Pros: Three-chip, close to broadcast quality.
Cons: No XLR mic inputs, key adustments via menus rather than physical dials, high price.
When Sony gets a product right, they're often content to sit back and leave it alone. Such was the case with their very-popular DCR-VX1000 three-chip MiniDV camcorder, released in 1995 but not updated until the 2000 release of the DCR-VX2000. Although it's not the very first MiniDV camcorder to hit the market, it has spearheaded the DV movement. The workhorse VX1000 has provided a rugged, high-quality camcorder for documentarians, event videographers (weddings and the like), cable-access shooters, and low-budget moviemakers.
Meet the DCR-TRV900
Sony's DCR-TRV900 (Epinions has left out the "V" in the product ID) has quite a few similarities to the VX1000. Like the VX1000, the TRV900 has been on the market for a few years (since around the beginning of 1998) and is a three-chip camcorder. With its body mainly consisting of metal, magnesium-alloy, the TRV900 is also fairly sturdy, though it's not quite as tough as the VX1000. Unlike the VX1000, the TRV900 has never been replaced. Sony has updated the models in their MiniDV line below the TRV900, the TRV07 and TRV10, replacing these recently with the TRV11 and TRV20, but the TRV900 still stands at the top of the consumer-level product line.
The TRV900 is a very popular camcorder because, with its native-component MiniDV recording format and three chips (meaning the charge-coupled-device chips, CCD's, the chips which turn light energy into electrical energy), it's capable of making video recordings which are close to broadcast quality.
The TRV900 will appeal to a wide range of people, from the family person who wants to create high-quality home videos to mini-budget filmmakers who have less than $2,000 to spend on a camera and want a unit which will let them capture their scenes with professional quality. Material originated on the TRV900, if done carefully, will be good enough to master onto a VHS or DVD copy with high enough quality that picture resolution won't be an issue for casual viewers.
In terms of durability, the TRV900 is about a seven on a scale of one to ten, with a regular, plastic-body camcorder (such as the Canon ZR-10 or the Sony TRV330) being a four, the VX1000 being an eight, and a regular network Betacam being a ten. The TRV900 is designed like a camcorder, but, since it's packing heftier components than a typical camcorder, components such as the three CCD chips, it's quite a bit wider. This camcorder is similar, in length and height, to the MiniDV models below it in the line, the TRV11 and TRV20, both of which are single-chip units, while it's about thirty percent wider than those models.
The main body of the TRV900 is constructed of magnesium alloy, but plastic is employed in some other parts of the camcorder, such as the cover of the tape compartment. If you treat this camcorder with the same caution you'd use with a regular, plastic-body camcorder, it'll hold up for years. It's not a bad idea to have a short lanyard with one end looped through one of the TRV900's shoulder-strap slots and the other attached to your belt or your wrist. It's better insurance than a long-term service warranty.
Weighing in at just under two pounds (1.93) with its standard NP-F330 battery, the TRV900 is both a compact camcorder and a light one. If you use one of the heavier-duty batteries, you'll bring the weight up to 2.5 pounds or so, but you'll still be dealing with a unit that will tend to reflect any small motions of your hand. Unlike the VX1000 or 2000, the TRV900 isn't quite at that weight where it'll have inherent stability when hand held.
However, this age-old problem, faced by an operator of any small camcorder, can be overcome in a variety of ways. When shooting hand-held, there are a number of techniques you can use to increase stability, such as holding the camcorder with two hands, pushing your elbows into your sides, and letting some weight, via the eyecup, rest back onto your eyebrow. You might also employ one of a variety of shoulder-mounts, which sell for anywhere from $50 to $200. These take the weight, as the name implies, on your shoulder, and the camera, in turn, rests on top of the mount.
A more pricey option is to use a Steadicam-style unit. These miniature cousins of the professional Steadicam allow you to freely move the camcorder while still maintaining a high level of stability. Unfortunately, the Steadicam-inspired devices (including the Steadicam JR and DV units, made by the company itself), have prices which start at $300 and go up rapidly from there. It is possible, if you're handy, to make one yourself with plans you can find at a number of online sites. The ultimate route to stability is time-tested, rock-solid, and stylish, though it limits your freedom of camera movement -- the tripod.
