Sony Handycam NEX-VG20 Camcorder Review$2,199.00
There's one major detail about the NEX-VG20 that significantly alters the way the camcorder handles—there's no zoom toggle for controlling zoom. This means whenever you want to zoom with the VG20, you have to do so by rotating the zoom ring on the provided lens. While this may not bother old-school videographers or those who are used to shooting video with DSLR or system cameras, it definitely will feel weird for people who are accustomed to traditional hand-held camcorders. We simply expect a camcorder that looks and feels like the VG20 to have a little zoom lever on the right side that is easily accessible with the tip of our index finger. Instead, the VG20 has a photo shutter button in its place, further cementing the fact that, at its core, the NEX-VG20 is very much a digital camera disguised as a camcorder body.
The question is this: is it possible for Sony to implement a zoom lever on the VG20's body that would control an attached NEX lens? The lens would have to have a zoom motor inside it for this to be possible, but we imagine that wouldn't be too hard to implement. In fact, Panasonic has nearly the exact thing we're talking about for its Lumix GX1 camera. The GX1 is compatible with two G X Power Zoom lenses that have small zoom triggers right on them that let you zoom with the touch of a button (instead of the twist of a lens ring). Maybe Sony will roll out some kind of similar feature on the NEX-VG20's successor. We certainly hope so.
Because of the lack of a zoom lever, the VG20 requires two hands to use it to its fullest extent. Resting the lens barrel on the fingertips of your left hand will make the VG20 feel lighter and it gives you direct access to the zoom and focus rings on the lens. There's also the manual control wheel near the front of the camcorder that lets you set aperture, shutter speed, gain, and a few other controls. The wheel isn't great, and we wish there was a knob or ring that offered more precise adjustment method for exposure controls.
The focus button is also not as convenient as it could be, with Sony placing it too far back on the left side of the camcorder. This makes it more of a challenge than it should be to switch between auto and manual focus. Honestly, we wish the button was right up front, next to the focus ring on the lens. Other dedicated buttons, like the shutter speed and aperture buttons inside the LCD cavity, are designed well and are easy to locate (although you can't get to them if you're using the EVF with the LCD panel shut). Overall, we're impressed at how well Sony "handled" the VG20's design. Most controls are accessible without going through the menu system, and the button layout on the camcorder is incredibly simple and sparse—an absolute rarity for a camcorder in this price range.
Obviously, the NEX-VG20 weights a significant amount more than your average high-end consumer camcorder. In fact, with its provided kit lens, the VG20 comes in at 1263g (with its battery), which is about 2.8 pounds. This might sound like a lot to people who are used to compact, 400g camcorders that can fit in your coat pocket, but compared to most prosumer camcorders this is not a bad weight at all. And compared to most camcorders with an interchangeable lens system, the NEX-VG20 is downright compact.
The lens on the VG20 weighs nearly as much as the body of the camcorder itself, so if you load a smaller lens onto the camcorder you can get a much lighter package. Without its lens—body only—the VG20 weighed 642g (including the battery pack), and that's just under a pound and a half. It's also not much heavier than Sony's HDR-PJ760, which is the company's top-of-the-line traditional Handycam for 2012.
All in all, we're absolutely impressed with how portable the NEX-VG20 is. The whole package ends up being lighter than many DSLR cameras, but the VG20's "camcorder" shape makes it simple to use as a handheld recording device.
Let's be honest for a moment. We admittedly chuckled the first time we put the VG20's provided battery pack into its huge battery compartment. Even though the battery is pretty big, it barely fills half of the compartment, so we didn't expect much in terms of battery life performance. Boy were we wrong. The VG20 recorded for 207 minutes straight on a single charge with its NP-FV70 provided battery. That's nearly three and a half hours of continuous recording and it blows the competition out of the water. Most traditional camcorders do use smaller battery packs, however, but it's good to see Sony catering to the pros on this one—a long battery life is always pleasant. More on how we test battery life.
The large battery compartment on the back of the VG20 looks kind of funny with the camcorder's provided battery pack. The NP-FV70 battery only fills about half of the compartment, which makes it a bit difficult to load and remove. Sony's larger battery packs, which are available at an extra cost, will fit this compartment more fully (and won't look as awkward).
LCD & Viewfinder
The VG20 has a traditional LCD that opens out from the left side of the camcorder and features a touchscreen interface. The screen runs three inches diagonally and has a 921,600-pixel resolution. These specs are decent, but it's actually a smaller screen than you'll find on numerous flagship camcorders from other manufacturers. JVC, for example, has a 3.5-inch LCD on its GZ-GX1.
Unlike most modern camcorders, the NEX-VG20 is equipped with a full-size electronic viewfinder (EVF). The EVF is similar to what you commonly see on a low-end professional model, and it comes with a large eye-cup that fits snugly over your eye to block out any extraneous light. The viewfinder pivots up with an effective range (about 45 degrees), but it doesn't extend out from the camcorder. This isn't a huge problem, but it does mean you may not be able to reach the viewfinder if you attach a third-party shoulder mount to the camcorder.
Because of its interchangeable lens system, the Sony NEX-VG20 relies on lens-based optical image stabilization. The downside to this is that if you use the camcorder with a lens without an IS system, then you'll be without an image stabilization feature when you record. The upside, however, is the VG20's kit lens did an impeccable job stabilizing video in our test. More on how we test stabilization.
Even though the IS system is built into the lens, you still turn it on and off in the camcorder's menu system. The NEX-VG20 has two stabilization settings, Standard and Active mode, but we saw little difference between them in our test. With Standard IS (Sony calls this Optical Steady Shot, by the way) the VG20 was able to reduce 71% of the shake in our low-speed test and 66% of the shake in our high-speed test. Active mode wasn't much different, reducing shake by 73% in the lower speed mode and 65% in the higher shake test setting. What impresses us about these numbers is their consistency. The VG20, with its large frame and decent grip, should be able to reduce video shake in a variety of different shooting situations.