There’s a new sub-category in home video – Digital8, by Sony.  Will Digital8 stand the test of time?  Ah, that’s the question!  I can’t answer it because my crystal ball is at the cleaners.

Features

* List price $1099

* Digital8 recording/playback – 60 min. digital using 2-hr Hi8 tape

* Hi8 playback only of existing Hi8 material

* 20x optical/360x digital zoom

* Up to 10 hours of recording with optional NP-F950 Infolithium battery

* 3.5-inch swivel, 270-degree LCD

* Black-and-white viewfinder

* Digital still camera function

* LANC

* i.Link (FireWire) input/output

* LaserLink wireless transmitter system (Receiver optional)

* Analog input/output

* NightShot 0 lux w/slow shutter

* SteadyShot image stabilization

* 2.12 lbs.

It’s mostly standard stuff for the current crop of other Sony iron in this form factor, except for the Digital 8 format and the i.Link.  If you know the other products, you’ll know this one.  If not, you’ll like it when you see it and you’ll use it with ease.

Executive Summary

Sony has done it again with a superbly executed product, priced right, with great performance and useful features.  The DCR-TRV310 is second from the top of the Digi8 food chain of four products.  See the others and their specs here.

There is one large “BUT” here (in addition to my own all-too-ample keister).  At this time, Sony is the only supplier, make that, announced supplier of Digital8.  So, it’ll be a Sony Digital8 product you buy or you won’t be buying one, unless things change.  Competition’s a good thing.  It keeps the players honest and the prices lower than without it. Are YOU comfortable with this arrangement?  Without industry-wide support, what is to become of the format? If consumers invest in this hybrid system, what if this format is gone in a few years?  What will become of all those irreplaceable tapes you will have made? Are my concerns valid? Is this a factor in your buying decision?  I’m just not sure about Digital8.  Chime in with your two cents, please.

Connectivity

Piece of cake, just like all of Sony’s camcorders.  If you know one, you know this one, with one exception, i.Link.  This is the simplest connector ever.  You’ll need an i.Link savvy computer, such as one of Apple’s Blue & White G3 speed demons which have FireWire built-in, or one of several PCs with i.Link (FireWire) capabilities.  I understand that all of Sony’s computer offerings, including their notebooks, now come with i.Link.

Look and Feel

Looks great, feels good.  Sony has much to be proud of here.  Everything’s in the right place for ease of use.  They have done their homework and learned from the success of the current TR series.  Weight is the same as for other HandyCams, but more than any of the palm-size DVC camcorders due to the larger tape and transport mechanisms.

Performance

Low light image quality is excellent.  There may be some video noise, but you do get an acceptable image.  Switch on NiteShot for the eerie night vision look, and kick in the Slow Shutter for even better use of low light (and some interesting looking videos).  Slow down in four incremental steps, all the way to a shutter speed of 1/4 second.

For daylight performance, I shot the same scenes with both the TRV310 and with Canon’s new digital video Elura.  Sure, the Elura is considerably pricier at $1800, but I wanted to compare the image quality against a true Digital Video Camcorder, and the Elura was in-house for testing.  The Elura boasts Canon’s uncompromising Optical Image Stabilization and an RGB filter, as well as progressive scan mode.  Sony uses an electronic image stabilizer and does not have the RGB filter or progressive scan (explained later).

In daylight, though, I found the image beautifully sharp and detailed, just as on DV camcorders I have tested.  What surprised me was a somewhat washed-out look. It’s what I call a “camcorder-faded” look, and is typical of most of the consumer-grade camcorder images, including Sony’s.  It’s to be expected from a camcorder with a single imaging chip.  Pro models, for which a hefty premium is paid, feature three chips, one for Red, one for Green and one for Blue.  From these three primary colors come all others in the world of video imaging.  Single chip camcorders do what they can with what they have.  Flesh tones and bright accurate colors just aren’t all there.  Don’t get me wrong, they look good, but not quite true and not quite right on this Sony, especially when compared to the Elura.  This is where the Elura’s RGB filter shines.  Though still a single-chip camera, images processed through the filter deliver colors and flesh tones that jump out at the viewer and are, for the most part, spot-on accurate.

To my eye, the Sony exhibited only slight picture quality degradation from the electronic image stabilization, an observation similar to my experience with other Sony camcorders.  I doubt if most consumers would even take notice, unless comparing with an image shot with a Canon and its optical stabilization.