The Cam in Camcorder
The key to any camcorder's success is its camera section, the components which take in the visual image and convert it to electrical impulses. On the TRV900, that includes an excellent lens with a 52 mm filter diameter. As a rule, with any camcorder purchase you should make sure to get a UV protector filter, about a $5.00 purchase but invaluable because, if anything hits your lens with enough force to do damage, you'll damage the five-dollar filter rather than the lens itself. The 52-mm-filter lens is quite a bit smaller than the lenses on broadcast-quality video cameras, but bigger than the lenses on most other consumer-level camcorders.
The TRV900's zoom lens runs from a slightly-wide-angle setting of 4.3mm up to a 12X zoom factor setting of 51.6mm, at f1.6 to 2.8. This is the equivalent, on a 35mm camera, to 41.3mm to 496mm. If you wish greater wide-angle capability, as is quite likely, Sony sells a 0.7X wide-angle adaptor for less than $50 or you can find numerous wide-angle and zoom adaptors from third-party manufacturers, starting at around this same price.
A digital feature allows you to increase zoom to a factor of 48X, but this is a feature you're not likely to use much. Extreme zoom increases the level of camera jitter (body motions passed on to the recorded image) and, at the far end of the digital zoom range, the image will start to pixilate, turning into splotchy colored blocks.
If you're comparing the TRV900 to any other camcorder, don't consider it a drawback that the TRV900 only goes up to a 48X digital zoom level while some other camcorders reach a much higher factor of electronically-enhanced image enlargement. For example, the low-cost line of Sony Digital8 camcorders, such as the TRV330, reach a digital zoom factor of around 460. This might sound really souped-up to a camcorder shopper, but it's not a particularly useful feature, for the reasons just mentioned (increased shakiness and the onset of pixilation).
A zoom factor such as 400 would only be useful with the camcorder on a tripod. It's the kind of feature you'd employ only in a situation where, let's say, you needed to shoot somebody 200 yards away, sitting by a swimming pool, reading a newspaper, and you had to be able to read the fine print in the Visa ad in their newspaper. This might be an exaggeration, but the bottom line is that the optical zoom of the TRV900 alone is ample and you shouldn't consider it a drawback at all that it doesn't reach the high zoom-factor numbers of many other less-expensive camcorders.
After the image comes through the lens into the TRV900, a prism breaks the light up into its component primary colors and each of these are fed to one of three 380,000-pixel CCD chips which turn the light energy into electrical energy. Compared to the single 1/4-inch chip found in most consumer-level camcorders, the three chips, each 1/4-inch, send to the video-tape-recording (VTR) section an image of high color fidelity and low signal-to-noise ratio (S/N). Sony must be doing something right with the TRV900's camera section, because it's rated by Videography Magazine as resolving 470 horizontal lines, equal to the VX1000 and actually ten lines better than the much-more-expensive Canon XL-1.
For hand-held shooting, the TRV900 features an optical image stabilization device which Sony calls "Super Steady Shot" (yes, the less-expensive Sony camcorders have what's called regular old, standard "Steady Shot" image stabilization). Using electronic feedback from sensors, this allows the camera to reduce any motion imparted to it by the hands of the operator. It's an impressive sounding gadget, but it won't work miracles. However, of the two common camcorder stabilization methods, digital and optical, optical, all other things being equal, is the best. Despite that, even with the optical image stabilization activated, you'll have to take the aforementioned precautions to avoid camera shake (bracing techniques, using a Steadicam-type product, or using a tripod).
Monitor and Viewfinder
To monitor what you're shooting, there's a 3.5-inch fold-out active-matrix color LCD screen with 184,000 pixels. The screen, which is big enough to serve as a portable monitor for in-the-field editing and playback of recently-shot footage, rotates 180 degrees forward, so you can let your interviewees see how they look as they're taped.
