Before considering a pocket HD camcorder, understand what these devices are not: they are not full-blown HD camcorder substitutes. Instead, for about $100 to $250, pocket camcorders are quick-and-easy pocket-sized gadgets for shooting near HD-quality video. As evident by the market-leading Flip's success, consumers don't seem to mind the bare-bones nature of the devices or their sometimes silly names.
Which brings us to the Sony bloggie HD MHS-CM5, a $200 (price at launch) pistol-grip style pocket HD camcorder with a 2.5-inch swivel LCD monitor and a 1/2.5 inch CMOS sensor that Sony hopes will penetrate the market more successfully than its predecessor, the very similar Webbie. Sony also recently released the less expensive bloggie PM5 ($170 at launch), which more closely resembles the Flip in shape and size.
BUILD AND DESIGN
In addition to snapping 5.0 megapixel stills, the bloggie can shoot h.264 (MP4) movies in four sizes, 1920 x 1080 and 1280 x 720 at 30 fps, 1280 x 720 at 60 fps (all considered HD), and VGA; each suited for different situations. For example, users looking to become the next YouTube sensation may want to shoot in VGA since it produces the smallest file size, perfect for uploading, while a youth soccer game should look nice at 1280 x 720 at 60 fps because the extra frames capture smoother action. However, most users will likely shoot in the maximum possible resolution, 1920 x 1080, to take advantage of the bloggie's HDMI output (cable not included), which streams footage to an HDTV.
The bloggie sets itself apart from the competition with its 5x optical zoom lens that allows users to get tight and detailed shots from a distance. Because of their small size, competing devices don't have optical zoom lenses, and instead rely on digital zooms that actually degrade picture quality. Though Sony doesn't tout it much in marketing materials, the optical zoom is among bloggie's main selling points.
Ergonomics and Controls
Unfortunately, in order to fit the optical zoom lens into the bloggie, Sony had to increase the device's bulk. The bloggie measures 4 inches tall by 2.75 inches wide by 1.56 inches and weighs about 7 ounces, so unless you are wearing loose sweatpants, it won't comfortably fit in your pocket. Another downside is that the bloggie is currently available in one color: eggplant. The bloggie ships with a neck strap that provides two attached points, securing against its bottom and lens cap, which helps keep the bloggie stable when it dangles from your neck.
With its pistol-grip form and swivel out LCD, the bloggie more closely resembles a traditional camcorder than rival candy bar-shaped devices. The bloggie has a rounded bulge with slightly protruding lens area at the top. On the opposite end of the lens are the record buttons for video and still mode, zoom, and a control toggle. Underneath that, a small portion of the casing slides open to reveal a USB dongle, AV out and HDMI out ports. Hidden underneath the swivel LCD are three buttons for playback, recording, and the menu. Finally, the bottom of the bloggie houses a tripod mount hole and a segment that flips open to reveal a lithium battery and expandable memory slot, which accepts both SD/SDHC and Memory Stick cards.
The bloggie is small enough to fit in the palm of most hands, has some decent weight and balance, and despite the lack of a dedicated grip, can comfortably be held for extended periods. However, a glossy finish won't do much to hide smudges and fingerprints.
Menus and Modes
Accessing the bloggie's menu is simple: just hit the "Menu" button tucked underneath the monitor. There, users can select photo size (5 megapixels at 4:3; 4 megapixels at 3:2; 3 megapixels at 4:3; 2 megapixels at 16:9; and VGA at 4:3), video size as described above, turn on or off steady shot and facial detection, and access the camera's controls, clock, shooting, and memory card settings. Users can navigate and access menu commands with a four-way control toggle just below the zoom and record controls, pressing it to select a menu item. I've had trouble with similar navigation schemes on other devices, constantly clicking and selecting when attempting to scroll; this was never a problem with the bloggie. The control button was big enough and provided enough resistance for even my chubby digits.
The bloggie's menu lacks color correction and exposure controls, which isn't necessarily a bad thing considering the bloggie's less tech-savvy target demographic. Nevertheless, shutterbugs will be turned off by the inability to set the white balance or adjust the ISO.
Users can monitor the action via the bloggie's 2.5-inch flip-out LCD, which unlike the candy bar-shaped Flip, can rotate 180 degrees for shooting flexibility and self portraits. At a glance, it appears the monitor can also swivel in and out, but it doesn't. More than once I caught myself trying to make that adjustment. The LCD held tight though and is solid enough to withstand light abuse.
The menu settings allow users to slightly adjust the LCD backlight from "Normal" to "Bright" to optimize viewing in varied lighting conditions. Despite the controls, I still had trouble tracking details on the monitor when using the bloggie outdoors in bright sunlight. The inevitable fingerprints and screen smudges also compounded the problem.
The bloggie is extremely easy to use; opening up the LCD screen turns the camera on, and to record just hit one of two record buttons. There is also a dedicated still button for snapping photos. To play back footage, press the play button hidden underneath the LCD and use the control toggle to navigate clips.
