A DCR-TRV20 Hands On Report

by Paul Tauger (tauger.paul at usa net)
posted to rec.video on Sun, 7 Jan 2001
(reprinted by permission)

Just back from vacation and 3 weeks of extensive use of our brand-new TRV-20. There has been a lot of misinformation posted about this machine, so I thought I'd provide my observations.

First, the TRV20 was purchased to replace my venerable and well-used TR-600, an excellent higher-end consumer Hi-8 'corder that produced excellent results, but was a little too big and heavy for our vacation use. My goal for my vacation videos is to produce something that looks like a travelogue -- I edit, mix and title my videos (though only my wife, our parents and friends foolish enough to express an interest are subjected to the end results). I purchased the TRV-20 as an alternative to the TRV900, which was simply too big and too heavy.

Generally: The TRV-20 produces clean, clear, detailed images with, what appears to my eyes, much better resolution than the TR-600 Hi-8. Colors are saturated and natural. I simply do not understand the basis for those who have claimed that miniDV imaging is inferior to Hi-8; that certainly isn't true in my experience.

I did notice some "stairstep" digital artifacting under some conditions, though I haven't determined whether this is inherent in the image or a fault of my RP television (which shows this effect on some broadcast images as well).

The 'corder has a lot of intelligence built in. It accurately monitors battery life, remaining tape, etc. It can find the last frame shot, which is very useful -- you can view your days shooting and then let them camera find the end so that you can resume without a blank spot and without over-shooting your last scene.

Low light performance: The short version is, the TRV20 provides BETTER lowlight performance than the TR-600. Like the 600, the 20 has a "programmed exposure" mode for "low light." However, the similarity ends with the name. Under lowlight conditions, the 600 was useless in standard mode -- grainy, noisy video, with washed out colors. The lowlight mode in the 600 boosted the video gain, eliminated the noise, corrected the color and provided a very nice, but slightly unnatural, picture. In lowlight conditions, the TRV20 automatically provides these adjustments, i.e. it is not necessary to do anything to produce very nice and acceptable lowlight video. I successfully shot inside buildings and under street lights doing nothing more than pointing the TRV20 where I wanted. As I've noted in earlier posts, the TRV-20 produces some chroma noise in lowlight situations, whereas the 3 chippers, such as the TRV900 do not, but the chroma noise is no worse than that I got with the TR600 and wouldn't be noticed by most users.

"Lowlight" mode on the TRV20 drops the shutter speed to 1/4 of a second, which produces a "motion blur" effect that, in my opinion, is all but useless. There is a second programmed exposure mode called, I think, "night," that maintains a more natural range when shooting, e.g., illuminated buildings and fireworks. It seems to work well, though I detected a slight flicker -- I haven't determined yet whether it is my monitor, the 'corder, or my imagination.

The TRV-20 has very capable auto-white balancing capabilities. It could even handle such challenging situations as panning from a daylight view of the outside through a window to the interior of an artificially (and warmly) lit room -- within a second or so of the pan, the 'corder would automatically adjust the white balance to compensate for radically different color temperature. For the non-technically minded, this simply means that outdoor scenes don't look blue and interiors don't look yellow.

Autofocus: The autofocus on the TRV-20 is MUCH better than on the TR-600. The 20 didn't exhibit annoying "hunting" like the 600 under low light conditions, and in better illumination, it was rapid and solid as a rock.

Nightshot: When I bought the camera, I thought this was simply a gimmick. However, I found that I did use it, and was able to get shots that would otherwise have been impossible. Specifically, I was in the catacombs in Paris which are a dark and spooky place, and, for the most part, too poorly lit for a standard camcorder. There was simply not enough light for the TRV-20 to produce an acceptable image, so I turned on nightshot. I was rewarded with a bright, though somewhat greenish, image. I used the menu functions to set the camera to black and white imaging, and found that the 'corder produced a nice, clean image under virtually impossible conditions. The TRV-20 can also provide an infrared light source (it's default setting is on, but I had turned it off before the trip). I turned the light source back on and found that the camcorder could actually "see" where I couldn't -- the effect looked like a flashlight was illuminating the scene. I was able to poke into pitch black corners and niches and produce a nice, clean image. My travels have taken me to other equally dark, poorly lit places, and now I wish I had had my TRV-20 with me so that I could have recorded my explorations.

Steadyshot: Excellent on the TRV-20, with one noteable exception. When using the digital zoom (the 20 can be set to transition from optical 10x zoom to 20x or 120x digital zoom), steadyshot didn't seem to work (or work correctly). The problem happened only in the digital zoom range.

