Sony's press conference at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show was a little more subdued than normal. Gone were the big reveals and celebrity sightings. Instead, Sony had one very consistent message: 4K is the future, and Sony's ready to serve all the 4K you can possibly handle.
In addition to the plethora of 4K-ready television sets, Sony promised content-delivery systems and even showed off a concept for a consumer-ready Handycam capable of 4K video capture. We were able to look at the 4K concept model, as well as discus some of the possibilities with Sony representatives who were on hand.
We apologize for the lack of specifics here, as there's simply not much that has been finalized about this camera. It's rare for a company to show a concept in such an early stage, but given the nascence of consumer 4K technology, we felt it was worth discussing.
Design & Usability
There's not much "handy" about this so-called Handycam.
Looking at the 4K concept camera, it didn't appear that Sony was aiming for much of a "consumer" device at all; the concept looks precisely like Sony's prosumer and professional cameras, replete with multiple control rings, physical buttons, a built-in monitor, a viewfinder, and a handle on top. When we think "Handycam," this isn't normally the form factor that springs to mind. The most obvious consumer-level comparison that we can think of is the Sony HDR-FX1000, a high-end miniDV camera that can still be purchased at Sony's store for around $3,000.
The only consumer-specific feature we could see was the "Handycam" label that had been affixed to the side of the camera. The fact is, whether by choice or by necessity, Sony's eventual production 4K camera will likely require a fairly savvy user to operate it. Again, all of this is subject to change since the camera wasn't anywhere near final or even operational, but it's clear that Sony feels 4K early adopters will want the control afforded by such a prosumer device rather than the simplified compact camcorders we typically associate with Handycams.
Sony's XAVC format is promising, but cumbersome.
Just about the only thing we know about Sony's possible 4K consumer camcorder is that it will provide a great deal of physical, manual control and it will record 4K. Without specifications or even a final design, we're left to speculate about what this camera could be when it comes to market. The only piece of information we could glean from our time with the camera is that Sony plans to utilize their XAVC video codec, which complies with H.264 Level 5.2.
XAVC is a new format designed by Sony that can record 4K (either at the cinema standard 4096 x 2160 or the de facto consumer standard of 3840x2160) with 4:2:2 chroma subsampling at up to 60 frames per second. The format is media friendly, but 4K bitrates range from 240Mbps (24p) to 600Mbps (60p), with a maximum of 960Mbps. The format is already in use with Sony's F5 and F55 professional 4K camcorders, so the idea of a plug and play solution for consumers isn't that far fetched. Still, you can expect XAVC video to eat up plenty of hard drives: According to Sony, a 128Gb SxS Pro+ Sony card would max out in about 20 minutes when recording 4K at 60fps.
Is that cost worthwhile for consumers? If they're already going to eat the massive cost of the early 4K displays we've seen here at CES, then this concept may actually have a niche to satisfy. Even for those who aren't going to grab a 4K display, the format would provide incredible quality and flexibility with its ability to record full HD at faster framerates. Sony also stated that they are working with NLE developers to ensure support with programs such as Adobe Creative Suite, Avid, Final Cut Pro, and its own Sony Vegas software.
A glimpse into the 4K future
4K is coming. That's the message every display company has made clear here at CES 2013. If you just paid attention to companies like LG, Sony, and Samsung, you'd think that 4K was already readily available at your local Best Buy. But really, it's way earlier in the game than that, and it's telling that for all the buzz about 4K on the display side, there's precious little news about camcorders that can record 4K video.
Sony, sitting on both sides of that fence, clearly sees a new territory where they can plant a flag. The 4K concept camera they've shown here at CES is about as raw a product as we've ever reviewed in our time covering the show. Given the fluid nature of the industry, companies simply don't tend to play hands this early in the game. But Sony sees a need to show that 4K is a technology that can be as consumer-friendly as HD eventually became.
Is the 4K concept camera they've shown off going to achieve that? Probably not. Assuming something like this ever makes it to market, its form factor is certainly aimed more at video enthusiasts than everyday consumers; We can't imagine dragging this thing to your kid's soccer game. Still, we're not entirely sure that matters. If anything, the idea of a lower-end 4K-capable camcorder will appeal to those looking to capture incredible high quality video without shelling out for a pro model. With cost-conscious competitors like the JVC GY-HMQ10 already available at around $5,000, 4K may not be as far out of reach as you think.