Sony HDR-UX7 Camcorder Review
The HDR-UX7 ($1,000 MSRP) is Sony’s crème de la crème DVD camcorder, a 1920 x 1080i high definition powerhouse outfitted with an impressive imager and perhaps the best handling of any Sony this year. The body is hefty, despite the serious slim-down from its predecessor, the HDR-UX1. The weight might be worth it. The top model gets all the fixings: a mic jack, headphone jack, big 3.5-inch LCD, and an interesting little knob on the front for tweaking adjustments. Does this feature-laden camcorder merit the $1,000 price tag? Let’s find out.
Video Performance* (8.75)*
The HDR-UX7 is equipped with Sony’s top imager this year, a 1/2.9-inch ClearVID CMOS sensor. It has a gross pixel count of 3,200,000. The effective pixel count in 16:9 is 2,280,000. In 4:3, it’s a 1,710,000 effective pixel count. Last year’s top imager, a 1/3-inch CMOS with a gross pixel count of 2,100,000, was shifted to the next model down, the HDR-UX5. We saw the same differentiating factor in the standard definition models, the DCR-DVD408 and DCR-DVD508. At first glance, the specs on the 1/2.9-inch sensor seem more compelling, but there’s a potential problem. As we pointed out in the DVD508 review, the 1/2.9-inch has a 52 percent increase in pixels, but only a 3.45 percent increase in surface area. Thus, the pixels are much smaller, which will likely hurt low light performance and increase noise. Fortunately, a high definition camcorder has an advantage over standard definition, being able to retain far more information. We’ll let our testing be the judge.
We shot a DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde chart chip chart at an even 3000 lux. The HDR-UX7 did not show any discernable increase in noise in this bright light compared to last year’s HDR-UX1. The standard definition DCR-DVD508, using the same chip, showed more noise relative to the sharpness. This is a promising result, as it indicates that a high definition compression can hide more of an imager’s faults.
There are a handful of competing models in the UX7’s space. The prime hitters are the Canon HR10, and the Panasonic HDC-DX1, both high definition DVD camcorders. We have not yet reviewed the HR10, but have done extensive testing with the Canon HG10, an AVCHD camcorder that records to hard disk. The bit rate is slightly higher, but they share every other spec in common. The HG10 topped Sony yet again, with a cleaner, sharper imager and more vibrant colors that don’t push saturation too hard. This has truly been Canon’s year in terms of video performance. The HDR-UX7, however, still holds a few handling and feature advantages.
The Panasonic HDC-DX1 showed a lot less noise in bright light, but also lacked some of the sharpness we liked in the HDR-UX7. In most shooting, the Panasonic’s three-chip imaging system was able to deliver a better color balance. Sony tends to warm the image, which is kind to skin tones but ultimately inaccurate.
Shooting with the HDR-UX1 and HDR-UX7 revealed some interesting differences. In shots with a wide range of highlights and shadows, the UX1 looked better. Whether by the larger pixels on the chip or some other reason, the UX1 retained more information in those areas. The UX7 had a slightly sharper image with the same shots, but this advantage was offset by the increased noise, even in bright light.
Framing shots with a lot of fine detail – a leafy tree, in this case – drew out more distinctions. Both camcorders showed their merits and faults. The HDR-UX7 produced better color, with more vivid and varied greens and blues. On the downside, there was a great deal of artifacting. The HDR-UX1 produced a cleaner picture, but the color was not as good. The camcorders performed similarly with simpler outdoor shots, such as those with a lot of shadows and highlights or complex patterns.
Overall, we have to side with last year’s HDR-UX1 for producing a cleaner imager – less noise and better dynamic range. We’re hoping this carries down to the HDR-UX5, which sports the same imager as the UX1. This offers people a chance to find the camcorder easier than a discontinued model and save a few bucks by not purchasing the top of the line model.
