus objects if there is you’re looking for it, but it’s not objectionable in real-life shooting.

Lens flare is minimal; there’s a single, greenish ghost opposite any bright light shining directly into the lens, but that’s pretty much it. There’s a slight bit of veiling haze or glare, mostly when the lens is wide open; it’s also greenish in character, but it’s no worse overall than on other lenses of this type.

Like many modern zooms, the optical center shifts as you zoom in: foreground object creep towards the center of the image just as if you were dollying the camera back as you zoomed in (sort of a “Vertigo” effect). It’s no worse than on an EX1 or an HVX200; it’s just something that caught my eye during testing.

Sony’s Steadyshot optical stabilization is present, of course, and it allows for three different strength levels, plus a setting for the optional wide-angle adaptor. The settings range from Soft, which only smooths things out a little, to Hard, which really tries to lock down the image, and reminds me of the more aggressive stabilization Canon uses on its high-end HDV camcorders. You can trade off fluidity against firmness as you see fit, or turn off Steadyshot completely for tripod work (or for that totally aggro shakycam look).

The NX5U adds “Active Steadyshot”, which uses a slight, 2% digital zoom-in and “trapezoid correction processing” (I’m not sure what that means; I think it’s a geometric correction for image distortions due to tilting the camera, but I could be wrong) that Sony claims yields vastly superior wide-angle stabilization. I found that it did indeed increase stability, both at the wide and telephoto ends, making the image sticky enough that often the only noticeable wobble was in the roll axis—though sometimes it’s so persistently stabilizing that there can be a visible “breakaway” effect in a pan or tilt, as the stabilization reaches the end of its range and the image suddenly “unsticks” from its apparent lockdown and the pan or tilt becomes apparent. There’s a very slight resolution loss with Active Steadyshot; it’s down to “only” about 800 TVl/ph.

Resolution and Detail

The NX5U, like the HVR-Z5U, Z7U and S270U before it, uses Sony’s 1/3″ ClearVid CMOS sensors, employing a diagonally-arranged array of 1440×810 photosites (or, looking at them in a horizontal grid, 960×1080 with staggered columns. I’ve seen both sets of numbers used; it’s confusing, but just have a look at the pictures the camera makes and don’t worry too much about the numerology). When run through Sony’s Enhanced Image Processor ™, these sensors yield both actual and interpolated image samples, the latter being synthesized from four surrounding photosite values. Combined with the “Exmor” technique of using a dedicated A/D converter on each readout column, the result is a picture that’s a sharper and quieter than would otherwise be expected from the basic sensor specs; see Sony’s writeup for details.

The NX5U’s images are virtually identical to those from the HVR-Z5U; they’re nearly as sharp as images from full-resolution 1920×1080 sensors. The only real giveaway is that there’s some slight stair-stepping or jaggies on fine detail and high-contrast edges, such as backlit window frames, specular highlights, and lighting fixtures.

On a DSC Labs Multiburst chart, the NX5U resolves 800+ TVl/ph both horizontally and vertically in 1080p mode. As one might expect from the sensor’s design, diagonals show the most obvious aliasing, as you can see from these pixel-for-pixel extracts from FX-mode (highest quality) recordings:

NX5U in 1080/60i mode, FX (21 Mbit/sec) AVCHD recording.

NX5U in 1080/24p mode, FX (21 Mbit/sec) AVCHD recording.

NX5U in 720/60p mode, FX (21 Mbit/sec) AVCHD recording.

Practically speaking, the HD images offer plenty of detail; aside from the occasional slightly steppy edge in high-contrast situations, there’s nothing in the pictures that indicates they’re made with anything less than full-resolution sensors. I found that I was happy running the camera with its detail setting turned down to -5, -6, or -7 (on a range of -7 to +7) because its images were pleasingly sharp without added enhancement.

However, that level of detail is compromised at high gain settings; as gain is increased above 9dB, resolution drops: at +21dB, it’s down to 600 TVl/ph. It isn’t just a build-up of image noise; the outer portions of the zone plate simply merge into undifferentiated gray areas as pixel-averaging appears to come into play to keep noise levels down.

I also grabbed some frames in SD; here’s a couple of pixel-for-pixel test charts blown up 2:1 using nearest-neigbor enlargement:

Left: 480i 4×3; right: 480p 16×9. HQ (9 Mbit/sec) MPEG-2 recording.

Downconverted live pix and SD recordings show a few more aliasing artifacts than the HD images do. The slight high-frequency aliasing visible in the resolution trumpets shows up in the real world as moir© on fine patterns and twinkling on thin lines. The NX5U is far better than an EX1 or EX3 when it comes to downconversion, but it’s slightly less well-suited to SD production than a dedicated SD camcorder is. The differences are minor, though; I certainly wouldn’t dismiss the NX5U as a standard-definition camcorder (though you may turn up your nose at the NX5U’s low-bitrate MPEG-2 SD recording).

The CMOS chips use a 1/60 second rolling shutter, so whip pans and very fast motions may show some tilt or distortion. Practically speaking, it takes a very fast move to show any noticeable tilt; it’s not an issue in most shooting.

