Camera Review: Sony HDR-CX160
- 1/4" CMOS Sensor
- significant image noise
- white balance issues
- 10.6oz w/battery
Sony has been one of the worst offenders when it comes to resisting the inexorable shift toward progressive-capture in consumer camcorders.
It is therefore no small surprise to find Sony offering 60p capture in its new camcorders (at last!), including the ultracompact HDR-CX160. In the interlaced versus progressive 'debate', there is very little that you need to know. Interlacing is a 1950's-era technology created to deal with imaging problems that no longer exist. You want interlacing in your camcorder today in the same way that you want maggots in your oatmeal—which is to say, you don't.
60p capture means the CX160 shoots 60 full-frame 1920x1080 HD images per second. This is a robust and forward-looking format that many people expect to become standard. Note that 1080-60p video is not currently supported by many TVs. To watch 60p, you must route it out of the camera, which will convert it to 60i, or you must have a good video editing suite to do the conversion yourself.
Followers of my photography reviews know I value compact size almost above all else. In this regard the CX160 is absolutely a marvel, measuring 4 7/8" x 2 1/8" x 2 1/4" and weighing a scant 10.6 ounces (less than an NEX-5). If those numbers don't mean anything to you, let me say that the CX160 is about as small as you can get in a traditionally-shaped camcorder body, and much smaller than Panasonic's top-rated TM700, which also shoots 60p. The CX160 hits the sweet spot in terms of jacket pocket size, allowing you to effortlessly carry and deploy it without a case—invaluable.
How did Sony make the CX160 so small? By using a 1/4" sensor. Sensor size correlates directly to image quality, so we are wise to be a little skeptical about the CX160's image quality, especially when it comes to low light performance. Still, Canon's HF200 uses a 1/4" sensor, and I used the HF200 to shoot my film, The Couloir to Nowhere, so a small sensor isn't necessarily a big liability (especially in bright light).
So, how is the CX160's image quality? Uh...not so good. Really not so good, in fact. CX160 footage falls short of the aforementioned (and two-year-old) Canon HF200, especially given the fact that the CX160 shoots progressive frames versus the HF200's interlaced. Noise is noticeable even in bright light, with image quality deteriorating rapidly as the light gets dimmer.
The picture lacks sharpness and impact. While close comparison reveals that the CX160's sharpness is perhaps adequate, subjectively the video quality looks inferior, especially compared to today's better consumer camcorders. The addition of 60p to the Sony line, in other words, seems to come with a step backward in image quality—alas.
I suppose I should mention my CX160 showed a dramatic (and show-stopping) white balance issue whenever snow was in the scene. The camera actually slowly shifts the white balance as it records, causing a visually-noticeable shift in tint across time. This is a serious problem, as it essentially wrecks your footage, and is extremely difficult to correct. Solution: avoid using the camera's auto white balance.
With its small size, 60p-capable recording, image stabilization, and a 30mm (35mm equivalent) wide-angle lens, the CX160 looks like a home run on paper. Inexplicably, the camera's image quality seems to take a big step backward, failing to match not only current camcorders but even cameras from two or three years ago. This one wasn't a hard decision for me: I got rid of it.