Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD1a Review

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Sanyo Xacti VPC-HD1a

Steve's Conclusion

Sanyo's HD1a is another Xacti "super-zoom" digital media camera for 2006, and offers almost an identical feature set to its predecessor, the HD1. This includes the same 5-megapixel imager, 10x optical zoom lens with image stabilization, 285° swiveling color display and 720p high definition video (1280x720.) The 2.2-inch OLED has been replaced with a 2.2-inch LCD color display and the only added feature I found was the 16:9 (3.8-megapixel) still image mode. This is a versatile point-n-shoot model that the entire family or office can use. The Auto and Program AE modes are great for those who want simplicity, while the six pre-programmed scene modes should suffice those creative urges, and as for those more advanced users, you can have your fun with either Aperture priority, Shutter priority or Manual mode.

Ergonomics are great. The HD1a is slightly "fatter" than its Xacti C5/C6 siblings, which actually made it a little more comfortable in your hands. The mostly metal exterior has a well built feeling to it and should survive an active user's lifestyle. Overall, the various controls are well placed and easy to use, however, I found the 4-way joystick is a bit on the touchy side. The onscreen menu system is very easy to navigate, allowing for quick changes to camera settings. Sanyo's Xacti series and Sony's Cyber-shot "M" series are the only cameras we've reviewed that can be used by both right and left-handed photographers, due to their pistol grip designed body and controls.

The HD1a features a 285° swiveling 2.2-inch LCD. This high-quality display works great outdoors, even with the harshest of sunlight beating directly onto it. However, when shooting in marginal lighting (like a living room lit by 50 - 100 watt light bulbs) the image does not "gain up". At ISO Auto (the default setting) the metering system is very sensitive, allowing you to see with even the slightest amount of ambient light; but, when locked at ISO 50 or 100 the display can be rather dark. Since there is no optical viewfinder, all framing is accomplished on the LCD.

Shooting performance was good. Power up to first image captured measured approx. 3.1 seconds, this includes the time taken to open and swivel the LCD. Shutter lag, the time from depressing the shutter release and capturing an image, was 1/10 of a second when pre-focused and about 4/10 of a second including autofocus. When shooting a sequence of still images, the shot to shot delay averaged 2 seconds without the flash and 2.3 - 3.5 seconds with the flash, depending on the distance from the subject. The HD1a offers a still image Burst (sequential shooting) mode that captures up to 6 photos at 5fps in 5M or up to 10 photos at 5fps in 1.2M resolution. Switching from record mode to playback or vice versa takes about a second. All of our tests were done using a 150x PQI 4GB SD card, with the image size/quality set at 5m-H, Program Auto mode, preview off, with all other settings at default (unless otherwise noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera setting, media, etc.

Image quality results were similar to what we found on the HD1. When using the 5m-H setting, the majority of our samples were sharp and showed good exposure. Colors are richly saturated, almost too much, and I found if you subtracted about 15%, images looked much better. I did notice plenty of noise, even at ISO 50 and 100. However, when viewing pictures at the typical 25-35%, they look pleasing and can still create beautiful prints. This noise is only noticeable when viewing an image at 100%, mainly in areas of either high (open skies) or low (shadows) contrast. The 10x optical zoom lens covers a 35mm equivalent range of approx. 38mm - 380mm. This offers a great deal of versatility in composing your shots. At wide angle, you can capture nice group portraits of the kids, or pleasing landscapes while on vacation. The 380mm telephoto end of the zoom range will help bring those distant subjects much closer; something in which sports and nature photographers will love. Let us not forget this model's digital image stabilization. Using Mode B (Photo View), I was able to capture usable photos at shutter speeds as low as 1/15 of a second, handheld! This is a very handy feature that will improve the quality of your handheld telephoto still images and movies. The lens exhibits typical amounts of both barrel distortion and pincushioning at the wide angle and telephoto extremes, respectively. I was surprised to find only small traces of chromatic aberrations (purple fringing) present around objects with bright highlights, which is a common issue with consumer "super- zoom" models.

