Sony HDR-HC5 Camcorder Review
The Sony HDR-HC5, a high definition camcorder using the tape-based HDV format, is a key model in the company’s lineup. While the HDR-HC7 ($1,299 MSRP) is the flagship HD camcorder, the HC5 is priced at $999, just below that magical $1,000 point at which consumers can still credibly consider the purchase. A casual glance through the big-box store Sunday circulars points to the fact that camcorders priced over $1,000 rarely get play. Even compared to the HC7, the HC5 is one of the best HD camcorders on the market. While it lacks the bells and whistles that make other Sony HD models more alluring, the performance is outstanding.
Video Performance* (9.5)*
The Sony HDR-HC5 has essentially identical performance to last year’s top-of-the-line HDR-HC3. It features a 1/3-inch CMOS sensor with an effective pixel count in 16:9 in 1,430,000; in 4:3, the effective pixel count is 1,080,000, the same as the HC3. The top-of-the-line model, the HDR-HC7, has a slightly imager – 1.29-inch – but a much larger pixel count of 3,200,000. This means the pixels are smaller and more densely packed on the HC7, which resulted in poorer low light than last year’s HC3.
We should expect that the HDR-HC5 and HDR-HC3 would offer identical results. There were some differences, however. Colors appeared to be rendered a little more brightly on last year’s HDR-HC3, which was particularly apparent in the yellow and green patches on the chart. Most other elements of the image look the same, including sharpness and noise.
The HDR-HC7 was much richer and darker than the HC5. In this bright light environment, the increased pixel count clearly worked to the HC7’s advantage, creating crisper line edges and more fine detail retention. If you’re serious about video, and you shoot more in controlled bright light than in low light, you should consider the HC7 over the HC5.
The Canon HV20 produced a virtually noise-free image at 3000 lux, the cleanest picture we’ve seen all year. The HC5 looks good, but the HV20 looks great. Finally, the JVC GZ-HD3 produced a oversaturated and oversharpened image that failed to produce the same level of fine detail capture.
Out of the lab, the Sony HDR-HC5 gave pleasing results in most lighting conditions. Sunny outdoor shots, of course, looked best, but we found little to criticize. The motion rendering was smooth and the auto controls worked great. Manual control adjustments left a lot to be desired due to the touch screen-only interface, but point-and-shooters will love this.
Video Resolution* (13.5)*
In order to test the video resolution of the Sony HDR-HC5, we shoot a DSC Labs video resolution chart at an even, bright light, then watch the playback footage on an HD monitor. This test measures the actual outputted video from the camcorder, rather than the sometimes "idealized" resolution of the imaging chip that manufacturers like to tout.
We found the Sony HDR-HC5 to produce an approximate horizontal resolution of 600 line widths per picture height (lw/ph) and an approximate vertical resolution of 450 lw/ph.
Low Light Performance* (4.92)*
The low light performance of the Sony HDR-HC5 was tested in three steps. First, we shot a DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde color chart at an even 60 lux and 15 lux, then held the results up against the competition. At 60 lux, the HDR-HC5 looks very similar to last year’s HDR-HC3, with which is shares the same imager. The HC5 was a smidgen darker, but the noise levels and color rendering looked about the same. The next model up, the HDR-HC7, has smaller and more densely packed pixels, produced a darker image at this light level. The noise levels also increased noticeably. The difference between the HC5 and HC7 was not pronounced, but there was a distinction. The Canon HV20 (at 1080/60i) produced a good deal more noise than the HC5, except in the blacks, which were cleaner. The camcorders had almost identical brightness and color, but the fine detail retention was much better with the HV20. Finally, the JVC GZ-HD3 produced a brighter image than any of the camcorders, but the colors took on a strange hue with too much green. Also, the fine detail retention was low.
At 15 lux, the Sony HDR-HC5 did not fare so well. Noise increased and color retention dipped dramatically. By comparison, last year’s Sony HDR-HC3 looked cleaner and with marginally better color. Because they share the same imager, we have no explanation for this except to speculate that they modified the processing (which often happens year over year). Even stranger was the Sony HDR-HC7. Yes, there was the expected increase in noise, but the image was exposed more brightly overall. This appears to be a processing compensation for the noise, and not a great one at that. The image certainly doesn’t look any better than the HC5’s just brighter. The Canon HV20 was very noisy, but a little more color information was retained, along with fine detail retention. At least for 1080/60i shooting, the Sony HDR-HC5 gives the Canon HV20 a run for its money. Some people might be very willing to trade the loss of color for a cleaner image. Finally, the JVC GZ-HD3 produced an image that was simply too dark.
The next part of the test determines sensitivity. We shoot the same chart while steadily lowering the light and monitoring the outputted IRE levels (a measurement of exposure) until can camcorder can produce a peak 50 IRE. The HDR-HC5 was able to produce this at a light level of 13 lux. This was not as good as the Sony HDR-HC7’s ability to do the same at 7 lux, but as we saw in the 15 lux test, the HC7 has a penchant for overexposing compared to the HC5.
Finally, we raise the light to 60 lux, then shoot a GretagMacBeth Color Checker chart. Frame grabs are exported to Imatest imaging software for color accuracy, noise, and saturation. At best, the Sony HDR-HC5 was able to produce a color error of 9.99, which was significantly better than the HDR-HC7. The noise levels measured 1.915%, also much better than the Sony HC7. The saturation measured 77.63%.
Ultimately, we think the HDR-HC5 looks better than the HDR-HC7, but the better sensitivity score from the HC7 skewed the final score for the whole section in its favor. The HC5 also performed very well compared to the Canon HV20. The Canon HV20 it more flexible in low light, due to the addition of its 24P mode, which helped put it over the edge. However, if you never plan on shooting 24P, the HC5 is worth considering.
We tested the capability of the HDR-HC5’s Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS) SteadyShot system using our custom built shake emulator. The camcorder was tested at two different speeds. Speed One simulates stationary handheld shake while Speed Two is akin to a light jog down the sidewalk, camcorder in hand. The HDR-HC5 produced an impressive 90.9% shake reduction at Speed One and a lackluster 62.5% shake reduction at Speed Two.
Wide Angle* (9.6)*
We tested the HDR-HC5’s maximum field of view using a vertical laser in auto mode with EIS disabled and the zoom pulled back to full wide angle. Footage was then interpreted on an external monitor in order to attain a true value. The HDR-HC5 displayed a wide angle measurement of 48 degrees, which is fairly average.