Friday, February 03, 2006

Testing, Testing

(Jason Soukup, front, and Mark Sieckman in the Carolina Reporter newsroom on Friday afternoon, having volunteered so the rest of the staff could go home. The Reporter is our senior semester newspaper and Web site at the University of South Carolina.)

this is an audio post - click to play

We're doing a little testing here at Common Sense J. We have a new toy, a Sony ICD-CX50 recorder/camera. The audio and photo you see here came from it in a quick test I did this afternoon.

In some ways, I have to agree with the Engadget review-- it's probably better to do one thing and do it well. The ICD-CX50 can be a little awkward with its button functions, and the camera, especially in this day of multi-megapixel cameras even in reasonably priced cell phones, is a bit marginal. Yet I found it pretty easy to get used to.

It takes an extension microphone, and I used my old Sony F-26S cardioid that went through the broadcast wars many years ago (listed on E-Bay for $1.99 under "vintage" -- oooh, that hurts).

The sound quality wasn't bad, but I was disappointed with the level. I think it actually was potentially better with the built-in mike. I didn't have access to an ElectroVoice, but plan on testing with that. I originally tried just playing it into Blogger through the phone out of the earpiece using that old standby, a pair of alligator clips into the headset, but the level was too low, even when driven to distortion out of the recorder. (I have an old Radio Shack attachment for playback, but it and the university phone system don't get along real well, and I got even less level). So I took the audio file in Sony's proprietary format and converted it to .WAV using Sony's editing software. Very easy to do. But the volume still was low. Took it from my PC (why companies like Sony make Windows-only programs escapes me) to my Mac where I pumped it up 400 percent using Sound Studio. Came out of there using the clips, and the audio through Audioblogger isn't too bad.

The photos are 1280X960 or 640x480, not great resolution (the one above is the 1280 resized), but OK for the Web. And it does require decent light. (The photo is blurry because, frankly, I just quickly shot it in our senior semester newsroom and got a little ham-handed in the process as I was rushing to something else. I wanted to see how the camera reacted under room light.) The zoom is only electronic 4x. After moving the photo to the PC, I cleaned it up a bit and resized it with Irfanview.

(The whole process of extracting the audio and video, moving them, cleaning and uploading took maybe 15 minutes, but could have gone faster were I more familiar with the software.)

The ICD-CX50 has 256 MB of flash memory and can hold up to 11 hours of audio at standard play (13.5 KHz top range) or 35 hours on longer play (7.5KHz top; I don't recommend extremely long play, 93 hours, which only has a top frequency of 3.5 KHz).

So while at about $300 it is a luxury, if the street price drops a bit (best I've seen is $265) it might be handy to have in situations where you thought you would have to record sound and snap a photo on the fly. Or maybe it would be useful where you need a visual reminder of people, places and things on a complicated story with many interviews. I think that was Sony's idea because it calls the photos potential "bookmarks" that are grouped with the sound files. And for all you junior 007s out there, it does have a neat feature -- a macro setting that sharpens the picture significantly when zoomed tight on, say, a document. It would be handy if you were doing a lot of reporting that involved the need to take document shots.

Is it better than a cell phone with camera? Yes, because its audio capacity generally is greater, it takes an external microphone and with the accompanying software, it does have some easier options for moving files around. But of course the advantage of the cell phone is that you can e-mail the stuff right away, and many are starting to have cameras better than this one.

Butif the engineers have managed to stuff all this into a package about 4 inches long and 2 inches wide, is there any doubt it won't be long before the camera and other elements can be improved significantly, as is already happening with cell phones?


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