The New Sony PXW-X180 & the “4K READY” PXW-X70: First Impressions

Sony dropped by a few days ago to demo their new XDCAM additions – the Sony PXW-X180 and the “4K Ready” PXW-X70 compact camcorder at our Teddington base today.

At first glance, the PXW-X180 is somewhat beefier than I expected, but for a camera of that range, this is not necessarily a ding. Upon first touch, it feels solid with the 25x zoom lens in front. I'd see this camera normally placed on sticks for event coverage, or corporate work for most of the time.

Documentary shooters who plan on going all out hand-held for a full-day with the PXW-X180 need to make sure they get their protein shakes and vitamins in the morning, as hand held work with this camera should be a possible substitute for some morning exercise training.

Not saying you should cancel your gym membership, but those if you out there, who are not used to lugging around shoulder-mount cameras, may want to consider getting some extra strength training before heading out to the Outback for your next documentary project. It's not Betacam heavy, but it ain't a DSLR either.

Moving on, to the viewfinder and LCD – both have a nice crisp feel to them. It's the familiar top, side-swivel placement for the LCD. The PXW-X180 indeed feels like a new camera, not just a refresh of a slight redesign of an old design.

For an XDCAM family camera – it does feature industry standard 3 x 1/3 inch Exmor CMOS sensors to meet the stringent and ever-evolving demands of the modern shooting environments, which in most cases do not feature ideal lighting, the X180 will have you covered (for the most part) in low-light situations.

Would I've wanted it to have a large single CMOS sensor? Maybe, maybe not. It's just not what this camera is meant to do. I wouldn't expect an XDCAM range camera to have a large CMOS sensor anyway, but chances are in the future that's where we're headed. Only time will tell, but until then, Sony are sticking with what works. If it ain't broke, don't fix it – it's a good mantra to live by sometimes.

As with anything, one needs to keep low-light sensitivity in perspective, and with an F10 sensitivity, the X180 looks pretty decent, sure it's no A7s in the low-light department, and you probably wont be able to get proper exposure on you subject's face with by using your smart phone as the only light source, but it will get you out of most situations where illumination is a bit sketchy.

Even though, the Sony PWX-X180's resolution maxes out at Full HD, it does shoot in a variety of codecs. The ability to shoot in both XAVC-Intra or XAVC-Long GOP at 100mbps at 1080p in multiple frame rates is a massive plus. In addition to XAVC, the X180 can record in MPEG HD 422 at 50mbps in a .MXF wrapper – the classic broadcast codec. The X180 can also record in AVCHD, DVCAM and proxy. Nice to see Sony seeing the writing on the wall and going with higher bit rate codec in the form of XAVC – not only in a LongGOP form, but also Intra frame, which will help with green screen visual effects work.

It would have been nice to have some sort of a path to a future 4K upgrade for example, as on the X70, but Sony says it's an HD sensor and won't be able to do 4K. Would have been nice, all I am saying.

Recording media is on the all-too-familiar SxS Cards for XAVC-Intra at 100mpbs and broadcast friendly MPEG HD 422, and SDHC/SDXC via an appropriate adaptor for less data intensive codecs such as AVCHD and proxy. The Dual SxS slots offer “relay” or “simultaneous” recording options for those who don't like to swap cards too much, or need an instant backup of their footage to give to their client on the spot for example.

All in all, high-bit rate codecs and dual recording features are becoming pretty much standard features on camcorders in this range and price-point. I wasn't surprised to see them present on the X180, as in I would have been, had they omitted them, and given us anything less than a broadcast spec codec for example. And, Sony, much like other manufacturers have seen the tide turning to a robust, high-bit codecs and flexible recording options.

The Sony Full HD PXW-X180 XDCAM camcorder shares the same internals and lens with the PXW-X160, the only difference being the wireless connectivity.

Unlike its sibling the X160 (let's keep it that way for brevity's sake), the X180 has NFC and Wi-Fi connectivity for control via a smartphone or a tablet. Recorded content can be sent to a smartphone in a compressed .MP4 format.

Wireless connectivity is definitely a feature that caught my eye, as it shows Sony's forward thinking. Wireless transmission of recorded content offers diverse options for use in a variety of production environments from studio setups to “breaking news” war zone news coverage where quick file transmission and efficiency are of the highest importance.

While fiddling with the built-in ND's, I noticed that the X180 has a built-in Variable ND filter. With a flick of a switch you can turn any of the 4 built in ND's into an electronically controlled variable neutral density filter for a much more refined exposure, when such is needed. In essence, you can go from ¼ND to 1/128ND with the flick of a switch. And that's a first for a 3 chip camcorder! Interesting and potentially very useful, which makes me wonder, why hasn't anyone thought of this earlier?

