One of the coolest little products I saw at CES was the Webbie HD camera from Sony. While I’m not a fan of the name (the manual calls it the Mobile HD Snap which is much better), this pocket sized tapeless cam shoots 30-frame HD video at either 720P or 1080P. It’s clearly targeted to those wanting to upload clips directly from the memory stick to YouTube. Even the name suggests that it captures web-quality video. But it DOES shoot in HD. So what’s the down side? Â What’s the quality really like?
First off, I had planned to shoot the unboxing of a Webbie HD WITH a Webbie HD, but it was too difficult a task to do by myself. Â Partially because the camera isÂ surprisingly difficult to handle, and partially because I only have 2 hands.Â There was also the issue of low light. I have the files if anyone’s interested but they’re hardly worth posting.
Overall, I love the IDEA of this camera. Â It is very small and lightweight and super affordable at $200 MSRP. Â A 90 min charge will give you 90 minutes of record time. Â It records low bandwidth MP4 video on memory sticks and you can store hours of footage on a stick. It’s also very mac compatible. Unlike the Sony HD-RTG1, these clips can be directly copied off the memory stick and played back in quicktime. It’s good to see Sony softening up to the mac a little more.
There is a lot to like about this camera. I think it’s perfect for the parent who wants to keep a tiny camera handy to film the kids, or for the student who wants to film friends and parties, or even for the starving artist film maker who can’t afford a more expensive camera. Â However, in only one day’s use of the camera I’ve already compiled a laundry list of shortcomings and complaints. I’ll cover these annoyances while I take you on a tour of the Webbie. As always, click on the photos to see a much larger version:
The Zoom and Photo buttons are on top of the unit, while the navigation rocker, playback button, and Movie record button are on the back. The rocker is dual purpose. It is used to navigate when in a menu, but otherwise provides alternative functions: display, macro, light, and a timer. Â The light button turns on a small white light on the front of the camera which does a decent job of adding some fill. Â It’s not going to light a distant subject in a dark room but does help illuminate someone closer up. It obviously comes at the cost of reduced battery life.
My beef here is with the placement of the movie record button. It’s primarily a video camera and is a still camera second. The position of the button assumes that the user is going to hold the camera a specific way – overhanded – where you hold the camera hight and your thumb would hits that button. Â It’s just not the way I hold a video camera. Â Especially one that doesn’t have a eye-viewfinder. Â These days I shoot underhanded with the camera lower, looking down on the LCD, so that my thumb rests on the top of the camera.
The LCD panel opens up in the traditional way and of course can be flipped around to film yourself. Â The lens appears to be more significant than in smaller point and shoots. Â And the microphone is in the front.
One negative thing I noticed, and you might be able to pick up on it as well if you download the samples, is that you can hear the inner workings of the camera being picked up on the mic. Things like motor noises during a zoom. Â The other thing is the the mic isn’t very good. Â For the money it’s easy to justify all of these shortcomings, but they are stillÂ importantÂ things to keep in mind.
Under the LCD panel are some buttons. These are fairly self explanitory. The negative on these is that they’re a little too recessed and therefore are difficult to push. You almost need to use a fingernail to get them to click.
On the opposite side is a small panel concealing the Audio/Video interface cable, a mini-USB, and a power jack. I gotta toss out a big “Thank you!” to Sony for using a normal mini-USB and not someÂ proprietaryÂ plug. There’s nothing worse than realizing that you don’t have that cable with you on a trip. There’s also a small speaker there. Â The only negative with this panel is that it pops open a little too easy. In someone’s purse it’s likely going to get lint and other stuff in the plugs.
Next, on the bottom is a small compartment for the memory stick. We’ve put in 16GB sticks and at 720P it offers an amazing 8 1/2 hours of record time or 6000 still photos. So even with a 4GB stick you’ll be looking at 2 hours of record time – which is longer than the battery will last.
Speaking of the battery, Sony went the Apple route with this product and hard wired the battery internal with no way for the consumer to swap it out. It puts this camera in theÂ categoryÂ of more of a ‘disposable’ item.
Finally, the lens cover is a tiny piece of plastic that will absolutely get lost. You can use the supplied piece of string toÂ tetherÂ it to the camera, but then you have aÂ danglingÂ lens cap. I wish they had built in a lens cover, but I suppose that is reserved for more expensive cameras. Â The photo below was taken with the camera with the light on. Click to see the full size 5MP image.
