Sharp VL-Z7U Mini DV Camcorder
Mahwah, NJ 07656
Sharp's VL-Z7U Viewcam is a comfortable point-and-shoot camcorder. It is geared to meet the needs of novice consumers who want high quality images and easy shooting. The VL-Z7U has a 1.33 Megapixel CCD that delivers 1280x960 still images to the included 8MB memory card. After experiencing the clever ergonomics of the VL-Z7U, many weekend shooters who purchase this product will be glad they did.
Turn and Shoot
The VL-Z7U's big claim to tiny-cam fame is the ergonomic design of the camera portion (the lens, viewfinder, LCD, I/O sockets, button functions, battery) and the tape mechanism. These are basically separate entities joined by a swiveling hub that allows you to keep your wrist and hand in a natural and relaxed position while pointing the camera lens in any direction. The design idea is a bright one for the VL-Z7U and we feel it should prove to be a strong selling point for this Sharp line. We liked the credit card sized remote control and the small AC adapter. Literally topping the list of good-design features is a top-loading tape mechanism. Hooray!
The camera's body has less confusing buttons on it than just about any other camera we can think of: about ten total, depending on how you count them, including the tape-eject switch. This non-intimidating design is very appealing. There are a few manual options on the menuing system, but not many. For example, there is no shutter speed control. The menus are cumbersome for what would otherwise be simple tasks, such as manual focus, but the intended user of the VL-Z7U is the point-and-shooter, and the camera delivers the automatic performance in those situations.
Closer, Closer, ...
The VL-Z7U worked best in auto focus mode with good available lighting. The manual and auto focus were often unresponsive in moderately low light when zoomed in. The menu navigation pad above the LCD door is not entirely intuitive when making menu selections and is slightly stiff and awkward while functioning as the control for manual focus mode, especially for folks with larger fingers.
Optically, the VL-Z7U performed quite well, producing a vibrant DV image. On the test bench, we verified our subjective observation with an impressive 450 lines of resolution. We also measured a wide 36-degree field of view. Image stabilization on the VL-Z7U is digital and did its job well. The still images from the camera looked much better than frame grabs from video and are adequate for the Web and e-mail, but are a bit small for print. The built-in flash is an important extra.
We tried the macro abilities suggested in the Sharp manual. The VL-Z7U, when zoomed out to its widest setting, can focus and shoot extreme macro focal lengths. The subject can literally touch the lens hood and the VL-Z7U will sharply bring it into focus. We're talking "if I was any closer I'd be behind you" close.
Battery of Questions
The VL-Z7U Viewcam Z has a small Lithium Ion battery that tucks away under the LCD. The unobtrusiveness of this placement is great, but it limits the size of the battery that can fit the camera. In other words, you won't be able to strap a giant 3 hour battery onto this camera. The only solution is to get a pocket full of the little Lithium Ion buggers to extend operating times. Note that the batteries must be charged on the camera itself, so a long day of shooting must be well planned. Larger hands will find the battery also a bit of a delicate challenge when attempting to extricate it from its nook. The battery placement also forces the audio monitor speaker to the far side of the camera, under the hand of the user, on the outside.
The I/O jacks on the VL-Z7U are suitably clustered in the back of the camera body. USB, headphone, FireWire, A/V and DC complete the array. The A/V jack is a proprietary all-in-one jack that terminates in RCA stereo audio, composite video and S-video Y/C signals. Like other cables that share this design, you need to use it carefully, seeing as it originates from such a tiny jack and plug at the camera. Also keep it safe, since it's not an item you can pick up at the local electronics store.
The on-camera stereo microphones are on the lower front of the VL-Z7U and record ambient audio well with only small amounts of motor whir audible when sound levels are very low (Automatic Gain Control cannot be disabled). Like most other consumer cameras we've tested, the audio defaults to inferior 12-bit quality. (Please change this to 16-bit on your current camera right now, unless you actually use the audio dub feature.) There is no external microphone jack. Instead, there is a Hot Shoe mount that will accept a proprietary directional microphone from Sharp, that should be an improvement over the stock microphone capsules, but we were not able to test the unit with the accessory mike.
Above all, the VL-Z7U Viewcam Z meets the requirement and expectation of its target user at a price that fits. The ease of use and design make the VL-Z7U a good choice for a small footprint Mini DV/Still cam. Although more advanced users and hobbyists will want more (and more accessible) manual features, we like the design of this camera and the no-nonsense point-and-shoot quality of its video.
Format: Mini DV
Lens: F/1.8-19, 10X Optical Zoom/ 500X Digital Zoom
Image Sensor: 1.33 megapixels
Viewfinder: 2.5-inch LCD
Focus: auto, manual
White Balance: auto, manual
Digital Effects: Fade, B&W, Sepia, Solarize, Negative (still mode only)
Audio: 12- or 16-bit stereo
Inputs: FireWire, A/V; S-video
Outputs: USB, FireWire, A/V; S-video, headphone
Edit Interface: FireWire
Other Features: 8MB SD media Card, built-in flash
Dimensions: 3 5/32" x 3 13/32" x 4 1/16"
Weight: 1.12 lbs.
Tested Horizontal Resolution: 450 lines
Field of View: 36-degrees
A no-nonsense point-and-shoot camcorder for casual shooters.