Digital8 Camcorder Review:  Sony DCR-TRV350

$500

Sony Electronics

1 Sony Drive

Park Ridge, NJ 07656

(887) 865-SONY

www.sonystyle.com

Sony announced no less than fourteen new camcorders at CES 2003. They group into a few clusters of related cameras with varying feature sets at varying prices. While this may seem a bit overwhelming at first, this shotgun strategy almost guarantees that Sony has a camcorder that will appeal to every consumer at every price point. The sub-$500 Sony TRV350 Digital8 targets the casual shooter who is ready for the quality of Digital Video and the editing convenience of FireWire, but is still interested in leveraging an existing library of analog Hi8 tape.

Image

Sony camcorders are known for producing extremely sharp and bright images, so we were initially a little surprised by the mediocre 395 lines of horizontal resolution we were able to squeeze out of this camera. When we went to enter the numbers into our database, however, we noticed that the objective resolution is better than any Hi8 camera we’ve tested by a wide margin. It compared favorably to other entry-level Mini DV camcorders in the same price range and to Mini DV cameras that are half the size of the TRV350, still, it does fall at the low end of the digital chart. Based purely on size, price and image quality, there really is no compelling reason to get out your credit card, but this camera has a few aces up its sleeve.

D8

The most obvious reason to consider this camera is the Digital8 format. While the days of analog Hi8 video are numbered, it was a wildly popular format, largely because of the excellent quality of the video which exceeded VHS. Since there are still millions of Hi8 cameras being used today (and Sony has a couple of new sub-$300 models for 2003), finding inexpensive Hi8 tape for the TRV350 is simple and will remain so for the indefinite future.

Of course the TRV350 is also a link to the past. If you have hours and hours of analog Hi8 video sitting around your house unedited, this camera offers the convenience of digital FireWire capture to your computer. We popped an older analog Hi8 tape into the TRV350, turned on our computer and plugged in the FireWire cable and were able to transparently capture DV video to our hard drive. The digital conversion (i.e. transcoding) happens within the camera, making the capture process as simple as possible. We were also able to use the analog inputs on the camera (composite and S-video) to transcode analog sources (e.g. VHS video or even a television signal) to the DV format.

Extras

There are other reasons to recommend this camera, although most of these features are common to all of Sony’s new Mini DV cameras as well. We like Interval Recording for time-lapse video and had fun making stop-motion animation using the Frame Recording feature. The TRV350 has a Memory Stick slot, but there is no included memory with the camera. Honestly, the still capture resolution of 640×480 is no longer impressive anyhow. We were able to take still image pictures to a Memory Stick from an analog source, which makes screen grabs a snap. You can hook this camera up to the USB port and create a fun Webcam with it as well.

The TRV350 did not have the best low-light performance, but this is a flexible camera that will shoot in complete darkness using the IR LEDs in NightShot mode. Many professional may poo-poo the green look of night shot video, but we think it is a great option that can truly save a shoot in extreme circumstances. Further, the ugly green can be eliminated by using the in-camera B&W or Sepia picture effects while shooting in Night Shot mode. We are considerably less impressed with the "Super" Night Shot and Color Slow Shutter modes, which shoot at a greatly reduced frame rate. It is very difficult to recover anything watchable from the video shot in these modes, but they might be useful for police surveillance.

One other feature that we really liked was the electronic anamorphic 16:9 widescreen mode, not to be confused with the fake 16:9 framing created by simply cropping the top and bottom of the frame. Video shot in this mode will look very nice when played back through this camera and can be used to create widescreen DVDs, although this is an advanced editing and authoring procedure.

Audio

The audio on this camera was a bit of a mixed bag. The on-camera microphone was sensitive and useful and did not pick up excessive motor noise from the camera itself. Our enthusiasm for the microphone jack was tempered by the lack of a headphone jack to monitor the audio. Finally, as with many camcorders, the audio was set at the factory to a default 12-bit quality, which is inferior to the CD-quality 16-bit potential of this camera. We suspect that the 4-channel 12-bit audio setting may be popular in Japan, but US consumers are either unaware of this feature or don’t want it. (Go check your camcorder right now and change it to 16-bit audio if you haven’t already.)

Summary

The Digital8 format is a hybrid format found in the gap between the analog and the digital world. We can highly recommend D8 cameras for anyone who needs to leverage a legacy analog Hi8 tape collection. The TRV350 shoots a decent image and has the same data quality as even the most expensive professional Mini DV, DVCAM or DVCPRO video. The host of friendly features will appeal to the casual shooter and the manual controls will please anyone who aspires to the moniker "amateur videographer." And we think you’ll be surprised by the flexibility of a camera that won’t be obsolete anytime soon.

TECH SPECS

Format Digital8

Lens fl=2.5mm to 50mm, f/1.6, 20:1

optical zoom, 37mm filter diameter

Image Sensor 1/6-inch (4mm) CCD

Gross Pixels 460,000 pixels

Video Effective 290,000 pixels

Viewfinder B&W (113k pixels)

LCD Viewscreen 2.5-inch color (123k pixels)

Focus auto, manual

Image Stabilization electronic

Maximum Shutter Speed 1/4,000

Iris Control no

Exposure auto, presets

White Balance auto

Audio 16bit 48kHz

Microphone Input 1/8-inch stereo mini

Headphone Output no

Inputs FireWire, S-video, composite

Outputs FireWire, S-video, composite

Edit Interface FireWire

Other Features Memory Stick capable, stills

(640×480), MPEG-4 movies, Super NightShot (w/ IR lamps), USB streaming

Dimensions 3-3/8 (w) x 4 (h) x 7-7/8 (d)

(89mm x 101mm x 199mm)

Weight (sans tape and battery) 1 lb. 13 oz. (830g)

STRENGTHS

  • A/D transcoding and pass-through
  • Flexible feature set
  • Inexpensive

    WEAKNESSES

  • Microphone jack with no headphone jack
  • Performance
  • Tested Horizontal Resolution: 395 lines

    SUMMARY

  • The TRV350 is a flexible camera that bridges the analog/digital divide at a reasonable price.
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