Video Resolution* (16.5)*
The Sony HDR-UX7’s video resolution was tested by shooting a DSC Labs video resolution chart and looking at the playback footage on an HD monitor. This test looks at the final outputted image of the camcorder, not the more generous resolution of the chip the manufacturers like to promote. We found the camcorder was able to produce a horizontal resolution of approximately 600 line widths per picture height (lw/ph) and a vertical resolution of 550 lw/ph. This score is on par or slightly below other AVCHD camcorders.
Low Light Performance* (4.31)*
The first section of low light testing involves shooting our DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde color chip chart at an even 60 and 15 lux, then comparing them against past camcorders. At 60 lux, the Sony HDR-UX7 managed to retain a good amount of color information. Unfortunately, we saw a big upshot in noise – the same problem shared with the standard definition DCR-DVD508. Last year’s HDR-UX1 and DCR-DVD505 used a 1/3-inch CMOS with a gross pixel count of 2,100,000. This year’s HDR-UX7 and DCR-DVD508 have a slightly larger imager (1/2.9-inch) with a much higher pixel density (3,200,000). Smaller pixels hurt low light, which is clearly evident in our tests. All four camcorders showed roughly the same exposure and color information at 60 lux. However, there is a major increase in noise with the 1/2.9-inch models. Fortunately, Sony has outfitted the 1/3-inch CMOS sensors in two models this year, the standard definition DCR-DVD408 and the HDR-UX5.
At 60 lux, the Canon HG10 produced a cleaner image with stronger colors and far less noise. The Panasonic HDC-DX1 exposed brighter, which would have brought out more detail except for the overall softness of the image. We saw the same issue at 3000 lux. The DX1 lacked the sharpness of any of the Sonys or Canons.
At 15 lux, the HDR-UX7 was very noisy, and most of the color information was lost. The HDR-UX1 performed better on both fronts. The Canon HG10 was better than both of these, as was the Panasonic HDC-DX1.
The second part of the low light evaluation involves lowering the light at a slow, steady rate until the camcorder is outputting a peak 50 IRE (a measurement of exposure). The HDR-UX7 was able to produce 50 IRE at 16 lux. This was roughly the same as the other top-tier Sonys this year. It was half the showing the Canon HG10 managed, requiring only 8 lux.
Finally, we test the color accuracy, noise, and saturation by shooting a GretagMacBeth Color Checker chart at 60 lux and running frames through Imatest imaging software. The HDR-UX7 managed to produce a color error of 7.95, which was very good. The noise level was 1.365 percent, which was higher than average. The saturation was 75.05 percent.
In short, the "improved" imager on the HDR-UX7 did not improve anything in low light. We suggest looking at the HDR-UX1 or HDR-UX5 as a substitute if you plan on doing a lot of low light shooting.
We tested the ability of the HDR-UX7’s SteadyShot Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) using our custom-built shake emulator, crafted exclusively for CamcorderInfo.com. Two speeds were used to simulate typical shake patterns. Speed one is akin to a casual walk down the sidewalk with camcorder in hand. Speed two is more along the lines of a bumpy car ride or light jog while holding the camcorder. The HDR-UX7 produced a 76.92 percent shake reduction at speed one and a 78.57 percent reduction at speed two. The DCR-DVD508, Sony’s top of the line standard definition DVD camcorder, performed slightly better, but exhibited a strikingly similar margin between speeds. Higher-end Sony DVD camcorders are performing quite well, and seem to generate the least amount of difference between speed one and speed two, most likely due to their size, construction, and OIS effectiveness.
Wide Angle* (9.6)*
To attain the HDR-UX7’s maximum field of view, we set the camcorder on a tripod with the zoom pulled back, LCD flipped out, and SteadyShot disabled. A vertical laser was used to measure the left and right angles. The difference between angles was then subtracted after viewing the recorded footage on an external monitor. The HDR-UX7 displayed a maximum depth of field of 48 degrees, which places the camcorder on par with competing models.
Before you buy the Sony HDR-UX7, take a look at these other camcorders.
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