The flashy, well-priced Sony Webbie HD MHS-PM1 doesn’t deliver outstanding video quality, but it does offer great features and versatility for a high-def pocket camcorder.
As you may have noticed, high-definition pocket camcorders are growing up fast. Pure Digital’s popular Flip line of camcorders (which includes the standard-definition Flip Mino and the high-def Flip MinoHD) has scored well in the market, so it isn’t surprising that the past year has seen big-name companies such as Kodak, Creative, and RCA entering the pocket-camcorder ring as well.
Add another big name to the mix: Sony. The company recently announced two pocket-camcorder models as part of its 2009 lineup, both of them members of the company’s Webbie HD series.
The most recent addition to the line–the Sony Webbie HD MHS-PM1–resembles the Creative Vado HD and the Pure Digital Flip MinoHD. But don’t let its basic looks and controls fool you: For a pocket camcorder, the MHS-PM1 is loaded with features and produces decent video quality.
The $170 MHS-PM1 may be the most capable pocket camcorder on the market (aside from the slightly larger Sony Webbie HD MHS-CM1, which adds a 5X optical zoom lens for $30 more). In short, the PM1’s feature set is head and shoulders above the competition, especially when you consider that camcorders such as the Flip MinoHD and the Creative Vado HD cost $60 more.
Several features help the Webbie HD MHS-PM1 stand out from the pack, starting with its inclusion of five different shooting modes–far more than on any other pocket camcorder we’ve seen. In addition, it shoots decent 5-megapixel stills (complete with a self-timer setting and a histogram), and it’s the first pocket camcorder to offer 1080p recording (in MPEG-4 format with the H.264 codec). The MHS-PM1 comes in a range of color options (purple, orange, and silver), and it offers a nifty swiveling lens that makes filming yourself easy (great for narcissists).
The Webbie HD’s standard features stand up well against the competition, too: convenient uploads to YouTube and sharing sites via USB cable, a 2X digital zoom (you’ll rarely feel tempted to use this, however, because it’s choppy–just like the digital zoom on every other pocket camcorder we’ve looked at), a rechargeable lithium ion battery, a tripod mount, and a teen-friendly design that you’ll either love or hate.
The Sony Webbie HD MHS-PM1 does have a few shortcomings, though none of them are deal-breakers at its $170 price.
First of all, the unit’s video quality, while decent, doesn’t equal that of other pocket camcorders. On the other hand, the Backlight, Low-Light, and Auto modes on the Webbie HD–features that no other pocket camcorder has–may cancel that factor out.
Second, unlike the Flip Mino HD, the Creative Vado HD, and the Kodak Zi6, the MHS-PM1 lacks an integrated USB connector. As a result, you have to connect the Webbie HD with the included USB cable to upload clips and offload them to your computer. What’s more, you must remove the battery in order to charge it, and there’s no onboard storage (footage is stored instead to Sony’s proprietary MemoryStick card, which you have to buy separately).
And finally, the four-way navigation joystick on the back of the device may be too small for some people to use comfortably. This device is definitely geared toward teenagers and even preteens, judging from its control sizes, color schemes, and plasticky build. Durability may be an issue.
For this review, I pitted the Sony Webbie HD MHS-PM1 against our current pocket camcorder video-quality champion–the stellar $230 Creative Vado HD–in a series of informal video tests. I then uploaded the clips to YouTube, which also happens to be the way most users of both camcorders will share clips.
Here are the results of my tests. I shot the first footage in indoor lighting while walking around the offices of PC World. In the first test shot below, the Webbie HD was recording in Auto mode at 720p (a 19MB MPEG-4 file), and the Creative Vado HD was set to its middle-quality high-def mode (a 20MB .AVI file).
Click the HD button at the bottom right of each video to see the better representation of the source file.
The Webbie HD’s footage looks a bit more muted than the Vado HD’s, and it is noticeably less smooth. The source video file for the Webbie HD wasn’t as choppy as the footage you see in these YouTube clips, but it was choppier than the video from the Vado HD. The Vado HD has a wider-angle lens than any other pocket camcorder we’ve tested, and the effect of that feature is evident in all the footage.
I took the second test shot outdoors in natural sunlight, with the Sony Webbie HD MHS-PM1 set to 1080p and the Vado HD set at its highest video-quality setting. Again, the Vado HD produced the crisper, smoother footage.
I recorded the third test shot indoors, panning upward to shoot out a window in daylight to get a feel for the Webbie HD’s backlight adjustments in Auto mode. It worked well, but the Vado HD also adjusted to the lighting changes effectively.
All in all, the Creative Vado HD remains the pocket camcorder with the best video quality we’ve seen, but the Webbie HD MHS-PM1 performed in line with some other pocket camcorders. The Flip Mino HD offers smoother, more cinematic video that has a yellow tint. The Kodak Zi6 offers vivid colors that can look blown out, and video sometimes looks choppy, too. The Sony Webbie HD MHS-PM1’s footage looks better in sunlight than it does indoors, and both are slightly choppy at times–but that’s not a huge sacrifice for clips that will end up on YouTube.
Besides the YouTube option, you can view your footage directly from the Webbie HD in other ways. Flipping up a cover on the side reveals the USB port, a component A/V port for connecting the camcorder to an HDTV (you can switch between NTSC and PAL output in the camera’s menus, as well), and a DC power port.
As you might expect, operating the camera is dead-simple. Rotating the 270-degree swivel lens powers the camcorder on; you’ll find a dedicated power button on the side, as well. Metal buttons for accessing the menu and camcorder settings sit beneath the power button on the side.
The 1.8-inch LCD screen on the back of the Webbie HD looks great, but as happens with a lot of pocket camcorders, your footage looks much better on the screen than it does when it’s on your computer or on YouTube. The LCD is larger than the Flip Mino HD’s 1.5-inch screen, a bit smaller than the Vado HD’s 2-inch screen, and much smaller than the Kodak Zi6’s 2.4-inch screen.
Right under the LCD screen is a toggle switch for the digital zoom, along with dedicated buttons for starting and stopping recording video or snapping a still shot. Under that is the four-way directional mini-joystick for navigating on-screen menus, plus a playback button and a button that launches the photo- and video-sharing software (when the camcorder is connected to a computer).
Apple fans won’t be pleased that the included Picture Motion Browser software–installed via CD–is an XP- and Vista-only app, incompatible with Mac OS X. You can, however, drag and drop video and image files from the Webbie HD to a Mac, and the MPEG-4 format is QuickTime-friendly.
The Sony Webbie HD MHS-PM1 may not have the best image quality in the realm of pocket camcorders, but it’s certainly the most versatile unit. If you’re willing to forfeit a bit of video quality for a lower price, a great set of features, more control over your footage, decent still-photo quality, and fashionable looks, this is the best option out there right now.