This concludes our tour of the hardware. Now lets talk more about the operation and examine the video quality.
Operation and Video Qualtiy
Which is better 720P or 1080P? I did a side by side test with one camera in 1080P mode and the other in 720P mode and found something interesting. Â 720P has a wider lens than 1080P, meaning that Sony is using a different portion of the sensor for each. Â Check out this sample. While it’s not that interesting of a shot, it shows the difference in the wide angle. The 1080P shot is zoomed in more, which is the opposite of what I expected.
The next thing to compare is the picture quality. The 1080P shot is 1440 x 1080 at around 6 Mbps VBR. The 720P shot is a full 1280 x 720 at around 4 Mbps VBR. Between those two bandwidths, the 720P gives you a slightly better byte/pixel. The 720P picture also looks better as well from a color response and exposure standpoint.
Here’s a pair of unedited source clips for download. These were shot side by side. The camera work is very shaky because I was holding and zooming two cameras at the same time. On the bright side, this does show how the camera handles shake. Left click the images below and download the samples (Download Linked file). The 720P sample is 18MB, the 1080P sample is 26MB. Â If I haven’t made it clear enough yet, I prefer this camera in 720P.
Makes you hungry for In-N-Out doesn’t it?
Focus, Color, Iris and White Balance
These are all set to auto all the time. Sony prosumer video cameras do a very good job in all of these areas when set to auto. This camera does not. The focus floats in and out before settling in on a clear shot. If there’s a lot of motion going on it’s worse. It’s also much worse in 1080P mode than 720P mode, which I believe you can see in the above samples.
Color seems to be washed out a bit, which I suppose is correctable in ‘post.’ Â White Balance is very off and unstable. Notice in the two shots above, captured at exactly the same moment, that one is more purple. Who knows what’s going on there.
The iris clicks in and out of different steps and isn’t smooth at all. Â Again check out the sample above to see these anomalies.
Zoom and Digital Zoom troubles
This model has a 5x optical zoom and a 20x digital zoom. We all know that digital zoom kills your video quality. But the oddity with this camera is that zooming in using the digital zoom is not smooth. It skips and stutters along once you get past the 5x optical. Â Here’s a sample of the digital zoom woes, shot at night. Â It’s about a 10 MB download:
This camera is what it is. You get what you pay for. Â It’s a low priced, low quality disposable HD camera. The video is highly compressed – but that’s a given. It is what the camera is about.
I want to say this: you can’t fault the camera for the compression part of the picture quality. 720P video compressed into 4Mbps isn’t going to look much better on any camera. Â But there are some elements of the poor picture quality that you CAN fault the camera. The always-automatic settings are slow, over responsive and skip around before settling. Â The focus, iris, color balance all are in constant flux. Â The image sensor is cheap and with any gain at all you can see all it’s defects. One night time shot revealed a burnt pixel, another showed vertical streaking – an indication of over-gaining a cheap image sensor.
But like I said, the camera is what it is. Don’t expect it to be more than a cheap camera to shoot web videos and family picnics.Â There are many things that I DO like about this camera… here they are in bulleted form:
- It’s very easy to use. There’s not many options so nothing to mess up. I feel like I could give this camera to my 3 year old and she’d be able to use it.
- It turns on when you open the LCD panel, turns off when you close it. Again, this makes it easy to use. When you need to get a quick shot it’s ready to go. Just open the LCD and hit record.
- The camera shoots video in 1080P, 720P and VGA 30P, and photos in 5M, 3:2, 3M, 2M, and VGA. I recommend leaving it in the factory setting of 720P and 5M.
- The light is handy and while not very bright does come in useful in some situations.
- Normal USB port! Â Thanks for that!
- Very compatible MP4 files. You can shoot and upload the clip directly to YouTube and it will stay HD on the web.
- Reasonable 5 megapixel resolution.
Considering that the camera is what it is, the main downsides are:
- No integrated lens cover. The plastic one will get lost.
- All the auto settings are in constant flux – iris, color and zoom never seem to settle.
- 1080P has major auto focus problems
- No flash on the still photos. The light helps but not for still photos.
- Bad position of the Movie record button.
Would I buy one? Â There is another model coming out in a few months, which is even less expensive. Â I think I might pick one of those up for my 3 year old. But for my general needs I’ve got my eye on some Canon cameras.