Sony HDR-FX7 Camcorder Review
Video Performance *(11.75)*
The Sony HDR-FX7’s imaging system is composed of three 1/4" CMOS sensors. Each sensor offers a gross pixel count of 1.2 MP (1440 x 810). The effective pixel counts equal 1.037 MP in 16:9, and 778K in 4:3. Much has been made of Sony’s 3-CMOS array, which at the time of announcement was the first to offer such a system. The HDR-FX1 offers three 1/3" CCDs. The larger chips promise better low light performance, but the higher resolution of the FX7 should make for better performance in bright light. Neither the FX1 nor the FX7 have native 16:9 chips, and therefore must stretch each pixel horizontally. Canon’s XH A1 does offer native 16:9 chips in a 3-CCD array. Also of peaked interest was Sony’s abandonment of the CineFrame mode, which mimicked 24P. The mode was maligned by some filmmakers, who instead opted for the Panasonic AG-HVX200 for their 24P fix. Sony countered by stating that sales of the FX1 were strong despite not having 24P. While we know of no survey to indicate just how many indie producers use 24P, our anecdotal experience suggests that most shooters are firmly encamped in their manufacturer’s pocket. Panasonic users swear by their HVX200. Sony users sleep with their FX1 and Z1 tucked under the blanket. JVC owners swear repeatedly that their GY-HD100’s look better than anything on the market. So much of it comes down to personal aesthetics. We’ll try to come up with some conclusions later. For now, let’s look at the test chart.
We started with a 3000 lux environment. The white balance was manually adjusted. Everything else was in the factory preset position, except a feature called Contrast Enhancer. This is set to default in the "on" position. We ran tests with the feature on and off, experimenting with different looks. It was difficult to find the difference between the images. The whites ran marginally higher with Contrast Enhancement on, but the blacks read more or less the same. In less well lit shooting environments, we found the Contrast Enhancement to press the blacks, curtailing the lower end of the dynamic range.
Click here to view complete color charts in full resolution (new window).
The first thing we noticed about the FX7’s was the saturation. Initially, we balked when Sony classified this as a consumer camcorder. At this price range and with this feature package, it’s clearly going to draw out the aspiring and low-budget professional crowd. Consumers can get everything they need for less than half the price of this little handful. We assumed that the "consumer" label was merely an attempt to save face for not including better audio options. But the image quality certainly has elements reminiscent of their consumer line.
The saturation levels are distinctly higher in auto mode than the Canon XH A1. This is the trademark crowd-pleasing color performance. It has the deep blues that run through nearly every Sony consumer camcorder on the market. The FX7 was also able to produce a cleaner, more differentiated transition from green to yellow than the XH A1, though we liked the yellow tones better in the Canon. Of course, there are a number of ways to tweak the color, but this auto mode performance may dissuade some pros who will be turned off by the baseline saturation increase. It has clear consumer-leaning tendencies, where strong colors are equated with "good" colors, because they require no post-production color correction.
The second main element to the FX7 picture was sharpness. It looked notably sharper than the XH A1, even with the Contrast Enhancement turned off. This is partly due to the ClearVID CMOS chips, which boast increased resolution due to the 45 degree angle of the pixels. It also has to do with the higher contrast than the XH A1, which gives a greater apparent resolution. Again, even with the Contrast Enhancement feature turned off, edges were sharp as a tack.
These close-ups (100% size) show the sharpness and contrast differences between the two camcorders.
All this increased sharpness comes at the cost of noise, however. The XH A1 had very low noise. The HDR-FX7 produced a base of fine grain cross the entire image no matter what the light level. It’s a tough trade-off. Before you buy, we strongly recommend that you go down to your local electronics store and look at each of these on an HDTV. The bright lights and high contrasts inside most stores are going to give you a fair sense of what we’re talking about here. As for low light, that’s a whole difference ballgame (see Low Light Performance below for more details). As stated previously, the HDR-FX7 has a lot of tweaks for color (see Other Manual Control for the complete run-down). We couldn’t show them all, but here are a few.
