Review: 3 personal HD video cameras offer high def at low cost

If you don't want to lug around a camcorder, you can record HD video using one of these 3 small, inexpensive cameras.

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Sony Webbie HD

Sony, somewhat confusingly, offers two cameras called Webbie HD -- a model that looks like a typical camcorder (the MHS-CM1) and a pocket-sized version (the MHS-PM11). I looked at the latter. The Webbie HD has some very nice and unusual features. Its lens is hidden in a rotating drum at the top of the camera; you roll it out with a flick of your thumb to turn it on. This not only protects the lens from thumbprints and dust, it also lets you vary the angle of shooting. You can flip it 180 degrees and lay the camera flat on a table for shooting stealth footage or flip it 270 degrees to face you and shoot your own videoblogs.

In addition, the Webbie HD is the lightest unit in this group because it sports a tiny rechargeable battery and a wall-plug recharger. Another nice design feature is that it has two record buttons: one for video and one for 5MP stills.

But despite its cool features and stabs at simplicity, the Webbie HD ended up being the most complicated of these three cameras to use.

Sony Webbie HD
Sony Webbie HD

Its menu and delete buttons were mounted on the right side of the camera, too far over for right handed people to reach with their thumbs or for lefties to get to with their pointer fingers.

Also on the downside, it contains almost no onboard memory and uses MemoryStick Duo media, which tends to be a bit pricier than the SD media that the Kodak Zx1 unit uses.

In addition to VGA and 720p video, the Webbie HD can also shoot 1080p at 30 fps and take still photos at 5 megapixels. There are also preset modes of shooting for landscape photography, low light, back light and high-action sports mode.

However, this model didn't perform too well in low light, even with the low light mode turned on, and since the Webbie's controls are rather fussy for this class of product (you have to figure out which of the several buttons on the back and side of the camera to press, then navigate through rather complicated menus), it would have been nice to have a preset that dynamically adjusts for different lighting levels a little better.

In general, when played back on a computer and on a television, the video seemed okay but a little blurry-looking, even compared to the other low-cost video cameras I looked at for this roundup. Video quality rapidly decreased when I zoomed in, because it's digital rather than a true optical zoom, and the actual zooming was not as smooth as what I saw on the Flip UltraHD. Bottom line: Don't use the zoom.

The Webbie HD's captured soundtracks were bright and loud and able to represent a range of sounds fairly well. In a test of loud concert music, it handled the transition between soft and loud passages well enough, with only a hint of topping out on percussion. The background hiss was a little higher-pitched than the other cameras.

I wanted to like the Sony Webbie HD a lot more than I did. Frankly, it looked cooler than the others and was much more compact. But for each nice design feature there seemed to be another that made operating the hardware more difficult. I can think of a few areas where the flip-open lens would give the WebbieHD an advantage over the others (video blogging for narcissistic teens, for example). But for me, the just-okay video results just didn't trump the problems I had with the design.

Sony Webbie HD

Conclusion

If you're dealing with video, you want good quality video and audio -- that's why you'd consider paying a price premium to get HD resolution video. In general, all three of these products delivered decent video at the right resolution, but certainly not at Blu-ray quality.

The most pleasing audio came from the Kodak Zx1, but the sound tended to be a little muted. The best-looking video capture across a range of uses came from Kodak and the Flip UltraHD. And zoomed images looked universally subpar on all three.

With this class of product, simplicity is the watchword. The Flip UltraHD has this cornered. From its simple controls to its no-fuss built-in USB plug for charging and data transfer, it's hard to beat.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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