Sensitivity, Noise, and Dynamic Range

I measured the NX5U at ISO 400, regardless of mode (interlaced or progressive). This makes it as sensitive as other 1/3″ EXMOR CMOS Sonys. The NX5U equals the EX1 in 1080p mode, and is a third of a stop faster than the HVX200, a stop faster than the HVR-Z1, and two stops faster than the HVR-V1.

Some of this speed may be due to the chips, and some due to more amplification in processing. The cameras’ images are as noisy at 0dB as the EX1’s and the Z1’s at around +3dB to +6dB. If you want cleaner images, the NX5U offers both -3dB and -6dB gain settings.

Speed ratings on digital sensors are somewhat arbitrary; normally the rating is set such that 0dB corresponds to the slowest exposure that allows for full highlight detail without clipping (thus, the best dynamic range combined with the lowest noise). Applying negative gain with such a rating normally results in some clipping of extreme highlights, due to sensor saturation.

However, the negative gain settings on the NX5U do not result in any loss of detail in the highlights. It may be that Sony has simply rated these sensors a stop (6 dB) faster than they normally would to gain speed at the expense of noise. You can choose to shoot at -6dB (ISO 200) for quieter images without sacrificing highlights.

Going the other way, you can boost gain to +21dB, though I found that going much beyond +12dB was inadvisable due to both noise and resolution loss (I found that boosting gain after the fact in Final Cut Pro gave me comparable noise but with more resolution; a +9dB scene boosted to match a +18dB scene matched for overall noisiness, but held more detail). There’s also a hyper gain mode, assignable to a button, which is useful in incredibly dark situations when getting a picture—any picture—is more important than quality. Hyper gain boosts the image by over six stops, so it’s on the order of a +36dB to +42dB gain setting. You will see a lot of noise in hyper gain pictures, but it’s better than not getting the pictures at all.

Recording Modes and Quality

The NX5U offers several HD recording modes and an MPEG-2 option for SD.

HD recording uses AVCHD, a flavor of h.264 very similar to the compression used on Blu-ray discs. It’s a long-GOP format (typically, a half-second of video is compressed as a single group, using one standalone I-frame with the remaining frames stored as differences from the I-frame and from each other) with 8-bit sampling and 4:2:0 color encoding.

Four different bitrates are available, but in keeping with industry-standard practice, Sony ignores user-friendly numerical designations in favor of unintuitive, opaque two-letter codes:

  • FX: 24 Mbit/sec maximum; 21 Mbit/sec average.
  • FH: 17 Mbit/sec average.
  • HQ: 9 Mbit/sec average.
  • LP: 5 Mbit/sec average.

This is a fairly typical spread of bitrates for AVCHD, and it includes the maximum-allowed 24 Mbit/sec bitrate, which gives excellent quality (average numbers are for the video stream only; the maximum number includes AC-3 audio and metadata: some vendors quote maximums, other quote averages; Sony gives both numbers for their highest-quality mode).

The camera offers 1080-line HD in 60i, 30p, and 24p flavors, as well as 720/60p. 1080/60i is recordable at any of the four bitrates; all the progressive formats are recordable in FX and FH modes only. FX and FH are full-raster formats: 1920×1080 and 1280×720. HQ and LP record 1440×1080, the same spatial subsampling used in HDV and HDCAM. All frame rates are native; no pulldown is used.

In SD, the camera offers a single, 9 Mbit/sec bitrate using MPEG-2, also called HQ. The 480-line formats also offer 60i, 30p, and 24p frame rates in both 4×3 and 16×9, and all are recorded as 720×480/60i: 2:2 pulldown for 30p, and 2:3 pulldown for 24p.

Side note for FCP users: while the NX5U’s HD footage is easily read by Final Cut Pro’s Log And Transfer tool, the SD footage is assiduously ignored. You can drag ‘n’ drop the .MPG clips into FCP, but they’ll show up with incorrect pixel dimensions—640×480 for 4×3 and 720×404 for 16×9—and no audio. I used MPEG Streamclip to demux the program-stream files into something FCP understood; imported the resulting .M2V clips into FCP; then rendered out as ProRes422 which I re-imported to extract stills. (Converting to unscaled ProRes within MPEG Streamclip caused excessive aliasing and resolution loss; rather than faff about with debugging my settings I just went with “demux to unscaled” for expediency’s sake. Likewise, asking FCP to export a still frame from the .M2Vs directly resulted in all-white stills, hence the ProRes step.) At least for FCP users, the NX5U’s MPEG-2 format isn’t likely to displace DV any time soon—at least not by choice!

All the camera’s formats use 4:2:0 color subsampling, which is tolerable for progressive video but is fundamentally broken for interlaced. For small HD cameras, this is par for the course; AVCHD, HDV, and XDCAM EX all share this chroma format. For SD, 4:2:0 is used in 576-line DV and DVCAM, but 480-line DV and DVCAM (and all variants of DVCPRO25) use 4:1:1, which generally has superior multigeneration performance: chroma smears a bit more horizontally, but it doesn’t bleed as much vertically, nor does it show jagged sawtooth diagonals the way interlaced 4:2:0 does.

