When it comes to 3CCD camcorders, Sony’s practice is to offer consumer and professional versions of the same camera, starting with the highly regarded DCR-VX2000 and DSR-PD150, and continuing with the HDR-FX1 and HVR-Z1U. With both duos, though the professional model has some extra features, the cameras share all critical quality-related components, including the lens, CCDs, and most internal circuitry, and they produce equivalent picture quality. However, the professional camera always costs substantially more.
For example, at the time I wrote this review, the FX1 cost about $3,500, and the Z1U about $4,900, a premium of $1,400 (all prices from Express Video Supply, Inc., www.evsonline.com). We’ve already reviewed the FX1 and found it to be a darling of a camcorder, as has the most of the rest of the world. Since you can expect the same audio/video quality from the Z1U, the price disparity raises the inevitable question: when and why should you spend the extra dough and buy the professional version?
Here we tackle precisely that issue, breaking the Z1U’s exclusive features into three classes: features that save you money, features that enable additional capabilities, and features that can refine or improve audio/video quality. Let’s start with the hard currency.
Two Z1U features provide direct cost savings: the dual XLR connectors and the AC-adapter/charger. I’ll deal with each issue in turn.
The FX1 has a 1/8″ stereo microphone input connector with one control for both left and right audio volume that can supply plug-in power for inexpensive consumer microphones. In contrast, the Z1U has two XLR connectors that can supply phantom power to professional microphones, and feature separate channel volume controls and meters and a built-in limiter to avoid clipping and other high-volume distortion.
You can acquire some of these extra features for the FX1 by buying a product like the Beachtek DXA-8 ($369), but that’s an extra piece of equipment to carry around and an extra battery to worry about while you’re shooting. What’s more, you’ll still be lacking the Z1U’s noise reduction feature that helps minimize mechanical noise sometimes generated by the internal microphone, though I didn’t experience this problem.
You also don’t get configuration options like the ability to send a monaural signal to both left and right channels, saving a step during editing and avoiding the potential embarrassment of having no audio coming out of the left (or right) speaker when your customer first plays the video.
While the DXA-8 does have a limiter, it can’t match the Z1U’s flexible configuration options, like setting automatic gain control, input levels, and wind filters for each XLR input. Overall, the value of the Z1U’s enhanced capabilities are probably worth a lot more than the cost of the DXA-8.
On the other hand, note that the Z1U does not have a 1/8″ stereo connector, which may be the only available output on some soundboards. If you’re shooting an event where you’ll connect to the location’s sound system, and you’re not sure of the available connectors, make sure you have adapters that can get you from a 1/4″ or 1/8″ stereo output to separate XLR connectors. These should cost under $20 total for a net savings of about $350.
One problem with the FX1 is that you charge the battery in the camcorder, which you can’t do while shooting, so you’re dead in the water if total shooting time exceeds aggregate battery life. Even when you’re not shooting, it seems pretty silly to keep a $3,000 camcorder plugged in to charge a $100 battery, which means that even casual shooters should probably buy a separate battery charger from Sony (about $150). Since the Z1U comes with said AC adapter/charger, you’ll save $150 by buying the Z1U.
All told, unless you already have a DXA-8 or equivalent, and/or the battery charger, most users considering the FX1 should expect to pay an extra $500 for necessary equipment, bringing the price disparity down to around $900. Now let’s examine features that allow the Z1U to perform tasks or provide capabilities that the FX1 simply can’t perform.
The Z1U has two major features and one minor feature that the FX1 can’t match. First, the Z1U can record in PAL and NTSC formats in both HDV and SD modes. In SD PAL mode, the Z1U records at full-height 720×576 resolution, courtesy of the high-resolution CCDs necessary for HDV recording. Note, however, that the camcorder can’t convert video shot in one mode to the other. Still, if you plan to shoot and deliver in both PAL and NTSC, the ability to record in both modes in itself may justify the remaining price premium.
The second major feature unavailable on the FX1 is support for DVCAM recording. When shooting DV, the FX1 can record in SP and LP modes, storing about 63 and 95 minutes respectively. In contrast, the Z1U can record in SP mode, storing the same 63 minutes, or in DVCAM mode, storing about 41 minutes of video on either a MiniDV tape or MiniDV-sized DVCAM tape.
Many professionals avoid DV LP recording mode because it hinders tape interchangeability between different camcorders, and can increase dropout, causing visible errors in the frames, since the same video signal is recorded on a smaller section of the tape (6.7 micron track pitch vs. 10 microns for SP mode). So the unavailability of LP mode on the Z1U isn’t a negative for most users.
Conversely, while you may not use DVCAM all the time, it’s a nice option for several reasons. DVCAM stores “locked” audio, which can help ensure audio/video synchronization in some editing environments, and can use true SMPTE timecode, which is important in some production environments. In addition, DVCAM records a track pitch of 15 microns, which further reduces the probability of dropout. Due in part to the increased track pitch, and also because DVCAM tapes are generally manufactured with a higher-quality tape stock, DVCAM tape should have a longer shelf life than DV tape.
