A Sanyo VPC-SX550 FAQ

Ok, I'm writing this because this camera is *rad* and nobody seems to have any real user info about it on the net. I use this camera primarily as a compact video camera.

I happen to have the VPC-SX550MD. The only difference, the "MD", stands for the 340 meg Microdrive they throw in. Got it on Ebay for 500 smackers.

The VPC-SX500 is very similar but is limited in it's continuous shooting modes and has no USB.

A couple of big questions first

The first logical question: "What's the quality like?"

A: Visually, great. But there's a problem with sound. Because the microphone is in the case right next to the Microdrive there is quite a lot of hum, not to mention the mechanical noise from pressing buttons on the body. I've decided that I'm going to have to filter all the audio I record while using the Microdrive. I'm working out some EQ settings to cancel the noise and thinking CompactFlash.

Before I bought it, I saw a compromise in that you could not shoot 30FPS at full VGA resolution. The main question I had when I first opened this thing was, "What's the best resolution and frame-rate to shoot at?"

A: I think it's 320x240 Fine @ 30FPS. At that setting you can get about 9 minutes of video on a 340 Meg Microdrive. I think that a few cheap 256Meg CompactFlash cards ($150 right now 7-11-2001) should match up nicely with the 5 minute uninterrupted recording limit on these beasts.

My Review / Market Comparison

This is what I wanted: A highly portable video device for short films.

I have a little Sony DV camera but it's not going to go into my jacket pocket when I walk down to the cafe. But that's when I see stuff I want to film.

There is no competition for this thing on the market and at the time of writing, it's been out for a year. This is amazing to me but every digicam on the market has lame video specs comparatively. The Canon Elph 110 and 330 are the best I could find but they only go to 20FPS. For some reason their data rate for 640x480 video (at 2Mb/s) is 3 times the size of the Sanyo and they max out at 30 seconds per take no matter what kind of storage you have (and you can't use a Microdrive). When people see me using it they're stunned. Most people didn't know digital cameras could make movies.

This is not the best digital camera on the market, nor as good as the Canon's listed above. The highest resolution is a measly 1360 x 1024, there are no "prosumer" features and it doesn't zoom. (I hate zooms anyhow). But it records video better than the newest $3000 Canon or Nikon.

Sanyo's website has a handy specs chart in case you're curious.

One note about the software:
It's not too bad. I'm pretty fussy about this stuff and it seems to do the job. There's a Communicator app to remotely control the camera and use it as webcam (USB download is too slow for video) and the Filemanager app even has a database function with data export -- handy for cataloging. The Movie Editor is just a nice wrapper on plain old Quicktime Pro. I'm not gonna use it 'cause I have Premiere and MediaCleaner.

Movies in the dark:
I've been trying to shoot video of bands lately and found that the ISO setting can be boosted from 100 to 400 if you set the camera at 320x240 fine 15fps. Four times as bright makes a big difference. The images come out really red tinted. If you get sick of this look, (I think it looks pretty neat), one of the cool things you can do is open it up in Premiere or AfterEffects and mess with the tint or just desaturate it to B&W.

MediaCleaner Settings:
This is personal preference of course, but I generally use Sorenson at 40% spatial compression at 240x180 display doubled, 15fps and keyframes every 150. For the sound I use IMA 4.1 at 11.025khz. This gives me a size (~45 Kbytes/sec) that allows the movies to play real-time over a DSL or faster line but still keeps them reasonably small for downloading through a modem. I was shooting in portrait mode a lot and found that it's best to rotate and render the movie out with no compression in Premiere or AfterEffects and then open it in MediaCleaner. MC seems to get confused if you just try to rotate it in the Quicktime app first.

I'm not going to exhaustively list the features of this camera. Nobody's paying me to do this and I needed to write this for my own reference more than anything. Besides, it's a pretty simple little digital camera and you should always read the manual.

I'll add gripes as I come up with them.



The manufacturer's site.

Epinions has stuff on the SX500 and SX550MD also.