Overall, the NX5U’s FX (24 Mbit/sec) AVCHD looks very good; roughly comparable to 35 Mbit/sec XDCAM EX. With lower bitrates, lower quality: 17 Mbit FH looks a bit better than HDV, 9 Mbit HQ looks a bit worse, and 5 Mbit looks perfectly acceptable as long as there isn’t much motion!

Switching between 1080 and 720 frame sizes requires a reboot; switching between frame rates does not. Switching between SD and HD as a recording format doesn’t require a reboot because the SD signal is simply downsampled from the current HD format.

Selecting a frame rate and frame size is interesting, as there isn’t an HD/SD selection as such: you can choose between the various 1080- and 720-line options at will, and a corresponding SD selection is made in parallel.

The NX5U pairs an SD recording format with every HD format selection.

Instead, you choose where the NX5U records which format: HD to the card slots and SD to the external flash memory unit; SD to the slots and HD externally, or HD to both the slots and external FMU.

You can record to both the memory slots and the FMU in parallel, either recording two HD feeds for redundancy or one SD and one HD feed. You can also set up the two START/STOP buttons to control recording on one media type only.

The NX5U lets you trigger recording to cards and FMU together or separately.

For example, the top button could control the FMU while the handle button triggers recording to the memory slots. In this way, you could record an entire event to the FMU, and trigger the recording of selected shots to the memory slots, so you have selects immediately available for a quick edit without having to scrub through the entire show to find them.

The NX5U offers “relay recording” between its two memory slots; when a card in one slot fills up, recording will switch to the other slot automatically, so you can keep swapping cards without stopping. A 16 GB memory card will store between 85 minutes and 6.25 hours of footage depending on bitrate, so relay recording isn’t likely to be as critical with the AVCHD NX5U as it is with higher-bitrate cameras using XDCAM EX, AVC-Intra, or DVCPROHD formats.

Relay recording only works between memory slots, not between the slots and the FMU. Given that two 16 GB cards will give you from 3 to 12.5 hours of storage, while the FMU holds 11+ hours at highest quality and 51+ hours at the highest compression, it’s intimidating to consider the sort of shoot that would requite such a capability; you’re likely to need multiple camera operators before you’re likely to fill up the FMU and two memory cards.

The NX5U has the same “Smooth Slow Recording” feature seen on Sony’s HDV CMOS cams: it will shoot short bursts (3, 6, or 12 seconds) of low-resolution, high-speed footage (4x real time, or 120fps) to a memory buffer, then record it as a 1080/60i file using any of the four quality levels, or as a 480/60i file. It’s a useful trick for quick-and-dirty motion analysis or stylistic slo-mo, but the images are of poor enough quality that they won’t intercut with normal clips. The 3 & 6 second modes resolve a bit over 300 TVl/ph with minimal mosquito noise, while the 12 second mode drops to around 250 TVl/ph with substantial compression artifacts.

If you’re used to working with Smooth Slow Recording on Sony’s HDV cameras, you might be a bit stymied at first, as I was; SSR isn’t found anywhere in the menus. Instead, you use the Mode button to select Camera; then Smooth Slow Rec; then choose SD or HD recording to either a memory slot or the FMU; then pick the recording time. The camera puts you into SSR mode, whereupon you can grab SSR clip after SSR clip. You exit SSR by pressing the Mode button again.

If you’re used to working with single-frame or interval recording on Sony’s HDV cameras, you will be stymied for good: the NX5U doesn’t offer either one.

Displays

The EVF and LCD crop a couple of percent of the image laterally but show 100% of the picture vertically. The LCD panel is 1920×480, or 640 RGB triads x 480 lines, while the EVF is an RGB-sequential 852×480 LCOS panel (there’s some color shimmering during rapid eye movement, but the tradeoff is a superbly smooth and naturalistic image). Neither display shows any visible pixel gridding. Both are good for roughly 350 TVl/ph of resolution, which is detailed enough given the size of the screens. Yes, I’d like bigger ones capable of showing even more detail: the LCD is 3.2″ diagonally, yet its image seems far smaller than the picture on an EX1’s 3.5″ LCD; the magnification of the EVF is similarly small compared to that of the EX1. Nonetheless, they are quite usable.

The NX5U’s LCD with data displays turned on.

Like other recent Sonys, the displays can be filled with well-designed data readouts, or decluttered at the push of a button. All exposure parameters can be shown even when they’re automatically set (in which case a small, inverse-video “A” appears beside them). A zebra settable from 70% to 100+% is available for keeping tabs on exposure, but the NX5U has no histogram display.

The InfoLithium battery keeps you apprised of its estimated remaining time in minutes. The zoom setting, if set to numerical readout, is always present; the focus reading only appears briefly while you’re focusing, and only in manual mode: in autofocus, there’s no way to see where the lens is set, even if you’re using the manual override to fix a bad focus setting.