Except for shooting in full sunlight, when the image of the LCD screen will tend to wash out, this mini-monitor will give you some great shooting possibilities. For example, once you're freed of keeping the viewfinder up to your eye, you can hold the camcorder in a number of alternate positions, allowing you to increase the variety of your shooting angles from the staid, tried-and-true, eye-level horizontal orientation. The half-inch color viewfinder sports 180,000 pixels, giving you a very sharp image which allows for rapid and precise focusing.
As soon as you pull out the viewfinder, thus activating it, the LCD is turned off. Likewise, when you push the viewfinder back into its slot it de-activates itself and powers up the LCD screen. Whichever monitoring device is active, you have status screens which give you updates on just about everything the camera's doing, including remaining battery time in minutes (this can be as much as eight hours with the $150 optional NP-F950 "infolithium" battery), focus, zoom, gain, exposure, digital/picture effect, tape counter, shutter speed, audio recording level, and, last but not least, the various menus controlling many of the camcorder's functions.
Automatic and Semi-Automatic Shooting
There are five automatic camera-setting options on the TRV900. Those coming from still photography will be familiar with the basic notions behind the aperture priority and shutter priority modes -- with one you set aperture yourself and the camera automatically sets shutter speed for the current light level while with the other you set shutter speed and the aperture setting is adjusted automatically. The three other automatic modes are called "Sports Lesson," "Sunset & Moon," and "Low Lux."
Manual Controls Galore
Manual camera control options on the TRV900 are excellent. One of the worst things about most consumer camcorders, for people who want to get the maximum possible image quality out of them, is their lack of manual adjustment. While this camcorder has the aforementioned automatic shooting modes, the manual features are extensive.
Most important of all, there's manual focus, controlled with a ring around the edge of the lens. If you're used to a lens with mechanical focus, such as that on a 35mm camera or a professional video camera, you should readily take to this configuration. Even though the ring isn't directly, mechanically changing the focus (it's controlling a servo motor which, in turn, sets the focus), the ring is in the same place, and turns in the same way, as if this were a manual lens. The motion can be somewhat disconcerting, as the ring spins continuously. There are no end stops to tell you, by feel, that you've reached the extremes. You must keep track of it by diligently monitoring the image in the viewfinder or LCD screen. It shouldn't be much of a problem, as this system works well and doesn't have the loose, ever-spinning feel of some other, similarly-configured camcorder lenses, such as the lens on the Canon XL-1.
To help you with your exposure settings on the TRV900, there's a zebra pattern indicator. When you have activated this feature, overexposed areas of the image will have horizontal black bars superimposed upon them. So, you just back the exposure level down until you get rid of the black bars. There's also a color bar generator option, allowing you to create a leader on your tape with NTSC-standard color bars. These are handy for calibrating a monitor or to just give your video a professional look.
Shutter speeds, which you can set manually, start at the very-slow 1/4-second (incorrectly listed as 1/15th-of-a-second in the Sony Web site) and extend up to 1/10,000th-of-a-second. Through a dial, you can also manually set exposure. A menu lets you opt for 0dB gain or -3dB gain. White balance, again through a menu, can be set manually, a key feature for getting accurate color when shooting. While it's not a camera-section feature, audio recording levels, again via a menu, can be set manually. It would be preferable for the menu-accessed settings be controlled via physical knobs or dials, but it's far better to have manual control of a feature via a menu than to have no manual control at all.
Speaking of shutter speeds, the 1/4-second setting is very cool. Maybe it's cliche, but when you set the shutter at 1/4 and zoom in on a billboard or a brightly-lit object at night, you get those series of wavy light trails streaking across the screen, flashing in towards the object. Another great expressive feature on the TRV900 is the time-lapse shooting mode. This lets you, for example, set the camcorder to shoot a half-second of video once every five seconds, letting you speed up a sunset, the blooming of a flower, or traffic in the parking lot at Wal-Mart.