The bloggie comes packaged with the Windows-only PMB (Picture Motion Browser) software (sorry, Mac users) that will automatically recognize and upload bloggie videos or stills when it's connected to a PC or laptop via the USB dongle. Users can choose to upload footage to their hard drive or directly to media-sharing websites like YouTube or Photobucket. Coded into the bloggie is PMB Portable, which works on most Mac and Windows OSes, offering limited viewing and uploading options. Users who want to forego installing new software can still connect the bloggie to their PC and drag and drop media from the pocket camcorder's file folders.
The PMB software is non-intuitive and clunky, but does a nice job overall of importing and organizing footage by date. Of all the proprietary video editing and organizing software bundled with cameras and camcorders I've used, PMB is definitely one of the "better" suites.
Sony promises up to 105 minutes of juice on a full charge. I managed to shoot off and on for a full day and the following morning before the bloggie's battery died, falling well short of 105 minutes. However, I was constantly turning the device on and off and shooting action continuously for long periods of time, two activities that can drain the battery. Luckily, the 3.6V lithium battery is removable, so users can pack an extra one for additional juice.
I was annoyed the bloggie shipped without an AC adapter. How mobile is a pocket-sized device that needs a larger laptop for power when a wall socket would do?
Sony finally caved in and embraced the SD standard with its current crop of cameras and camcorders, including the bloggie. As a bonus, if you have their old propriety Memory Stick cards lying around, the bloggie will accept them as well. Unfortunately, neither is included with the bloggie, which has a paltry 26MB of internal memory.
Sony claims an 8GB card will hold about 80 minutes of 1080/30p footage, 160 minutes of 720/60p, 240 minutes of 720/30p, and 480 minutes of VGA.
The Flip set a low standard for video performance, which other brand-name pocket camcorders have more or less met. While I would put the bloggie in the same class as the Flip, it's definitely at the head of it.
In perfect lighting, the bloggie's 1080/30p footage looks great, complete with crisp detail and sharp color. Even when streamed to a large HDTV over HDMI, the footage retains most of its detail. While it certainly doesn't stack up against more expensive HD camcorders, it's still impressive for a $200 device. Switching over to 720/60p also has its advantages, producing silky smooth movement ideal for outdoor sports or other fast-paced action while sacrificing a small amount of image resolution.
That said, there are some issues with video output. The bloggie has a tendency to drop frames, making the video appear jerky in places, and the autofocus is a bit slow, especially when using the optical zoom. The bloggie does have a recording delay quick control to mitigate focus holdup, but that doesn't help when zooming in the middle of a shot.
Also, Sony's electronic image stabilization feature, "SteadyShot," isn't available for 1080/30p or 720/60p, working only with 720/30p and VGA. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. While testing the image stabilization, I found it created warped and jumpy video, almost operating in direct contrast to its purpose.
To demonstrate, I held the bloggie in one hand as I biked along a path, once with the image stabilization on:
And again with it off:
It's pretty clear the video is smoother with the stabilization off.
In addition to a superb 5x optical zoom, there is also a 20x digital zoom available at 720/60p and below. But it's largely useless as digital zoom in general degrades image quality.
Low light brings out the bloggie's weaknesses. Image noise and dropped frames plague 1080 30/p footage, even in slightly dim locations, like the bowling alley in the footage below.
At 720/60p in the same location and with the same lighting, the video becomes much darker, although extra frames keep the footage smooth.
One feature that's mandatory on any video camera I buy is an external mic jack. I lament that people often underestimate what crisp audio brings to overall video quality. With the exception of the well-received Kodak Zi8, most pocket HD camcorders don't come with an external mic jack, and the bloggie is no exception. Still, the bloggie's onboard mic does a better-than-average job of picking up and distinguishing different voices in a crowded setting; for the intended purposes of the camera, that's more than enough.
Still Image Quality
The bloggie also takes 5 megapixel stills with the push of a button, so you don't need to switch to "still mode" or make further adjustments - just push a button and take a still. It's simple and it works, but the quality of the stills won't make you want to ditch your point-and-shoot. In informal shooting, the images came out blurry and the colors flat. Zooming in, the image detail was noticeably lacking.
Still, I can't fairly knock the bloggie for its still performance, which hovers somewhere above cell phone camera quality. Competing devices that can take stills (the Flip currently doesn't) don't produce better results, and with the exception of some Sanyo Xactis, none sport an optical zoom. The bloggie also gets points for offering five picture sizes.
It's hard to evaluate a device like the Sony bloggie. On one hand, I could never recommend a camcorder with poor low-light performance lacking an external mic jack. On the other, the bloggie is a $200 gizmo designed to compete with pocket camcorders like the Flip, which share the same weaknesses. Although the bloggie is larger than pocket-sized, what the device does right, it does better than most other pocket camcorders.
What really distinguishes the bloggie from competing devices is its 5x optical zoom, shooting size options, and video performance in good lighting. On top of that, the camera is simple to operate. If you are in the market for a pocket HD camcorder, consider the bloggie. However, its drawbacks prevent the bloggie from being a must-have gadget.