The NX5U’s LCD showing separate STBY indicators for memory slots and external FMU.

You’ll get two STBY/REC indicators when you have memory cards and the FMU installed because they can be recorded on independently, and because even when using them simultaneously, one may run out of space before the other does.

Three levels of digital peaking are available, and peaking can be shown in white, yellow, or red. Expanded focus blows up the middle of the image by a factor of two for more precise focusing; fortunately it can be used even while recording, which is when you need it most!

The EVF and LCD show clean, consistent color, though both displays showed a sepia/magenta cast on my prototype camera. The EVF, being sequentially illuminated with separate R, G, & B LEDs, doesn’t suffer from any angular color shift, and the LCD, while not perfect, is still good at holding both color and tonal scale values as your viewing angle changes.

The EVF can be set to monochrome mode; the battery gauge is still shown in blue and the STBY/REC indicator remains green and red, but the rest of the picture desaturates almost entirely, retaining just the barest hint of color. I found it advantageous to set the EVF to monochrome when using the digital peaking function, as the bright red (or yellow) peaking signal stands out clearly from the desaturated image.

The view through the EVF in monochrome mode with red digital peaking enabled.

The LCD is daylight viewable, though fingerprints on its touchscreen surface can be a bit distracting when most of the screen’s illumination is external rather than internal.

Audio

The NX5U is unique (so far) among AVCHD cameras in that it gives you the choice of Dolby Digital (AC-3) compressed audio, or linear PCM uncompressed audio. Both choices sample the signal at 16 bits and 48 kHz, but the PCM audio is free of compression artifacts.

The built-in stereo mikes record clear and vivid sound, as did the short shotgun. As is usually the case, the on-camera shockmount is barely adequate to isolate the mike from handling noises, though it’s slightly better at isolation than the built-in mikes are. I found that the built-ins tended to record more high-frequency handling noise, while the short shotgun caught more of the low grumble of the zoom motor and the rumble of moving the camera from hand to hand; the shotgun generally had a deeper bass response overall. Both mikes picked up zoom motor noise whether or not “speed zoom” was engaged. Really, if you want to avoid camera noise, get the mikes away from the camera—this isn’t specific to the NX5U at all.

The stereo mikes captured a realistic stereo soundscape. The short shotgun is mono, but more directional, with a tight cardioid pattern than did a good job of favoring frontal sounds over those from the sides and rear.

The camera’s wind noise filters roll off lower frequencies effectively. There are separate wind-cut settings for the XLRs and the internal mics, and you can set both auto and manual gain settings for the XLRs to be linked as a pair or separately controlled. You can adjust XLR input trims by +12 to -18dB in 6 dB steps; you can set the internal mikes to normal or high sensitivity.

Of course the physical switches and knobs on the left side of the cameras and on the rear of the XLR pod let you control mike/line selections, phantom power, and gain settings for both channels independently.

The headphone output is quite clean, and packs enough punch to make your ears bleed if you’re incautious with volume and gain.

Picture Profiles

The cameras offer six sets of custom presets, called Picture Profiles. These let you change the way the camera renders its images:

  • Vary the master black level, along with R, G, and B black levels individually.
  • Choose a gamma setting from Standard (like 709 gamma but with slightly compressed highlights), Cinematone 1, Cinematone 2, ITU709, ITU709 with a toe slope of 5 instead of 4.5 for increased shadow separation, PD to better match DCR-PD-series camcorders (slightly crushed, contrastier shadows), and x.v. for x.v.Color (wide gamut) recording (like 709 with slight black stretch). Cinematones have depressed midtones, as seen on other Cinematone-capable Sonys.
  • Black gamma: change the shadow gamma range between low (below 15% brightness) / medium (up to 25%) / high ( up to 50%), and vary black stretching or compression over a 15-step range.
  • Knee: Choose auto or manual knee; set the auto knee’s sensitivity and maximum allowed white level; set the manual knee’s setpoint and slope.
  • Color mode: Choose between standard, 709, and two Cinematone matrices, and mix between the selected matrix and standard over an 8-step range. I found the standard matrix looked very much like 709 on other cameras, while 709 seemed oversaturated.
  • Color level (saturation) and phase (hue).
  • Color depth: for each of the six primary and secondary colors, vary the brightness of that color while keeping its saturation constant: the waveform monitor changes as you tweak a color, while the vectorscope doesn’t!
  • WB Shift: vary the camera’s idea of white, either by warm/cool and green/magenta controls (thus giving you both “color temperature” and “tint” controls), or by R gain and B gain.
  • Detail: vary the detail level over 15 steps; turn detail on or off; change H/V balance; positive-going/negative-going enhancement balance; black and white limits; crispening; and highlight detail setting. In sub-$15,000 cameras, only the EX1 and EX3 give you more control of the detail signal.
  • Skintone detail: choose a color to undo or limit the effects of detail enhancement on.
  • Name the profile; copy it to another profile setting, or reset it to defaults.

In short, it’s similar to the picture profiles on Sony’s HDV cameras, though it lacks the “color correction” function those cameras possess.

