So far, Sony hasn’t done too well in the fast-growing cheap pocket camcorder space dominated by Flip Video, characterized by candy bar vertical camcorder designs and prices ranging from about $150-$250. After an initial flop with the poorly named NSC-GC1 Net-sharing cam a few years back, it redubbed its pocket camcorder line to the also poorly named “Webbie.” That move fell flat, and now it’s now moved on to the marginally less poorly named “Bloggie” and returned one of the models to the pistol-grip design of yesteryear, which remains popular with small, zooming camcorders from companies like Sanyo and Aiptek. Though redesigned from its predecessor, the Webbie HD MHS-CM1, the Bloggie HD MHS-CM5 offers a similar feature set: 1080p video capture, a 5x optical zoom lens, a large 2.5-inch swiveling LCD, and a rechargeable lithium ion battery that’s removable. It adds a mini HDMI connector and the capability to charge via the attached USB connector.
Weighing 6.9 ounces and measuring 4 inches high by 2.8 inches wide by 1.6 inches deep, this Sony will fit in big, loose pockets like a cargo pant pocket, but it’s more bag-friendly than pocket-friendly. Sony also makes the smaller MHS-PM5, which updates the PM1 we reviewed last year.
Both Bloggie camcorders record real 1,920×1,080-pixel resolution HD recorded as H.264-compressed MPEG-4, support SDHC and Memory Stick Duo cards, add a new 60fps 720p mode, and now can run the Picture Motion Browser Portable software on Macs.
Overall, we prefer the smaller designs of the Flip-style camcorders, but going bigger does have its advantages. First, there’s a significant difference between the digital zoom found in the Flip models and the 5x optical zoom found here. Digital zoom is basically useless because the picture degrades as you zoom. And while the CM5′s optical zoom isn’t stellar and the autofocus can be a little slow when you zoom, the image is relatively sharp. You must keep your hand ultrasteady at the higher zoom levels, however, or your video will appear very shaky.
This model can do one thing much better than the Flip Video camcorders: it can focus on objects as close as about 2 inches. Even the Kodak Zi8 can only get as close as about 6 inches in its macro mode. You can really get tight, almost macro-like shots of objects, which can be important for those who want to show close-up details of products–or people.
Interestingly, in the 1080 or 60 frames-per-second 720 capture settings you can’t engage Sony’s Steady Shot electronic image stabilization. It only becomes an option when shooting at 720p 30 frames per second or the lower resolution 640 x 480 mode. The video looked better without the EIS, though, less jittery and with fewer artifacts. For a rock solid image it obviously helps to use a monopod or tripod, and if you’re so inclined to use one, there is a threaded tripod mount on the bottom of the device.
Overall, we found the image quality to be decent, faring well compared to the “standard” set by the Flip Mino and Ultra HD. The color is extremely warm and oversaturated, but the video is sharp and the camcorder adjusts for exposure reasonably fast; the autofocus responds more slowly, though. Like most models, it chronically underexposes backlit subjects. There’s some noise and softness when you’re shooting in low light, and it looks like the CM5 occasionally drops the shutter speed until it adjusts, resulting in brief bouts of slow motion. But the video looks solid.
Navigating the CM5 is fairly straightforward, though novice shooters will have to read the brief start-up handout to get a full handle on the settings; Flip camcorders are easier to use, but they have almost no settings to fiddle with, which some people will prefer. To turn the camcorder on, you simply open the LCD. Pressing a menu button brings up options such as resolution, image stabilization, and face detection (which tells the camcorder to look for faces and focus on them). Switch to still-image capture (5 megapixels), and opt whether to turn on such features as face detection.
As noted, the CM5 uses a removable rechargeable lithium ion battery that Sony says delivers up to 105 minutes of recording time before needing a recharge. For more shooting flexibility, you can purchase additional NP-BK1 batteries. And while the CM5′s sound recording seemed better than average, you don’t get a mic input that would allow you to add an optional stereo mic like you can with the Kodak Zi8 and Creative Vado HD 3rd Generation.
It’s worth noting that the real benefit to shooting 1080p video is when it comes to scaling up your video on your computer screen or HDTV (via the HDMI out). While this HD video doesn’t measure up to the video you’d capture with a full-fledged HD camcorder, shooting in 1080p does allow you to play at larger sizes and retain a reasonable amount of detail and sharpness. (The same is true for 720p to a degree.) The only downside is that the file sizes are very large when capturing in 1080p, so it helps to have a higher capacity memory card. Sony says with an 8GB card you get about 80 minutes of video shooting in 1080/30fps, 160 minutes shooting 720/60fps, 240 minutes shooting 720/30fps, and 480 minutes shooting VGA/30fps.
One of the Flip’s key selling points has been how easy it is to get videos off the camera and distribute them. Sony’s made some improvements in this area, but we still feel pretty negative about the included Picture Motion Browser Portable 5.0 software. A basic version of the software in embedded on the device and runs from the device once you plug the CM5 into your Mac or Windows machine (there is a short, guided configuration). A slightly more full-featured version that you can install–Windows only–comes on a CD and adds the capability to trim clips and extract still frames. Both versions allow for one-touch uploads to YouTube, DailyMotion, Picasa, PhotoBucket, and Shutterfly, so long as you’ve stored your user name and password for each service. You can also e-mail clips to friends and family.
The software isn’t compatible with Windows 7 Starter Edition, 64-bit Windows 7, or OS X, though as always you can drag and drop the files and edit using another package, like iMovie. But you’ll likely get confused when you plug the camcorder into your system for file dragging. Because it’s got internal memory and virtually two card slots, it mounts rhree different drives onto your system, forcing you to click through each one looking for your files. Two of them have identical file structures–the SD card and Memory Stick–but if you, for example, recorded to SD the “drive” with the Memory Stick will simply look like it’s got empty directories. This isn’t a deal-killer–once you’ve figured it out it’s just an annoyance–but it’s not terribly user-friendly. It’s also annoying that you’ve got to keep the LCD flipped out to turn the camcorder on while connected to a system; not a huge deal if you use an extension cable and keep the camcorder on a desk, but with the camcorder directly plugged in and hanging off the USB port, it looks like an accident waiting to happen.
All in all, the whole sharing process is much more user-friendly when using the Flip Video camcorders, and for Sony to get to the next level in the pocket camera arena, it does need to spend a little time watching people use these things.
That said, the Bloggie CM5 is the first Sony mincamcorder we feel good enough about to recommend at this price point. Yes, it does have some shortcomings, and it isn’t as compact as something like the Flip Video Mino HD, Kodak Zi8, or Creative Vado HD. But the video quality is superior in some ways to what those models offer, the 5x optical zoom and close focus comes in handy, and the flexibility of removable memory and battery is important to some buyers.