Steadyshot is also problematic in "slow shutter" mode, a setting which lets the user manually adjust the 'corder shutter speed between 1/4 and 1/30th of a second. I recommend shutting off the steadyshot feature when using slowshutter. Incidently, I found that setting slowshutter to 1/30th of a second and leaving steadyshot on produced a fairly convincing filmlike effect. Lens: The TRV-20 has Zeiss optics which would seem to account for the extremely sharp image. However, like all camcorders, the wide angle setting simply isn't wide enough for what I like to do which, among other things, involves approximating the field of view of the human eye. The TR600 and TRV-20 both use 37mm accessories, so I simply popped on the wideangle lens I used with the 600. The results were excellent.

One caution: the TRV-20 lens seems more prone to internal reflections than the 600. The instruction manual for the 20 recommends using the supplied lens hood in bright conditions. I didn't bother with a hood, as I don't mind the reflections (the effect can be nice).

The zoom control on the TRV-20 is a little touchy. Unlike the TR-600, which offered only two zooming speeds -- slow and slower, the TRV-20 is variable from a virtual crawl to an extremely fast "jump zoom" which can produce a nice effect when used with discretion. The zoom is controlled by a push lever --- the amount of pressure controls the speed of the zoom. When I first started using the 'corder, I had trouble moderating the zoom speed -- either the lens wouldn't zoom or it would "shock jump." By the end of the trip, I could play the zoom like an instrument, starting slow, speeding up, doing whatever I wanted.

One minor dislike: the TRV-20 comes with a lenscap, which hangs from the handle by a string when not in use (the 600 had an internal cap that opened when the camera turned on, though this resulted in other problems, such as the cap not opening completely). Unless you're carefult, the TRV-20's cap will swing back and forth and tap against the camera body, resulting in an audible click each time it contacts the camera.

Battery life: One word -- extraordinary!! The TRV-20 uses Sony "Infolithium" batteries which are considerably smaller and lighter than the older nicads used on the TR600, and have internal electronics that allow the 'corder to accurately measure and display the remaining battery life. The supplied battery averages an hour (and can go nearly twice as long with careful husbanding). I bought the quickcharger accessory, which will bring the battery back to full charge in about an hour or so. This is a wonderful improvement over the 600, which could barely do 20 minutes with the supplied battery.

Audio: One of the strong features of the TR600 was its excellent audio -- the 'corder could capture, in hi-fi stereo, an extremely good approximation of what the human heard. The TRV-20 is just as good and, in some respects, better. It can record a single stereo channel at 16-bit (CD-quality) or two stereo channels at 12-bits (slightly under CD-quality). You probably won't be able to hear the difference between the two. Recording at 12-bits lets you dub a second audio track -- great for adding music, narration, etc. The TRV-20 has a built-in mixer that lets you adjust the balance between the two stereo tracks.

Like the 600, the TRV-20 accurately recorded church bells and live music, picked out voices from crowd noises, etc. Unlike the 600, the TRV-20 was not overwhelmed by wind noise. The 600 had a special setting for wind, which reduced the roar of wind somewhat. The 20 doesn't have (and doesn't need) a wind setting. When the wind is REALLY blowing, you can hear a slight rush, but nothing like the roar and rumble that the TR-600 would pick up.

As others have noted, the TRV-20 makes more camera noise when in operation than Hi-8 machines. Though, when playing with the camera at home in a dead-quiet room, I noticed on playback (by turning up the volume) that some machine noise was recorded , in actual use, I didn't notice any recorded noise, even when shooting in extremely quiet locales.

Size and balance: The TRV-20 is, of course, much smaller than its Hi-8 and Digital 8 counterparts. I found it almost too small in some respects -- the camera is turned on by depressing a release button and rotating a switch. This was a little challenging to do when wearing gloves, whereas I never had a problem with my old TR-600. Still, the lower weight and smaller size make it much easier to carry along. If the 'corder is lighter and easier to carry it's more likely you'll take it with you and capture those rare videos you bought the thing for in the first place.

Still imaging: I didn't buy the 'corder for its still imaging abilities, but did play with these features a littlle bit. The TRV-20 uses a small memory card called a "memory stick" which, depending on card size and image resolution can store between 6 and hundreds of images. I shot a couple of stills at 640 x 480 -- when displayed on my video (not computer) monitor, the pictures were sharp and clear. The 'corder can also produce still pictures on tape. It does this by capturing what appears to be a single a single field (not frame) and recording it to tape for 7 seconds. Because the capture is field and not frame, the still is not quite as sharp as full-motion . In my experience, the effect is similar to that produced by a Snappy -- presumably useable for some people, but of limited utility for me.

General impressions: Overall, I'm delighted with this machine. I am a little concerned with the stairstep artifacts which I noted earlier, but these are not so pronounced as to detract seriously from an otherwise pristine image. One thing that I'm absolutely thrilled with is the complete and utter absence of dropouts. The Hi8 TR-600 always had dropouts, visible as occasional white streaks. These were particuluarly noticeable when editting. In the 4 or 5 tapes I've shot to date on the TRV-20, I have noticed no dropouts whatsoever. I haven't editted anything yet, so I haven't had an opportunity to look at the video frame-by-frame, but in normal playback, it is as clean as anything I've seen.