Despite, weighting in at 3.2 kgs with the lens, eye-cup, battery and SxS media cards, the X180 is a solid camera fully capable to meet the stringent demands of the modern broadcast, corporate, or event production world.

So in short here's what I liked on the PXW-X180:

  • Solid feel and build quality

  • Good zoom range, Wide-angle at 26mm, and 3 x control rings with end stops.

  • High-bit rate XAVC-Intra and LongGOP codec

  • VariND as well as a 4 step straight ND filters

  • Wireless connectivity – Wi-Fi, NFC

 Some bit's I wish they'd implement:

  •  100 mpbs XAVC-Intra on SDXC cards via adapter
  • Some sort of 4K shooting option, or upgrade

  • EVF could have been sharper

After the X180, I got a chance to play around with the little “4K Ready” wonder called the PXW-X70. At first, when I saw the Sony press release about the camera, I thought the 10bit 4:2:2 XAVC was a misprint. It turns out it wasn't.

The tiny PXW-X70 XDCAM camcorder, can really record 10bit 422 on-board on SDXC/SDHC cards.

It does so in a LongGOP structure, which although, not ideal, is better than any 8bit 420 colour sub-sampling any day of the week. A 10bit image has 1024 luminance values for R/G/B, as opposed to 256 in an 8bit world. The quadrupled amount of luminance per pixel, translates into much smoother gradations and higher colour fidelity.

And that's something that got me though. If the little X70 can do XAVC LongGop in 10but 4:2:2 on SDXC cards, why can't the X180 do the same? I am sure there are plenty of technical reasons why, one of them being that SxS cards are a much more reliable media (and at the same time more expensive) than SD cards, which although carrying the “consumer” stigma, have come a long way in the last 12 months as far as their underlying technology and sustained read/write speeds go.

It was also a pleasant surprised as to how “non-plastic-y” if felt to hold in my hand. I can definitely see this camera withstand the rigour of a documentary production for example, without fearing it will fall apart if you drop it from a foot hight onto a solid surface.

The 20 megapixel 1.0” sensor is a nice addition too; it will allow for moderate shallow depth of field, for those needing it. Now, again we need to look into this in perspective; no it won't get you full-frame A7s crazy bokeh, but again, that's not what this camera is meant to do. The sensor size if similar to a Super 16mm film gate, so on the telephoto end of the zoom with a subject in the foreground and stuff in the background at a sufficient distance, under appropriate lighting conditions, it produces nice moderate shallow depth of field. I personally won't see it replacing your DSLR per se, but it would be a nice addition to have as it allows for easier inter-cutting of footage shot on larger sensors.

It comes equipped with Carl Zeiss optics with a 12x optical zoom extended to 24x via “Clear Image” technology, gives us the extra zoom range if needed. So, not a huge zoom range, but again, this is a small camcorder and 12x optical zoom should suffice for most situations. Sure, having a 14 x or an 18 x times optical zoom, would have been huge, but then again I am sure that would have been reflected in the price tag. Big zoom, costs big money there's no way around it, unless you compromise on the optics, something here we shouldn't obsess about given the Carl Zeiss badge on the lens.

Built-in ND filters, as well as SDI out, were definite surprises here. Cameras of this size rarely offer professional features such as these, and I have to give Sony credit here. They added XLR inputs and 2 x SD card slots too, for dual / relay recording - all major pluses.

They way Sony put it, the X70 shares some DNA in the design and internals with the more consumer oriented AX100, but with many improvements geared towards those working in the professional video world.

The X70 will eventually be able to record 4K internally via a firmware update expected to be available in early 2015. It will be a paid upgrade, but the good news is, X70 owners won't have to send the camera back to us or Sony, as they did with their FS700 4K upgrade. The 4K upgrade for the PXW-X70 will be a user upgradable firmware feature.

Here are the highlights for me on the PXW-X70:

  • 10 bit 422 XAVC on SD cards

  • Larger 1.0” sensor for some creative DOF

  • Small, but rugged body

  • XLR in and SDI out

 Some bit's that would've been nice to have:

  •  Iris/Zoom/Focus separate rings
  • 4K internal now, as opposed to a future (paid) firmware upgrade

For me personally, I would have loved to see an XAVC on-board 4K on the X70 today. That and three individual lens control rings for iris, focus and zoom. But if those features were present on the X70, this would have put the camera out of the surprisingly low price-point of around £2,000 + VAT that this camera is expected to sell for.

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