That said, unless you’ve used DVCAM in the past, the availability of this recording mode on the Z1U probably won’t prove compelling (and it’s worth noting that it only works if you’re shooting DV; the DVCAM option grays out when you select HDV mode). Conversely, if you’re producing primarily in DVCAM mode, you’ll probably consider this a must-have feature that more than justifies the remaining $900 price premium.
Falling into the minor feature category is the Z1U’s ability to burn a time and date stamp into the video. While not useful to most videographers, if you’re a security firm shooting surveillance videos, or law firm recording depositions or similarly time-sensitive proceedings, it could be the deciding factor between the Z1U and FX1.
Now let’s move on to features that allow you to produce better-quality video.
In our tests, the FX1 produced outstanding quality in both DV and HDV modes. Here are some unique features of the Z1U that can improve video quality even further.
My video projects tend to be very diverse; an opera here, ballet there, bluegrass at the Rex, birthday party on the third floor. However, many repetitive television or business settings, or even a long wedding ceremony, can be improved with subtle image adjustments. Like the FX1, the Z1U offers six picture profiles with customizable settings for parameters like skin detail, which reduces wrinkles, and white balance shift, which can make a scene warmer with red tones or cooler with blue tones. One parameter offered by the Z1U but not the FX1 is black stretch, which picks up detail in shaded areas of the frame. Black stretch lets you utilize dramatic lighting, with significant contrast between well-lighted and darker regions without loss of detail in the latter.
If the entire image gets too dark, the Z1U offers HyperGain (see Figure 1), which boosts the exposure gain to 36dB, double the maximum 18dB on the FX1. While this inevitably introduces some noise into the image, it can make the difference between seeing the subject and not seeing the subject. Besides, without this feature, you’d probably have to boost brightness during editing, which may introduce another compression generation that otherwise might have been avoided.
Another unique image-related feature is color correction, which can work in one of two ways. First, you can select up to two colors in an image, and the camera will preserve these colors but convert the rest of the video to black and white. This is the effect shown in Figure 2. Alternatively, you can choose up to two colors in the image and then alter them for dramatic or artistic effect. Again, while some editors offer one or both of these features, it’s an adjustment best performed once, before encoding in the camera, to minimize compression artifacts.
Other noteworthy image adjustments include a white balance level shift to customize the camera’s outdoor white balance setting for time of day or other lighting conditions. You can also adjust the focus control while in auto-focus mode, allowing another level of customization.
In addition to these image adjustments, the Z1U includes a number of display tools not offered by the FX1. For example, you can set a center marker or action safe zone in the LCD and viewfinder displays to assist your framing. While I prefer the internal guideframe in the viewfinder of the VX2000, which helps promote “rule of thirds” type framing, these markers are better than nothing. Moreover, if you’re shooting HD for SD 4:3 output, you can set up a 4:3 marker (Figure 3, left) and configure your TV output to Edge Crop mode, which displays the video at full height and crops off the edges, providing a precise preview of how the video will look after final downsampling (Figure 3, right).
If you find the markers and other on-screen displays in the way while you’re shooting, you can eliminate them with a single button. As with the FX1, you can also shut the LCD backlight while shooting to preserve battery power.
Most experienced shooters will appreciate the ability to convert the color viewfinder to black and white, which is used on broadcast cameras to allow the shooter to focus on composition and content rather than color. Also helpful is the ability to display the zoom ratio as a number from 0 (no zoom) to 99 (full 12X zoom), in addition to the graph-like display available on the FX1, which adds precision when making repetitive zoom adjustments.
To test the Z1U, we shot one ballet recital and a bluegrass concert, as well as numerous ad hoc tests around the office. From a usability perspective, the camcorder is identical to the FX1, and delivered sharp audio and video quality. This was also the camcorder used in our “Battle of the Software NLEs” feature (see Part 1, pp. 22-30), so it synched up well with all tested editors.
Our only complaint concerned documentation, which seemed designed for broadcast professionals and focused more on “how to” than “why.” Instead of explaining when to use features like black stretch or DVCAM, it just described how to enable the feature in the menu. Sony obviously isn’t unusual in this regard, but good documentation becomes more important when you’re stepping up in device class, which many Z1U purchasers will be doing.
If you’re an experienced shooter, you’ll probably be in great shape, but if you’re stepping up from a consumer-class camcorder, even one like the VX2000, give yourself plenty of trial-and-error time, and start looking for third-party resources, such as HandsOn HDV from Studio 1 Productions (http://www.studio1productions.com/dvd-500.htm).
So, which is it, the FX1 or Z1U? If you need the unique features that the Z1U provides, like PAL or DVCAM, the decision is obvious. If not, and you’re in a corporate or academic environment (e.g., spending other people’s money), the price differential is pretty easy to justify, making the Z1U the obvious choice. If you’re a solo wedding videographer or freelancer, the $900 or so differential comes out of your pocket, making it somewhat more difficult to swallow.
Here, if you already have the necessary gear like the DXA-8 and battery charger, like I do, it would be tough to justify spending the extra $1,400 to purchase the Z1U. If you’re starting from scratch however, the convenience of working with one unit instead of two, the additional audio controls offered in the Z1U, and the picture tweaks, are probably worth the extra investment.