An open letter to Juan Martinez, Sony Senior NXCAM Product Manager:
At the bottom of this letter are links to my YouTube videos demonstrating some of the problems with the NX70 that forced me to return my NX70 for a refund.
Mr. Martinez, I am 55 years old. Aside from a Minolta SRT-101 that was a gift from my father in high school, every camera I have ever owned has been a Sony: three different tape-based Handy Cams (the first one bought in 1988) , a DSC-P72, a DSC-H1, a DSC-H50, my beloved HDR-CX550V (if only the NX70 was as good!) and most recently the HXR-NX70U. I also own and use Sony Vegas Pro 9, 10 and 11. In short, I am a 100% devotee of Sony products - or was until the bitter disappointment that is the NX70.
I had had my eye on the NX70 since it was first rumored. I am not wealthy. I've been saving and scrimping and finally accumulated enough cash to buy the NX70. It seemed to have the perfect mix of features I wanted - GPS, still capability, XLR inputs, a 3.5mm stereo MIC input, water and dust resistance, Sony's legendary Active Steady Shot (which I love on my CX550V), the new AVCHD 2.0 modes such as PS 1920x1080 60p and 24p, audio level displays, a decent set of manual controls, a great viewfinder in addition to a 3.5" high-res LCD screen (I will not go smaller than 3.5" for any reason), Nightshot, compact, light-weight and decent, although not great, low-light capability. I was willing to overlook the lack of flash. I liked the idea of being able to use the same batteries and cards as the CX550V, and 96 GB of internal memory was also great.
As I researched the cam, some troubling information surfaced, such as the problem with the zoom rocker, an annoying new touch-screen menu layout (compared to the CX550V/MC50) and consistent reviews reporting that the Active Steady Shot was not nearly as effective as the CX550V. However, those did not deter me, and I finalized my purchase, thinking that the new implementation of Steady Shot could not be that bad, and that I could use a LANC remote for the zoom until the rumored firmware fix for the zoom comes out in 2012.
When it arrived, the first thing I did was test the zoom. Yes, it was touchy, but I am dexterous and I could live with it for a few months. I did some test recordings of the inside of my house in the evening while I learned the controls and struggled with the quirky and inconsistent touch menus. I attached my Rode Stereo Videomic and wandered around, shooting the cat and my daughter and then putting the NX70 on a tripod and letting it run for an hour or two in full auto PS mode.
When I imported those first clips into my computer via PMB, I knew instantly something was wrong. "Houston, tenemos un problema." White balance was WAAAY off. A bizarre "pulsating" blur/sharp/blur artifact with a period of about twice a second was visible on any surface with texture such as the hair on my cat or woven fabric. This pulsating blurriness happens even with manual focus. With auto-focus on, I was shocked to see how bad the auto-focus was compared to the CX550 - constantly "hunting" when the camera was not moving, and unable to lock on reliably when moved from place to place. Noise at high gain was about the same as the CX550V, which one would expect considering that the NX70 uses the same tiny lens and "engine" as the CX550V's successor, the CX700V - but I was surprised to observe how much worse the noise looked because of the "pulsation" effect. Several people who have looked at my YouTube clips speculate that the root cause is perhaps a longer GoP sequence required to compress the video in PS mode. Regardless of the cause, it renders low-light scenes unusable. Again, this pulsating blur/sharp artifact is separate from the problems with auto-focus.
I thought "Ok, well, I can use it in bright light perhaps I can live with it". The next day that hope was dashed - the white balance outdoors is only good in sunlight (and then best when a one-push sample with a card is taken - the auto-white balance is not reliable). At twilight the auto-WB fails completely. Green leaves are dull and grayish and the sky is greenish. The ONLY solution is to manually balance with a white card - but that will not work when one needs to leave the camera on continuously for the hours prior to, and following, sunset. This problem ruined important footage I shot of a high-school marching band competition, which took place from 4pm to 8pm last week.
After the shoot at the football stadium, I came home and plugged the camera directly into my big-screen LCD TV to enjoy the 60p. Yes, the motion was stunning compared to 60i - but many shots were ruined by auto-focus hunting, even at infinity in bright light, pointed at a detailed, high-contrast scene! Then, as I looked closer, I noticed that the image was blurred at the edges compared to the center, much worse than with my CX550V. The blurring seems to be some kind of chromatic aberration, and is not confined to wide-angle shots.
Over the next few days I tried my best to work-around the camera's shortcomings. The audio was certainly great, and the ergonomics (not counting the HORRIBLE menu system) were acceptable. I would shoot something, feeling good, until I transferred viewed the output on the computer or television and saw, once again, ruined footage.