Effects to Heighten Your Expressivity
Actually, the substantial number of digital features on the TRV900 give you many options for adding creative touches to your video. If you're already using non-linear post-production software, you can probably do many of these things on your computer, but if you need to do your effects as you shoot, it's great to have so many of them built into the camcorder. Considering this camcorder from the point of view of a typical home videographer, you might think you'd never use any special effects, but, once you start to get into using the camcorder, you'll be surprised at the way the integral effects greatly expand your visual vocabulary.
The so-called "digital" effects include still (self-explanatory), flash motion, luminance key, slow shutter, trail, "old movie," time-lapse, and single-frame recording. The "luminance key" effect freezes the initial screen image, then commences to record ongoing action superimposed against the background of the initial image. "Slow shutter" is the same effect you'll get by setting the shutter speed to a very slow setting, such as 1/4th or 1/8th. "Old movie" gives the image a sepia tone. The other digital effects I haven't had a chance to try out yet.
"Picture" effects, most of which are also digital, include slim, stretch, solarization, monotone (a.k.a. black and white), sepia, "negative art" (a.k.a. negative), nine-image multi-screen, neutral-density filter, 16:9, pastel, and mosaic. The most interesting of these effects is solarization, which accentuates and dries out colored objects around their edges, giving the image a powdered-over look. This will make your video look just like a 20/20 special on urban underground nightlife.
The 16:9 effect, digitally, turns your image into a letterboxed widescreen shape. This can then be displayed on a 4:3 TV, in the same way (with a widescreen, 16:9 image, but with letterboxing bars above and below the picture area). I haven't tried displaying an image shot in this mode on a 16:9-screen TV, but I'd image it would be identical, functionally, to a non-anamorphic widescreen DVD, meaning you'd have use one of the stretch modes to get rid of the built-in letterboxing bands. "Slim" and "stretch," which do what they sound like, provide another handy option for visual self-expression. Mosaic is also a very cool feature, dividing the image down into a grid of colored boxes.
Fader options, for transitioning to and from different scenes, include black, monotone, and overlap. This is a fairly limited selection but, again, it gives some options for folks who will be doing all their effects right in the camcorder. It's unfortunate that, while the TRV900 has a mosaic shooting feature, it has no fade-to or fade-from mosaic, as this would be an excellent option. If you have digitizing and post-production software, you can create all these effects on your computer after shooting.
Audio options on the TRV900, as on most MiniDV camcorders, include PCM stereo recording of two live 16-bit/48-kHz tracks (left/right) or four 12-bit/32-kHz tracks with two live (left/right) and two remaining blank (left/right), allowing for future overdubbing onto them. Recording levels can either be set automatically, as is the case usually on inexpensive camcorders, or manually, as is usually done in professional videography.
Having the capability of setting the recording level manually means you can use one of those XLR adaptor boxes. Made by Beachtek and Studio1, among others, these XLR adaptors let you connect a pair of XLR-output pro-style mics to the box and then run the output from the box, via a 3.5mm stereo miniplug, into the mic input of the TRV900. These adaptors have a volume knob for each channel so, with the camcorder's audio recording level at a fixed point in manual mode, you can quickly and easily use the knobs to set your audio levels. A headphone output jack (3.5mm stereo miniplug) on the camcorder gives you a way to accurately and reliably monitor your audio levels as your shooting in the field.
Limited Digital Still Capability
While you'll probably want a separate, dedicated digital camera if you're going to do a great deal of digital still photography, the TRV900 does have some basic capabilities in this area. As the TRV900's still-camera features are quite limited, if you're looking for a camcorder with extensive still-camera capability you should take a look at some other models, such as the Sony DCR-PC100, which have much more extensive still features such as a one-megapixel CCD chip.