I was also impressed with the Sony’s side-mounted 3.5-inch LCD.  Even outdoors, the image was bright and overcame all but direct sunlight.  Adjustments worked well. That the screen brightness and color are adjustable at all is a plus.  Not all camcorders have this feature.  Playback sound was wonderful, too, through the on-board speaker.  Volume should be adequate for a large huddled mass to view and hear the goings on with ease.  There is plenty of volume adjustment available.  I was pleasantly surprised.

As part of my evaluation, I tested the amazing i.Link capability (FireWire or IEEE 1394 to the rest of the world).  I connected a FireWire cable (not supplied) between the camcorder and one of the new Apple Macintosh Blue & White G3 mini-towers.  The images you’ll see here from both the DCR-TRV310 and the Elura made their way into my computer this way.  Why FireWire?  Because it’s FAST, really FAST, simple, available for Macs and PCs and the computer files are relatively small, about 240MB per minute.  We can now get broadcast quality on a consumer’s budget.  That’s why.  FireWire will revolutionize how we do video editing, making it fast and fun for everyone.  It’s an accepted worldwide standard for which we can thank none other than Apple Computer.

With FireWire, a video edited entirely within a computer (you’ll need an editing program) can then be output back to this or any equipped camcorder via i.Link, FireWire or whatever you want to call it.  Why?  The video and audio are entirely in the digital domain.  It is a data stream and not an audio and video signal that flows over the FireWire cable.  The camcorder translates the data back into video and lays it onto the tape – all without ANY loss whatsoever.  You read this correctly.  Now, back on digital tape, make copies directly to S-VHS or standard VHS and it will look better than ever before possible.  I’ve done it.  It’s incredible.  Credit Sony with the least expensive method, so far, of capturing great quality audio and video that can take advantage of this increasingly common method of digitally transferring everything to and from a computer.  This is one of the most important capabilities in Sony’s line of reasonably priced Digital8 products.

Photo Mode

I would be remiss of I did not touch on the digital still photo recording mode of the DCR-TRV310.  In the standby mode, pushing the Photo button located at the back right of the top of the camera grabs a digital still image and records it on tape, along with audio, for seven seconds.  These images are suitable for photos from a digital video printer or photos via computer using, for example, a color inkjet printer.  In this mode, too, the differences between the Elura and the DCR-TRV310 can be seen.  The Elura images appear crisper and with more accurate colors, except where I screwed up with my focusing.  The crispness comes from the Elura’s progressive scan mode, in which each image is captured, whether at 30 frames per second of video or with a single digital photo, as if using a digital still camera.  Again, the Sony image is OK, but not great in this mode.  Progressive scan makes the difference here, and would not be expected on an $1100 camcorder.

Yes, the Canon Elura is $600 more than the Sony DCR-TRV310.  Is it a fair image comparison?  Well, no, not exactly, if comparing feature for feature.  But, that’s not what we did, nor was it the purpose here.  We simply wanted to compare certain aspects of the Sony’s image performance to another brand’s full-featured capabilities, and the new Canon Elura was a great way to go.  Watch for our dedicated Elura report coming soon!

Value

The DCR-TRV310 is one, awesome, feature-rich performer with much to recommend it.  As with other similarly configured Sony camcorders, it is at the top of its class, and the price represents tremendous value for the performance received.  The two issues prohibiting me from offering the coveted top rating are the uncertainty of the Digital8 format and the camcorder-faded look.  Purchase it with these cautionary notes, but I assure you, you will love this camcorder’s overall performance, especially if you take advantage of its digital editing capabilities with your home computer, now or in the future.

IMAGE CAPTURE PATH

For the record, the same procedure was followed on both camcorders.  If you want to know my methodology, read on, but it’s a lot of geek-speak for you non-computer types.

Digital stills were captured using “photo” mode.  Both sets were recorded within minutes of each other in the same location.  Images were transferred via built-in FireWire to the Apple Macintosh Blue and White G3 and saved using the new QuickTime version 4.0 beta software.  The stills were played back using QuickTime.  Each image was then copied to the computer’s clipboard and pasted into a new blank window using GraphicConverter version 3.6.1 and then saved as a high-quality JPEG at their natural size of 720 x 480, at 240 dpi, millions of colors (32-bit).  Images are completely unaltered.

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