Sharp VL-A110U 8mm Camcorder
Mahwah, NJ 07656
There really aren't too many camcorders you can buy from a major manufacturer for less than $350 and fewer still in the 8mm format. And while the Sharp VL-A11OU is very easy to use and produces quality images on 8mm tape, this format is close on the heels of the thought-to-be-extinct Tasmanian Wolf.
Not as small as the latest pocket cams nor as large (or heavy) as many VHS-C designs, the VL-A11OU is still small enough to be convenient. There are only four buttons to control the power, recording, fading and zooming, so operation is very simple, at least for right-handed folks. There are many advanced options available, such as manual exposure modes and manual focus. However, these are only accessible by navigating the on-screen menus, which are frequently confusing and require a trip to the manual to figure out. Possibly considered inconvenient by some, we felt that the trade-off in simplicity of operation with fewer buttons for novice users justified the design. Insert the battery, pop in a tape, turn on the camcorder and push the record button: what could be easier?
The Sharp Viewcam family, of which the VL-A11OU is a member, shares a common body-type, with an LCD screen mounted on the left side of the video camera behind the tape mechanism and the CCD and lens connected by a swivel on the right. The swivel LCD design has been incorporated into most of today's camcorder designs, but it is still a nice feature that allows the user to record from many different angles, high and low, or point the unit back at the user. Since the VL-A11OU does not have a viewfinder, the LCD is always on and is the only way to aim the camcorder.
Because of the simple controls, it is easy to operate this camcorder with one hand, but the wide design and the LCD screen both encourage two-handed operation, which will inevitably result in steadier shooting and therefore, better video. As a result of the LCD screen always being on, we expected the battery life of the VL-A11OU to be shorter than normal. When we tested it, it was on for almost two hours before the battery gave up. Testing is probably more rigorous than normal usage, involving full-tape fast forwarding and rewinding in addition to taking the unit through its paces. While this is a less than scientific measure of battery length, the results were favorable. Sharp offers a large battery (that still fits in the body of the cam instead of attaching outside), which it claims has a more than three-hour life with this model.
Points of Contention
One potential problem with this design is that the monaural microphone attaches to the top of the LCD portion of the camera, which means that as the LCD swivels, the microphone also swivels. So, if you lifted the camera above your head to shot over the heads of a crowd and angled the LCD back to 60 degrees or so, the microphone would point backwards, or at least up into the sky or ceiling. In testing, however, while the volume did increase when the microphone faced the source and when it pointed toward the floor, it did not significantly lose sensitivity when tilted back and away from the source. Audio from behind the camcorder was more pronounced however.
The VL-A11OU does not come with a light, nor is there any way to attach a light to it. It does have a Cat's Eye feature, which is simply Sharp's term for turning up the gain. Among its more advanced features, you can also adjust the Gamma Brightness Correction, so the unit operates well under a number of lighting conditions. The fade button was instantly accessible due to the cam's simple design and created simple fade ins and fade outs, although it always fades in and out to white (unless you are using one of the primitive, iconic animated modes).
Like many of the other features of this video camera, playback was unexceptional, but good. A stereo mini-plug extended out from the unit to two RCA connectors, one for the composite video signal and one for the monaural audio.
8mm is Dead - Long Live 8mm!
In the end, whether you want to purchase this camcorder or not depends on whether you want to use the 8mm format, which is not to be confused with the Hi8 or Digital8 formats. The quality of the 8mm format is on par with VHS, which is adequate for many uses. 8mm tapes are inexpensive and come in 120-minute versions. Getting an inexpensive 8mm camera could save you enough money to get airfare to a South Pacific paradise. Carefully consider, however, that there are a number of other higher-quality Hi8 cameras in this price range, and some with more features, before you make a decision. See the September 2001 issue of Videomaker for a buyer's guide on all flavors of the 8mm format.
Lens: 16:1 optical zoom, f/1.4, fl: 4 to 64mm,
filter diameter: 46mm
Image Sensor: 1/4-inch CCD, 270,000 pixels
Viewfinder: 3-inch color LCD screen, rotates 270 degrees
Focus: manual, auto
Maximum Shutter Speed: 1/500
Exposure: manual (4 modes), auto
White Balance: manual, auto
Video Out: composite
Dimensions (inches) : 7 1/32 (w) x 4 9/32 (h) x 3 7/8 (d)
Weight (sans tape and battery): 1.57 lbs.
Pause to Record: .57 seconds
Power-up to Record: 5.5 seconds
Fast forward/Rewind (60 min. tape):
3 min. 10 sec.
Tested Horizontal Resolution: 310 lines*