The Awesome (Included) 3.5-Inch Diskette Adaptor
However, the TRV900 does have some cool still features, the most notable being the diskette attachment which records stills onto 3.5-inch disks. This attachment, included with the camcorder, basically consists of a cable and Type II PC slot card which connect to the camcorder plus a box-shaped unit which contains a 3.5-inch 1.44-Meg diskette drive. You just take the stills in the TRV900's memory, record them onto a diskette, and you're ready to read the diskette in the drive of any computer. That's a pretty convenient solution to transfer of photo files. The only drawback I'd see is that the 1.44-Meg diskette, I'd think, would fill up rather quickly.
The TRV900 will record stills in progressive mode (there's no progressive recording for motion video) at 640 by 480 resolution. There are three quality modes for the images, which are saved in JPEG format: standard, fine, and super-fine. According to the Sony Web site, these will have up to 24-bit color depth. Stills can be stored on either the MiniDV cassette (up to 700 stills on a 60-minute tape in LP mode) or a "memory stick" memory module (as Sony likes to point out, the memory stick is about the size of a stick of chewing gum). From either of these storage options, you can transfer the stills to diskette for "sneaker net" style transfer to your computer. Other still functions include a date/time stamp and the capability of deleting selected stills stored in the camcorder's memory (presumably either on the memory stick or DV cassette).
Also, there's what Sony calls "continuous recording mode" which, according to their Web site, "allows you to capture four shots successively in just a few seconds." I'm not sure what they mean by this. It doesn't sound like it's any faster than just clicking four stills, which would mean it's possibility a pretty useless feature. I haven't had the opportunity to test this one out, though. If it can take the shots very rapidly, then it would have some utility.
Analog to Digital
If you've got a bunch of old analog video tapes, such as 8mm, VHS, VHS-C, Hi8, S-VHS, or S-VHS-C, you'll be happy to note that the TRV900 will convert analog input to digital and record it onto MiniDV tapes. For this purpose, the camcorder has analog line-level left/right audio inputs, a composite-video input, and an S-Video input. The analog audio and video inputs are switchable to serve as outputs. Thus, for example, you can feed the footage from your MiniDV tape to dub it onto a VHS or S-VHS tape in a VCR.
Linear Editing Features
For editing purposes, the TRV900 has a Control-L, or LANC, jack. LANC is a two-way editing protocol, meaning the jack sends and receives a datastream for the purpose of coordinating the record start-stop, and other transport functions, of a LANC-equipped VCR with the play start-stop, and other functions, of the TRV900. The TRV900 also has a simple built-in edit controller which lets you choose a series of scenes that you want to dub onto a tape in a VCR. The controller also allows you to choose the order in which you want these scenes to be assembled onto the tape in the VCR (thus, this method is called "assemble" editing). One VCR which has LANC, and which you might use for editing with the TRV900, is Sony's SLV-R1000 (retail price about $800). The SLV-R1000, sometimes known as the "Slivver," has been around for years and is a reliable workhorse of a VCR.
There are many options for editing using the TRV900 and a VCR (tape decks which don't have tuners built-in, i.e. the professional models, are called "VTR's"). For example, since the TRV900 has the LANC jack, a jack which supports a two-way editing protocol, meaning stop-start commands can be sent to as well as from the camcorder, you could use an editing controller with it. Another, simpler but not necessarily less effective method is to just use the TRV900's remote control and your VCR remote control simultaneously to get the scenes you want dubbed to the proper spots on the tape. Overall, these methods of editing, involving the manual or automated control of the camcorder and a VCR/VTR or two VCR's/VTR's, is known as "linear" editing.
Non-Linear Editing and IEEE-1394
The other editing option, non-linear editing, or NLE, involves feeding your video to the hard drive of your computer (in the case of analog video, you'll have to digitize it first) and then using NLE software, allowing you to re-arrange scenes, just as you cut and paste sentences with a word processor, and to apply post-production effects to your video and audio tracks. One of the great advantages of a DV camcorder is that, once its video is in digital form, there is no generation loss as it passes to your hard drive or back onto MiniDV tape. A digital video copy is a perfect reproduction of the original.
