January 15, 2009

Sony MHS-CM1 Webbie HD ()

by fluffy at 7:16 PM
During CES this year, Sony announced two new entry-level camcorder products in the new Webbie HD line. Both support 720p30 and 1080p30 video and still camera functionality. The MHS-CM1 (available now from Sony Style and from Amazon) is $200, and the MHS-PM1 (available in March) is $170.

There have been a lot of small-form-factor video recorders put on the market recently (such as the Flip Mino series which has gotten rather a lot of press), but the Sony ones are pretty compelling for a number of reasons.

So anyway, $200 was cheap enough that I could justify buying one without too much remorse, and so I ordered a CM1 (in purple) the instant I found out they were available. It arrived today. So here's a brief review.

First off, I was impressed by how tiny it is. The box is very tightly-packed, and a good 70% of the space is taken up by cables. The video cables alone take up more space than the camera itself. It's slightly too big to keep in a pocket, but the PM1 promises to be about half the thickness, which would almost certainly be pocketable. To get an idea of the size of it, laid down on its side its profile is about the same as an iPhone, although it's about 1.5" thick. It is, in fact, almost exactly the same size as my first "compact" digital camera, a Canon Powershot A400 (which I'm using to take these photos, as my "good" camera, a Cybershot W150, is currently out for repair):

The camera comes with a charger, a USB-mini cable, two video cables (one component, one composite), the usual manuals, and a software CD, which is entirely pointless as the software is also stored on the camera itself.

It has 5x optical zoom (unlike any of the other compact video cameras I've seen), and as mentioned, it also supports 1080p — sort of. In actuality it records at 1440x1080 (using rectangular pixels), and regardless of mode it's only 30fps. Also, as I've found, the video is so over-compressed that 1080p doesn't really look any better than 720p in reality.

Here are a couple of similar frames captured from some videos, the first one at 720p and the second one at 1080p (both of them looking at one of my microphones, with the little illumination lamp turned on):

While the quality is pretty impressive, keep in mind that I had to hold the camera still for a couple of seconds (to avoid motion artifacts), and I had the illumination LED turned on, which helps to fill in some details.

Its CCD is actually 5MP, and it can take snapshots as well. Supposedly it can take snapshots while recording video, but I wasn't able to make it do this, so perhaps I'm supposing it based on purposefully-vague marketing material. Anyway, its snapshots don't come out all that well either.

Of course, snapshots are its secondary function; its main purpose in life is video. So here's some video clips showing my messy studio (the clicking you hear is me turning the LED on and off — the buttons feel and sound very cheap), in each of its supported resolutions: (you may want to "save as" these files rather than just clicking on them)

(The painting of Oolong is by the inimitable Dan Lacey. I figured it made a decent point of comparison to show fiddly texture details.)

The video isn't particularly wonderful in the low/medium lighting conditions of my studio (and the little LED light in front doesn't really do all that much to help). I suspect it will do much better in brighter conditions. This weekend I plan on taking it on a walk around my neighborhood. Also, the built-in microphone isn't particularly wonderful; the music I was playing was at a decent listening volume (to me, anyway) but comes across as very quiet on the recording, and meanwhile the volume seems to waver as if there's a misbehaving dynamic range compressor.

I do have some video clips from my Cybershot W150, which only does 640x480 4:3, but all of them have other people and/or my dorky voice in them, so when I get the W150 back (next Monday, in theory) I can add a comparison clip. I'd say that the W150's 640x480 clips are much better-looking than the CM1's, but of course the CM1 can also take clips at a higher resolution, and that higher resolution translates to even 480p output looking (somewhat) better; for example, here's the above 1080p clip resampled to 640x360, the equivalent to recording a clip on the W150 and cropping it to 16:9. (I'd have done it to 853x480 but I couldn't get QuickTime to behave and I didn't feel like dealing with Final Cut for something so stupid.)

Also, this camera is really intended for making quick web clips which go to YouTube. So, keeping that in mind, here is the 1080p clip as a YouTube clip instead (which of course allows high-quality and all that jazz):

I haven't tried out the included Picture Motion Browser software, since I only use Macs at home, and so I already have iPhoto and iMovie. Plugging it in while it's turned on makes it come up in iPhoto, and iPhoto happily imports everything (photos and videos alike). However, there is a bit of an aggravating "feature;" it has 16MB of memory built-in which comes up as a separate volume from the Memory Stick, and furthermore there is a separate "partition" on the camera which includes a copy of Picture Motion Browser which also gets mounted every time, and that one doesn't show up in iPhoto's sidebar (so I can't unmount it from there). So, before I disconnect the camera, I have to go to the desktop and unmount all three volumes. It's a minor annoyance, but it's an annoyance nonetheless.

Anyway. Based on what few images and videos I've taken so far, I have to say that while this is impressive for a $200 camera, its output doesn't really live up to its specifications. I have a feeling the poor video quality is due primarily to a combination of CCD noise (thanks also to the low lighting conditions I've tried it in so far) and the rather atrociously-low bitrate it saves videos at. I hope that in higher light levels it performs better.

It's definitely better than the 480p MiniDV camcorder I bought this to replace (not to mention a lot lighter, smaller, and easier to deal with), and considering the cost I'm not too disappointed in it. But I don't think this really qualifies as "HD" in the strictest sense; yes it puts out HD resolution, but I'd hardly call it HD quality. Although, frankly, what I've seen from the (more expensive!) Flip Mino HD, I'd say this is still a better value.

If you don't want/need optical zoom and don't mind waiting a few months, the PM1 (which has an even bigger price advantage) is probably a better bet. I expect its quality will be similar, and it still has the advantages over the other recorders, in that it uses removable memory sticks instead of having a fixed chunk of memory.

Just don't expect to shoot the next Blu-Ray blockbuster on one.

re: other clips There are a lot of clips on YouTube. One thing they all seem to have in common is some framerate judder, which I'm pretty sure is coming from YouTube's conversion process and not from the camera itself. Hopefully it's an issue that YouTube is working on now that there's suddenly a lot more HD content coming.


#11668 fluffy 01/16/2009 12:22 am
Heh, I shouldn't be surprised, but YouTube is full of test clips already.