If you're in the market for a pocket-sized HD camcorder, the Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD700 ($429, street) should place near the top of your list. The digital video camera, which Sanyo touts for both its 720p HD video capture and 7.1-megapixel still capabilities, offers excellent video quality in a package only slightly larger than a deck of cards. But its sub-par performance as a digital still camera makes the camcorder suitable for snapping only the occasional still photo.
The camcorder includes a 5X (38-190mm equivalent), f/3.5-4.7 optical zoom lens with a built-in neutral density filter, and a rotating 230,000-dot, 2.7-inch widescreen LCD with a 16:9 aspect ratio. The HD700 is slim, at 1.4-inches wide with the display closed, and very light for an HD camcorder, weighing in at just 7.5 ounces with the rechargeable Li-Ion battery and SDHC card installed. Because it's so light, it may be tempting to capture handheld video, but doing so will oftentimes result in shaky recordings, making a tripod a necessity. While shake is a problem even with wide-angle shots, using the telephoto lens will intensify the problem significantly. The camcorder's high resolution also helps to exaggerate this problem. The unit's small size makes it easy to find a suitable platform; anything from a pocket tripod to leaning on a ledge will do the trick.
The HD700's sturdy body includes a large battery cover on its right side, a small vertical flash to the right of the lens, a difficult to open and awkwardly positioned headphone jack below the lens, and an equally difficult to open SDHC card slot and power jack on the rear. The display rests in a vertical position, flush with the unit's left side when not in use, and can be rotated up to 285 degrees. While the camcorder's power button is accessible when the display is opened, opening the display turns on the unit as well. As no EVF is offered, closing the display turns the power off, even while recording. It's not possible to power on the camcorder with the display closed--so you're going to upset those folks sitting behind you when shooting video of your kids in a dark theater.
The display itself includes a stereo microphone on the front and a small, yet powerful mono speaker on the rear to the left of the display. Audio sounds much clearer when using a pair of headphones, recommended if you'll be doing any on-camera interviews. A recessed switch below the speaker allows you to select from normal or simple modes, a blessing for users new to photography or video capture. This mode allows for just a few setting adjustments, including an option to select movie and photo size, focus, and flash modes. Still image capture in simple mode is fixed at 7.1-megapixels with medium compression.
To the right of the LCD, on the rear of the unit, you'll find a zoom rocker switch, Full Auto mode button, menu button, a record/play switch, and four-position rocker switch with a center selector, as well as still photo and video record buttons. If recording still images at the full resolution, a slight depression of the photo capture button will reveal a wide-angle, standard 4:3 format view of the scene previously displayed. The camcorder will display a widescreen view whenever you're not depressing the still image capture button, which is fine if you're trying to frame a video shot, but can be tricky when trying to frame your stills.
For capturing still images, the camera includes eight still modes including low and standard compression 7-megapixel modes, a 2-megapixel mode and a VGA mode, all in the standard 4:3 image format. Also in the standard format are a 10-megapixel interpolated mode and a continuous shooting mode that will capture 2.4 fps for up to five shots. Two 16:9 widescreen modes are available at 5.3- or 0.9-megapixels (1280x720). Even while capturing 16:9 stills, depressing the still camera shutter shows a slightly wider view.
The HD700's setup menu is divided into a recording menu and an option menu, both consisting of three pages. The menu is well organized, and all options are visible with only a few clicks of the four-position switch. Recording menu options include movie quality and resolution options (more on that later); a scene select option with a small selection of auto scene modes including sports and portrait modes; digital image stabilization; and manual exposure settings, among others.
The HD700's manual mode doesn't provide an exposure meter, so correct aperture and shutter speed settings can only be confirmed by snapping a picture, and only if you're willing to trust exposure based on an image's on-screen reproduction, as the camera lacks a histogram in both recording in playback mode. Other manual settings include manual focus and white balance, though the camcorder's auto white balance seemed to work just fine. The menu also provides options for image enhancement including vivid and soft focus modes. Additionally, you can assign shortcuts to settings such as flash and exposure to the four-position switch.
While video captured with the HD700 looks great, still images leave much to be desired, even those captured outside in bright light. Decent images, and I use that word generously, are more an exception than the norm. Occasionally, images captured at the camera's widest focal length would look acceptable in-camera, but when viewed on a computer at full size, plenty of artifacts were revealed, and images appeared either over-sharpened or not sharp at all. Images captured at longer focal lengths were almost never usable, and I found myself deleting images in camera more often than not. If I had been stuck with the HD700 as my only still camera, let's just say I wouldn't have been a happy camper.