The Linux Hardware Database has reviews.

The ZDNet: SANYO VPC-SX500 Overview

Here's the Japanese site for this camera. It lists the MZ1 camera which looks the same as the SX550 but with zoom.

That same site has some stuff even if you can't read Japanese: sample movies and images for the SX550.

Sanyo is trying to push this thing called iDShot which I'm not really interested in but it supposedly does 640x480 @ 30fps.

PriceWatch has the dirt cheap CompactFlash.

Batteries seem to come cheapest from Thomas Distributing.

This is the only place to find the AC adapter for this camera since it's 2.4-3.4v instead of 6v like most other cameras. Anyone know the milliamps rating?






Quicktime (Motion JPEG) Video Capture Data

The table below lists the only settings I recommend using. 160x120 is a joke. You may end up putting it on the web at 160x120 but I'd rather capture at a higher quality for archive purposes. You can't go back and shoot it again. (Following this reasoning will eventually make you end up spending a lot of money on better gear but I think this camera has a good price/performance/size ratio.)

This chart assumes that you will always recompress with a real video codec like MPEG-4 or Sorenson. Motion Jpeg has no temporal compression and it is not what you'd want to put up on your website. Say, for example, that your final target is 160x120 @ 10fps and lots of compression so modem users can watch it. You're still better off starting with the highest quality because the video codec you choose will compress clean video better than one with lots of Jpeg artifacts. You will get a smaller, better looking file in the end.

Data Rate vs. Quality
Resolution FPS Mode My Avg Data Rate Sanyo Calculated Data Rate Max single movie time Total on 340 MB Microdrive Subjective Quality
640 x 480 15 Norm 700k bytes/sec 683k bytes/sec 5min 7.5 min. #2 -- Best detail but motion blurring can happen because shutter speed goes as low as 1/15th of a second in low light.
320 x 240 30 Fine 600k bytes/sec 683k bytes/sec 5min 9 min. #1 -- This is the best mode for general action shooting. Best color saturation (less jpeg loss). 1/30th shutter speed floor still causes some motion blur. When displayed at 2X size looks like 640x480 with better colors.
320 x 240 15 Fine 300k bytes/sec 341k bytes/sec 5min 18 min. #3 -- This setting allows you to set the ISO to 400 which greatly improves movies in the dark. Closest this camera comes to "Night Shot".
Sometimes 15fps is usable. If you're going for that slow shutter look -- or it will only be on the Web. But you should still use Fine compression.
320 x 240 30 Norm 320k bytes/sec 356k bytes/sec 5min 18 min. Sure it's almost half the size but why use crappy Normal when you can use Fine? Size be damned!
320 x 240 15 Norm 160k bytes/sec 178k bytes/sec 5min 35 min. Not really recommended Starts to get really crunchy. Poor colors. Maybe only useful for throwaway stuff going straight to the web.
160 x 120             Not Recommended



Still Sequence Capturing Data

The Sanyo website is lists the sequential image mode statistics incorrectly. This is from the manual and confirmed by my testing.

I like this mode as an alternative to still photography, not as a substitute for video. There is no sound and the times are just too short. However, the limitations of just having a couple of seconds can make for interesting creative possibilities. Notice that 640x480 Normal @ 15fps is limited to 3.3 seconds but in video mode you can shoot exactly the same resolution for 5 minutes.

Sequential Image Capacity
Resolution Interval Setting Equivalent FPS Max Time Mode Max Shots in a Row
1360 x 1024 .01s 7.5 2 seconds Fine 15 Shots
1360 x 1024 .01s 7.5 2.5 seconds Norm 20 Shots
1024 x 768 .01s 7.5 2.5 seconds Fine or Norm 20 Shots
640 x 480 .03s 30 1.6 seconds Fine or Norm 50 Shots
640 x 480 .06s 15 3.3 seconds Fine or Norm 50 Shots
640 x 480 .01s 7.5 6.6 seconds Fine or Norm 50 Shots