Sharp idea in camcorders
offers extreme ease of use
Camcorders have been
evolving steadily since Sony introduced the first one back in the 1980's.
Despite this continual development, however, camcorders have for the most
part stayed fairly similar in basic concept: you stick your eye into a
viewfinder, close the other eye, and point the unit at your subject.
This has always worked
fine, unless you're trying to move around while shooting. Why? 'Cause
when you're peering into a viewfinder you can't see where you're going.
We have no idea if this has ever led to serious injury but if nothing
else it's been a legitimate concern for those with sensitive shins.
Then, a couple of
years ago, Sharp introduced the Viewcam camcorders which took the home
moviemaker machine into an entirely new direction. These are the ones
Wayne Gretzky flogged, which undoubtedly helped contribute to the line's
success. Viewcams, as you can see by the above illustration, eliminate
the traditional viewfinder and replace it with a generous liquid crystal
display (LCD) TV screen.
Sharp's current crop
has improved on the concept, with one of the nicest additions being a
larger LCD screen than before. You still won't want to watch a letterboxed
"Ben-Hur" on it, but for the job it's meant to do it's terrific!
Easy does it
We've tried a lot
of camcorders over the years and must say the Sharp Viewcam (we tried
the $1000 Cdn model VL-E47C) is by far the easiest to use, once you get
used to it.
By getting used to
it, we mean we've been so accustomed to the "stick your eye in the
viewfinder" type of camcorder that it felt very alien using the Viewcam.
Of course if you've never used a camcorder this won't bother you a whit,
but for the first while we felt much like "dowsers" divining
for water, because you carry the Viewcam much like you'd carry that little
twig (or a conventional 35 mm camera for that matter).
Once you get past
that, though, there's very little you can do to mess up your family movies
because there are very few buttons or settings with which to mess. Your
chief concern with this thing is remembering to keep your greasy little
fingers off the LCD screen!
The lack of a viewfinder
opens up interesting new camera angles for the videographer. You can hold
the camcorder up high over your head and, because the Viewcam's two modules
swivel so you can tilt the LCD part down at you while aiming the camera
part forward, you can still see what you're recording. This'd be great
at a parade: a short person stuck three rows back can not only videotape
the parade but watch it on the LCD at the same time!
Gee, this isn't a
camcorder at all: it's a public service on behalf of the vertically challenged!
You can also swivel
the camera completely around so it points back at you. This way, you can
plop the camcorder onto a table or a tripod and get in the action yourself,
all while monitoring the shot via the LCD. Anyone who's noticed that camcorder-equipped
families always seem to have one person missing from the shots will find
this a nice feature.
Three controls is
all it takes to tape with the Viewcam. The first one switches between
camera, VCR, and "off" modes; there's also a "rocker switch"
for your 8x zoom and a button that starts and stops recording (all three
controls fall easily under your finger, too). That's it! Focus is automatic
and works quite well, though as usual there's some lag. The zoom is only
8x, which isn't as much as you can get on other camcorders (including
higher end Viewcams that offer a digital zoom of up to 20x), but is probably
fine for most family shooting. You may not do justice to the magnificence
of El Capitan, but junior blowing out the birthday candles will show up
Other controls, that
aren't used when shooting, include a row of tape transport buttons mounted
below the LCD. You get the usual play, pause, FF/REW etc. and they come
in very handy when you want to play back your masterpiece for the family.
And don't worry about plugging the machine in to your TV for playback
like you do with most 8mm camcorders, although the machine comes with
connections to let you do that if you choose. Just gather the family around
the camcorder (unless it's a really big family, of course) and watch the
tape right there. It's neat and it brings your family closer in more ways
than one. Sharp saw fit to mount a speaker in the Viewcam, too, so you
get to hear your playback as well as just seeing it.
The LCD has the usual
readouts you find in other camcorder viewfinders, except these are obviously
larger and therefore easier to read if you're reasonably close. These
include function (record etc.), and battery life.
