Review: Sanyo Xacti CA-100 Waterproof HD Video Camera [Guest Post]

by Guest Contributor: Mike Stead on 28th October 2010

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A few months ago I spotted a press release that Sanyo were launching the Xacti CA-100 – the ‘World’s first 1080p waterproof camcorder’, which got me immediately excited. Not wanting to accept a less-than-top-spec all-round video experience, we’ve put off purchasing a new camcorder to record our growing family until a beastie of this spec came along.

This would solve all our problems: small, light, great stills, great video, weatherproof enough to take to the beach/Scotland and not worry about it going ‘fut’.

One camera to rule them all.

With 720p video becoming the norm in Android devices, the iPhone 4 stepping into the HD video fray and Nokia / Sony Ericsson continuing their ongoing mega-pixel-waving war, where does this leave the poor stand-alone camcorder? Hanging by its fingertips, that’s where. DSLRs and ‘super-zoom’ pocket cameras now offer 1080p video through massive lenses and mobiles are leaping and charging down the imaging quality highway. These days camcorders must present a user experience and quality far beyond that of a mobile to justify any price-tag, let alone £350.

‘Good enough’ for YouTube is good enough for 99% of people.

Brickbats

Buttons.... Mmmmmm.... So many buttons.

Let’s get the unpleasantness over and done with first. No ‘unboxing’ walk-through or generic reviews, lets just get straight into the meat of the matter…

Physical

The four main buttons (photo,  video and zoom in/out) are not tactile – they’re ‘squishy’. You don’t feel a ‘click’ when pressing them half-way or fully down. This isn’t so critical for video, but for stills where a half-press sets focus it’s a major problem. The control panel menu buttons are tricky too, especially the flush 4-way touch-pad. It’s very small and completely impossible to use with gloves on.

It’s not going into your jeans pocket either. Well, not mine…

User Interface

The UI has major lag between button presses. There’s a 1 second shutter lag when pressing to take a still picture, then a 3 second cycle time. All-up it’s 5 seconds shot-to-shot or 8 seconds if using the flash. This might be fine for scenery but if you are trying to capture fast-moving children it’s a deal-breaker.

In sleep mode with the screen closed it takes 6 seconds to open, wake and take picture. From off, it’s 10 seconds to open, power on and take a photo. That’s an absolute eternity considering modern £100 cameras can take a snap in around 2 seconds from off.

Usability

The CA100 feels like it was rushed out with some major flaws. It doesn’t charge in ‘awake’ mode. That’s right – if it’s on, you can’t charge it – only when it’s off. So forget about leaving it running on a tripod to record an event like a school play or concert. The longest-possible record time I could get out of it was 53 minutes. Unbelievably there’s no ‘battery remaining’ icon when in standby or record mode, until less than 1/4 of the battery is remaining. The way Sanyo have calibrated the battery icon that 1/4 battery icon amounts to 3 minutes of recording time left. So you have no idea how much battery is remaining, until you only have 3 minutes. Crazily the battery icon is only visible in playback mode. When charging a completely flat battery, after 15 minutes charging time it showed full. The reality was that only 10 mins recording time was available – which makes sense – but still the charge icon should be much more accurate. The real charge time from flat is two hours.

The real-world recording time, data storage and battery life numbers are (Recording 720p@60fps onto an 8GB class 10 SD card):

After 21 mins – 1.9GB, battery still full in playback mode

After 40 mins – 3.7GB, half battery remaining in playback mode

After 50 mins – 4.6GB, 1/4 battery remaining – warning icon comes onscreen, “Low Battery Power” voice prompt

After 53 mins – 4.9GB, 1/4 battery remaining, warning icon same colour onscreen, stopped recording, “No Battery power”

SD cards

You must use a Class 10 SD card for Full 1080p HD video, and recording 1080p on anything less results in jerky video that skips every few seconds as the SD card’s buffer chokes on the hose pipe of 1080p bits the camera is trying to throw at it. Class 10 cards are the newest and most expensive, and very few consumers will own one. The CA-100 comes with no card bundled, so many users (like myself) will only discover this fact after shooting a cherished family moment then playing it back for relatives. Cue a lot of frustration and anguish as junior’s first steps appear like he’s breakdancing.

Shooting 720p@30fps was possible on the much more common class 4 card, but this is only apparent after much trial and error – annoying if you do already own a few SD cards.

Taking Photos

Despite Sanyo marketing the CA-100 as a ‘Dual Camera’, stills are very much the poor cousin to video. If you only want to take photos, you cannot leave it in ‘photo mode’ – it keeps reverting back to video, requiring a press of the ‘Photo’ button to activate still mode. More seconds added to the ‘honey take a picture quick’ time. When you do take a photo the camera doesn’t sense how it is oriented so images shot in portrait mode need manually re-orienting… another odd omission.

Video quality

A major issue for me with the CA-100 is video noise at low light levels. I’m not talking about at night, but in a well-lit room with curtains closed – like the majority of Europe lives half the year.

Videos shot in anything other than studio-bright conditions shows considerable ‘noise’ – the slightly speckly, hazy, dirty sheen over what should be crystal-clear images. Someone with dark hair or wearing a black outfit looks disconcertingly dusty. Given the 1080p claims of the device you’d expect razor-sharp definition, blacker-than-black images etc, especially when the video is supposed to be played back on displays bigger than the average 1970′s family car.

Bouquets

But it’s not all bad news by any means. The size/weight is quite OK for a jacket pocket. The CA-100 has a brilliant wide-angle lens, arguably best-in-class and critical for family shots or scenery. The ‘Dual-zoom’ function is very good, switching quickly between zoom ranges. Image stabilisation isn’t bad either. The fact that it charges via micro-USB is very handy – these days it’s getting hard not to have a micro-USB cable in-car, at your PC etc.

The Xacti has very solid build quality as befits a ruggedized outdoor camera. it survived a fall on concrete from 1.5m and still functioned correctly, which is as good an accidental test as I could think of after I stopped swearing.

The 16:9 mode for stills allows you to create some very appealing images, and in video there’s very good sound quality under windy conditions from the built-in stereo microphones.

Outdoors, in good light, on the correct class of SD card, the video quality is just outstanding.

Overall

If Sanyo’s market for the CA-100 is surfers or mountain-bikers as their Xacti events around the UK have targeted, it’s perfect. If you want to take something to the beach, out into the waves, skiing, jumping off a cliff, out of a plane or strapped to your BMX helmet, it’s probably the best consumer device out there, hands-down.

I wanted to love the CA-100, I really, truly did. But…and this is a big but…had I paid £350 (or even £280) its shortcomings would have seen me return it for a refund, given my target usage as an all-round family camcorder/digicam. The usability issues and video quality indoors mean that we’ll be sticking with our existing non-waterproof, unpocketable handycam / still cameras for some time yet. Or, much more likely, using a mobile.

If Sanyo can fix the squishy buttons, UI omissions, button-press lag issues and low-light video performance they can have my £350 tomorrow. Assuming a mobile manufacturer doesn’t bring out a Good Enough wide-angle lense in the meantime.

Update: I eventually purchased a Fuji Finepix HS10. It’s also a 1080p@60fps camera, however the low-light performance is miles better… and for £30 less than the Xacti. It’s a super-zoom format so isn’t ‘pocketable’, and also isn’t waterproof, but most people in my case would be better served overall by this and a decent mobile for pocketability/ruggedness.

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