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  • Introduction

  • Design & Usability

  • Features

  • Performance

  • Conclusion

  • Science Introduction

  • Motion

  • Sharpness and Image Stabilization

  • Low Light Performance

Introduction

The VG20 is Sony’s second installment of this “interchangeable lens Handycam” experiment. The previous NEX-VG10 had many of the same specs and design implementations, but lacked the multiple frame rate options that the NEX-VG20 flaunts. Sony also improved the autofocus, added a better microphone, and completely revamped the design of the LCD on the VG20. Even though we didn’t review the NEX-VG10, it’s fair to say the VG20 offers some significant upgrades over its predecessor. The Handycam NEX-VG20 is available for $1599 (body only) or for $2199 with an 18-200mm kit lens. This makes the VG20 a lot pricier than the Sony NEX-5N camera, which runs only $699 with its kit lens.

Design & Usability

The VG20 looks much like your standard, handheld prosumer camcorder—except it has an interchangeable E-mount lens system.

The 16-megapixel APS-C CMOS image sensor is taken directly from the Sony NEX-5N camera, as is the Sony E-mount interchangeable lens system, but the VG20’s design features are no different than what you’d see on your average prosumer camcorder. It’s got the right-side strap for easy handheld shooting, it has a handlebar for transport and an alternate shooting grip, it has a 5.1-channel Dolby Digital microphone, and it has the iconic left-side LCD and top-mounted viewfinder setup that have been a staple of pro camcorders for many years. For $2199, the VG20 is available with an 18-200mm E-mount kit lens, but you can also use the camcorder with A-mount lenses if you purchase an adapter.

The interchangeable lens system is unquestionably the camcorder’s greatest asset.

The interchangeable lens system is unquestionably the camcorder’s greatest asset. But having this feature also exposes some weaknesses. For example, the camcorder has no zoom lever (you can only zoom with the lens ring), and some of the auto controls don’t work as quickly as they do on more traditional camcorders. Still, the camcorder is lighter and easier to use than most interchangeable lens camcorders (not to mention, it's also far cheaper). The button layout is simple and uncluttered, the hand strap and right-side grip are more than adequate, and all of your most important features are accessible on the fly. Sure, there is room for improvement, and the VG20 isn’t going to react and function in the same way a single-lens prosumer camcorder would, but Sony is heading in the right direction with this design.

Features

Good exposure controls and a few professional-grade tools are present on the VG20, but this camcorder lacks high-end image controls.

The NEX-VG20 was built to give the user easy access to focus and exposure controls, and Sony got this design right. The dedicated shutter speed and iris (aperture) buttons inside the LCD cavity make those controls easy to adjust on the fly, and the manual control button near the front of the camcorder lets you set things like gain, AE shift, and WB shift without having to go through the menu system as well.

But there are two things that bother me with this design: 1) the manual control wheel that is used to set exposure isn’t great; I expected to see a larger knob or ring on a camcorder of the VG20’s caliber. 2) the camcorder lacks the high-end custom image presets and picture controls that you get on most prosumer camcorders. Yes, the NEX-VG20 is on the cheap end of the “professional camcorder” spectrum, but it wouldn’t hurt to add some in-depth gamma controls, sharpness adjustment options, black level functions, color settings, etc. The lack of these controls does make the VG20 a simpler camcorder, however, and it lets the user concentrate on getting exposure and focus correct instead of worrying about other settings.

Performance

This camcorder is capable of recording excellent video, but the f/3.5 kit lens isn't ideal for low light videography.

The NEX-VG20 is a serious camcorder that is specifically designed with videography in mind.

The NEX-VG20 had no staggering weaknesses in our performance tests, but the camcorder didn’t “wow” in every category. Its low light results were somewhat disappointing, but part of the blame for these results should go to the slow, f/3.5 lens that comes bundled with the camcorder. The VG20 did capture some fantastic footage in our real-world samples, with videos looking smooth and crisp even under an overcast sky. Motion was probably the camcorder’s best attribute, and its three distinct frame rate options (60i, 60p, and 24p) are a good assortment to work with. Sharpness wasn’t at the level we’d hoped it would be in our test, but the level of detail and clarity captured in our motion test and sample videos consistently looked impressive to the eye.

Conclusion

Ever since DSLR cameras started recording video, we've been waiting for a product like the Sony NEX-VG20 to come along.

People love the way DSLRs and system cameras capture video, and they love the ability to work with different lenses, but most cameras simply aren’t designed with videography in mind. They’re all still the same old rectangular boxes that require two hands to grip and have viewfinders that are essentially useless for video recording. Sure, there are plenty of third-party grips and tools that can morph your DSLR into more of a “camcorder," but the Sony NEX-VG20 does this right out of the box.