Speaking of the battery,
which is very small and recharges quickly enough, loading it is quite
easy, though we'd recommend you have lots of light around when putting
it into the recharger. You have to line up a couple of little black marks
on the black battery and charging unit, and you need sharp (no pun intended)
eyes. This rather minor criticism is not limited to the Viewcam, however;
it's shared by many camcorders.
Battery life is about
half an hour of recording, though you can bump this up with optional battery
packs or by having extra batteries on hand.
Loading the tape is
also straightforward. As we said, this is a very user-friendly machine
that requires a minimum of fuss to learn and use.
Imagine some other
uses for the Viewcam. If you're a travelling salesperson with product
videos to use as sales aids, you can't beat the small size and (relatively)
big screen you get with the Viewcam. Rather than pack around a VCR and
TV (or TVCR combo), you can just take a Viewcam. It'll fit easily into
your luggage and when you reach your client's place you can just sit the
thing on his desk and impress the heck out of him. Chances are you'll
have to dub your tapes onto 8mm, but so what?
aspect of the Viewcam also makes it ideal for taking abroad because you
can watch back your tapes easily without having to plug it into the hotel
TV, the voltage of which may not match.
You can also dub your
favourite videocassettes onto 8mm and take 'em along on vacation with
you, to keep the kids quiet during that long drive or flight
Since Viewcams use
the 8mm cassette format, your typical tape will run up to two hours. 8mm
also means you can't play the tapes on your VHS VCR (something you can
do with the compact VHS - "VHS-C" - format). As mentioned above,
though, that isn't a big deal because of the Viewcam's built in screen.
As is usual in the
camcorder world, you can plug the camcorder into your VCR to dub the tape
onto VHS, which is handy if you're making copies for family members who
don't have 8mm.
You don't have to
worry about shooting videos when there isn't enough light, either. If
it's too dark, you'll know right away 'cause you can see right on the
screen as you try shooting that it's too dark. The Viewcam's low light
performance is okay, as is that of most camcorders.
We liked the LCD idea
a lot, but had one major caveat we hinted at earlier. It's big and bright
and looks pretty good, but it's placed right where your fingers are prone
to put greasy marks all over it. Sharp probably couldn't have avoided
this since they wanted to give as big a screen as possible and had to
put it somewhere, but be prepared to do lots of cleaning.
Sharp has anticipated
this, however, and includes a little cleaning cloth for just such emergencies.
The screen cleans up well with little effort. We didn't even have to resort
to Windex (which Sharp wouldn't recommend anyway), though we wished there
was some way to avoid the cleaning. Perhaps a plastic "protector
panel" could be put over the screen, one you could detach when you
There's also no lens
cap, which is probably good news to anyone who's ever forgotten to take
off the lens cap. This group would be a minority, though, because even
with conventional camcorders you can tell the cap's on as soon as you
look in the viewfinder: you can't see anything. We'd like to have seen
a removeable lens cap, though, just because it would give some protection
to the unit when it's being carried or packed away. Of course, there's
always carrying cases
Still, these minor
oversights don't detract substantially from the product, and they probably
do add to the feeling of user-friendliness the Viewcam exudes.
Sharp's Viewcams are
also available in Hi8mm (a high resolution version of the tape format),
with HiFi Stereo, and you can get one with a "docking station"
that charges the battery and interfaces with a TV or video printer. There's
one model below the VL-E47 we tested; the VL-E37 only has a three inch
You can also add a
dizzying array of stuff to Viewcams, including a tuner that turns them
into a real, live TV/VCR combo, a sun hood, a waterproof case, a video
light, car battery charger/adapter, etc. etc. etc.
In all, if you're
looking for a camcorder that's easy to use and easy to live with, and
you aren't worried about calling attention to yourself with the unusual
shape of your camcorder, the Sharp Viewcams are definitely worth a look.
You can buy more sophisticated units that do everything except slice and
dice, but we don't
Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think