Playback

Pressing the MODE button lets you choose “Play”, which leads to the further choice of “Visual Index” or “Playlist”.

“Visual Index” displays a thumbnail screen, segregated by clip location (slot A, slot B, or external) and by type (HD or SD). You can point to a clip, using either the touchscreen or the navigation keys and/or thumbwheel, and see clip metadata below the thumbnails.

The NX5U’s Visual Index screen.

Touch the clip again, press the EXEC button, or click the thumbwheel inwards, and the clip plays.

Clip playback with controls and displays onscreen.

You can use the touchscreen to control playback; the controls remain onscreen at all times (even on the camera’s outputs, if you’ve enabled data display on them) unless you push the DISPLAY button to remove data overlays and show the image undisturbed. Simply touching the LCD re-displays the controls if you’ve hidden them. If you’re not the touchy-feely sort, the transport buttons on the camera’s top panel work perfectly well, too.

You can play a clip forward in slo-mo, real time, or a variety of fast scans; you can also play backwards in jumps of half a second at a variety of speeds. There is, alas, no single-frame capability, so pausing on a specific frame is a matter of luck and timing.

The “Playlist” option lets you see an almost identical screen, but one restricted to the clips you’ve placed into a playlist. Each storage medium has its own playlist, which you edit (not surprisingly) in the “Edit” mode. “Edit” also lets you protect clips, delete them, and divide long clips into smaller clips. You can also scroll through clips, extracting a still frame as a JPEG; quite handy, though once again the inability to single-step through a clip adds some frustration to the process (there is a “step” button, but it jumps half a second at a time, to the next GOP boundary).

Postproduction

The NX5U’s USB port makes the two memory slots available, one at a time, over USB. When connected to USB, the camera gives you the choice of slot A or slot B; unlike dual-slot SxS and P2 cameras, you can’t see both of the NX5U’s slots at the same time over USB.

The FMU isn’t visible over USB while attached to the camera; you have to remove it from the NX5U and plug it in via its own USB port.

Once mounted, both memory cards and the FMU look like standard storage devices to the computer. I transferred 32 GB of data (about three hours of video) from the FMU to my Mac mini’s 5400rpm hard drive in about 17 minutes.

Ingesting the NX5Us’s AVCHD directly from the FMU into Final Cut Pro, transcoding it to ProRes422 using the awesome power of the mini’s 2 GHz Core2Duo CPU, took 1.7x real time (17 minutes to transcode 10 minutes of 1080/24p footage).

The NX5U’s standard-def MPG clips weren’t directly discovered by FCP (and for reasons I discussed previously, this was probably a good thing!), but they were openable in FCP, QuickTime, and iMovie, as well as other tools like MPEG Streamclip.

Stills extracted from clips on the camera itself are stored in their own DCIM directory tree, just as on any digital still camera; on my Mac, Aperture opened up automatically and offered to transfer the stills to my library.

I didn’t explore Windows post, but Sony supplies a Content Management Utility on a CD-ROM; it runs on XP SP 3, Vista SP2, or Windows 7, and a 2.2 GHz Core2Duo CPU or better is recommended. The CMU lets you view and import stills and clips, and even reads GPS metadata embedded in clips to show you where the clip was shot using Google Maps.

Other Functions and Features

  • You can set the smallest aperture used in auto-iris mode to any half-stop setting from f4 to f11, to avoid diffraction-related sharpness loss.
  • You can vary the responsiveness/speed of auto-exposure and auto-white-balance tracking, and set the speed at which gain and white balance switch changes are performed, allowing smoother gain and color changes.
  • You can enable x.v.Color mode, which overrides many of the image adjustments, to record in an expanded-gamut mode. The visual effect on a normal display is that saturation appears to drop slightly; on a wide-gamut display, the saturation range of colors is expanded.
  • HD pictures can be downconverted to SD on all outputs in letterbox, squeeze, or edge-cut modes.
  • SD can be recorded in 4:3 or 16:9 modes.
  • Timecode is fully tweakable: Preset vs. Regen, DF vs. NDF, etc. Timecode is 30-frame TC in 60i, 60p, and 30p formats, and 24-frame non-drop in 24p formats. Timecode is available on the TC LINK jack and on the SDI output.
  • Digital Extender magnifies the image about 1.5x at all times when it’s on; it’s not like the digital zoom on some cameras that only engages once the optical zoom is at its limit. The downside is that HD resolution drops to around 600 TVl/ph; the upside is that the zoom can be used throughout its range with no sudden changes in zoom speed or image quality, and that in SD recording there’s no resolution loss since 600 lines is still more than SD can record.
  • Shutter speeds can be displayed as fractions of a second, or as degrees of shutter opening (film style).

There are a few other things worth mentioning.

720p is, to some extent, a second-class format on the NX5U. It only supports 60 fps, not 30 or 24; and some functions, like Smooth Slow Recording and Digital Extender, can’t be used in 720p.