A video clip captured with the Sanyo HD700. Note: This clip has been optimized for web viewing and is not presented at full resolution.
But let's focus on where the HD700 really shines, as a high-definition digital video camcorder. With the sinking costs and increasing storage of SDHC cards, manufacturers have begun creating camcorders that support solid-state media rather than much larger yet lower capacity mini-DV tapes, resulting in smaller, more powerful, and less expensive digital video cameras. When viewing video captured with the Sanyo Xacti on a computer monitor, friends seldom believed me when I showed them what I had used to capture it.
The camcorder can capture video at three different resolutions. A 30fps, 720p, 1280x720-pixel recording mode is the default. This mode captures video at a 16:9 HD aspect ratio at a frame rate of 9Mbps or 6Mbps (similar to compression settings with still images--but for video formats). The camcorder stores video clips as individual H.264 MPEG4 files, which are date and time stamped just like still image files, making organization a breeze. Expect to be able to capture 1 hr, 53 min of video on an 8GB SDHC card at the higher quality setting, or 2 hrs, 46 min at the lower quality setting. With a 4GB card, you should be able to capture about 56 min or 1 hr, 22 min at higher or lower quality settings, respectively. Video captured at both settings look good, and it was difficult to find any meaningful difference between the two in our field test videos. A VGA (640x480px) 4:3 ratio (standard TV format) video mode and a 320x240 pixel web recording mode are also available. Video captured at the highest resolution in daylight was smooth, virtually noise free, and incredibly sharp.
I brought the HD700 on a recent trip to France and Italy and was able to capture incredible footage throughout the trip. The crisp, clear stereo audio was amazing--compared to the bare-bones mono so many 'dedicated' still cameras capture in video mode. Because of its light weight, it's easy to bring the camcorder with you wherever you go. Even though it was exposed to both very cold environments while walking in Paris and warm environments in museums and shops, I never had any problems with operation or with the front element of the internal zoom lens fogging up.
While video quality is nearly flawless when captured outside, noise is visible, though not overbearing, when captured indoors, even in bright, airy spaces. The camcorder focuses easily when at its widest focal length, but spends a couple seconds searching for a focal point at longer focal lengths. Also worth noting, the HD700's optical zoom is responsive and smooth, but operates at only one speed; fast, so while you are able to zoom while recording a clip, use it sparingly.
While mini-DV camcorders can only upload video to a computer in real time, downloading from a SDHC card to a computer is a snap. Moving an hour of HD video should take about five minutes when using an external USB 2.0 card reader and a class 4 SDHC card. While the HD700 includes a USB cable for use with the included dock, downloading video using a dedicated SDHC card reader will be faster and won't run down the camcorder's battery. I used SanDisk's 8GB Ultra II Class 4 SDHC card, which includes a SanDisk MicroMate SDHC reader in the box.
Sanyo includes everything you'll need to get the most out of your camcorder. A docking station with HDMI, AV, mini-USB and power ports is included, as are USB, component video, composite video, S-video and RCA audio cables. Sanyo also includes an AC adapter for charging the 1200 mAh battery, an infrared remote control, wrist strap, lens cap and soft carrying case. Also in the box are Adobe Premiere Elements 3.0 for editing video and creating DVD's on a PC running Windows XP or Vista and Photoshop Album SE for organizing still photos. While no software is included for Mac users, the MPEG4 files from the HD700 are compatible with Apple's iMovie.
720p video playback is possible on a high-definition television using the included component video cable. An HDMI port is also available on the dock, but unfortunately no HDMI cable is included in the box. Video playback looks and sounds great on both a computer and high-definition TV, and the included remote provides complete control, including the ability to remotely capture video and stills.
Despite Sanyo's marketing claims that the VPC-HD700 is simply a "camera" in both the still and video sense, as photographers, we cannot help but think of the VPC-HD700 as a great pocket 720p HD video camcorder that can grab the occasional still snap in a pinch. If hi-def video is your thing, the VPC-HD700 has a lot going for it--great video image quality, crisp stereo sound and an easy to use interface. But most hardcore photo enthusiasts will be disappointed by the VPC-HD700's still images.
The HD700 is available now in brown, red and silver with a street price of approx. $429.
A video clip captured with the Sanyo HD700. Note: This clip has been optimized for web viewing and is not presented at full resolution. It is presented in standard definition. Click here to view the video clip in high definition.