If you’re a videographer who wants to use an arsenal of different lenses when you want to shoot video, then the NEX-VG20 should definitely be on your radar. It’s one of the only interchangeable lens camcorders you can get for under $2000, although I expect this number to increase rather quickly. Just one warning: the VG20 may seem lacking in controls and features if you’re used to shooting with professional equipment. But the $1699 body-only price tag—which is thousands less than many professional interchangeable-lens camcorders—should help ease those concerns.

Science Introduction

The Sony NEX-VG20 has a completely different design and entirely different guts than the rest of Sony's Handycam lineup. The camcorder's APS-C image sensor, taken straight from Sony's NEX-5N camera, is much larger than the imager you'd find on Sony's traditional flagship camcorders (like the HDR-CX760V). This imager, combined with the E-mount lens system, makes the VG20 capable of shallow depth of field effects that are impossible to imitate with a traditional camcorder. The NEX-V20 also did a wonderful job in our motion test thanks to its 24p frame rate that effectively captures a film-like aesthetic with the push of a button.

Motion

No problems with artifacating or rolling shutter effects in our motion tests.

Motion captured by the NEX-VG20 looked very good in all frame rates, and the camcorder was able to keep rolling shutter effects absent from our test video. Rolling shutter, which is a problem attributed to many cameras and camcorders that feature very large image sensors, adds a wobbly, jell-o-like effect to videos that involve panning or quick movements with the camcorder. With the VG20, this effect was nearly unnoticeable in our tests using the 60i and 60p frame rate, although the effect was more prominent in the 24p record mode.

Motion also looked crisp and had very little blur in all three frame rates. The 24p mode may have produced the crispest image overall, but its motion is obviously choppier than the 60i and 60p settings. Part of that “choppiness” is what gives the 24p setting its cinema-like aesthetic. Additionally, artifacting wasn’t an issue in the camcorder’s highest-quality recording modes no matter what frame rate we used.

Sharpness and Image Stabilization

Sharpness wasn’t as good as a high-end consumer camcorders, but the numbers were still decent.

The Sony NEX-VG20 didn’t do a terrible job in our sharpness test, but its performance wasn’t as good as we hoped it would be. In its highest-quality recording mode, the 1080/60p option, the VG20’s video showed a horizontal sharpness of 700 lw/ph and a vertical sharpness of 650 lw/ph. Again, these numbers aren’t bad, but they are still worse than the top consumer camcorders we’ve run through this test. Shooting with its 60i video setting, the VG20 managed a horizontal sharpness of 650 lw/ph and a vertical sharpness of 550 lw/ph—results that are a notch below the camcorder’s 60p sharpness numbers.

Because of its interchangeable lens system, the Sony NEX-VG20 relies on lens-based optical image stabilization. The downside to this is that if you use the camcorder with a lens without an IS system, then you’ll be without an image stabilization feature when you record. The upside, however, is the VG20’s kit lens did an impeccable job stabilizing video in our test.

Even though the IS system is built into the lens, you still turn it on and off in the camcorder’s menu system. The NEX-VG20 has two stabilization settings, Standard and Active Mode, but there was little difference between the two in our test. With Standard IS (Sony calls this Optical SteadyShot) the VG20 was able to reduce 71% of the shake in our low-speed test and 66% of the shake in our high-speed test. Active Mode wasn’t much different, reducing shake by 73% in the lower speed mode and 65% in the higher shake test setting.

Low Light Performance

Low light performance was held back by the limitations of the f/3.5 kit lens.

Limiting the shutter speed on the NEX-VG20 to 1/60th of a second, the camcorder required 8 lux of light to illuminate our test chart up to broadcast television standards. This scenario also required the camcorder to use no zoom, thus letting the lens utilize its widest aperture setting. Using a bit of zoom, in order to frame our chart to simulate a head-and-shoulders portrait shot, the camcorder needed 17 lux of light to obtain a proper video image. Both of these tests were performed using the camcorder’s 60i frame rate setting.

Using the 24p setting on the VG20, which allows the camcorder to drop to a 1/50th of a second shutter speed, made it possible for the camcorder to capture a bright enough image with just 13 lux of light (when using some zoom). The VG20 was hurt in this test a bit by the fact that its kit lens has a widest aperture of f/3.5, which is not that fast. A lens with a wider aperture would surely improve the VG20’s low light sensitivity, but, even with the kit lens these results aren’t too shabby.

Noise and color results in low light were strong for the camcorder, despite the fact that these tests were performed with the kit lens. Noise levels averaged 0.87% in our low light test and color error measured 4.84 with the same light levels. Colors even remained fairly strong in low light, with the saturation level coming in at 76% in this test.

Meet the tester

Jeremy Stamas

Jeremy Stamas

Managing Editor, Video

@nematode9

Jeremy is the video expert of our imaging team and Reviewed.com's head of video production. Originally from Pennsylvania and upstate NY, he graduated from Bard college with a degree in film and electronic media. He has been living and working in New England since 2005.

See all of Jeremy Stamas's reviews

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