Saturday, March 29, 2008

Six Years of Evolution of Sony Camcorders

I bought my previous camcorder, Sony DCR TRV50 in 2002. At the time, it was the top model of the Sony consumer camcorders, as is my new Sony HDR SR12. Let us look what has gone better and what worse.

Let us first look at the main features for which the SR12 is marketed.

ResolutionPAL 720x576FullHD 1920x1080
Video size13GB/h8GBh
Audio2+2 channels5.1 channels
Recording Media
Recording Time1h(SP) - 1.5h(LP)15h(FullHD) - 50h(HD/LP)

SR12 clearly wins by all of its main features: FullHD (1920x1080) image resolution, 5.1 surround audio, and 120GB hard disk storage capacity. The HDD media also wins for the easiness to browse the media. With MiniDV tapes, you have to fast-forward and rewind the tape to get where you want, and in SR12 the camera simply displays an index of all shots. You can edit the individual shots and delete them freely, which is impossible with MiniDV, at least without scissors and glue.
The real questions are, are the actual image and audio quality actually any better, and what about the other features?

Physical features

Screen size3,5" 3:4 LCD3,5" 9:16 LCD
ViewfinderYes, tilting+telescoping, biggerYes, tilting
Neck strapYes, 2-pointNot included, 1-point
Lens coverplastic capautomatic shutter

The screen size is same for both cameras, about 3.5" with equal width, but TRV50 has a 3:4 screen, which makes it higher. The display in TRV50 was more matt and SR12 has a more polished screen surface. Polishing is generally bad, because it reflects light, but modern coatings help with the problem.

The viewfinder in TRV50 was much bigger than in SR12 and it was possible to telescope it further back. This is important if the battery is bigger than normal, as is my case. A good viewfinder is very important in bright daylight.
As you may see, the battery is also somewhat smaller in SR12. Well, the SR12 battery is the standard battery, while in TRV50 I have the biggest battery. The battery life with the SR12 standard battery is about 1,5 hours, while the TRV50 battery has 6,5 hours. The 1,5 hours is ridiculously short, as I have experienced that the 6,5 hours is barely enough for a day of touristing. You definitely need a bigger battery, the biggest one is some 150€. Unfortunately, it will also make the camera bigger and, as it has no telescoping viewfinder as TRV50 has (see the picture), using the viewfinder is more difficult, at least when it is leveled and not tilted as in the picture above.


The FullHD SR12 has five times as many pixels as the PAL TRV50. But does this mean better actual resolution? The lenses are about the same size, with the lens of SR12 possibly a bit smaller, so the optical resolution may not be any better. On the other hand, in digital cameras, the resolution has grown just fine while keeping the optics about the same size. So the size might not matter.

Comparing the actual performance of the cameras would require careful testing. I may do such tests later, but for now I will just present a rough evaluation.

The actual resolution of video in SR12 is clearly better than in TRV50, but also obviously not the five times as good as the number of pixels would suggest. I estimate that the actual resolution is only about two times better.

One bigger problem is that as you five-fold the number of pixels, you drop the level of light for each pixels to one fifth. It is not probable the the light detection efficiency of CMOS chips has five-folded in six years. However, there is some advance in noise reduction in image processing. My observations support this logic, the SR12 seems to perform much worse in low-light conditions.

SR12 is has an optical Super SteadyShot image stabilizer, while TRV50 has non-optical. While optical stabilizers are generally considered much better than non-optical, I can not see real difference between the cameras. One reason may just be the size: the smaller and lighter SR12 has less momentum to prevent shaking in the hand, and the optical stabilization could merely compensate for the size. I have noticed some difference though. TRV50 apparently stabilizes small vibrations well, and SR12 stabilizer also bigger. But the stabilization in SR12 makes the video very jerky when the camera moves more than the area of stabilization, resulting in sudden jumps in the video.

Extra Features

InternetYes: Web, EmailNo
Face detection
Face index
Yes, TRV50 actually has a web browser and email, and the Bluetooth connection for connecting to Internet via a mobile phone. I've used the web browser a countless times before I had other mobile browsers, and it actually works. Well, it is slow and the touchscreen keypad is rather bad, but it works.

SR12 has an interesting face detection feature. Yes, it actually detects faces on the video. It uses the faces for two purposes: to set focus and exposure parameters, and to make a video index out of the faces. Unfortunately, the video index is only for the particular shot: it doesn't make an overall index of faces in all shots. The face indexing is also very picky and doesn't index most of the faces, therefore making it basicly useless.


There has clearly been progress in six years. While the nominal resolution has grown five-fold, the increase in actual resolution may not be much better. Low-light performance may even have gone much worse. Physical features such as the display, viewfinder, and neck strap have also gone worse, though there are also advances. The biggest progress is actually in software and having a hard disk drive instead of tapes helps a lot in organizing and playing back videos.

That's it for now. I may update this article later and write other reviews about some more specific features of SR12. Especially, I will need to research the video resolution, low-light capability and the image stabilization.

See also:


Valentin said...

Hi Marko,

If you like, also try to comment your experience with the Bluetooth Mic, in interview mode.

It seems first the noise ratio in "normal sound" and 5.1 position is getting worse an anoising.

Best seems "low sound" in 5.1, or mono.

This is for HDR-CX6. Maybe you have a manual input level for HDR-SR12.

Note that HF Mic, like Sennheiser are 4 or 6 times the price... so this Sony 'little thing' might help some.

Anonymous said...

I own a HDR-SR12e with 140Gb hard drive. To my surprise I got an error message while on a vacation that the number of files recorded exceed the 4000 limit. I could not record any further scenes even that i had more than half of the hard drive free!!!


Anonymous said...

Hey Marko,

I am a first-time camcorder buyer and am seriously considering the SR12. Loved your reviews. I now have a real good idea of what I may be buying into. Do you have any thoughts on whether it is dafe to buy from obscure online retailers who are selling this item for $300 less than the price at Best Buy?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info.

I have a friend who is looking at the SR-12, and since we'll be doing weddings, the bad low light is not good.

He has a digital hi-8 now, so any HD camera will be a step up.

As far as online vendors that are LOTS lower than others, there is at least one that takes a box and strips out anything that is included. You order a camera, thinking that you get what comes in a box, and you find that the battery, charger and other stuff are 'extra.'

Watch out.

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