Mighty Cam

Photos by Tony Cordoza The launch of a new cassette format in 2002 made me wonder whether those who invented the Walkman were back in charge at Sony. The payoff is that the tape cassettes, so tiny they could be mistaken for audio microcassettes, are for high-quality video recording in Sony's new MicroMV camcorders. Each MicroMV cassette holds up to an hour of video using MPEG-2 compression. Sony's first two MicroMV cams are the DCR-IP7BT ($1,700) and the DCR-IP5 ($1,300). The one I reviewed is the IP7BT, which has a slot for Sony's Memory Stick flash-memory card and is equipped with Bluetooth networking technology so you can connect wirelessly to the supplied dial-up modem and access the Web without a computer. The IP5 is the same camcorder minus Bluetooth, Memory Stick capabilities, and a USB port. Building a full-featured cam around a minuscule cassette has resulted in a device that fits in a jacket pocket and weighs only 13 1/2 ounces - including battery, tape, lens cap, carrying strap, and Memory Stick. And size isn't the only thing these cassettes have going for them. Each one has a built-in 8-kilobyte chip that stores the location for a still image every time you press the cam's record button. The stills appear as pinky-nail-size images on the viewscreen so you can easily find the beginning of a scene. Hidden by the 2 1/2-inch, swivel-mounted viewscreen is a four-directional rocker that Sony calls the control button. Once you highlight an image on the viewscreen and press the center of the button, the tape streams to the scene and plays it. Don't mistake convenience for random access, though. Sony acknowledges that the camcorder takes 4 minutes to scan a full tape. On the other side of the cam is the detachable InfoLithium battery - Sony calls it that because you get a running estimate on how much time you have left next to a battery icon on the viewscreen. Along with the battery you'll find a DC input for a power adapter and three input/ output ports: A/V (the proprietary cable diverges into stereo, composite-video, and S-video plugs at the other end), i.Link (a.k.a. FireWire or IEEE 1394), and USB. There are no jacks for an external microphone or earphones, but a speaker is built in. A full-size remote is also included. A measly 8-megabyte (MB) Memory Stick comes with the IP7BT, though 16-, 32-, 64-, and 128-MB sizes are available. There's a lot to like about this camcorder, including a Carl Zeiss lens with 10x optical zoom and auto-focus that works even half an inch away from a subject. You can also create your own titles or choose from eight canned ones and apply digital effects. The video resolution proved to be superb. Though Sony claims only 500 lines of resolution, we measured 525 lines from a MicroMV tape. (The camcorder's viewscreen, which contains 211,000 pixels, produced 300 lines on the same resolution chart and 275 lines through the viewfinder.) Moreover, computer users accustomed to the MiniDV format's hard-drive-clogging data rate of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) should be pleased by the MicroMV's more efficient 12-Mbps rate.