Review: Sony AX100 4K Handycam

Akihabara News (Tokyo) — It was good while it lasted. We had the need for an extra camera to shoot an event last December, so we asked Sony if they would be able to throw us a bone. We got their FDR-AX100 Handycam. While nearing a year on the market, it was still the only thing that could do what it did, with the possible exception of Panasonic’s recently released DMC-LX100.

Since then however, Sony has announced the AX100’s replacement, the FDR-AX33, which, on paper at least, has addressed all the AX100’s flaws and added or improved on a number of key features. Provided that it’s as good a video shooter as its predecessor, I can say, quite simply, that If you want a 4K camcorder, don’t buy the AX100, get the new and improved AX33.

And that would be that, except that I did spend near on two weeks with the AX100, shot a bunch of stuff and had planned to say a few things about it, before the AX33 pulled the rug from under my feet… So here is the gist of it.

The FDR-AX100 was the first consumer (provided those consumers were well off) camcorder that squeezed both a 1-inch Exmor R CMOS sensor (same one as the RX100) and the ability to shoot 4K Ultra HD 3840×2160 video into a compact-ish body. Photons are fed to that sensor via a purpose-built Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar T, 12x zoom-capable lens. It features an aperture range of f2.8 through 4.3 across the zoom range and the rather hardcore sounding Bionz X processing engine. Video files are encoded at a respectable 50mb/s, in Sony’s XAVC-S codec, which is a derivative of their professional video codec. It also has some nice pro-looking features like focus peaking, zebras, and the built in ND filter.

The AX100 gives shooters the ability to manually control many aspects of the shooting process such as aperture, exposure, shutter speed, and focus. It was Sony’s flagship Handycam and as such also came in at a whopping flagship price of around ¥200,000 (about $2,000 at release). Being the madly capable camera that it is, however, it appealed to more than just one-percenters who wanted to take holiday photos of their brats. Many professional videographers bought it as a light b-roll shooter. And to cater to them, Sony also makes a professional version of the AX100 called the PXW-X70 which comes with better ergonomics, XLR audio connections, and an ¥80,000 (about $800 at release) price hike.

As one would expect from any Sony consumer electronics product, build quality is solid, and it feels very high end. Physical controls and buttons are generally easy to press and give enough sensation to let you realize that they have been pressed. The hand grip feels good and was comfortable even for extended periods of use. The record button fell under my thumb easily, and the still photo release and zoom rocker were easily operated by my index and middle fingers.

Most of the other buttons are easily accessible and have decent feedback. The only button that is a bit hard to hit, because of its position on the wrong side of the camera, was the focus magnifier, which was quite annoying. Autofocus works, but it’s rather slow compared to ILCs like the Panasonic GH4 and Sony A7S.

The focus/zoom ring works well enough, but it’s not an actual, physical control. It electronically adjusts the focus, and as a result its not easy to accurately hit focus points, though its useful for video where nailing perfect focus is not essential. Focus peaking is very useful in improving your manual focus accuracy, but even then but you won’t want to use it for pinpoint focus pulls.

The electronic viewfinder is extremely bright and useful, especially at longer zoom lengths, and is essential if you are shooting with manual focus, both for the added stability and for the better ability to see focus peak points.

I was very pleasantly surprised to see the AX100 actually sporting a touchscreen, especially when cameras released after it at similar price points did not. Another shock was how easy the interface is to navigate, which is something that Sony is not well known for. But not so with the AX100. Getting through the menus and customizing some of the more esoteric features was, thanks to the touch screen and interface design, a shockingly, un-Sony-like pleasure for me.

Did it work? It’s a Sony! They make some of the best professional cinema and video cameras on this good, green, rapidly warming planet. So, extracting impressive 4K video from the Exmor R CMOS sensor was never going to be an issue.

It does have its limits though, because in perfecting video, the impressive stills quality produced by the very same sensor in the RX100 was lost. It takes better pictures than a smartphone, but with the video-like autofocus and overall quality, it’s never going to be a true hybrid imaging device.

The active steadyshot image stabilization does a good enough job. The HD video image is sharp, the 4K image is sharper thanks to the XAVC-S codec, and colors are decently reproduced (there are also some interesting color profile options which I didn’t use because I’m not a hipster).

There is no S-Log or similarly flat, pro-looking color profile, but it would be wasted on this camera. The footage does suffer from some pronounced rolling shutter, especially when shooting handheld at zoom or moving the camera fast (two things that consumers do with their camcorders).

Once the 4K files were off the card and into a machine, I did have some trouble with editing. The 1080p cut together easily enough, but my MacBook Pro (hardly an editing rig, I know) choked and died a few times while wrangling the 4K footage in Adobe Premiere. Not the camera’s problem at all, but before you go out and buy an expensive 4K camera, make sure you can afford a machine to edit it without issues.

The AX100 struggles in low light, but that’s to be expected from a 1-incher. In a city like Tokyo, however, “low light” is relative, so it didn’t bother me too much. It is a good deal better than just about every other consumer camcorder on the market and it’s not all that bad when the sun goes down. As a consumer camcorder, its automatic set-and-forget mode is good enough for anything you need to do. For users who want to experiment more, focus peaking is a must. It’s hard to gauge how fast the focus shifts in relation to your hands, so something visual is needed to ensure you don’t overshoot.

The other manual controls are easily adjustable by pressing the appropriate button and turning the control wheel to set your desired value. However, you can’t manually set all the values. When you change one, the others default to auto, which was more than a little vexing. At the price, and as it is simply a software restriction, it would be nice to allow full-manual. Who knows, maybe the AX33 does and therefore in a future firmware update, it will come to the AX100 as well.

All this doesn’t really matter, however, because the new AX33 is coming in at half the price with drastically improved image stabilization, double the bit rate, and a smaller package. It promises to do everything the AX100 did well and then some.

The AX100 had a great run. Anyone who bought it got an excellent piece of kit which will take care of their needs for a while yet. Provided you didn’t buy it last month, you shouldn’t feel bad that it’s already been replaced. You also don’t need to go out and buy the AX33 because Sony promises to provide AX100 users the 100mb/s XAVC-S codec in a firmware upgrade soon. If you haven’t bought it and were contemplating it, don’t. Get the AX33, a Handycam developed on the lessons Sony learnt from the AX100 – which means it will be a full generation ahead of its competition.

(Reviewed by Nayalan Moodley)

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