The HD1a is also compatible with Sanyo's VCP-L06W (0.6x) Wide/Macro and VCP-L14T (1.4x) Telephoto lens adapter as well as the VCP-AL49 (49mm) filter adapter. When using these accessory lenses, they will expand the already versatile 10x optical zoom range. However, image quality does suffer. I noticed images were a bit softer, and lens distortion (barrel and pincushioning) is greatly increased. You can see for yourself by taking a look at our samples page. The HD 16:9 (3.8M) dedicated image mode produces pictures that will fit perfect on your High Definition TV set. Our sample of the local fire station showed about the same results as our 5m-H images.

Indoors, you will have to work with its built-in pop-up flash, which has an anemic range of approx. 8 feet at full wide angle. It can by no means illuminate open rooms (even small ones), but can produce pleasing results when shooting portraits from about 4 or 5 feet away. I was even able to capture a usable small group portrait from this range. Red eye was present in almost all of our portrait images, when using the Auto flash mode. Luckily the HD1a does feature a red eye reduction flash mode which helps eliminate this problem.

The movie mode options are abundant. It offers six different movie sizes to choose from: 1280 x 720 (HD-SHQ 30fps, 9Mbps), 1280 x 720 (HD-HQ 30fps, 6Mbps), 640 x 480 (TV-HR 60fps, 6Mbps), 640 x 480 (TV-SHQ 30fps, 3Mbps), 640 x 480 (TV-HQ 30fps, 2Mbps), and 320 x 240 (Web-HQ 30fps, 2Mbps.) This is the second "hybrid" digicam/tapeless video recorder to feature a true HD format (the first being the HD1.) To switch from Normal to HD movie modes (which also changes some menu options), you simply press the HD/Norm button located on the side of the camera. The HD1a also features the same digital image stabilizer technology we saw on recent Xacti models. With this feature, capturing steady handheld movies was easier, but was not as effective as that found on most modern dedicated video camcorders. There are two modes to choose from (A and B) which are really the same, but Mode B displays a border around the LCD to show you what is actually going to be captured. We found this was the best way to use this feature. Another unique option on this hybrid was the Wind Noise Reduction mode. It virtually eliminates any noise caused by even the slightest breeze, which is one of the downfalls to most digicams. Audio is recorded in high-quality 48kHz 16-bit Stereo thanks to the two microphones.

Like the HD1, our movie samples were pleasing when captured under good lighting conditions. When we reviewed the HD1 earlier this year we had hoped the new model would have better low light performance, but to our great disappointment, the HD1a produced the same results. The AF system does well when following moving subjects and zooming, but compression noise was present. The HD-SHQ movies looked great on a 52-inch HDTV but are not the equal of those captured with a more expensive camcorder. You can see for yourself by checking out our movies on the sample photos page. There is a lot of discussion going on the net as to whether or not the HD1 or HD1a are "really" capturing 720p video or if it is being upscaled in the camera. Again like this model's predecessor, at close examination of a video frame, you can see some "jaggy pixel" artifacts, which is usually a tell-tale sign of some kind of image interpolation.

The HD1a is powered by a 3.7v 1200mAh Lithium-ion rechargeable battery, which is charged in-camera while being placed in the handy docking cradle. Sanyo claims this allows the HD1a to capture up to 170 images or up to 75 minutes of video on a full charge. I found that the battery life was quite good, and permitted us to capture a large majority of our samples (about 150 stills and 16 10-second movie clips) before the battery was exhausted. However, we do recommend the purchase of an extra battery pack and keep it charged and ready (especially if you plan on recording a lot of video.)

Bottom line - the Xacti HD1a is another "super-zoom" hybrid that joins the ranks of Sanyo's tapeless media cameras. We feel that with an MSRP of about $700, it is a bit expensive for the performance and quality of the images and movies that are produced. However, the design allows use by anyone, no matter how much experience they have or whether they're a lefty or a righty. Further more, I feel this is a "cool" model that does offer some appealing features, like the 10x optical zoom, image stabilization, 2.2-inch display, etc. Like we said with the HD1, you'd be better off looking at one of today's MiniDV camcorders and a good 5MP digital still camera, all for about the same price.

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