Sony’s PMW-200 – a worthy successor to the much-loved EX1?

I like the EX 1 – I LIKE it– it has always been, to paraphrase the corporate world, ‘fit for purpose’ in my view. Small, manageable, a breeze to use, feature rich and unfailingly reliable, it has been my right hand man and saviour of many a shoot.  But, ‘tempus fugits’, and it has now ‘fugitted’ enough to warrant the EX 1 being gracefully retired – and my overriding impression of the PMW 200 is that here is a worthy (a very worthy to be honest) replacement. And here’s why….


Out of the box the PMW 200 is immediately familiar in your hands. Hats off to Mr Sony, for delivering a hand held that ergonomically is as near a full size cam-corder as you could get – switches where you expect, doing what you expect, and nary a sign of the single ring adjuster we’ve seen on recent camcorders, leaving the lensman fiddling for a selector switch to adjust such staples as Iris and Focus. Separate rings for focus, iris and zoom are in themselves enough to put the 200 on the list of must-haves, but that’s just the start.
At a shade over 5lbs ready to shoot, the 200 is chunky enough to be nicely handleable, without sacrificing extreme portability – great for those tight shots where ramming in a full size unit raises your blood pressure to imminent explosion point. In the hand it is truly balanced, and the handle is a proper one, devoid of the overhanging pointy bit favoured by others. It feels good – solid and robust, like it belongs there.

The SxS card slots (yes, XDCAM-EX is the acquisition format as you’d expect, though with the neat twist of compatibility with XDCAM HD422) are on the rear, with a silver cover – a nice detail making card changing or monitoring very easy; There is an accessory shoe next to the LCD screen above the lens, and a second mounting at the rear of the handle, ideal for radio mics;

The menu is accessed from the rear left flank of the unit OR from the panel atop the handle, where playback is accessed from – and again this allows speedy changes to be made; All the connectivity is on the back panel, except for the XLR audio inputs which are in the usual place on the handle; The audio controls are covered with a clear panel for safety – but the slightly indented rotary audio controls can be adjusted with the panel closed, and are recessed enough so that knocking them accidentally is near on impossible; and all the other switchgear, such as white, gain and so on is well placed. In short, the PMW 200 is ergonomically a thing of beauty. And that, on a busy shoot, is worth its weight in minutes lost.

So it looks good, it feels good, but does it perform good? The answer, on paper is a resounding yes.

It is the first camcorder in its class to feature 3 x ½ inch Exmor CMOS sensors (two more than it’s baby brother the PMW 100) – better for depth-of-field, and offering surprisingly good sensitivity. Sporting a Fujinon HD lens with 14 x optical zoom, and with the ability to record full HD 422 at 50mbps, it fits EBU recommendations for broadcast production and falls nicely into the acceptable range for ENG and Documentary work. But where this camera really shines is in it’s multiple-format support, with various HD formats including NTSC and PAL – and the ability to record and playback SD in DVCAM format.

Using the MPEG-2 Long GOP codec the 200 can record in UDF or FAT modes. And the key word here is flexibility. In UDF, HD 422 gives you 50mbps CBR 1920 x 1080, with 59.94 and 50i, and 3 choices of progressive including 25p; HD420 gives you 35mbps VBR in 1440 x 1080 and 1280 x 720, and the same choice of scan and frame rates; and UDF also offers DVCAM recording. In FAT again there is much flexibility, with HQ1920, HQ1440, and HQ 1280 all offering a choice of frame rates at 35mbps VBR, HQ 1280 offering progressive only at frame rates from 59.94 to 23.98; SP 1440 provides 25mbps CBR at 59.94i, 50i, and 23.98p; and finally in FAT DVCAM mode offers 720 x 480 at 59.94i or 29.97p, and 720×576 offers 50i and 25P. In HD, the UDF file format is MXF as opposed to FAT where it is MP4 – MPEG-HD 422 50mbps in MXF gives really detailed colour reproduction – which is going to make CSO a doddle.

On top of this there are slow and quick functions from 1fps quick, to 60 fps slow in 720P – but just 30fps in 1080P – It would have been the cherry on the cake to see 60fps at 1080P, but for unfathomable reasons it seems a step too far to include this desirable feature – though I suspect the word affordability would feature in any explanation. Frame recording is included, if you’re into moving bits of clay ‘just a tiny bit’ – and interval recording is on-board too, for those clever skyscapes or flowers bursting into bud. So despite the lack of 60fps slo-mo in 1080P, it’s a fair armoury.

Each of the three newly developed sensors has a pixel count of two million, and full HD is achieved with no pixel interpolation. Sony has employed multiple A/D converters, in parallel, which lower power consumption so you can squeeze those vital extra minutes from the battery. Feeding the sensors is a fixed Fuji HD lens with f5.8/81.2mm at the wide end and selectable manual or auto modes, a macro function, an image stabiliser and of course a variable shutter with slow shutter function; Cache recording is included, and rather neatly Sony have made the 200 wifi connectable with iPads or Android devices via an optional CBK-WA01 wifi adaptor – giving you remote control of zoom, focus, iris, white balance and record start/stop – though a firmware upgrade will be required too (available from November 2012). So on paper this seems to have all the toys. But what is it like in the field? I say field, because that is exactly where I headed off to on a bright Saturday morning, the 200 in hand, to see if it would deliver what it promised.

