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As you probably know, HD DSLRs have been receiving a lot of attention from both low-budget and professional filmmakers, who are buying the compact, inexpensive cameras to shoot their projects. But with 35mm-like, shallow depth of field and low-light shooting ability come a different set of problems, including inadequate onboard audio, a lack of long, continuous shooting, difficulty in achieving critical focus and a handheld form factor.

This year, Sony has released a new tapeless HD video camera, the HXR-NX5U (aka NXCAM), which could help quiet the HD DSLR hype. The HXR-NX5U is Sony’s first product in its NXCAM tapeless memory lineup, and its origins are a result of the industry’s move toward file-based acquisition and the MPEG-4 format. For indie shooters, the NX5U is a great fit for narrative films, but you’ll also have the flexibility to work on projects such as documentaries or single-camera events that require long, continuous shots. (Most HD DSLRs have a limit on the length of a shot due to sensor heat.)

The last Sony compact camcorder HDVideoPro covered was our profile of the Sony HVR-Z5U (see “Hybrid Capture” in the April 2009 issue), a camcorder containing a cutting-edge hybrid recording system that records to HDV tape and/or a memory recording unit. At first glance, the NX5U looks like the Z5U’s younger brother, since they share a similar body style and contain the same sensor, lens, top-mounted LCD panel and controls. On closer observation, however, there are some major differences.

The Body

Perhaps the first thing you’ll notice when you look at the NX5U is the removal of the tape drive. But before you go out and sell your Z5U or Z7U HDV camcorders, the NX5U and the future line of NXCAM products aren’t replacements for HDV. (Sony intends to have the NX5U shoot alongside its HDV and XDCAM EX formats.) The NX5U uses AVCHD, which is an MPEG-4/H.264 codec. The main advantage of AVCHD over HDV is its full-raster, 1920×1080, square-pixel resolution rather than HDV’s 1440×1080 rectangular pixels. Sony has waited some time to bring an MPEG-4 professional camera to the market due to postproduction issues. But this year, many NLEs, such as Avid Media Composer 5, Adobe Photoshop CS5 and Sony Vegas, are allowing users to work with the AVCHD format natively. Only with Apple’s Final Cut Pro will you still need to transcode the MPEG-4/H.264 files to a more stable codec such as their proprietary ProRes 422.

In terms of image quality, the NX5U is similar to the Z5U since they both share the same three 1?3-inch Exmor CMOS sensor system. The system’s ClearVid Array delivers great results because the Exmor system has a larger 4×4 pixel size than most image sensors in the category. In terms of comparison, the NX5U can deliver finer detail due to its higher resolution than the Z5U. Although the sensors are the same, the NX5U houses a new encoder that’s optimized to produce high image fidelity and can adapt to changing conditions. If you turn the gain up, for example, the new encoder changes its optimization for the best quality based on added noise due to lower light.

Sony has implemented a new tapeless recording system that includes dual memory slots or its new 128 GB flash memory drive, the HXR-FMU128 (sold separately). Both not only can record HD video at 1080i, 1080p or 720p AVCHD, but also can capture standard-def footage simultaneously. For a 32 GB mem-ory card recording in FX mode (24 Mb/s)—the highest bit rate for the NX5U—you can capture almost three hours of high-quality HD. (For the HXR-FMU128, you can record up to 11 hours in FX mode.) One great feature is the inclusion of SD media. Sony is known for using only proprietary recording media, and although the company promotes using its Memory Stick Pro Duo media, you also can use SD/SDHC cards. Although SanDisk offers its own Memory Stick Pro Duo card, SDHC cards are more readily available from more manufacturers, which is a major plus for users who already own digital still cameras, which primarily use SD cards. For digital output, the NX5U has full SMPTE 292M, full-bandwidth HD-SDI output, as well as HDMI and USB output. SMPTE is both I/O selectable via a switch.