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December 11, 2007

Sony does it right? My review of the XDCam EX

Please note, this blog has been archived and now lives at www.discretecosine.com

Normally, I'm rather mean to Sony. Usually, they deserve it. Prepare to have your collective internet minds blown.

The Sony XDcam EX is the best camera you can buy for less than $15,000. It's my new favorite camera. It's the first camera in years that I've actually wanted to own personally. Read on to find out why. Thanks very much to Pat Hart at AVI Systems for making this camera available to me.

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First impressions do a lot to dictate a camera's place within the industry. Is it amazing "out-of-the-box," or do you need to work hard to extract the joy? There is no clearer example of this than the Panasonic HVX-200. It shoots absolutely beautiful imagery from the moment you power it on. While a Canon XL-H1 will look desaturated and overly sharpened, video from an HVX-200 will be rich and smooth. I think Sony must understand that, because my out of the box impressions of the EX were excellent. I didn't feel the need to immediately dive into the many 'picture profiles' to customize the image. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Body
Let's start by looking at the physical shape and form factor. The EX is heavy, but not too heavy - around 5lbs. The size is similar to the HVX-200, though it's less of a fatty. The front half the camera is dedicated to the lens. With no tape drive, the rear half is much more compact than the Panasonic, and only a bit chunkier than a Sony Z1U.

The screen flips out from under the microphone, which puts it pretty far forward on the body. This is an excellent placement, as it means the camera can be braced against your shoulder without making you cross-eyed. The screen itself is incredibly crisp.

The button layout is one area that disappoints slightly. With apologies to Clarkson, it looks a bit like someone stuffed all of the buttons up their nose and then sneezed on the camera. Things are very spread out, and the scroll/click wheel for the menus is difficult to use without a lot of concentration.

The hand grip on the right side of the camera is a thing of genius. By pushing a release with your thumb, it rotates through a full 120 degrees, from parallel to the ground, past perpendicular. This means you can shoot down low, and move up high, without changing your grip. This is a great sign of the thought that Sony put into this camera.

Around back, there's an HD-SDI output, covered by a far-too-easy-to-lose rubber cap. All the other video outputs are on the side, under a cover, and are fed via Sony mini-connectors for composite/component. I don't mind this too much - it's the 21st century folks. Go HD-SDI or give up.

Below are some stills of the camera, followed by a video tour of the body.

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Optics
The lens is claimed to be by Fujinon, and is a very, very nice bit of kit. It's essentially a standard professional lens that's been glued to the body. So you get full manual ring control of aperture, zoom and focus, with stops and scales and everything. All of the controls can also be set to servo-controlled auto, with manual override on the focus.

Perhaps I just had a particularly good sample, but I've found the lens to have less chromatic aberration and distortion than any other HD camera I've tested, including more expensive lenses on other XDcam-family cameras. There's a very slight amount of vingetting, though I found it to be barely noticeable. Breathing was moderate, and about in line with what I'd expect.

There are two physical ND filters which can be rolled in via a switch on the body. When you're running auto-iris, the screen will prompt you to add or remove filters as necessary.

The imagers are three 1/2" 'Exmor' 1920x1080 CMOS chips. You read that right - full raster HD. There's definitely some rolling shutter artifacts present in shaky footage, as you'll see later on, but it's not nearly so bad as lower end CMOS cameras.

Workflow
Tape is dead. I finally believe that for real. The P2 workflow was good, but the storage density wasn't there. The XDcam disc workflow had good density, but meant the cameras were big and clunky. XDCam EX changes everything. Take 35mbit XDCam HD footage (essentially HDV with VBR and less aggressive quantization tables), write it to an 8 or 16gig Expresscard/34 card. When you're done, pop it in the Expresscard slot on your MacbookPro or other modern laptop. Click. Drag. Done.

Pricing is still a sore spot for flash memory-based acquisition, and Sony hasn't solved that issue quite yet. An 8gig card will record about 30 minutes and set you back around $500. A 16gig card will run $900.

But there's a big asterisk here. Sony has promised, repeatedly, a firmware update that will allow the camera to take advantage of third-party memory cards. These cards currently retail for well under half the cost of the Sony cards. Sony has also discussed the possibility of a validation process, so that you'd know the card would be able to keep up with the camera. If they follow through on their word, that'll be a huge step forward.

If you don't have an appropriate laptop, you can connect the camera directly via USB, or get a USB expresscard reader. The expresscard slots are hotswappable, so you can offload one card while recording to another, and then swap them back.