Having powered up and set UDF HD422 I set to work. The 3.5” LCD is big, sharp, and very useful – menu data appears here, and you can set what other information you want. The viewfinder is colour, and again, perfectly suitable for the task. Menu operation is simple, with an access button and a thumbwheel to select and set. Better than that, menu functions can also be accessed from the top panel where the playback functions sit, under the flip out screen. If you’ve had your mitts on a PMW 100 then menu wise you’re right at home – the main difference being the ability to select the output signal on the 200.

The lens, it has to be said, in my view is a delight. A smoooooth servo function allows variable zoom rates and perfect easing in and out, and at the wide end it gives a pleasing field of view. The 14 x optical zoom gives plenty of scope for getting in tight, and critical focus can be checked with the expanded focus function, the button sitting on your right hand atop the zoom unit immediately behind the zoom rocker – just where you want it. The expanded focus automatically times out after 5 seconds, which on occasion was a bit of a faff, but after a while you get used to it and it quickly becomes an asset. Having the traditional three ring set up on the lens is a dream – intuitive and very flexible, allowing you instant control over iris, focus and zoom. But the auto iris and focus modes are useful too – with adjustable iris response to achieve smooth irising up or down whilst ‘live’. The on-board microphone, mounted on the handle right at the front is great for generic sound, and surprisingly there was a marked absence of noise transfer from the handle itself – I couldn’t see any reason for this but it’s definitely a huge step forward from some other camcorders I’ve used (and reviewed, if you want the names!!) in recent months. And no, you’re not going to be relying on the onboard mic in normal use, but it’s good to know that in an emergency you could get something useable down.

On the sound side it’s business as usual with XLRs mounted to the front right of the handle, selectable between mic and line level input, and with 48v phantom power. And a feature I really liked was the audio control board on the left of the unit, hidden behind a small but robust panel with cut outs to allow access to the rotary level controls with the cover closed. There is of course a short flying arm for a forward camera-mounted microphone.

Another neat feature is connectivity – Sony have grouped these together on the rear of the unit – Genlock, timecode, SDI, HDMI, AV, I-Link and USB are all here – no more searching the dark recesses of the flanks of your camcorder for the USB link! HD-SDI is a welcome feature allowing connection to a monitor – but also providing an output into a multi camera set up if required, which makes me think this unit will be right at home on a Polecam! Down conversion to SD is available too, for the ultimate in flexibility. Note too the presence of timecode in and out, and genlock – allowing you to hook into a multi-camera set up such as a truck or OB, the Genlock IN BNC also having the ability to be switched to provide composite video OUT – though that is also supplied at the AV connector.
Whilst out, I shot some skies and found the peaking function more than up to the task; ND is prompted on the LCD screen and switchable in 3 stages – off, 1/64 and 1/8; and later, I played with the 6 assignable and customisable picture profiles, offering plenty of pre-set personal choices for setups, including the Gamma curve so you can achieve the filmic look of your choice. Which, even though this is not one of the en-vogue large sensor units proliferating the market just now, is a great feature. Which leads me on to another great feature, the Aspect Mask – available on both the LCD and Viewfinder, where you can select the safety area for the format you’re shooting in using the Aspect Marker – and then using the Mask you can reduce the brightness of areas outside the marker – in bright conditions this is a real comfort feature, and I can imagine it would be hugely useful in a ‘run-and-gun’ situation. And one other thing I really liked is the ‘Quick Rec’ function, which allows you to accelerate the power on function by depressing the ‘rec’ button whilst powering on. Together with 15 seconds of cache recording available you are fairly bulletproof in the ‘not missing a shot’ category!

Transferring files to my Mac was simplicity itself via the USB cable and XDCAM transfer – I didn’t use it but there is the opportunity to preload Metadata via a USB stick or direct from the SxS card, the metadata being recordedas described in the XML file whilst recording. It seems in terms of workflow, the 200 is well sorted. I dropped the shots into Final Cut Pro, and – rather as I had expected – the shots looked really sweet. Nice colour, no sign of aliasing or artifacts, and good contrast between the lights and darks. The expanded focus and peaking functions had conspired to provide pin sharp focus, and one thing I was really impressed with was the lens macro function – I had literally put the lens against foliage and berries and got some lovely shallow depth of field with BIG close ups, and a pin sharp focal point where I wanted it. The slow feature in playback is gorgeous too – smooth, sharp, and begging to be used creatively – which of course I was entirely unable to do!!

So in summary, it’s really a no-brainer. Sony did good. They learned from the long-popular EX1, they listened to users on the single ring lens issue, they thought long and hard about ergonomics, they packed in everything you’re likely to need and they turned out a camcorder that feels somehow bigger, somehow higher-end than it truly is. I n corporate-speak the PMW 200 punches well above it’s weight – and I for one would be very happy to have one on location. And as the sun dipped low in the sky over deepest Essex, I fired off a few shots and it occurred to me that here was a camera outstanding in its field.

Literally.

Read an extended version of Badger’s review of the Sony PMW-200 in the Iris magazine, 3rd issue of 2012.  Back issues of the Iris are available to read online at www.theirismag.com/irisonline.

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