Sony HVR-A1U HDV Camcorder Review

Mini HDV

There’s nothing like sitting by a roaring fire on a rainy evening reading the manual of a new HDV camcorder. OK. We’ll admit it, we’re all video geeks at >Videomaker, but honestly, with toys like Sony’s HVR-A1U 1080i HDV camcorder to play with, can you blame us?

Mics and Lenses and Jacks,oh, Boy!

Out of the box, we first noticed, in our Sony camcorder review, that the HVR-A1U was much smaller than expected. Weighing just a pound and a half, this is just about the tiniest HDV camcorder out there. But attach the sharp lens hood, the audio jack and XLR mic, and it looks like its big brother, the Z1U, in miniature. Like many Sony camcorders, the HRV-A1U is equipped with a Carl Zeiss lens, which gives exceptional image quality and true color recording, and the signature Carl Zeiss “T” coating blocks reflections.

The camcorder has 2 XLR balanced inputs with five switches within easy reach, allowing you multiple choices of audio recording. Remove the attached mic and jack, and you get clear, separate stereo recording from left and right side of the camcorder’s barrel.

The lens hood is easily attached and removed, and has a nice easy-to-reach lever to open and close the lens protector. A nice feature, but unfortunately, the hood prevents you from you from attaching a clear protective filter on your lens, or adding UV, polarizer or other filters.

Exposure and Focus on the Sony Camcorder Review

A small toggle lever at your left finger tip, within easy reach, controls the manual exposure. It has about twenty-four steps you can toggle through, but, oddly, it doesn’t give you the exposure ratings in f-stops. Although there’s no aperture counter, it uses a level bar, similar to the wide/telephoto or battery charge readout we’re familiar with. If you prefer to “eyeball” your exposure rather than follow an f-stop, this is acceptable; otherwise you might feel as if you were shooting “blind.” Since exposure is even more critical to HDV, we’re curious why Sony left this out.

Because acute focus and exposure are so critical in HDV, you might want to depend on the auto settings for both. We know, this will feel odd to all-manual snobs, but we found the auto focus was more precise than our eyes. The auto focus is very fast and quite crisp. There’s also a “Tele Macro” button on the camcorder barrel that gives you a tighter view for a closer look at detail.This camera shoots clean, clear pictures, using a 1/3-inch CMOS sensor and what Sony calls an Enhanced Imaging Processor.

In a natural home setting using just one incandescent table lamp, dark details were crisp in shadowed areas, but the colors were muted. A rust colored wall appeared mud-brown, but raising or lowering the exposure was a breeze. The bright rooms were quite detailed, and colors like fuchsia and lime-green that standard video cameras tend to go wacky on, were true and colorful.

What’s on the Menu

Like most pro cams, you hold the camcorder and control the on/off switch, the record button, and zoom rocker from the right hand side. The left-hand side has the focus and lens controls on the lens barrel.

Most camera options are in the menu, and it’s pretty beefy with choices, but a nice feature called “Button Assign” allows you, and not some engineer, to determine which are the critical controls and assign them to menus. You’ll use the touchscreen a lot for menu use, so don’t eat greasy French fries before you shoot! The camcorder has many functions for hi-def use such as “Black Screen,” which sets black levels, so dark areas aren’t all tar-black but have a gray-to-black gradation, and 2 types of “Cinetone” give you better flesh tones. Other functions are “Cineframe24” and “Cineframe30” which are supposed to give you a more film-like look.

We’ve heard many concerns of a stuttery look with HDV on moving shots. We found this is true with the shutter set to 1/60, especially in low-light. You’ll want to try several shutter settings to get a feel that works best for you. We found 1/100 worked well for most of our test shots.

We love all the options you can set and program on this camcorder. The histogram in the viewscreen is an added plus because exposure with HDV recording is so crucial. A “Status Check” button is slick. From mic levels to down convert setting to exposure, it’s all an easy check at your fingertips. The “Color Bars” setting is true SMPTE color bars, along with settable time code. You can adjust the viewfinder’s iris and color level using the color bars, which is a very nice way to assure color and exposure accuracy.

Big Picture, Small Package

The designers of small camcorders have the difficult task of getting all the controls we want to fit in the smaller unit. So selections are buried in the menus, or buttons do double-duty. Such is the case with the on/off button. It’s very easy to use with the right thumb, and toggles through three selections, “Camera,” “Memory” and “Play.” The downside of this is it’s very close to the “Record” button, and you can accidentally punch the on/off button when you meant to hit “Record,” taking the camera out of “Camera” mode and placing it in “Playback” mode. You can record from two locations on this camcorder, with the right thumb near the back, or on the LCD viewscreen. There was a bit of a delay on either location when we hit “Record” to when the camcorder actually began to capture.

The manual reminds users not to hold the camcorder by the hood, lens, mic or XLR jack, and the downside to any small camcorder is getting a good comfortable grip. Another downside is with bottom-loading videotape. Since we advocate using a tripod whenever possible, a bottom-loader would be a hindrance if you run out of tape halfway through your shoot.

Buy Me One, Daddy!

This camcorder would be perfect for hard-to-reach places or on a boom or jib, and its compact size makes it easy to use unobtrusively in natural settings for documentary work. Yeah, we’ll take one… heck, we’ll take two!


Image Device: 1/3-inch type CMOS

Lens:1 0X Optical Zoom Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* Lens; 41-410mm focal length; filter diameter 37mm

Picture Elements: Total pixels: approx. 2.97M pixels

SD Video Signal System:NTSC

Scanning System: 1080.60i

Sync System: Internal (HD & SD)

Connectors: S-Video, A/V, Component Output, XLR IN (x2), i.LINK, LANC, Headphone stereo mini

Minimum Illumination: 7 lux @ 18dB, normal shutter

Exposure: Auto, Manual

Viewfinder: Hybrid Precision 16:9 Color & B/W Selectable 252,000 pixel

Audio: DV/DVCAM Rec.: 48kHz/16 bit, 32kHz/12 bit. HDV Rec.: MPEG-1 Audio Layer II

Provided Microphone: Wide Range Stereo Microphone

Speaker: Built-in dynamic

LCD Panel: Hybrid 16:9 2.7″ type

Format: HDV/DVCAM/DV (SP) recording; HDV/DVCAM/DV (SP) playback

Recording Time: Max. 60 minutes with HDV, 40 minutes in DVCAM, & 60 minutes in DV (SP)

Weight: 1 lb, 10 oz.

Power Consumption: (VF/LCD/VF+LCD):5.8W/5.9W/6.4W


  • True crisp color and detail
  • Adjustable SPMTE timecode and color bars
  • XLR jacks and stereo shotgun mic


  • Bottom tape loading
  • On/off button easy to trigger accidentally
  • Manual controls buried in menus and not on camera body


Streamlined easy to use camcorder with a Carl Zeiss lens and XLR mic; a big pro HDV camcorder in a small affordable package.

Jennifer O’Rourke is an Emmy™ award-winning videographer & video editor and Videomaker‘s Managing Editor.


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