Our First Take
Sony released its first-ever 4K Ultra HD Handycam, the bulky AX1, just last September. But despite its name, the AX1 is more of a pro camcorder than a true Handycam. It's hard to imagine any normal person lugging one with them on vacation, or taking it to little Sally's volleyball tournament.
But, here we are, just four months later, and Sony has yet another option for early adopters. The company's unrelenting dedication to the soup-to-nuts 4K content stream has led to a crucial tipping point of simplification and miniaturization.
The new AX100 is, finally, a 4K camcorder that Sony can pitch to us normals. You won't find professional amenities like dual XLR jacks, manual audio level dials, or a rigid top handle with secondary controls. Instead, you get a camcorder that's small enough to use comfortably with one hand, powerful enough to serve professional videographers in a pinch, yet simple enough to not send the uninitiated screaming in the opposite direction.
Design & Usability
Sony's design story comes together
There's something about the AX100 that's reminiscent of Sony's top cameras, like the RX100 II, RX10, and A7. Perhaps it's the metal construction or the large, smoothly turning lens ring. Maybe it's the conspicuously placed royal blue Zeiss badge. The overall design just feels like it fits Sony's new One Sony initiative, matching the industrial design of its other premium imaging products.
Sony is touting the size difference between the AX1 and the AX100, quoting a 74% reduction in size and 66% reduction in weight. We'd be hard pressed to verify these numbers without getting into some pretty advanced geometry, but there's no doubting the fact that the AX100 is way, way smaller than the AX1. It's as easy to handle as any pro camcorder, and we'd say it's pretty close in size to competing prosumer models like Canon's Vixia HF G30.
That's not to say that its functionality is limited. Hardware controls are available for the built-in ND filter, manual focus, a customizable control knob, and gain/iris/shutter speed. These buttons advertise the AX100's chops for those who have the know-how to set these parameters manually.
We found the AX100 comfortable to hold with one hand, with a recording start/stop button and a chunky variable zoom toggle right where you'd expect them. The 3.5-inch touchscreen is workable for tapping through menus and selecting focus points, and the crisp EVF shows off all of OLED's strengths—it's all about the contrast.
It may be little, but it does a lot
Even though we're comparing this camcorder to its immediate predecessor, don't mistake this camcorder for a downsized AX1; it's a fundamentally different beast. For starters, the AX1 was based around a 1/2.3" CMOS sensor—way smaller than the chip in the AX100.
Instead, Sony played to its strengths and designed the AX100 around a 14.2-megapixel, 1-inch BSI CMOS sensor, similar to the ones that make Sony's RX100-series still cameras so excellent. That means you get excellent low-light capability along with subtle depth-of-field effects.
The sensor is paired with Zeiss-branded optics and seven aperture blades for smooth bokeh. You don't get much optical zoom—only 12x—but at the very least the lens offers a useful aperture range when zooming: f/2.8 on the wide end and f/4.5 when zoomed in.
One of the most important hurdles the AX100 overcomes is recording to readily available storage media. No longer is 4K production tied to pro-quality, incredibly expensive XQD media, as it was in the AX1. Instead, this new camcorder uses regular ol' Class 10 SDXC cards. That's because the AX100 shoots with the XAVC S codec, one of the first reasonably efficient 4K-compatible codecs on the market.
Another byproduct of this more efficient codec is dual video recording. This mode lets you shoot in full-HD 1080p while at the same time recording a 720p HD MP4 version of the footage for quick sharing over social networks.
While the AX1 could shoot in UHD resolution at 60p, the smaller AX100 is limited to 30p and 24p. In part, that's likely due to the tight thermal envelope of the diminutive AX100 body. A big camcorder like the AX1 can afford to run a little hot since it has the surface area for a larger active cooling system. But you wouldn't want prominent vents or fans on a user-friendly, compact camcorder like the AX100.
[Ed. note: The pros out there will want to know about the AX100's chroma subsampling capabilities, but unfortunately Sony hasn't made that information public quite yet.]
Sony has worked on making sure that even if you capture footage in 4K, you can share it on your current-generation equipment. The AX100 downscales in-camera to make your 4K footage playable on a standard full-HD television over HDMI.
The company also decided to exclude its Vegas editing suite from the AX100 kit. It's an awkward situation, since Vegas is the editing suite that's most compatible with XAVC S footage. The AX1 included the expensive software as a way to soften the blow of the camera's $4,000 price tag.
If you're an early adopter and plan on editing (and who doesn't?), factor in an extra $799.95 for the Vegas software suite, along with the $2,000 you'll lay out for the AX100 itself.
4K is happening, people. Deal with it.
Trying to solve the chicken-and-egg content question, Sony is pushing rapidly to conquer UHD. From capture, to editing and distribution, and all the way to display, the company is building a compelling next-generation lineup. And even better, it's increasingly accessible.
If you're an early adopter, this is the 4K camcorder to buy. Not only is it the only game in town, it's also reasonably priced and fully featured.
If you're in the content creation business, or even if you're just a hobbyist who wants the latest and greatest, the AX100 is an extremely enticing package. The combination of a 1-inch sensor with an accommodating aperture, native 4K UHD in 30 and 24p, and good-enough manual controls will definitely appeal to the amateur filmmaker crowd. If you're not interested in a more complicated solution like a Blackmagic 4K Cinema Camera, the AX100 is a fixed-lens alternative you can tote without rigging, lenses, or any of those accompanying accoutrements.
One thing's for sure: We can't wait to get this pint-sized powerhouse into our labs, and use it out in the field. Stay tuned for a full review in the near future.