For those still living in the dark ages, there camera also has a firewire (err iLink) port. When recording in "standard quality" mode, the camera will output a normal 25mbit HDV signal over firewire, so you could use this camera with an older NLE or with a Firestore or similar device. But really, if you're going to do that, just buy a lesser camera.

Quality
Now that we've covered the physical characteristics and workflow - how does the image actually look? Damn good. I'm going to do some resolution tests later this week, but suffice to say it's incredibly crisp.

The camera has a wide range of configurable features. You can do multiple custom settings for image controls, gamma curves, etc. You can choose 1080i60, 1080p30, 1080p24, 720p60, 720p30 and 720p24. In the 720 settings, you can overcrank up to 60fps, for true slow motion.

The samples section at the end of this review has a number of high-resolution videos to help you gather just how good the camera looks.

Negatives
As a cynic, I can't do a review without mentioning some negatives. As I noted earlier, the menu scroll-wheel is difficult to operate. The menus are also laid out in an awkward fashion. If you're shooting 1080p24, and suddenly decide you want to shoot some slow motion, you need to dig into the 'others' menu to set the resolution to 720p24, then go into another menu branch to set the overcrank. The 'video format' menu option is also right above the 'format media' menu option, which has more than once gotten me close to accidentally wiping my memory card.

The white balance control gives you a switch between preset, a or b. However, the preset is always fixed to 3200K. I wish they'd gone the Panasonic route on this one and let you toggle between 3200 and 5600 on the preset.

The power switch is difficult to operate, particularly when wearing gloves, though I understand this is to make it more difficult to accidentally turn it off.

Startup times are rather slow - around 10 seconds from power on to being able to start recording. Why does it take so long, when there aren't physical tape heads to engage?

Battery life isn't stellar - I was expecting amazing runtimes, thanks to the lack of moving parts. However, I'm seeing more like 2 hours of 'real world' use on a charge with the included battery.

The CMOS sensors inevitably lead to some rolling shutter issues, though they're not terrible.

That's about it. In all honesty, the negatives are easy to work around and are far outweighed by the positives.

Overall
I love this camera. It is everything I have dreamt of in a video camera. This, for me, is the new top-dog. $6699? A bargain.

Sample Footage
Thanks to an abundance of bandwidth here at the University, I'm able to host files that other reviewers can't. So here goes.

For each clip, I've posted a web-sized flash version, a 720p quicktime vesion, and the original XDCam file. You'll need Final Cut Pro 6.0.2 installed to view the XDCam files.

1080p24 - Child Walking in the Snow


720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

720p24 - Overcranked at 60 - Snow on Bricks


720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

720p24 - Overcranked at 60 - Slow Motion walker. Note some rolling shutter distortion due to the snow (or not? see this thread)



720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

720p24 - Overcranked at 60 - Dude walking.



720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

1080p24 - Failed Diet Coke Fountain. Notice the way the CMOS sensors handle the light bloom. Wouldn't want to do this with a CCD.


720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

1080p24 - Long zoom at the train museum - very low light shot, with 6db of gain


720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

1080p24 - Trains undercranked at 6fps


720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

1080p24 - 16 frame 'frame accumulation' shot


720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

1080p24 - On the set of TechTalk


720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

1080p24 - On the set again, spinning around


720p Quicktime
XDCam Original

Posted by at December 11, 2007 4:55 PM | Reviews

Comments

Why can't you just let people download and analyze the files without all the embedding and FCP codecs?

Just a simple download, thanks!

Posted by: Disgruntled at December 11, 2007 6:47 PM

The "xdcam original" links for each video goes to the files that came off my expresscard. I'm not sure what you're asking? Are you saying you want the original MXF? The files haven't been recompressed or anything ...

Posted by: Colin McFadden at December 11, 2007 6:49 PM

The mp4 files that come directly off my EX1 play using VideoLan. These mp4 files do not.

I'm not sure why?
Thanks for the great review. Good work!

Posted by: Anonymous at December 11, 2007 7:41 PM

Odd that they don't play for you - I just opened one in Videolan (VLC) 0.8.6c and it played fine. Strange.

Posted by: Anonymous at December 11, 2007 7:44 PM

Colin, when I click on the 'xdcam Original my PC workstation running Windows XP wants to save the file as a mov type, not mp4. What am I doing wrong. I really would like to view the original off the camera rather than a recompressed quicktime file.

Thanks, John

Posted by: John at December 11, 2007 8:47 PM

'You'll need Final Cut Pro 6.0.2 installed to view the XDCam files.'

No, my machine is a PC and I have Vegas 8 pro installed and the Sony Clip Browser. That should work. Does with other raw clips of the camera.