The supplied battery charger / AC adapter looks similar to comparable Sony units, but in place of the informative LCD display that many of those other chargers use to convey state of charge and charge time remaining, the NX5U’s charger makes do with a single yellow LED, which goes out when the battery is charged.

The NX5U’s outputs mostly operate on an exclusive basis. When SDI is selected, SDI and HDMI are enabled; component and composite are disabled. When HDMI is selected, SDI is disabled and HDMI is output; if no HDMI cable is connected, then component is enabled; if no component cable is connected, then composite works. If you choose component, neither SDI nor HDMI works, but if you disconnect component, then composite works. If you select composite, it’s the only thing that works no matter what.

Within their limits, the outputs support 1080i, 720p, 480p, and/or 480i depending on menu selection. SDI doesn’t support 480p, and composite is (of course) 480i at all times, but component and HDMI support all four signal types.

Downconverted outputs can be edge-cropped; anamorphically squeezed, or letterboxed in your choice of 16×9, 15×9, 14×9, or 13×9 ratios (and edge-cropping is of course 12×9, a.k.a. 4×3). Don’t let it ever be said that Sony didn’t give you enough downconversion options.

In most ways, the HXR-NX5U is a cousin to the HVR-Z5u HDV camcorder, as it shares the same lens and sensors, and has a very similar set of features and image tweaks. Of course, the recording formats differ; aside from that rather large difference, the NX5U offers these operational advantages:

  • Full-raster 1920×1080 recording.
  • 720/60p recording.
  • Linear PCM audio recording.
  • HD-SDI output with audio and timecode.
  • Standard RCA jacks for composite video and audio.
  • TC LINK for jam-syncing timecode between cameras.
  • Headphone channel selection (left, right, or both).
  • Active Steadyshot.
  • Built-in GPS.

However, the NX5U falls short of the HVR-Z5U in the following ways:

  • No shot transitions. (programmable focus / zoom / exposure changes).
  • No Extended Clear Scan (fractional shutter speeds for shooting flickery things).
  • No Color Correction (pick a color, and change its hue and/or saturation).
  • No interval recording.
  • No single-frame recording.
  • No still picture capability (though you can extract stills from clips).
  • No exposure histogram.
  • No record-review or index mark functions.
  • Can’t automatically set timecode user bits to the date (you can still set it up manually).
  • No i.LINK (1394, FireWire) connector—the camera doesn’t shoot any i.LINK-compatible format. Recording to an external deck requires one with SDI, HDMI, or component inputs.

Next: Conclusions


The NXCAM HXR-NX5U is Sony’s first professional AVCHD camcorder (the special-purpose HXR-MC1 aside). It’s roughly comparable to the HVR-Z5U in features and functionality, but offers full-raster solid-state recording with higher visual quality than its HDV tape-based stablemate.

The NX5U lets you record to dual PRO Duo Memory Sticks, to an optional 128 GB Flash Memory Unit, or both at the same time, either simultaneously or separately. It can capture HD and SD at the same time. Its HDMI output connects with inexpensive third-party capture cards and portable recorders, and it also offers a fully professional SDI output with embedded audio and timecode. Its TC LINK port lets one NX5U jam its timecode to another’s, or to any SMPTE LTC source, making multicam shoots (and the subsequent editing thereof) more pleasant.

It records 1080i, 1080p, 720p, and 480i, so you’re able to handle SD and HD gigs with equal ease.

The NX5U’s CMOS imagers deliver a reasonable tradeoff between resolution, sensitivity, and noise, delivering beautiful images with only the occasional telltale artifact that they aren’t full-res sensors. Its controls over color, exposure, knee, gamma, and detail give you ample ability to change the look of the picture. Smooth Slow Record gives you 4x slo-mo capability, albeit in short bursts with sub-SD resolution.

The NX5U’s 20x G lens goes admirably wide and long, and it has low chromatic aberration. It shows a bit of distortion, but it’s not bad given the range of the zoom, and it’s less distressing at the wide end than the lenses on the EX1 and EX3.

The NX5U handles like any other pro-level handycam, with controls placed in the same positions you’ll find ’em on other handycams; users of other Sony DV, DVCAM, and HDV camcorders will find the NX5U an easy camera to adapt to. It lacks a few things Sony users have become accustomed to, like an exposure histogram, Extended Clear Scan, and interval recording, but these aren’t showstoppers for most folks.

The NX5U has both built-in stereo mikes and a separate shotgun, as well as dual XLR inputs. The camera has all the analog audio flexibility you’d expect in a professional dual-channel camcorder.

So, fine, another nice Handycam from Sony… what’s really interesting is that it’s a full-up, no-excuses pro-level AVCHD camcorder, the first of the NXCAM line. Yes, Sony has other solid-state cameras like the EX1 and EX3, but this camera competes head-to-head with Sony’s own tape-based HVR-Z5U. At NXCAM’s highest quality recording—1920×1080, 24 Mbit/sec AVCHD (MPEG-4) with uncompressed PCM audio—the NX5U’s recorded clips clearly outclass the 1440×1080, 25 Mbit/sec HDV (MPEG-2) clips recorded by the HVR-Z5U.

