Yesterday, at a press conference at IBC in Amsterdam, Sony formally announced the specifications and pricing of its new PDW-EX1 camcorder.
First previewed six months ago at NAB in Las Vegas, as the XDCAM EX, it has since become one of the most hotly anticipated and talked about video cameras of all time…and here’s why…in a nutshell, it’s a true HD (1920 x 1080) 3 chip camera, that records native 24p (23.98) direct to memory cards, has a real lens with full manual control and is badged Cine Alta (as used on Sony’s ultra high end digital cinema products), yet it is roughly the size and form factor of a Sony Z1…and is affordable!
The PDW-EX1 features a fixed f1.9 14 x “high definition,” zoom lens tailor made by broadcast lens manufacturers, Fujinon. Its focal range of 5.8mm – 81.2mm is equivalent to 31.4mm – 439mm in 35mm terms. Although this is wider than we are used to seeing on a camera with this form factor and will therefore be welcomed by filmmakers, most cinematographers and directors would happily have sacrificed some of the tele end for a lens that went wider still. What everyone will rejoice at, however, is that this lens offers three separate, fully manual, properly calibrated rings for aperture, focus and zoom (as well as various auto options).
The PDW-EX1 features three of Sony’s brand new ‘Exmor’ sensors, which it shares with the new semi-pro a700 DSLR that the company’s consumer division announced yesterday.
These CMOS sensors have an effective pixel count of 1920 x 1080 (that’s full HD resolution) and incorporate exponentially more on chip processing than ever before, resulting in shorter signal paths, which, according to Sony, means “digital signals that are exceptionally immune from external noise and interference.” At half an inch, they are also larger than the third and quarter of an inch chips traditionally found on ‘prosumer’ DV and HDV cameras, which should result in improved latitude, better low light handling and which will result in more control over depth of field.
The PDW-EX1 records direct onto flash based SxS memory cards. A new technology jointly developed by Sony and SanDisk, specifically for professional camcorders and non linear editing systems, these cards enable instant recording (with automatic protection of already written files) and instant non linear scene selection/review in camera. Currently available in capacities of 8 and 16 Gigabytes (with 32 gigabyte cards promised before the end of the year), these cards fit into the ExpressCard slots found as standard on most new laptops (including Apple’s Macbook Pro) and use the PCI Express interface to transfer data at up to 800Mbits/sec. As a result, they can be transferred from the camera to a laptop (with an ExpressCard slot) for instant editing (with the appropriate NLE software) and direct file transfer without the need for video capture. The PDW-EX1 has slots for two SxS cards and will ship with one 8G card.
Recording Algorithms & Bit Rates
The PDW-EX1 supports the two main data rates found in Sony’s other, more expensive, XDCAMs. ‘HQ’, which most people will choose, records 1920 x 1080 (and 1270 x 1080) at a data rate of 35MB/s VBR, while ‘SP’ records 1440 x 1080 at a data rate of 25MB/s CBR, both use 4:2:0 sampling and MPEG 2 Long GOP compression. The lower 18 MB/s data rate found in the PDW F-350 & PDW-F330 is not supported. Neither, unfortunately is Sony’s new 50MB/s 4:2:2 algorithm (though this is hardly surprising).
Inevitably some people will compare Sony’s PDW-EX1 to Panasonic’s AG-HVX 200 (which, prior to this announcement was thought to be its main competitor) and conclude that the latter is the better camera because it utilizes 4:2:2 sampling. However they would do well to remember one of the most fundamental laws of computing – GIGO (Garbage In Garbage Out). The Sony’s sensors are newly designed half inch HD CMOS chips with extensive integrated processing, while the Panasonic’s sensors are old school uprezzed one third of an inch SD CCDs. Added to which, it seems likely that Sony’s camera sports the better lens. So although Sony’s 4:2:0 sampling is chucking away more information than Panasonic’s 4:2:2, because, in theory, the Sony camera has much better quality information to start off with, it can afford to chuck away more.
The proof of the cheesecake is, of course, in the eating and only a direct shoot out between the two would determine this for sure. Though frankly, looking at everything that the PDW-EX1 has to offer, it’s a mystery why anyone would even consider buying Panasonic’s AG-HVX 200 anymore.
The PDW-EX1 can record a minimum of 100 minutes on two 16GB cards at 35 MB/s or 140 minutes at 25 MB/s.
Formats & Frame Rates
Designed with transatlantic compatibility in mind, The PDW-EX1 can do both PAL and NTSC, offering multiple frame rates including 59.94i, 50i, 29.97p, 25p and 23.98P. It also offers over cranking and under cranking (slow & fast motion) at 1-30 FPS in 1080p and 1-60 FPS in 720p (selectable in 1 frame increments in both modes). There’s also a ‘frame recording’ function for animation, which records a single frame every time the record button is pressed and an intervalometer for budding Ron Frickes.
In addition to offering multiple shutter speeds, the camera also offers multiple shutter angle settings, enabling real cinematographers to transfer their working practices to the PDW-EX1.
If this camera has an Achilles heel, its to be found in the audio specs… a stingy two channels of 16bit 48Khz sound. C’mon Sony, it’s 2007, not 1987…this camera really should offer a minimum spec of 24 bit 96KHz audio…and preferably at least 5 channels of it!
On the upside, I understand that this camera can handle Jam & Sync timecode. If that’s the case then it should be easy to record high quality synced sound on a separate dedicated audio recorder such as the Edirol R4 Pro.
Also, on the upside, the PDW-EX1 offers two sensibly located, full size audio recording level dials (and, of course, two XLR inputs).
The supplied BP-U30 battery is quoted as being able to power the camera for approximately two hours, while the optional BP-U60 battery is quoted as offering double the battery life.
The PDW-EX1 covers most bases by offering Firewire, USB, S-Video and crucially, HD-SDI and SD-SDI.
Other key features include an optical image stabilizer, focus assist, selectable peaking, four cine gammas that are identical to those used in Sony’s high end Cine Alta cameras and recorders, a live histogram, six programmable picture profiles, a shot transition function that allows precise and repeatable scene transitions at the touch of a button, a skin tone detail control and a 3.5″ 1920 x 480 250,000 pixel 16:9 colour LCD screen, that folds under the camera’s handle.
Price and Availability
The Sony PDW-EX1 is expected to ship in November at a suggested retail price of 6,500 Euros (+ tax), which at current exchange rates equates to approximately 4,300 GBP (plus VAT). At this price and with this feature set, it seems highly likely that it will wipe the floor with the competition (what competition?) and do for independent film making what the Sony VX-1000 did for independent TV production a decade ago.
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