Few companies have pushed for mass 4K adoption like Sony. It's no mystery why: The company produces everything from 4K content via Sony Pictures, to 4K televisions, to 4K laptop computers. It has a hugely vested interest in the format's success.
So it's no surprise that Sony is among the first to bring the cost of a 4K camcorder down to the realm of mere mortals. Last year's AX100 was the best camcorder we've ever tested, with an unparalleled set of features. While we thought it was reasonably priced at $2,000, the Handycam AX33 (MSRP $1099.99) is finally a 4K Handycam for the rest of us.
While it's cut from a different cloth than the 1-inch sensor–based AX100, the AX33 leverages unique design traits for some distinct advantages all its own. For one thing, it's the first Sony 4K camcorder to feature one of the most advanced image stabilization systems in the world, giving it a huge leg-up right out of the gate.
Design & Usability
Yup, it's a Handycam.
Not too long ago, Sony tried to pull a fast one on the tech world with the release of its so-called original 4K Handycam, the AX1. While we admired it for its then-bleeding-edge technology, the AX1 was clearly a professional camcorder with a tacked-on Handycam badge—essentially, a grab for bragging rights.
But with the AX100 and especially this AX33, true consumer 4K has finally arrived. The AX33's design and handling characteristics make it portable and user-friendly. This is a 4K Handycam that your mom or dad could pick up and use, no BA in Filmmaking required.
At first glance, the AX33 seems almost disconcertingly short on external controls. Thankfully, the touchscreen picks up the slack, offering a bevy of extra functionality. If you prefer physical controls, you'll find that the AX33 provides the basics: a start/stop recording button, photo button, and zoom slider. Look a little closer and you'll find a manual button, as well as a control ring around the lens.
When you flip out the LCD, you'll find a couple others, including a secondary power button, the playback toggle, and (this is a Sony after all) Night Shot mode. There's even a toggle that mutes the mic's rear audio channels so you can issue commands from behind the camera without hearing them in the finished product. This is also where the SD card is hidden—standard practice for a camcorder these days.
Making a welcome return is Sony's signature hidden USB cord, tucked into the hand strap. This lets you charge the camera from any ordinary USB port, no extra cable needed. We're all for solutions that lighten our camera bags, so kudos to Sony on that one.
Just about the only complaint we have about the AX33 is with its incredibly dull-looking EVF. It's nice to have an EVF when you're shooting in direct sunlight, but the AX33's is subpar even at this price point. Colors are washed out, and the image is surprisingly low-contrast.
Yo dawg, I heard you like 4K.
So, we've established that the AX33 is a far cry from the first 4K Handycam, but how does it compare to last year's AX100?
Well, we're not going to beat around the bush here: the AX100 is still the camcorder to beat if you're looking for supremely high-quality video, largely thanks to its big 1-inch sensor.
In order to keep the size and price of the AX33 down, Sony has used a more ordinary 1/2.3-inch chip. It's not a class-leader, but on the plus side, it has allowed Sony to build the entire camcorder around the unique BOSS image stabilization system. BOSS stands for Balanced Optical SteadyShot, and it does an extraordinary job at keeping the picture stable—even when you're shooting more demanding 4K footage.
BOSS ties together the entire imaging stack, from the motorized zoom to the lens elements and sensor, in a single unit. This unified apparatus is what the camera then shifts around to counteract shake.
I don't have the steadiest hands, so I'm used to seeing a little shake in video I record. It was absolutely nonexistent on the AX33. Moreover, the 10x optical zoom was blazingly fast, popping in and out with lightning speed at a slide of the control toggle. It's variable, of course, so the zoom speed is entirely up to you.
WiFi and NFC are both built in, and Sony is touting the newest version of its PlayMemories app as the best yet. We were most taken with the idea of controlling multiple Sony Action Cams and Handycams with a single phone—up to five can be connected and controlled at once.
The best demo was part of Sony's camcorder table at its CES booth, where you could strap the new 4K action camera (the X1000V) to the top of an AX33. You could then record simultaneously in 4K from each camera, getting a wide-angle shot from the action cam and a zoomed-in take from the AX33. (Sort of a DIY Panasonic 4K Twin Camera, except double the 4K.)
A pretty BOSS 4K option
While our time with the AX33 was brief, we were satisfied with what we saw from this powerful little camcorder. It's finally a 4K Handycam for the rest of us, and a critical addition to Sony's growing 4K ecosystem. Soup to nuts, Sony is fortifying itself to meet consumer demand when 4K finally catches on (and fervently hoping it does). We're excited to get our review unit into the labs, and to see what it can do out in the real world.