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Sony XDCAM EX PMW-350 Review

Mar 8, 2010 12:00 PM, By D.W. Leitner

The beginning of a new Sony camcorder era, possibly.


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Images created with Carl Zeiss DigiPrimes looked spectacular. Note viewfinder electronically masked to 2.40

The images created with Carl Zeiss DigiPrimes looked spectacular. Note viewfinder electronically masked to 2.40 "Scope" aspect ratio.
Photo by D.W. Leitner

That first one-piece Betacam from 1989 carried a list price twice as much as today's PMW-350—with lens, an investment approaching $50,000. It delivered a whopping 550 TV lines of standard definition from CCDs containing 250,920 pixels each. Today's PMW-350 touts 1920x1080 CMOS sensors with 2,073,600 pixels for "1000 TV lines or more." It provides all flavors of HD: 1920x1080, 1440x1080, 1440x720, and 1280x720 in the usual interlaced and progressive forms at frame rates of 59.94fps, 50fps, 29.97fps, 25fps, and 23.98fps.

Compression is efficient MPEG-2: 35Mbps VBR or 25Mbps CBR. A huge RAM cache stores 15 seconds for recording before the record button is even pressed.

An ironic touch: This 21st century marvel also delivers good old standard-definition DVCAM format, both 480- and 576-line.

CCDs are thirsty and that first BVW-200 drew 19W, modest compared to brawnier Betacams that followed. (Remember heavy brick batteries?) The remarkable PMW-350, although an HD camcorder, draws a mere 18W even when powering an LCD color viewfinder (more on this in a moment), autofocus zoom, directional stereo mic, and 32GB SxS card. One item it doesn't have to power is a fan. Cool-running, low-power CMOS sensors bestow utter silence to the PMW-350, which is the only 2/3in. HD camcorder, I think, that can claim no internal motors.

Sony DWR-S01D digital wireless dual-channel slot-in receiver used with the PMW-350. To the left, Sony's DWT-B01 bodypack transmitter. A sophisticated, expensive setup. Photo by D.W. Leitner

Sony DWR-S01D digital wireless dual-channel slot-in receiver used with the PMW-350. To the left, Sony's DWT-B01 bodypack transmitter. A sophisticated, expensive setup.
Photo by D.W. Leitner

Imagine my satisfaction upon charging a slim 14.4V Sony BP-GL95 lithium ion battery and encountering, in the viewfinder, a battery life indication of 263 minutes. That's more than 4 hours of 1080p from a full-size 2/3in. camcorder, folks!

Moreover, the PMW-350's Exmor CMOS sensors introduce unprecedented sensitivity. (Sony's unique Exmor architecture arranges on-chip A/D on a column basis for faster manifold output and improvements to dynamic range, rolling shutter, noise, and fixed pattern noise.) Using a standard frame rate, 24fps, and a standard metric, an 89.9 percent reflective gray card illuminated to 2000 lux, a 3CCD Sony F900R rates f/10, a 3CCD Sony F23 rates between f/10 and f/11, and a PMW-350 rates f/13. (A higher f/stop number is better.) I think this is the first instance of 2/3in. CMOS sensors outgunning CCDs in sensitivity.

A note about the lenses I used on the PMW-350: I spent only a matter of minutes with a preproduction version of Funijon's 16X autofocus zoom. Nonetheless, I was impressed on many levels. It's compact, light, and well-integrated with the PMW-350. Price point and value are incredible. It outwardly resembles the family of Fujinon autofocus zooms found on the PMW-EX1 and PMW-EX3. If you've used them, you know they're not chopped liver.

I also field-tested a couple of Zeiss DigiPrimes. As expected, they looked spectacular.

The lens I used mostly was a 16X Canon 7.7mm-123mm, f/1.8, with 2X extender—a true HD ENG lens. In Canon parlance, it's model KJ16ex7.7B IRSD PS12 with eDrive.

(If you haven't encountered a Canon eDrive zoom lens, you're missing a treat: motion control in a handgrip. EDrive handgrips contain high-resolution rotary encoders from Canon's copier business, granting microprocessor control over all lens motor functions. There's a four-way toggle switch on the handgrip with a user interface window and all sorts of ways to control zooming speed, acceleration/deceleration, and zoom range. Canon eDrive zoom lenses can remember various lens parameters at various focus lengths and perfectly repeat prior zooms, much like Sony's Shot Transition feature on HDV handhelds. EDrive zoom lenses perform the slowest, crawliest zooms in the business.)

The 16X Canon eDrive zoom lens looked great too, but it's lengthier than the 16X Fujinon autofocus zoom and threw off the balance of the PMW-350. At the same time, I inadvertently added counterweight with a Sony DWR-S01D digital wireless dual-channel slot-in receiver inserted in the tail slot of the PMW-350. (Paired with a Sony DWT-B01 bodypack transmitter, this is a terrific—if terrifically pricey—dual-channel system for dropout-free digital transmission/reception. I lust for one.)

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