Cinematone is an interesting feature, a gamma shift supposedly meant to emulate film tones. The HVR-V1U offers two gamma types. The FX7 offers one, which appears to emulate Gamma "Type 1" on the V1. With Cinematone on (and the Contrast Enhancement in the default on position), the color saturation increased a great deal. The contrast was also boosted, with the whites getting whiter and the blacks getting darker. These increases also boosted the noise, which became that much more apparent. Thankfully, there’s an easy way to way to play with color saturation: the Color Levels tool in the Picture Profile menu. This lacks the fine level of the control that the Canon XH A1 offers, but it’s a good, rough way to make adjustments. The Color Level is defaulted to 0, on a scale of -7 to +7 (with an additional setting of -8 for straight black & white). At -3, the picture is actually pretty close to what we saw on the Canon XH A1 in automatic. This might act as a good counterbalance to the Cinematone colors if you want to shoot in that setting. At a +3 setting, the colors are still not as strong as they are in Cinematone, which puts the Cinematone saturation levels are at approximately +4 or +5 on the Color Level scale. See full resolution color charts of bright light and low light performance here.
In conclusion, our testing showed that the HDR-FX7 has a tendency to saturate colors and increase sharpening more than the Canon XH A1. While the picture looked cleaner, it also had more noise. Given the sheer volume of image correction tools in the Canon XH A1, the slightly better out-of-the-box performance of the FX7 is ultimately beaten back. **
Video Resolution***(38.7)* The Sony HDR-FX7 was tested for its video resolution by shooting a standard ISO 12233 resolution chart and running stills of that footage through Imatest imaging software. Shooting in HDV, the best resolution was produced by turning the Contrast Enhancer on. The camcorder produced 624.9 lines of horizontal resolution and 619.1 lines of vertical resolution, yielding an approximate total resolution of 386875.59. This score ranked slightly higher than the Canon XH A1 and XL H1, making good on the claims that the ClearVID CMOS sensors produce a higher resolution.
Low Light Performance***(7.75)*
At the time of the HDR-FX7’s announcement, Sony stated that "under low light conditions the FX1 is better than the FX7, since the FX1 has a larger CCD sensor." Clearly, it’s better marketing for them to emphasize size as the chief factor in the performance gap, but the sensor type has just as much to do with it. CMOS sensors have long held the stigma of bad low light performance, due to an abundance of noise. Sony’s latest developments with the ClearVID CMOS chips seem to have overcome some of those problems, but the FX7’s performance makes it readily apparent that these CMOS chips are not up to par with comparatively priced CCD camcorders.
Our testing focuses on two light levels, 60 lux and 15 lux. At 60 lux in full auto mode (with a manual white balance), the FX7’s performance was fairly impressive. Color loss was minor. They managed to remain strong without appearing any more saturated. The picture was, of course, duller looking overall than the 3000 lux image. The clearest loss was in black/white high contrast areas, which weakened fine detail retention. We were surprised that noise did not increase all that much compared to the bright light performance. Granted, noise was high already in bright light, but it did not ramp up dramatically (see the full resolution charts here).
The 60 lux performance did not match that of the Canon XH A1. In evaluating the XH A1, we had a hard time telling the 3000 lux and 60 lux images apart. There was no such confusion with the HDR-FX7. The FX7 was still more contrasty than the XH A1, which helped give the impression of a sharper image in bright light. But due to the greater color loss and diminished brightness of the whites at 60 lux, the FX7 took the backseat to the XH A1. Still, it was a tighter race than we were expecting, given the superb performance of the XH A1.
At 15 lux, the performance gap increased immensely, and caused us to abandon any hope for the FX7 being a true low light champion. The color loss was significant, and the noise increased immensely, and not just the (barely) tolerable run-of-the-mill black flecks. This was the blue and purple noise that contaminates so many of Sony’s consumer camcorders. Yes, Sony classifies the HDR-FX7 a consumer camcorder, but if you’re getting low light performance like this, why would you pay 2x – 3x the price of the HDR-HC3? This is the perfect illustration of why people still have some misgivings about CMOS chips in low light.
The Canon XH A1 simply blew Sony out of the water in the depths of low light. The FX7’s performance shows that engineers still have a long way to go before it can compete with the likes of the Canon XH A1. With the XH A1’s performance, the difference between the 60 lux and 15 lux performances was merely a matter of a little noise increase. There was virtually no color loss, and the noise was remarkably low for the level of light.
In short, the HDR-FX7 has a clear performance wall between 60 lux and 15 lux. When it hits that wall, it really hits that wall, and your footage is toast. The overwhelming dominance of the Canon XH A1 in this arena should be a powerful sway for shoppers torn between the two camcorders.
The Sony HDR-FX7 was measured for the width of its field of vision in the HDV format, which is in a 16:9 aspect ratio. In total, we found that it produced a wide angle of 59 degrees.
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