Sanyo Xacti VPC-CS1

I’ve long hoped for a svelte, inexpensive camcorder that offers good image control and captures decent HD video in an easy-to-edit format. The Sanyo Xacti VPC-CS1, with its $299 list price, long list of manual and automatic controls, and 1080 and 720 video meets my desires, but for two critical deficiencies. The VPC-CS1 produces mediocre images and is difficult to use.

Decent specs, poor usabilityThe camcorder’s performance is disappointing because the specs look reasonable. The 1/5-inch CMOS sensor is small, but the camera encodes video as MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 files in a variety of resolutions, data rates, and frame rates (though not the film-like 24p). The paltry 50MB internal storage holds only 22 seconds of the camera’s highest resolution video, but that’s not a big deal since the camera records to SDHC and SDXC memory cards. The 2.7-inch flip-out LCD screen looks decent. Behind the LCD, facing subjects, a stereo microphone captures good sound. HDMI and USB ports provide adequate connectivity.

The appealingly small camera weighs under six ounces and measures about 2.5 x 1 x 5 inches with the LCD panel closed. But it’s not a solid six ounces; the camera feels flimsy. Every time I opened the LCD or any slot cover, I worried it would break off. To be clear, the VPC-CS1 didn’t break, but it felt so fragile that I handled it gingerly. And while the small size lets the camera slip into a pocket or backpack, Sanyo extends the miniaturization to undersized controls that are difficult to use.

The camera offers a plethora of features such as face detection, manual shutter and aperture control, and several scene modes (such as sports, landscape, and snow & beach). But poor interface design and tiny unresponsive buttons make accessing and adjusting those features difficult. For example, the small zoom switch sits right next to the equally small start/stop button. The location and jerky response of the switch makes producing a smooth zoom difficult.

A couple other drawbacks: The camera’s digital image stabilization doesn’t stabilize much of anything and the small battery runs for less than an hour. For a pocket camcorder, I’d prefer simple point-and-shoot operation, fewer features, and better industrial design.

Mediocre images

In both normal and low-light conditions, video from the camera exhibits decent colour accuracy, but images with motion show compression artifacts. A bigger problem is that images captured in normal light are soft and those captured in low-light conditions are downright blurry. The softness might be attributable to the 9x optical-zoom lens that struggles with both automatic and manual focus. Or it might be a function of the camera’s compression quality. Either way, the end result is disappointing. I’d rather sacrifice image resolution than image sharpness.

On the other hand, the camera captures decent still JPEG images at a 3.3 megapixel native resolution and up to eight megapixels interpolated.

The mediocre performance and images negate a true benefit of the camera. In addition to MPEG-4 AVC/H.264, the VPC-CS1 can record to the Apple-backed iFrame format. This format uses some of the same codecs as MPEG-4 and AVCHD, but constrains the image to 30fps and 960-by-540 pixels, one-quarter the number of pixels in standard AVCHD. That’s not really HD, but iMovie ’09 and ’11 quickly import and easily edit iFrame material. Alas, iFrame support is not enough to overcome the VPC-CS1 image and usability limitations.

Macworld’s buying advice

I wanted to bring a video camera on a recent, eight-hour, hilly bike ride. The VPC-CS1’s small size was appealing; it could slip it into my jersey pocket. But since I didn’t want to fiddle with frustrating controls and did want to capture good images, I left the VPC-CS1 in the office and instead crammed a baked-potato-sized alternate into my pocket. I made the right choice; image quality and usability always trump portability in the end. It’s unfortunate that the pocket-sized Sanyo Xacti VPC-CS1 makes producing even mediocre images so difficult.

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