As I continued to test, a new and unexpected problem emerged. This one also affects my CX550V to a lesser extent, but I had hoped the $3K NX70 would not have it. I call it the "false infinity" problem. When focused sharply on distant objects, if the manual dial is turned until the indicator reads "infinity" (i.e. the little mountain icon appears", the objects will be slightly out of focus. To bring them back into focus, one has to turn the focus ring slightly, until the distance reads less than infinity, for example 100m. This bug makes it impossible to just turn the dial until the cam shows infinity and leave it there. This is a big problem when setting up shots at night.
Other bugs include the inability to make the camera display the record time for each recording while shooting - the timecode readout seems to be where that information should be. Having just two settings for the LCD brightness is a joke. It needs an iAuto button; every little thing you do turns off iAuto and it is a time-consuming pain to have to go into the damn touch screen to turn it back on. The Steady shot is far less effective than on the CX550V - no more "Poor Man's SteadyCam."
Mr. Martinez, now that I without the NX70, I am at a loss as to what to do. I'd love to stay with Sony, but none of the other Sony models will work for me. The NX5 is too heavy, I can't afford it and it lacks the 1080 60p. The NEX-VG-20 is interesting for stills and occasional video, but I HATE being forced into shallow depth of field, and the lack of power zoom and decent audio makes it not much more than a video toy. The JVCs and Pannys in the $3K range all have various weaknesses - either small 1/4" CCDs, no 1080 60p, small, low-res LCD screens, or other problems.
The Canon XF100 is the only alternative I am seriously considering. It lacks 1080 60p and I don't like being forced to use CF cards, but the ergonomics are fantastic. Zoom on top of the handle. Nightshot light not blocked by the hood. Ability to tweak the image in multiple ways. Has an intervalometer for time-lapse. No touch screen is a HUGE plus, tons of buttons and assignable buttons are perfect. Why? Human hands can memorize the positions of objects. Do you play piano or touch type? I can do both. My hands will memorize the position of every button on a camera, and be able to use them without taking my eyes from the viewfinder. But, every time I have to access than damn touch screen I screw up the shot!
Right now, the only thing keeping me from buying the XF100 is the crippling work-flow problems with the .mxf clips. The ability of the Sony PMB to concatenate multiple < 2GB raw .MTS clips into a single, large .M2TS file is absolutely essential to my workflow with Vegas. But, if my only alternative is the XF100, I might just grit my teeth and put up with it.
Mr. Martinez, you might wonder what Sony can do to win back my camera business. Here is a summary of what the NX70's successor must have - and by the way, do this without REMOVING any of the current features, such as the rain/dust resistance or the great viewfinder. Some of the problems can be fixed with a firmware update, but many will require a complete re-engineering of the camera.
* Fix the zoom! It is a touchy disaster. How this problem got by your quality control is baffling beyond belief.
* Fix ALL the problems with auto-focus, auto-white balance, stabilization and pulsating blur. Set a goal to have all that stuff work BETTER, not worse, than the CX550V.
* KILL the STUPID touch menu system! Get a Canon XF100 and study it. Duplicate the Canons' BUTTONS and all the manual functions. If you must force a touch screen on customers, at least give us back the far more functional menu layout if the CX550V.
* Bring back the incremental brightness adjustment on the LCD. "Dim" and "Bright" are not enough!
* In addition to the internal memory give it TWO SDHC card slots, capable of simultaneous recording with the internal flash for backup, and continuous swap (like the new JVCs)
* Fix the "false infinity" focus problem.
* Give it at least the same scene selection modes as the CX550V.
* Give it a flash! What good is a still function without a flash?
* Give it 4:2:2 color
* Make nightshot work without taking off the hood. Either put the NightShot light inside the hood, or mount it over the hood on a non-removable handle.
* Give it MORE GLASS! Only more glass can solve the low-light problems inherent in a 1/2.88 CMOS sensor.
* The new lens is too wide-angle; there is considerable distortion when zoomed out. bring back the same focal ratio as the CX550V
* FIX THE PROBLEMS WITH EDGE BLUR!! I'm not sure if the problem is caused by a faulty lens design or a problem with the sensor (or both), but it glaringly bad when viewed on any monitor or TV bigger than 22 inches.
* Let us attach filters without grinding down the hood! The fact that we can fix the problem with a little grinding is proof that the design is flawed - or even worse, deliberately engineered to require the more expensive "thin" filters without front-threads.
Do all that, and I will come back. But don't wait too long - the XF100 is beckoning.
Sincerely, but with great disappointment and sadness,
Stephen T. Crye
Some videos demonstrating a few of the problems with the NX70:
Sony HXR-NX70U test - out-of-focus at frame edgeshttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8wbOBg8oNk
Sony HXR-NX70U low-light test auto-focus and white balance problemshttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTxk81aA8OY
Sony HXR-NX70U outdoor test white balance and focus problemshttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZzz-dvUMP4