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Sharp focus, true colour
- REDEFINING IMAGES: THE NEXT GENERATION VIDEO
A model demonstrates a 61-inch rear-projection TV capable of displaying hi-definition images, in Tokyo. (AFP)

When it comes to attitudes toward high-definition TV (HDTV), you can pretty much divide the world into three camps. Group A thinks HDTV is the greatest invention since the microwave and counts the hours until the nation's transition to HDTV is complete. Group B thinks that HDTV is an enormous boondoggle, a bald-faced government-industry conspiracy to milk the citizenry for billions. And Group C would just like somebody to explain what HDTV is.

No problem, C. HDTV is a new, improved video format. The picture is wide, like a movie screen. And it's so sharp, you can practically count the actors' pores. For many people, one look at the stunningly clear, realistic picture is enough to ' well, to push them into Group A.

The trouble is, of course, that switching your life to the HDTV format involves buying all-new TV sets, camcorders, VCRs and DVD players. (This, of course, is the part that irks Group B.)

In April, Sony indicated its interest in assisting with this problem by releasing the semiprofessional HDR-FX1 camcorder ' a camcorder whose video is so brilliant and immaculate, TV stations and production companies fell head over heels in love.

Unfortunately, the FX1 is much too big to use as an everyday family camcorder; walk into the school play with this on your shoulder, and people will think you're shooting for HBO. What the world really wants ' well, the world of forward-thinking picture-quality nuts, anyway ' is a high-def camcorder with the size, shape and price of a regular camcorder. Is that so much to ask'

Not anymore. Sony's new HDR-HC1 is the world's smallest and least expensive HD camcorder. At 7.4 by 2.8 by 3.7 inches, it's about a third the size of previous HD models, and small enough to pass for an ordinary digital camcorder. At $1,750 online, it's about half the price of the FX1. And as if price and size didn't make the HC1 distinctive enough, here's the best news of all: it's also an absolutely terrific camcorder.

And as a final courtesy, the HC1 can play either kind of recordings ' standard or high-def ' on either kind of TV set. You won't see HDTV clarity on your 1985 set, of course, but at least you'll see something.

If you have a high-definition set, though, you'll see a lot more than something. You'll see a spectacular picture in a format the geeks call 1080i high-def. The video is so clear and sharp, it's not so much a home movie as a flashback.

So if the HC1 is so wonderful, who would bother paying nearly twice as much for the FX1'

Pros, mainly. The FX1 has many more manual controls and advanced features. Above all, though, it has three chips ' one sensor each for the primary video colours ' which lets it capture amazingly true colour in almost every lighting condition.

In photographers' terms, the HC1 has a 41-480 mm zoom equivalent; in human terms, you have to stand way back to fit someone's entire body into the frame. Unless you add an unwieldy wide-angle adapter lens, count on a lot of waist-up shots of people in the same room.

Considering the scope of the HC1's achievement, though, these are just nits. This camcorder will attract a heck of a lot of fans ' so many, in fact, that the nagging question of mid-decade HDTV enthusiasts will begin cropping up more often: once you've shot some amazing high-def video, how will you show it'

For the moment, there's only one practical way to replay your life's high-definition moments: by connecting the HC1 directly to your HDTV set.

In other words, buying a high-def camcorder today is a decidedly forward-thinking move. It allows you to capture the priceless moments today, at the best possible quality, even though the rest of the HDTV puzzle pieces have yet to fall into place.

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