Test Bench:Sharp VL-FD1U Mini DV Camcorder

Sharp Electronics Corporation

Sharp Plaza

Mahwah, New Jersey 07430-2135

Phone: (201) 529-8200
www.sharp-usa.com

The Sharp VL-FD1U Mini DV camcorder is a sleek little model aimed at the beginning to intermediate video hobbyist. Some clever design elements, intuitive controls and a lot of features make it a consideration for the beginner who wants compactness and usability. The total package, however, doesn’t quite add up to $1,500. And a couple of glitches we discovered while testing the unit are things the intermediate user especially should consider.

Design

The VL-FD1U is a small, cleverly designed machine that can fold up and fit easily into a coat pocket. The view screen and tape compartment occupy about two-thirds of the body. The view screen opens up, folds over and clicks back into place on the back. The otherwise vulnerable LCD screen is protected when closed. The other third of the body, where you find many of the controls, rotates a full 180 degrees. This makes tilting the camera from high and low positions easy. The camcorder also comes with a handy tripod adapter.

The lens itself folds in and out, locking into position, thereby eliminating the need for a lens cap. The manual recommends that for basic shooting you rotate the lens perpendicular to the view screen and shoot from the hip, so to speak. It takes a little getting used to. We found that it was the most comfortable way to shoot and that we could always rotate the LCD smoothly to change to a higher camera angle.

The basic functional buttons are on the body of the camera. But beyond that, the camcorder relies on a touch screen menu system and a control toggle button. You can operate almost everything, even the VCR functions, from the touch screen. To avoid oily, on-screen fingertips, Sharp includes a stylus with a retractable point and a strap that can loop onto your wrist or attach to the camcorder itself.

A couple of cool design items caught our eyes. First, for VCR mode, you need only flip the screen up and back to its 120-degree position. When the picture comes on upside down, just press the inverse button, and it will flip right side up. This means you have a stable base for viewing and operating the VCR. Also, because the battery mounts below the view screen on the bottom of the camcorder, the lens remains free to rotate when you set the cam down on a flat surface. This creates all kinds of possibilities for cheap, inconspicuous, stable shooting. While there is no mike jack, a remote control and headphone jack make this a well-designed camcorder overall.

Features

The VL-FD1U comes with a 10x optical zoom and a 200x digital zoom. Both work well and allow for varying zoom speeds. It allowed us the option of 40x and 200x, and we used the normal telephoto buttons to zoom in to whatever point we chose inside the magnification we selected. The zoom display informed us when the digital zoom engaged and at what magnification. Of course, like most digital zooms, this one looked grainy and was pixilated.

The camcorder gives you manual focus, as well as manual white balance, something that boosts it into the intermediate user range. You can operate the manual focus via the touchscreen.

The VL-FD1U also has a focus lock feature that works like a quick manual focus. When in focus lock, we found we could touch an image on the screen that wasn’t in focus and it would come into focus without our having to go totally manual. A similar feature works for exposure as well. On a side note, when the camcorder is in standby, the menu items on the screen beep when you touch them. The beeping stops when the camcorder is recording, a small thing that becomes very important when you’re shooting with the manual focus on.

Because the camcorder is so small, we found noticeable shaking during playback. Shooting with the electronic Digital Image Stabilizer (DIS) on made a noticeable improvement without degradation of the image.

Additionally, this Mini DV allows one the choice of 12 titles (preset phrases like "Happy Birthday" in clever designs) and 12 scene templates (that frame the screen), as well as the ability to draw on the screen with the stylus. The "pen input" button next to the record button brings up a drawing tool bar. You can select pen, spray and circle applicators, among others, for use in a variety of colors. You can save what you’ve drawn and superimpose it, along with a title or scene template, on the screen for a clever opening sequence to your video.

Performance

The on-camera mike is placed on top of the lens, close to the operator controls. In quiet shooting situations, the AGC boosted the levels so that the mike picked up our thumbing of the zoom switch. Furthermore it picked up motor noise from the camera. We noticed this both in playback and on headphones while recording. These sounds became less noticeable when other noises rose above them. Regarding ambient noise, music and talking, the sound was clear and clean. However, as the camera moved away from a particular sound, like music at a moderate level, the operator and motor noise started coming back at a distance of six or eight feet.

Overall, the image was adequate. In outdoor shooting the colors were bright and vibrant. However, when we shot a fence we noticed some lens distortion. At wide angle the parallel lines of the fence warped significantly along the edge of the screen. When we shot in our office under fluorescent light its colors were a little muted and grays and blacks were grainy.

Finally, we encountered a glitch in the video that occasionally popped up in playback. Concerned that the glitch might be from the tape, we recorded twice more over a spot where a glitch occurred. The first time we got a glitch. The second time, we didn’t. Still not satisfied, we put the tape in another Mini DV camcorder and recorded for about 20 minutes. No glitches occurred.

Summary

The Sharp VL-FD1U Mini DV is a cleverly designed camcorder that operates well and is easy to learn and use. For the beginner who might not care about audio problems or minor image problems, it’s a camcorder that’s worth considering. However, the intermediate user who is looking for a cleaner performing unit and the ability to advance might strongly consider other camcorder options.

Specifications

Price: $1,500

Lens: 10:1 optical, 200:1 digital zoom, f/1.4-3.0, 30mm diameter

Image sensor: 1/4" CCD image sensor

Viewfinder: 3.5-inch color LCD

Maximum shutter speed:1/10,000

Focus: auto, manual

White balance: auto, manual

Digital effects: 8 digital picture effects: Sport, Sunlight, Dusk, Party, Sepia, Mosaic, Negative, Slow Shutter

Audio: 12 or 16-bit stereo

Inputs: composite, S-video and FireWire

Outputs: composite, S-video and FireWire

Edit interface: FireWire, RS-232C

Other features: digital stills

Dimensions: 6(w) x 2 7/32(h) x 3 19/32(d) inches

Weight: 1.28 lbs.

Performance Times

Pause to record: .48 seconds

Power-up to record: 5.16 seconds

Fast-forward/Rewind (60-min. tape):

Fast-forward 2 minutes, 45 seconds.

Rewind 2 minutes, 47 seconds

STRENGTHS

  • Compact and lightweight
  • Lots of features

  • Focus lock

    WEAKNESSES

  • Mike picks up motor and operator noise

  • No headphone jack
  • No microphone jack

    SUMMARY

  • A good camera, but the list price is high for what you get.
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