HD Cameras Still Don't Click

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, April 24, 2008

Pocket-size electronic devices can't do just one thing anymore. Phones take pictures, MP3 players show movies and GPS receivers double as photo albums.

Digital cameras have to keep up with the times, too. They added video-recording ability years ago -- and now that most phones can shoot short clips of their own, some cameras are moving on to high-definition footage.

At a time when Hollywood still has a hard time delivering a high-def copy of your favorite movies, the idea of being able to make your own widescreen, HD production can sound exciting.

Doing that with a camera that you were going to buy anyway, rather than HD-capable camcorder that would cost twice as much, would be even more appealing.

But -- you knew there would be a but -- this camera feature needs more time to develop, judging from a trial of two new HD-capable models from Kodak and Panasonic. Their video capabilities may not come at much of a price premium -- Kodak's EasyShare V1073 has a list price of $250, while Panasonic's Lumix DMC-FX500 lists at $400 -- but they don't deliver the visual quality you'd expect.

Their blurry and sometimes unfocused footage came about as close to a "real" camcorder's output as a typical cameraphone's pictures come to a "real" camera's shots.

The Kodak model had the most trouble in this area. Simply panning across a scene seemed to overwhelm the camera's brain, smearing motion into a blur or dropping frames entirely. You'd have a trying time shooting a soccer match.

But even when held steady, the Kodak's footage looked grainy and often blotchy, evidence of how much the camera compresses video. It almost never exhibited the sharp detail, like wrinkles on a person's face or fine print on a sign, that pops out in HDTV broadcasts.

The Kodak also had trouble auto-focusing fast enough and sometimes needed a moment to get colors right -- dirt in my back yard looked purple and red until the camera figured out the scene. And its non-stereo microphone couldn't help picking up faint hissing or whirring sounds from the lens zooming in or out.

The Panasonic had different issues that underscored the same point: There's a reason why HD camcorders cost so much.

To its credit, this camera's video looked notably clearer overall. In daylight and when held still, the Panasonic got quite close to what you'd recognize as HDTV. It also didn't get as discombobulated by motion.

But high-def video needs high-fidelity audio, too, not the flat, tinny sound recorded by the Panasonic's single weak microphone. Imagine piping an HDTV broadcast's soundtrack through a clock radio's speaker -- that's what videos shot with this camera sound like.

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