I’ve often wavered between video and still picture format. I started with 8mm, then Hi-8mm, but after that, I resisted the change to DV (technically, mini-DV). My logic was this: I have a number of 8 and Hi-8 movies that I have taped but NEVER, EVER watched. So what exactly was the point? The revolution of digital photography allows me to share my pictures via e-mail to anyone I want nearly as soon as I take the pictures. Video was still a cumbersome thing. (We’ll get more into this in just a bit.)
Nevertheless, when the new mini-DV camcorders came, there was one thing that interested me, the size. They were tiny wonders of technology, and they took DIGITAL video. I read a ton of reviews about how great the format is, and I was nearly hooked, but the one thing that held me back was the battery life. The same reviews that praised mini-DV also condemned the poor battery life, with some reviews saying some batteries lasted a paltry 30 mins. (An ex-colleague of mine that bought one of the first generation mini-DV camcorders said he had to buy 4 batteries.) I remember carrying three battery packs in the old days so I shied away initially.
When Sony came out with the PC3 and then the PC100, I started to get that shopping urge. The cameras were so small, battery life was pretty decent, and it was just so good looking. Still I resisted because as I outline below, I’m not a fan of taking videos. Finally, Sony came out with an even smaller unit, and I couldn’t stand it anymore. I bought the PC5. The PC5 is one of the newest DV cameras out there. It’s actually not that new in the market as I bought it at the end of last summer; I just kept putting off a review (sorry about that).
Before we review the PC5, let me say a few things about video cameras in general. While I think DV is great, I’m still not convinced that video is the format for me. I like still-photography, whether digital or not. I like taking, and then displaying the pictures I take – through e-mail, on my wall, on my computer, etc. I just don’t know what to do with the videos that I have shot. For reference, I have used 3 DV tapes in the past 5 months, which shows you how much I like the format. It’s hard because when I travel for example, I have to chose between 35mm, APS, digital camera, and a DV camera (theVooner also got one of those new “instant” cameras so there’s another device to add to the list). Then, I have to decide which to carry with me on any particular day (usually two formats) and worse which one device to use at any one moment. You only have two hands! Being the goofball that I am, it’s hard with a digital camera strapped around your neck, a DV camera in one hand, and an APS camera in your pocket. Can you say gadget overkill? During my recent trip to Tokyo, I spent most of the time taking Digital Photos. It wasn’t until I got my wonderful girlfriend to photograph me shopping in Akihabara that the camera actually got some usage. In conclusion, I would say that there are only two main reasons I see to own a DV camera: 1) if there is some special event happening, like a wedding, graduation, etc., or 2) if you have kids. Other than that, the DV camera mainly sits in a box in my closet.
Enough tirade, on to the review…
The PC5 is small, really small. And that alone makes it beautiful. I’m impressed that they have managed to pack all the functions into something so small. The DV fits perfectly in the palm of your hand. I have small hands so I imagine they would be even smaller in comparison to other people’s hands. It fits so snugly in the palm of your hand, you can just walk around with it and after awhile, you don’t even notice it’s there. It’s also light enough that it isn’t too difficult to leave it in your palm for a couple of hours. It’s also small enough that you can sort of discretely shoot from the hip or from the shoulder without shoving a big lens in someone’s face. The silver body is sturdy and I reckon strong enough to take the abuse of travel and use.
The buttons are easily accessible, but most of the functions are found on the touch screen display (greasy fingers beware). The touch panel is one of the neatest things about the PC5. It’s a bright LCD, even though it is quite small. You can easily see what you are recording on the screen even in bright daylight, although there is a viewfinder included in case you like to shoot from eye level or can’t see the image on the screen. The Zoom/Wide Angle slider is located by your index finger and is easy to use without having to look at what you are doing.
The one complaint I have was that the “Record” button was just to pronounced and easy to push. When I put the camera in the bag, for example, the camera had a tendency to “accidentally” record. I had to rewind the tape the last time because it had recorded 25 minutes of “nothing”. Aside from this, there are no major negative considerations to the way this device handles, feels, or looks. It is thoroughly a spectacular marvel of technological innovation.
Where do I start? First with picture quality – the PC5 takes incredible video relative to the days of 8mm and Hi-8mm. The clarity is amazing, especially given that the camera is so small. Anyone can make a “Blair Witch” with one of these wonders. Watching the video of my Japan vacation, I wish I did actually use the video camera more. The pictures were just so vivid, the colors were amazingly lifelike, and the clarity was excellent. I used to have some problems with my old cameras when it came to focusing. The old Hi-8mm video cameras had a tendency to blur out and then re-focus when you shifted around or when you zoomed in. No such difficulties with the PC5, or at least it wasn’t as pronounced.
There are two different kinds of mini-DV tapes you can buy: a standard mini-DV, and one with IC memory built-in. The IC is used to store things like titles, etc. To have this memory function, you have to pay more. I bought both kinds of tapes to try and while I like putting titles on the videos, it’s not a function I use all the time. Thus, I would recommend not buying the ones with the IC memory and just adding titles later at the editing stage.
One of the best features found on the camera is the “Nightshot” and “Super Nightshot” function. I went to a L.A. club with some friends of mine (including danchan) and I was able to covertly take some video images in near darkness. That was really fun. For pure novelty (the greenish, monochrome shots are not exactly the kind of images you want to keep forever), this is a surprisingly fun function. Voyeurs will have a field day with this video camera. (For those of you that know about the Nightshot/See-through controversy, I will only say that I have had mixed results in trying to replicate these images.).
Editing was a breeze thanks to the Vaio. Hook up the camera via a firewire cable and you are set to go. The Sony Vaio instantly opens the DV editing software. You can upload video clips, which load surprisingly fast, but eats up your hard drive space quickly. I’ve only done one quick transfer but it was pretty neat. You set up the scene on your computer, and then you hit the edit button and all is done for you. The DV rewinds to the exact spot, the hard drive records the image, and your done. Hit the output to CD-R and you’ll make a VCD for anyone to enjoy. This whole process is pretty time-consuming so I won’t be doing it all the time. Still the experience was easy and if you’re into it, pretty fun.
As expected, the still photo function resulted in mixed results. In bright daylight, you get fairly decent results. But get into a low-light environment or a night shot, and the digital photos turn out really poor. Without a flash, and with such low resolution (640 x 480), you get pretty sad results. Hence my argument about convergent devices remains true — if you want to take digital photos, stick with a digital camera.
How small can they make these things? I await the next generation of DV camcorders that will push the size and the quality barriers. But if your priority today is to buy yourself a mini-DV camcorder, then you can’t go wrong with the PC5. It’s not the best, but for its price, its size, and the quality of the video, this is one great item in anyone’s gadget bag. Still, as per my ranting above, I’m just not a great fan of taking videos. Since the PC5 spends most of the time in the closet, I’d say its something you should own only if you have MONEY TO BURN.