Does this signal the end of HDV as a mainstream format? Quite possibly, even probably.

Panasonic never hopped on the HDV bandwagon, opting instead for AVCCAM (their own branding of professional AVCHD) and AVC-Intra (I-frame-only, 10 bit, 4:2:2 AVC at 50 and 100 Mbit/sec). Panasonic’s lineup has been tapeless for a couple of years now, though they still maintain backwards compatibility with DV, DVCPRO, DVCPRO50, and DVCPROHD recording on P2 cards.

JVC has followed their highly successful tape-based HD100- and HD200-series HDV camcorders with the full-raster, 35 Mbit/sec XDCAM EX-compatible HM-series cameras recording to SDHC cards. Those JVCs can still record 19 Mbit 720p and 25 Mbit 1080i/p HDV-compatible files to memory, though DV isn’t supported in the newer cameras.

Canon still uses HDV and DV in their tape-based XL-series and XH-series professional camcorders, but with their 5D Mark II, 7D, and 1D Mark IV DSLRs all shooting h.264 video to memory cards, how long will it be until that codec and that storage format show up in Canon’s video products?

Before we get carried away, remember that both Canon and Sony are still shipping tape-based HDV- and DV-format camcorders, and I don’t expect these units to be discontinued in the immediate future. Tape still has the advantage of cheapness: you can show up on a gig, shoot, and hand the tape to the client at the end of the day and walk away; you can shoot tape and then just put it on the shelf once it’s captured.

But memory cards are getting cheap enough that, if you need the instant-handoff or store-it-on-the-shelf workflow, it’s becoming tolerable to do so (yes, even with PRO Duo Memory Sticks). Cards are still pricey compared to DV or HDV tapes, but they’re cheap compared to Betacam or HDCAM tapes or XDCAM HD discs.

The 11+ hour capacity of the NXCAM Flash Memory Unit pretty much puts to rest the fear of shooting long-duration events on solid-state media. Even a pair of 16 GB cards will get you nearly three hours on the NX5U, shooting best quality video and uncompressed audio, and you can swap cards while recording (and 32 GB PRO Duo cards are available, too, though they’re rather spendy at present). Even documentary folks headed off to the deepest, darkest, most inaccessible parts of the world need not fear solid-state recording when a pocketful of cards will record tens or hundreds of hours of material—and cards, unlike tapes, are easily and safely reusable hundreds or thousands of times.

HDV has been a useful transitional format, making affordable HD recording widely available in the dawn of the high-definition era. But HDV images have always been a bit on the fragile side, too readily showing noticeable artifacts when heavily stressed. The compression used to squeeze HDV down to a tolerable data rate for low-cost tape transports shows its weaknesses especially when looking at still frames, doing slo-mo in post, or whenever trying to pull a clean key or extracting a stable point-based motion track; artifacts cleverly minimized in full-motion video become all too visible in these activities. I have frequently thought of HDV as the Hi8 of HD recording: a brave attempt to push a technology just a bit further than it was willing to go. Yes, it’s perfectly workable, but you have to be very cognizant of its limitations, and work within them.

High-bitrate AVCHD uses roughly the same data rate as HDV, yet it captures a noticeably higher quality image. It’s still not perfect, not by any means, but—along with 35 Mbit/sec XDCAM EX—it’s “better enough” that that many of the things that HDV falls down on work acceptably well with AVCHD.

The price, of course, is that it’s a much more computationally intensive codec to work with: you’ll need a fairly recent CPU to process and play it back at full frame rates, and some NLEs (like FCP) really want to transcode it to a more edit-friendly codec, even when the same NLEs work with HDV files natively.

HDV won’t fade away overnight. There are still plenty of HDV camcorders for sale, and there are a lot of folks happily using HDV workflows with computers that aren’t up to the task of decoding AVCHD. But I don’t expect the HDV universe to keep growing; AVCHD is gradually usurping its place as the standard format for low-cost HD acquisition. That Sony has introduced the NX5U alongside Sony’s own HDV camcorders only confirms this.

How about DV? It’s widespread, it’s quick and easy to edit on decade-old computers, and it lives on as the SD format on Panasonic’s P2 cameras. But when NXCAM drops DV for its SD recording in favor of MPEG-2, and when JVC’s HM-series machines drop SD recording altogether (as do Panasonic’s AVCCAMs), I think the writing is on the wall; DV’s reign as an SD acquisition format may be nearing its end. Fortunately, both Panasonic and Sony still provide DV/DVCAM/DVCPRO on their P2-series, HVR-series, and EX-series camcorders, so we still have options—but as the consumer formats increasingly dictate what we can get in the professional / industrial space, I can’t be as confident as I’d like about the long-term prospects.

As to tape? All vendors now have serious solid-state camcorders in their professional lineups (at least if you allow Canon’s video-capable DSLRs to count). With Sony’s announcement of solid-state storage for HDCAM SR, even the high end isn’t safe; Panasonic’s Varicams are entirely tapeless already and have been for a while.

