Sony Handycam PJ790V First Impressions Review
Sony commits to built-in projector technology by skipping a projector-free model.
The PJ790V will be the first flagship Handycam in years to arrive without the option to ditch the built-in projector. Furthermore, elements of the design have been altered in ways that seem intended to accommodate upgrades to the projector system. Meanwhile, technology like WiFi remains an optional add-on. While it's refreshing for me to see a manufacturer downplaying the importance WiFi, this is certainly the opposite of the direction in which much of the industry appears to be moving.
For all these reasons, what seems like a fairly modest update could actually be considered a rather bold move for Sony.
Design & Usability
It's more than a basic update: Sony has made some big changes to the PJ790.
The most obvious design tweak you'll notice is the relocated 5.1-channel microphone, which now resides on a short arm that protrudes from the top of the body, right behind the fill light. It looks a little strange at first, but it seems likely that this change will result in more natural audio recording.
The other big change has to do with the projector that's built into the LCD panel. The projector's power has been upped to 35 lumens, and as a result, the entire LCD panel is quite a bit thicker than previous models. The projector focus slider, positioned at the top of the LCD panel, remains unchanged.
The EVF also seems like a direct carryover from the PJ760. It's still rather small and low-resolution, with inaccurate colors. As usual, the diopter adjustment wheel is located behind a small lip. Like preceding models, the PJ790 has a full-size USB cord built directly into the hand strap, but this necessitates a plastic holster underneath the leather, making the strap rigid and slightly uncomfortable.
The menu system is predominantly touch-based and also remains unchanged from the PJ760. Touch-and-drag functionality, which was previously introduced to and then removed from the Handycam lineup, is still missing. But hot zones on the left side of the interface, beside the scroll buttons, make it easy to jump to certain parts of the lengthy option list.
Note that Sony has replaced the hot shoe mount with one of a different configuration. The new shoe now supports XLR accessories, Sony's external WiFi adapter, new video lights, and more; just be aware that your old Handycam accessories won't work anymore.
MP4 recording and a new projector input are the biggest highlights of the PJ790's feature set.
An MP4 recording option has been added, on top of the previous AVCHD and standard definition formats. This is a lower quality compression method, and maximum resolution is only 720p, but the data is much simpler to work with. The recording mode menu is still rather clumsy; you must first select your desired frame rate, then choose your encoding method. There's no logic built in warn you when certain combinations are impossible, so you'll need to experiment a little.
A new "Projector Input" resides underneath a sliding door on the inner control panel. It's a micro HDMI port, and the idea is that you could hook up a Blu-ray player (or any other HDMI-enabled device) to the PJ790 and display content using the projector. That projector, by the way, has received a power upgrade from 20 lumens to 35 lumens. That's still hilariously underpowered for home theater use, since residential projectors typically hit at least 700 lumens, so don't buy this expecting to use it to watch The Dark Knight Rises. This connector takes a spot formerly occupied by a secondary USB port, which may annoy some.
The PJ790 takes advantage of the same extremely aggressive optical stabilization we've seen from Sony for a few product cycles now. You can actually see the lens elements moving with the naked eye, and even feel the internal mechanics softly shifting when shaking the camcorder. This lens is one of only a few camcorder units to carry the Zeiss lens brand, and our tests have shown time and again that the badge is no joke: it's a reliable indicator of excellent sharpness and image quality.
We're shocked to see the Handycam flagship committing to built-in projector technology so fully.
Sony's marketing materials suggest this is a simple, cheap, "why not" addition; yet the hardware itself is in some ways designed around the projector. The LCD panel is now much thicker, presumably to accommodate a more powerful projection bulb. A USB port has also been removed entirely, to make way for a new projector-based feature.
Other than that, the PJ790V is the modest update we were expecting, plus a few surprises. The inclusion of MP4 encoding will simplify basic videography quite a bit, and we're pleased with the new microphone arm, which looks different but seems superior to Sony's older solution.
The greatest barrier here will still be price. The PJ790 will retail for $1,600, and even if you don't feel like you're paying a forced premium for that projector, remember that Canon's best fixed-lens camcorder is $1,100, and Panasonic's will likely be $1,300 at most. Whether or not the extra cost is allocated to image quality, is something only our lab tests will decide.