review: Sony PMW-EX1 1/2” 3-CMOS HD Camcorder
The quirky first Handycam from Sony's CineAlta group offers stunning performance.
By Adam Wilt | February 01, 2008
The US$6500 (street price) Sony PMW-EX1 is a six-pound, high definition Handycam with three 1/2" CMOS chips. It resolves a true 1920x1080 image; shoots both interlaced and progressive; records 1920x1080, 1440x1080 (HDV-compatible), and 1280x720 formats; and offers variable frame rates from 1 fps to 30 fps (1080p) or 60fps (720p). The camera records using long-GOP MPEG-2 on dual SxS solid-state memory cards, and provides a 10-bit SDI output with embedded audio and timecode. It is awkward to handhold, some controls are hard to use, and it lacks SD recording, but its excellent pictures, comprehensive image tweaks, and pin-sharp LCD make it a compelling HD camcorder.
The EX1 is Sony's response to Panasonic's HVX200: an affordable variable-frame-rate HD handheld camcorder with solid-state recording. Like the HVX200, it offers true progressive scan including 24p, variable frame rates up to 60p in 720-line mode, and two solid-state card slots, allowing hot-swapping while recording. Unlike the HVX200, the EX1 allows variable frame rates in 1080p, 50Hz/60Hz switchable operation, and full-resolution 1920x1080 sensors with full-resolution recording. It uses rolling-shutter CMOS chips instead of the HVX's frame-capture CCDs, long-GOP MPEG-2 instead of Panasonic's more predictable DVCPROHD, it has no standard-definition recording modes, and it costs about $1300 more than the Panasonic.
The PMW-EX1 was first shown at NAB 2007 and started shipping late in the year. It's the first fixed-lens camcorder built by Sony's CineAlta group in Atsugi, the folks better known for the HDW-F900 HDCAM and PDW-series XDCAM camcorders. The CineAlta heritage is apparent in the EX1's flexible frame rates, true progressive scan, comprehensive menu system, and excellent tonal control.
The camera carries a 14x Fujinon zoom with fully manual iris and zoom rings, and a dual-mode focusing system that allows both servo-driven auto and manual focus, and absolute-position manual focus complete with imperial and metric distance scales on the lens barrel.
The EX1 uses the latest iteration of the "EXMOR" CMOS sensors seen in the HVR-V1 HDV camcorder and the Alpha-series DSLRs.
These 1/2" chips offer the best resolution (1920x1080 effective photosites per sensor) in this class of camcorder, combined with low noise and high sensitivity, and the ability to shoot progressive or interlaced video with equal ease.
The camcorder offers two modes of recording, both using the XDCAM long-GOP MPEG-2 codec. Images are recorded as 8-bit YCrCb with 4:2:0 color sampling. SP is a 1440x1080, 60i (or 50i) constant bit-rate (CBR) mode, compatible with 1080-line HDV. 24p is recorded using 2:3 pulldown in a 60i clip; 25p is recorded with 2:2 pulldown in 50i.
HQ records the full, square-pixel HD raster-1920x1080 or 1280x720-using 35 Mbit/sec variable bit-rate (VBR) recording at whatever frame rate is selected, thus there are no bits wasted on duplicated frames.
The EX1 records onto SxS cards: high-speed memory cards in the Expresscard34 form factor. Like Panasonic's P2 cards, SxS cards are more than commodity memory cards; they're designed for high-speed data transfer.
They also allow variable frame rate recording as well as international flexibility ("NTSC Area" and "PAL Area" frame rates) without the complications attendant on writing a steady data stream to tape, and without the size and weight of either tape or rotating-media drives. A single 8GB SxS card holds about 38 minutes of SP material, or 28 minutes of HQ recording, and the camera holds two cards. Both 8GB and 16GB cards are available, with street prices around $530 and $875 respectively.
The EX1 comes with an SDI spigot for output of either HD or downconverted SD video (the EX1 has no SD recording modes). Timecode and audio are embedded in the SDI stream, allowing a single cable connection to a display or capture card. Analog component is also available as well as analog stereo audio and a composite feed; Y/C video is available but requires the VMC-15FS cable, which must be purchased separately. i.Link (a.k.a. FireWire, or IEEE 1394a) is available for SP-mode, 1440x1080 video only.
The camera records two channels of 16-bit uncompressed audio, with comprehensive controls and both a built-in stereo mic and dual XLR connectors.
The EX1 sports a rotating handgrip, a flip-out LCD of exceptional quality, and 12-volt power: the stock battery is a 14.4-volt, 28Wh Li-Ion pack that runs the camera for about two hours.
I first looked at a prototype EX1 In October 2007 (on cinematographer.com, or dv.com with poorly-reproduced photos). That EX1 was a hand-built unit lacking a serial number and exhibiting anomalous lens behavior. In December I received a pre-production EX1, S/N 90127. This unit was built on the actual production line, but before the line went into full production mode, and is equivalent to a full production unit in every way except for the analog I/O board, which is said to be noisier than the final version.
I own a Sony HVR-Z1 HDV camcorder and a Panasonic HVX200 DVCPROHD camcorder; you'll see them mentioned as I go along, as I was able to compare them directly to the EX1.
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