Tape will likely remain as a studio-based format for program layoff, archiving, and distribution, at least for a while. Remember also that most of the video material shot in the past 50 years resides on tapes, so there will be a need for playback machines until all that material gets transferred to bit-based media.

But for acquisition? When Sony ships their solid-state SR recorder (SSSRR) in the next few years, I think we’ll finally be able to say that tape is dead.

Hey, I could be wrong. It’ll be fun to find out, eh?

Pros

  • 20x G-series zoom.
  • ISO 400 nominal sensitivity (ISO 200 at -6dB gain).
  • 800+ TVl/ph resolution with acceptably smooth, natural detail.
  • 1080i, 1080p, 720p, and 480i recording.
  • Interlaced and true progressive modes.
  • Killer EVF and very good LCD; good peaking control.
  • Best-in-the-business viewfinder data displays.
  • Sensible ergonomics and superb, silky-smooth lens servos.
  • Sony Steadyshot with several “firmness” settings; Active Steadyshot.
  • Comprehensive Picture Profile tweaks, most with 15 steps of adjustment.
  • Very good shotgun mike included along with good built-in stereo mike; flexible audio input options.
  • SDI and HDMI outputs.
  • Standard RCA jacks for composite and audio outputs.
  • Dual memory slots accepting low-cost PRO Duo Memory Sticks.
  • Optional Flash Memory unit for 11+ hours recording time.
  • High-quality, full-raster 24 Mbit/sec AVCHD recording with linear PCM audio capability.
  • Expanded focus function can be used while recording.
  • Camcorder can be upgraded to 60Hz/50Hz “world cam” capability (contact Sony for details).

Cons

  • Lens has a fair amount of distortion through much of its range.
  • Resolution drops with increased gain.
  • Smooth Slow Motion clips have low resolution and many compression artifacts.
  • 24p standard-def recorded as 60i with 2:3 pulldown.
  • Lens servo rings aren’t end-stopped, labeled, or calibrated.
  • Focusing distance data unavailable in autofocus, or in manual focus when focus isn’t being changed.
  • No Extended Clear Scan.
  • No histogram, interval recording,or single-frame capture.
  • No single-step frame advance in playback.
  • Battery charger lacks charge level / time remaining readouts.

Cautions

  • I reviewed a prototype camcorder; the shipping unit may differ from what I saw.
  • Standard-def clips are 4:2:0 MPEG-2, not DV.
  • AVCHD requires transcoding in FCP; requires substantial CPU power in all NLEs.
  • CMOS rolling shutter.
  • Flash Memory Unit is optional; it’s not included with the NX5U.
  • No i.LINK; recording to an offboard tape deck requires one with HDMI, SDI, or component inputs.

Would I buy one? If I were in the market for a reasonably full-featured HD Handycam at the $5000 level, and I had the choice between the HDV-based HVR-Z5U and the AVCHD-based HXR-NX5U, there wouldn’t be any contest. Sure, the NX5U is missing a few things I frequently need, like ECS and a histogram, but the higher image quality afforded by FX-mode AVCHD, as well as the benefits of a tapeless workflow, makes it a no-brainer: I’d take the NX5U over the HVR-Z5U in a New York second. For a $5000 camcorder, it’s a winner.

However, I mourn the lack of DV/DVCAM recording, as well as the true 1920×1080 sensors, hypergammas, ECS, interval recording, and variable frame rates I’ve come to love on the EX-series camcorders; I’d probably try to dig up the extra money for a PMW-EX1R, assuming its HD-to-SD downconversion is as clean as that on the PMW-350. It’s at least $1500 more expensive than the HXR-NX5U ($2840 more by list prices!), and it’s a real beast to handle by comparison, but it makes fewer compromises in terms of absolute image quality. But if I didn’t have that kind of money, the NX5U would be top of my list.

Your decision may vary, of course. But that’s why I would buy one. Whether you would buy one is up to you!

16 CFR Part 255 Disclosure

Sony sent me a prototype NXCAM HXR-NX5U with Flash Memory Unit for review. I will return it to Sony at my own expense.

All hardware, software, and documentation sent to me for the review will be returned to Sony; I will retain an electronic copy of the preliminary user’s manual for reference.

No material connection exists between myself and Sony; Sony provides no compensation to me for reviewing equipment and has not influenced me with payments, discounts, or other blandishments to encourage a favorable review.


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Adam Wilt

Adam Wilt

Adam Wilt has been working off and on in film and video for the past thirty years, while paying the bills writing software for animation, automation, broadcast graphics, and real-time control for companies including Abekas, Pinnacle, Omneon, CBS, and ABC. Since 1997 his website, adamwilt.com, has been a popular reference for information on the DV formats. He reviewed cameras for DV Magazine and started its “Technical Difficulties” column, and taught classes and led panels at NAB, IBC, and DV Expo. He co-authored the book, “Optimizing Your Final Cut Pro System”, part of the Apple Pro Training series. He currently writes for ProVideoCoalition.com and DVInfo.net, and creates iPhone apps like Cine Meter II and Wi-Fi WFM.