Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sony: Getting its act together (at least with cameras and camcorders)

I've pointed out over the last several years the many times that Panasonic has eaten Sony's lunch in the camcorder and camera businesses:
  • Panasonic's P2 and SD memory cards were the start of the solid-state, file-based camcorder revolution, while Sony's XDCAM optical disc has largely been a dead-end format.
  • Panasonic and Olympus pioneered the big-sensor, small-camera interchangeable lens format with Micro Four-Thirds, while it took Sony several years to get on board with its NEX series of cameras.
  • Panasonic and Canon introduced professional-level video to their DSLRs several years ago, while Sony's A77, just released a few weeks ago, is the company's first DSLR with professional-level video.
  • It took Sony more than a year to respond to Panasonic's AF100 Micro Four-Thirds-based camcorder, with the F3 and FS100.
Finally, Sony is back in the game in a big way, in three different product lines:
  • The new A77 DSLR is a first-rate still camera that can compete with Canon and Panasonic on video as well. It has a 24 megapixel sensor, a 2.4 megapixel OLED electronic viewfinder that's actually much higher resolution than its 920,000 pixel pull-out LCD display, and a 12 fps burst rate. It can record video at 1080p60 (1080p50 in Europe) using AVCHD 2.0 (Panasonic refers to it as AVCHD Progressive), which supports a maximum bit rate of 28mbps, versus 24mbps for previous AVCHD implementations. It also supports live autofocus in video mode. U.S. body-only pruce is $1,399.
  • The NEX-7 is Sony's new top-of-the-line EVIL (electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lens) camera that competes with Micro Four-Thirds models. It has the same sensor and OLED electronic viewfinder as the A77, in a pocket-sized package. It also records video at 1080p60 using AVCHD 2.0, with the same live autofocus as the A77. Expected U.S. body-only price will be $1,199.
  • The NEX-5n replaces the former top-of-the-line NEX-5 EVIL camera. It uses a 16.1 megapixel sensor and doesn't come with an electronic viewfinder; the optional FDA-EV1S viewfinder, which is connected to the top of the camera, has the same OLED display as the NEX-7 and A77. It records video at 1080p60/50 using AVCHD 2.0, and has live autofocus. U.S. body-only price is $699.
  • The LA-EA2 adapter allows Alpha-mount lenses to be used with the NEX-series E mount. The adapter supports autofocus on the Alpha lenses. The LA-EA2 is almost as big as the NEX cameras themselves, and it costs $399, but it could be valuable for those NEX-family camera users who want to use Alpha lenses without losing autofocus capabilities.
  • The F3 is Sony's lowest-cost digital cinematography camcorder. It uses a Super 35 Exmor CMOS sensor and PL mount for supporting film lenses. It records in 4:2:2 1080p59.94/50, and optionally in 4:4:4 1080p59.94/50, on SxS media. Its U.S. list price is $16,800 without lens.
  • Sony's NEX-FS100 is Sony's answer to Panasonic's AF100, with a unique, squared-off form factor and top-mounted electronic viewfinder. It uses the same E-mount lenses as Sony's NEX-family of still cameras, and comes with an 18-200mm zoom lens. The FS100 uses the same Super 35 Exmor sensor as the F3. Like the new NEX cameras, it records video at 1080p60/50 using AVCHD 2.0. The FS100 records on SDHC/SDXC and Sony Memory stick cards, and the optional HXR-FM128 records onto 128GB of flash memory. U.S. list price with lens is $6,550.
For all of Sony's new competitiveness, the company still sometimes makes questionable decisions about product features. For example, the FS100 has dual XLR audio inputs, but only outputs video via HDMI rather than HD-SDI. HDMI connections, which don't lock, are notorious for becoming disconnected at the worst possible time. By comparison, the less-expensive Panasonic AF100 has both HDMI and HD-SDI outputs. Also, the AF100 has built-in neutral density filters, but the FS100 doesn't.

Also, Sony believes that, as a matter of principle, its products are worth more than the competition, even if they're objectively no better. Going back to the FS100-AF100 comparison, Sony's FS100 is about $1,000 more than Panasonic's AF100, even though the AF100 arguably has more professional features than the FS100.

Even given those caveats, however, Sony has clearly gotten back into the game with both still cameras and camcorders. It's good to see the company competing for business instead of resting on its laurels.

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