One of the biggest problems with most electronics product reviews is that the reviewer has a very limited amount of time to use and get to know a particular item. That’s why so many digital camera and camcorder reviews rest on technical specifications and relatively easy to measure qualities like resolution, image noise and sharpness. No doubt these are important aspects of any cam’s performance, but you can design a camera that has great tech specs but is also a pain to use.
That’s why I’m taking this opportunity to write about my Sanyo Xacti VPC-CG10 pocket camcorder, which I bought back in July. Although I had a positive opinion about the cam when I first wrote about it, I’d only had it for three weeks. Six months of regular use really makes the difference between an interesting toy and a useful tool. If a camcorder or other gadget proves to be too difficult, fiddly or simply un-user-friendly it’s likely to find a home at the bottom of a drawer or closet by the end of the year.
As one might guess from the very fact that I’m writing this update, I’m quite happy with this little camcorder after a half-year of use. Having a full 720p HD camcorder that fits into a small bag or large pocket is still really amazing. One of the features that moved me to choose the CG10 over one of the Flip or Kodak HD cams is its true 5x zoom lens. Though it’s hard to maintain a steady hand when zoomed all the way out, having the extra reach has really made the camera much more useful for me.
As a result, I think I’ve shot more video in my free time this year than I have in years. I’ve owned two miniDV camcorders over the last decade. While each got used, their relative bulk and reliance on tape meant that they still only were trotted out when I was absolutely planning on shooting video. By contrast, I’ve taken to carrying around the CG10 in my bag and shooting a little video whenever the moment strikes. Being able to easily import it to my computer as a file rather than capturing miniDV tape in real time means that I’ve been much more likely to actually edit and share my videos, too.
I’ve really come to like the CG10’s pistol-grip form-factor, finding it much easier to hold steady, especially with two hands, than the Flip-style camcorders. Yet, operating the zoom control is fiddly, making it nearly impossible to zoom smoothly. That’s one area where you can really notice the operational difference between an inexpensive pocket camcorder and a bigger, more sophisticated model.
Like I mentioned, I do really like having a 5x zoom lens at my disposal, with a focal range equivalent of 38 to 190mm on a 35mm camera. The quality of the lens seems about par for an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera. That is, it’s plenty sharp in the center of the image, but gets soft on the edges. It also shows some barrel distortion at its widest setting, causing horizontal lines to bow down at the edges. With video I find this less of a problem than with still pictures. But these flaws really aren’t bad for such an inexpensive camcorder.
Another feature that drew me to the CG10 was the availability of manual focus, exposure, white balance and sensitivity/ISO. In practice I use the manual exposure, white balance and ISO quite a bit. Especially with video it’s nice to be able to set these at the start and then not worry about the video suddenly getting darker or lighter due to small ambient light changes. The manual controls themselves are buried in menus, but you can set up the camera’s little joystick control to shortcut to four different manual controls. I have mine set so that pushing left adjusts ISO, pushing right adjusts focus, pushing down adjusts exposure compensation and pushing up turns the flash on and off. While I like this ability to customize controls, the joystick itself is kind of tiny and easy to accidentally trigger. The camera mostly doesn’t let you change these settings while recording. On the one hand this doesn’t let you adjust settings as conditions change. But on the other you also can’t accidentally change exposure in the middle of a shot, either.
Much more so than a Flip or Kodak pocket cam, the Sanyo rewards an experienced shooter because of the relative flexibility of its manual controls. Even a lot of more expensive tape, hard drive and memory-card based camcorders from bigger brands don’t let you adjust exposure manually. It does take some time and fooling around to set up the camera the way you want it to function. But once it’s done, it’s done.
Prior to buying the CG10 I had been wary of hard drive and memory-card based camcorders, especially HD cams, because of the challenges presented by working with their highly compressed files. Therefore I was happy to find that the .mp4 files from the Xacti played in Quicktime without any processing. They also import right into iMovie ’08 without a problem, letting you get right to editing immediately. The big drawback with iMovie ’08 is that you can’t export a full 720p (1280×720) video. It only gives you a 960×540, which is kind of “near-HD.” I don’t have access to the most recent iMovie ’09, so I don’t know if the situation improves with the newer version.
Still, iMovie ’08 is one of the worst versions of iMovie, and so I find it useful only for short cuts-only projects. For more complex editing I use Final Cut Express (FCE). Unfortunately FCE doesn’t not like to let you start editing the CG10’s .mp4 files right away, forcing you to render once you do any editing at all, adding lots of waiting to any project.
Luckily I found a very simple workaround that lets me use the CG10’s footage in FCE much more quickly. Using the free video transcoding program MPEG Streamclip I’m able to convert the Xacti’s .mp4 files into Quicktime .mov files in the Apple Intermediate Codec (AIC) very quickly. On my two-year-old MacBook Pro the conversion runs at about 10x real-time, which is significantly faster than FCE’s rendering time. While the AIC files are bigger than the .mp4 files, the AIC codec is native to FCE, so there’s no long rendering waits.
Since I’m primarily a Mac guy, I haven’t tried the Xacti’s footage with Windows. I’m interested to hear from any readers who have Windows experience to share.
After six months of using this little camcorder I can say I’m quite satisfied. It’s one main deficit is that it doesn’t have a microphone input. At the same time I haven’t yet had a project where that presented the problem. The built-in stereo mics are actually quite impressive, and you can hear in this video I shot of Chicago’s Environmental Encroachment marching band:
I’m not sure that the CG10 is the best camcorder for the newbie or someone who isn’t at all interested in manual controls. Out of the box the camcorder is set up to be pretty annoying, with a dumbed-down menu and lots of unnecessary beeping. But, then again, I think most digital cameras come that way. So, perhaps it’s less of an issue than I’ve supposed. I’m pretty sure it’s still the only under-$200 pocket camcorder with a real optical zoom lens, which is its other big selling point.
It’s completely unreasonable to expect a $200 pocket camcorder to perform like a $1000 model. Yet I’m very impressed with the CG10 overall. As an experienced videophile I’ve learned to work around its limitations, while appreciating the convenience of having a video camera with me much more often. And with such a low price-point, I’m more willing to carry it around to events and other places where I might hesitate to bring a more expensive camera.
I must admit I’m quite curious to see where these little pocket HD cams are going next.