NLE is greatly facilitated by the IEEE-1394 protocol. IEEE-1394, which Sony calls "iLink" and Apple calls "Firewire," is a two-way protocol which allows the transmission of data and control signals between your computer and your camcorder (or any other device). With its IEEE-1394, or iLink, jack, the TRV900 is ready to work with any PC or Mac with its own IEEE-1394 port and the appropriate software. The iMac DV's, by the way, have all the hardware and software, pre-installed and configured, that's needed for entry-level non-linear editing and postproduction.
The MiniDV tape used in the TRV900 is about the size of an audio microcassette. In standard mode, the tape has an hour of recording time while, in LP mode, there's 90 minutes recording time (though you're limited to the 12-bit/32-kHz audio in the LP mode). The best price you can generally get on DV tapes is about $8.00 each, or $7.50 in boxes of ten from a good discount electronics store. At a place like Tower Video they'll stick you for ten bucks or more (not for a premium product, either).
The built-in index titler features 22 characters, eight pre-set titles, and nine positions, but it only works with the MiniDV tapes which have the integral 4k memory chips. The cheapest you'll usually find these tapes with the 4k chips is $14.50 for a 60-minute tape ($13.50 in a ten pack).
The so-called "intelligent" accessory shoe on top of the TRV900 allows connection of various accessories such as lights and microphones. An example of an "intelligent" accessory is a light which adjusts its intensity according to the shutter speed and exposure setting in the camcorder. The shoe will also power accessories which just need the DC power, or you can simply use it as a mechanical attachment point for a piece of gear which gets its power elsewhere.
The TRV900 lists for $2,500, and it's generally sold for about $1,900 to $2,000. However, perhaps because of the introduction of the VX2000, and the VX1000 recently being sold on a closeout basis at around $2,500 (before the VX2000 it had a street price of about $3,000), the TRV900 has dropped down a bit. You might find it for $1,800 or so.
When you're considering the cost of this camcorder, keep in mind that it has a pretty good resale value, perhaps even as good as the VX1000 (and VX2000, if any are already on the used-gear market). It seems the final ebay selling prices on used TRV900's are around $1,400 or so, which is pretty good, considering its new selling price. These camcorders hold their value much better than inexpensive, single-chip models.
Be wary of any retailers who advertise a low price for the TRV900 on the Web. Sony does not allow its authorized dealers to advertise prices, either on the Web or in print. If a dealer is advertising a price on the TRV900, they're probably not selling U.S.-warrantied merchandise. Most likely, they're selling "grey market" models, meaning models which are intended for sales in non-U.S. countries.
You may be out of luck on warranty coverage if you buy a grey-market camcorder. Also, the kind of companies which play games like this tend to employ various scams, such as charging you for the included accessories that are supposed to come with the camcorder. The TRV900 comes with a remote control, A/C power charger, NP-F330 battery, floppy disk adapter, A/V cable (customized for the special A/V jack), lens cap, shoulder strap, lens hood, and two AA batteries. Accept nothing less than the complete package of accessories, at no extra charge. Tell ?em Radioguy sent you!
The TRV900 is what's often called a "prosumer" product, meaning that it has a price and features which put it somewhere on the borderline between a consumer-level product and a camcorder. Because of this, it will probably only appeal to home videographers who have a very healthy camcorder budget. If those family memories are that precious to you, then by all means, this is the way to capture them with a high level of image quality.
If you're a home video maker, shooting just for fun, this a fine camcorder which will keep you engaged for years to come. With its many built-in features and effects, the TRV900 will allow even home video producers without computers, or other post-production gear, to create movies with the same features you see in broadcast productions.
On the other hand, if you're a low-budget professional, a documentarian, somebody who's been tasked with creating a rock video for under $2,000, or an event videographer, then the TRV900 would be an appealing option for you -- it's just about the lowest-priced 3-chip MiniDV camcorder around. But the low price isn't the only reason to buy a TRV900. Its design, build quality, and extensive feature set will allow the careful producer to get quite a bit of mileage out of this camcorder. The day has come when the barrier to high quality has dropped from tens of thousands of dollars to less than a couple thousand.