The TRV-20 provides more control over its operation than the TR-600 it replaced. It's not a complicated camera, but it's worth taking the time to gain familiarity with its options and controls.

The TRV-20 also appears to be more rugged than the TR-600. It was COLD in Europe, and we were constantly going from the frigid cold outside into warm and humid buildings. This always presented a problem with the TR-600, which would pick up condensation because of the temperature changes, and shut down; there were 3 instances in which it needed to be repaired because of condensation problems. The TRV-20 handled the condensation challenge with aplomb -- though there was enough condensation to fog the wide angle accessory lens, the TRV-20 mechanism was never effected.

I'm very happy with my purchase. If you're considering a TRV-20, I hope this post is of some help.

Subject: Comparing TRV900, TRV20 and TRV11 (Lux ratings are meaningless...)
From: "Paul Tauger" (tauger.paulNO@SPAMusa.net)
Newsgroups: rec.video,rec.video.production
Date: Wed, 29 Nov 2000

I finally had a chance for a hands-on comparison of a Sony TRV-11, TRV-20 and TRV-900 in a low-light situation.

The comparison was made at J & R Music World in Manhattan, thanks to a patient and knowledgeable sales clerk (quick plug: my only relationship with J & R is that I've bought from them in the past and recommend them, particularly for reliable mail order). J & R's camcorders are displayed in a basement showroom which also features home theaters and televisions. The overall illumination is low, and there are corners that are actually quite dark -- an ideal location for testing low light capabilities. J & R also had a monitor available for displaying video from the camcorders -- a necessity for evaluating image, as no camcorders' built-in monitor or viewfinder offers sufficient resolution to effectively judge the resulting image.

Not surprisingly, the TRV-900 did the best, no chroma noise, clean, natural, well-saturated color.

What was surprising, however, was the difference in performance of the TRV-11 and TRV-20. Sony claims a minimum lux of 5 for the TRV-11 and 7 for the TRV-20 (the TRV-900 lists a minimum lux of 4).

However, despite the lower lux number for the TRV-11, the TRV-20 clearly performed better in low light. Both the -11 and the -20 exhibited some chroma noise that wasn't present in the TRV-900. There was enough noise to disqualify either camera from professional applications, but not from most amateur uses, e.g. vacation footage, etc.

However, the -11 displayed markedly poorer contrast and an overall warmish, almost orange, cast as compared with the TRV-20. The image looked gritty and unnatural.

So . . . based on this comparison, I do not agree with everyone who has posted claiming that the -11 and the -20 are essentially the same camera, except for the -20's higher-resolution still-imaging capabilities. Based on my comparison, the -20 gives a crisper, truer-color image in low light.

Incidently, I also compared a ZR10 and found, frankly, no comparison. This camera produced so much noise in low light as to be virtually unusable.

Though I'd love a TRV-900 for it's superior image, I've decided to go with the TRV-20, for its small size and light weight (I'm want a good camera to take on our travels), whose performance contradicts its relatively high lux rating, and which was demonstrably superior to the TRV-11.

Subject: Trying out the TRV900 and TRV20
From: jbal at my-deja.com
Newsgroups: rec.video.desktop
Date: Sat, 27 Jan 2001
Had my selection down to the TRV900 or the TRV20. Was leaning toward the 900 because of what I had read and spending time on the wonderful site by Mr Beale. Found a camera shop that had the 900 & 20 in stock. Bought a mini DV tape and off we went. Put the tape in the 900 and shot some footage inside and out. Nice sunny day. Took the tape and put it in the 20 and shot the same scenes. Hooked up the cable and pluged into one of their TV's. They sell TV's too. We watched it over and over. Sorry but no one could tell any difference. Even the store clerk said he didn't see any difference. The colors were just beautiful on both cams and looked the same. A few people stopped and watched with us and we couldn't see the difference in these 2 cams. I was kinda disapointed because I wanted the 900 to be clearly better. None of us are serious video buffs so we didn't know what to look for in tech terms. Just watched the comparison many times and they look the same. Money was not an issue as the price was $1250 (20) and $1850 (900). Liked the tape loading on the 900 much better. Like the size of the 20. The megapixel still feature was not that important as viewing will be done on computer. The nightshot, well don't know if that would be of any use. Both cams were in regular auto mode. We played the tape on a digital TV and a regular TV, no difference. Have read reviews where the 900 was compared to the 20 and said to be dramaticly different and that was what I was hoping for. I thought maybe I did something wrong but the footage on both was so nice, colors so beautiful, it was really great. Anyway, we bought the 20 mainly due to size. Have played with the still feature and it is amazing, beautiful pictures.

Back to TRV900 page.