Posted by: John at December 11, 2007 8:51 PM

Woops, I thought was the EX1 mp4 file. They are not.
Can you post the original mp4 files opposed to the mov?

Posted by: Anonymous at December 11, 2007 8:54 PM

How is the low light performance? I read somewhere that it is better than on Red. Is it possible?

Posted by: jim dean at December 11, 2007 9:54 PM

A few notes - Sorry I wasn't clear - The "XDCam Originals" were imported with the XDCam plugin for final cut pro, which wraps them in MOV (the video content itself doesn't change). I'll check tomorrow to see if I have the pre-rewrapped files around, otherwise I'll shoot some more and be sure to post those.

As far as low light - it's very good. I haven't shot wit ha Red yet, so I can't say about that, but it's definitely very good. I'm going to put it up against my Canon XL-H1 and some sony studio cameras on Thursday and try to get a feel for true ISO and whatnot.

Posted by: Colin McFadden at December 11, 2007 10:09 PM

I just wanted to mention that you referred only to "NTSC" frame rates but the camera is universal in being capable of frame rates from the "PAL" world.

From SONY website: It is switchable between 1080i and 720P with multiple frame recording capability such as 50i, 59.94i, 50p, 59.94p and native 25P, 29.97p and 23.98P.

Plus, already mentioned, the “Slow & Quick Motion� capability.

Posted by: Jiri Bakala at December 11, 2007 10:30 PM

Thank you for these posts, they are essential to our learning and greatly appreciated!

What are your thoughts on the rolling shutter issue with the snow fall? Any way to combat that? Would OIS being off solve this problem? It would be a shame to try and film a beautiful shot in snow fall and have a rolling shutter issue.

Thanks again for all you have given.
Peace and Blessings,
Danny

Posted by: Danny Hidalgo at December 11, 2007 10:55 PM

A fixed camera with no OIS would definitely help - handholding it means you've got an extra source of movement involved.

Posted by: Colin McFadden at December 11, 2007 10:58 PM

For those of us on the PC side, can we at least get the option to download the 720p MOV files instead of having them embedded? These should work fine with XP and Quicktime.

Thanks for the info and for sharing the files.

Posted by: Anonymous at December 13, 2007 6:46 PM

I understand that XDCam is 35 Mbit vs. HDV 25 Mbit. Even "old" Firewire is 400 Mbit/sec, correct? Is there a some reason Sony doesn't offer the option to send the XDCam over the firewire, for storage in a laptop, etc.? I know it's not an existing standard format on firewire but surely that's just a matter of writing a driver?

Posted by: John Beale at December 14, 2007 8:24 PM

Don't think there's a technical reason that they couldn't stream xdcam 35mbit down FW, probably just a matter of not wanting to invest the effort. You could always pull the HD-SDI instead something like an Aja IO HD - store it on your laptop in ProRes422 and get even better quality..

Posted by: Colin McFadden at December 14, 2007 8:31 PM

Hi!
Was all these footage shot using MF or auto focus?
did you noticed any problem using auto focus? like hunting and pulsing?

Posted by: Joel Klein at December 23, 2007 7:01 PM

Thanks for the interesting review. I wonder if you have tried 1920 x 1080 in 30 P mode? I looked at your 24P version and it is much better than the HDV coming out of the Z1U!

Also, with PAL conversion, although I mostly shoot for NTSC, would the 30P become a jittering problem?

And finally, how does the standard definition compression look like: XDCAM to SD DVD NTSC and PAL, also up to BlueRay?

Many thanks, Paul

Posted by: Paul Ranky at February 3, 2008 11:21 AM

Thanks for the interesting review. I was wondering if it is possible to install a Pro35 kit to get more "dept of feild" and more lenses range? (like the Redrock system)

Posted by: Jean-Louis at February 19, 2008 2:23 PM

There are a few 35mm adapters out there for this camera - Letus just shipped special glass designed for it.

Posted by: Colin McFadden at February 19, 2008 2:29 PM

That's the camera that I've always wanted. Although it's kinda costly, it's defintely a must-have for a Pro

Posted by: Chris at March 16, 2008 6:01 AM

I like Sony because of it's bluray technique! yeah

Posted by: Josh at April 15, 2008 9:26 AM

Colin,
Thanx for posting these clips. Very helpful!

Posted by: Richard at May 12, 2008 9:01 PM

I do minor video editing as a side hobby and this camera makes me want to improve my game by about 100x. *drools*. I enjoyed your Sony comments too, I remember a few years back when Michael Jackson went on live TV and said that Sony was Evil.

Posted by: Sign Spinners at September 29, 2008 2:45 PM