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The NEX-VG20 is Sony’s latest experiment in the melding of two distinct product lines: the Handycam camcorder and the NEX series of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. Yup, that’s right, the VG20 is a hybrid camera/camcorder device in the most basic sense of the term, but this isn't one of those cheesy hybrids that’s having an identity crisis (we’re looking at you JVC PX10). The NEX-VG20 is a serious camcorder that is specifically designed with videography in mind, and its guts are taken directly from Sony’s NEX camera line, featuring a particular similarity to the Sony NEX-5N camera.
The VG20 is Sony’s second installment of this “interchangeable lens Handycam” experiment. The previous NEX-VG10 had many of the same specs and design implementations, but lacked the multiple frame rate options that the NEX-VG20 flaunts. Sony also improved the autofocus, added a better microphone, and completely revamped the design of the LCD on the VG20. Even though we didn’t review the NEX-VG10, it’s fair to say the VG20 offers some significant upgrades over its predecessor. The Handycam NEX-VG20 is available for $1599 (body only) or for $2199 with an 18-200mm kit lens. This makes the VG20 a lot pricier than the Sony NEX-5N camera, which runs only $699 with its kit lens.
The 16-megapixel APS-C CMOS image sensor is taken directly from the Sony NEX-5N camera, as is the Sony E-mount interchangeable lens system, but the VG20’s design features are no different than what you’d see on your average prosumer camcorder. It’s got the right-side strap for easy handheld shooting, it has a handlebar for transport and an alternate shooting grip, it has a 5.1-channel Dolby Digital microphone, and it has the iconic left-side LCD and top-mounted viewfinder setup that have been a staple of pro camcorders for many years. For $2199, the VG20 is available with an 18-200mm E-mount kit lens, but you can also use the camcorder with A-mount lenses if you purchase an adapter.
The interchangeable lens system is unquestionably the camcorder’s greatest asset. But having this feature also exposes some weaknesses. For example, the camcorder has no zoom lever (you can only zoom with the lens ring), and some of the auto controls don’t work as quickly as they do on more traditional camcorders. Still, the camcorder is lighter and easier to use than most interchangeable lens camcorders (not to mention, it's also far cheaper). The button layout is simple and uncluttered, the hand strap and right-side grip are more than adequate, and all of your most important features are accessible on the fly. Sure, there is room for improvement, and the VG20 isn’t going to react and function in the same way a single-lens prosumer camcorder would, but Sony is heading in the right direction with this design.
The NEX-VG20 was built to give the user easy access to focus and exposure controls, and Sony got this design right. The dedicated shutter speed and iris (aperture) buttons inside the LCD cavity make those controls easy to adjust on the fly, and the manual control button near the front of the camcorder lets you set things like gain, AE shift, and WB shift without having to go through the menu system as well.
But there are two things that bother me with this design: 1) the manual control wheel that is used to set exposure isn’t great; I expected to see a larger knob or ring on a camcorder of the VG20’s caliber. 2) the camcorder lacks the high-end custom image presets and picture controls that you get on most prosumer camcorders. Yes, the NEX-VG20 is on the cheap end of the “professional camcorder” spectrum, but it wouldn’t hurt to add some in-depth gamma controls, sharpness adjustment options, black level functions, color settings, etc. The lack of these controls does make the VG20 a simpler camcorder, however, and it lets the user concentrate on getting exposure and focus correct instead of worrying about other settings.
The NEX-VG20 had no staggering weaknesses in our performance tests, but the camcorder didn’t “wow” in every category. Its low light results were somewhat disappointing, but part of the blame for these results should go to the slow, f/3.5 lens that comes bundled with the camcorder. The VG20 did capture some fantastic footage in our real-world samples, with videos looking smooth and crisp even under an overcast sky. Motion was probably the camcorder’s best attribute, and its three distinct frame rate options (60i, 60p, and 24p) are a good assortment to work with. Sharpness wasn’t at the level we’d hoped it would be in our test, but the level of detail and clarity captured in our motion test and sample videos consistently looked impressive to the eye.
People love the way DSLRs and system cameras capture video, and they love the ability to work with different lenses, but most cameras simply aren’t designed with videography in mind. They’re all still the same old rectangular boxes that require two hands to grip and have viewfinders that are essentially useless for video recording. Sure, there are plenty of third-party grips and tools that can morph your DSLR into more of a “camcorder," but the Sony NEX-VG20 does this right out of the box.
If you’re a videographer who wants to use an arsenal of different lenses when you want to shoot video, then the NEX-VG20 should definitely be on your radar. It’s one of the only interchangeable lens camcorders you can get for under $2000, although I expect this number to increase rather quickly. Just one warning: the VG20 may seem lacking in controls and features if you’re used to shooting with professional equipment. But the $1699 body-only price tag—which is thousands less than many professional interchangeable-lens camcorders—should help ease those concerns.
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