Sony MHS-PM1 Webbie HD Camera Review

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Pros: Swivel lens allows for a wide array of shooting angles; Fun, lightweight design with three color options; Sharp 1440 x 1080 video

Cons: Jerky zoom; Blurry still photos; Lacks flip-out USB connector or HDMI output; No editing tools software

Verdict: Not just a me-too device, Sony's first affordable pocket camcorder boasts an innovative swivel lens and shoots 1080i video.

When Sony starts selling sub-$200 pocket camcorders, you know the category is here to stay. The company's $169 MHS-PM1 Webbie HD Camera is one of a kind, thanks to its swivel lens. Unlike most competitors in its price range, this pocket cam shoots 1080i video (as opposed to 720p). If you can live without an HDMI output--and you don't mind its jerky zoom lens--the Webbie HD is a good alternative to the Pure Digital Flip UltraHD.

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Design

At first glance, the PM1 looks like another Flip copycat: the 0.9-inch slab of plastic has a 1.8-inch screen with movie, photo, and playback buttons beneath it, as well as a zoom rocker, and a navigational joystick. The PM1 also has the most distinctive feature we've seen on any pocket camcorder: a swivel lens built into the top of the camera that rotates 270 degrees. (Sony also sells the $199 MHS-CM1, which is shaped like a traditional camcorder.) The swivel's finger grooves make it easy to change the vantage point with just one hand. Rotate the lens from its resting position to power on the camcorder; swivel it back to shut it down.

Although typical in size for a pocket camcorder, the 1.8-inch screen was, at times, difficult to see when we shot video in direct sunlight. The brushed metal panels on both sides, however, give this camcorder a higher-quality look than its all-plastic competitors. Ours was orange; the Webbie HD also comes in eggplant and silver. At 4.2 ounces, it felt good in our hands compared to the lighter yet bulkier 3.2-ounceFlip UltraHD.

User Interface

Unlike the Flip series (andKodak's Zi6), the PM1 doesn't have a flip-out USB connector. Instead, it has a USB 2.0 port on the left side, along with ports for A/V and power cables; and we're disappointed that Sony omitted an HDMI output.

On the right side are delete and menu buttons, as well as a dedicated power button. Sony made the design simple by hiding the menu button (which controls only exposure and camcorder settings) on the side. Placing the delete button on the front face would have been convenient, though.

On the bottom, the door that contains the battery also has a slot for a Memory Stick Pro Duo Card, Sony's proprietary format. It's less convenient than Kodak's camcorders, which accept the more universal SD Card format; Pure Digital, meanwhile, has no memory card slots in its camcorders.

Although the joystick might be too small for some fingers, the interface was easy to master. You press the photo to snap a picture or the movie button or begin recording video; as with other camcorders, you stop recording by pressing the record button again.

Image Quality

Our 1440 x 1080 video looked sharp, which isn't surprising, given that most other HD pocket camcorders shoot at a lower 720p (1280 x 720) resolution. Particularly, thanks to the 4X digital zoom, we could home in on such details as the engravings on a stone fountain. The camcorder faltered, however, in fast-moving scenes; our footage of moving cars and a carousel showed some motion blur. For slower-moving scenes, though, it worked well.

The best part of shooting with the PM1 was its swivel lens and digital zoom. Standing still, we used one finger to rotate the lens, so that we started off shooting a video of ourselves, then the sky, and, finally, the park in front of us. Getting that much versatility, particularly while standing still, made shooting more interesting--not to mention more fun.

Digital Zoom

Even with its modest 4X digital zoom, we filled the frame with several floors of an office building on the opposite end of the park. Unfortunately, though, the zoom lurched as we zoomed in and out. The Flip UltraHD had a much smoother (albeit, 2X) zoom in our hands-on tests.

Still Photos

If you're thinking of using the PM1 to replace your digital camera, think again. Don't be fooled by the 5-megapixel resolution: our shots were nothing to write home about. Even when we stood still, photos weren't as sharp as the 3-MP shots we took with the Kodak Zx1. Both the quality and limited user experience felt like taking photos with a typical cell phone camera.

On-Board Software

The Webbie HD comes preloaded with Sony's Picture Motion Browser (PMB) Portable software, which is compatible with both Macs and PCs. From the main console, you can drag and drop thumbnails into an uploader that sends videos and photos to YouTube, Crackle, Dailymotion, Flickr, Photobucket, Picasa, and Shutterfly. Also, you can customize the interface to remove services you don't use.

As easy as the interface is, though, it loses points because it doesn't include any editing tools. Both Pure Digital and Kodak's software allow you to trim clips at either end, as well as add music and credits.

Battery Life and Warranty

The PM1 has a rated battery life of 1.7 hours. Whereas the Kodak Zi6 and Zx1's battery-life reading started to drop after shooting just a few clips, the PM1's battery icon stayed full after a similar amount of shooting. (We'll update this review with fuller battery-life results.) It has a one-year limited parts-and-labor warranty.

The Verdict

We've been eagerly awaiting Sony's first sub-$200 pocket camcorder, and the $169 MHS-PM1 Webbie HD sets itself apart from the competition with a higher resolution (1440 x 1080 to the competition's 720p), a swiveling lens, and a lightweight, colorful design. On the other hand, its zoom isn't the smoothest, and Sony doesn't include a memory card--the cost of which brings this device on a par with the $199 Flip UltraHD. Although we prefer Pure Digital's pocket camcorder for its smarter software and HDMI output, Sony's Webbie HD captures sharp-looking video and looks good doing it.

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Size 4 x 2.3 x 0.9 inches
Weight 4.2 ounces
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