The SC-X105L Sports Camcorder from Samsung has an external lens attached to a cable that can reach up to six feet, for hands-free shooting.
IN the music world, the CD and the pocket music player have wiped audio cassettes off the map. But what about video? Here we are with our camcorders in 2005, rewinding and fast-forwarding as if technology hadn't marched forward one inch since 1985.
The new SC-X105L Sports Camcorder from Samsung ($570) cleverly reframes the question. It doesn't ask, "Which should you buy: this tiny, memory-based camcorder or a MiniDV model?" Instead, Samsung justifies the X105L's tapelessness as a necessary step to making a camcorder so small, rugged and water resistant you can use it in situations that would pulverize a regular camcorder. Now the question becomes: "Would you rather record the event with this imperfect camcorder - or not at all?"
At 2.3 by 3.7 by 1 inch and weighing a third of a pound, the X105L is just a wisp of a thing, smaller than some cellphones. It contains no moving parts, and its black rubberized skin contributes to its ruggedness.
The real breakthrough, though, is the external lens, attached to a black cable three feet long with a three-foot extension. (Imagine a lipstick cam or a "60 Minutes" hidden camera.) Using its tripod mount, the two straps (one long, one short, both included) or a hunk of duct tape, you can attach this water-resistant lens just about anywhere: to your head, helmet, arm, waist, handlebars, sunglasses or skateboard. The camcorder itself can be tucked somewhere secure and waterproof, like your pocket or backpack; you start and stop recording using a button on the cord.
This arrangement opens up a world of new recording possibilities, because you don't need two hands - or any hands at all - to hold the camera. Nor do you have to watch the viewfinder or screen; this camera looks wherever you're looking. In other words, this external-lens affair allows the camera operator, for the first time in consumer camcorders, to be a participant in the action instead of a spectator.
The external lens can capture all kinds of activities impractical to record with a traditional camcorder while you're in action: skiing, surfing, biking, snowmobiling and so on. The Samsung also shines in situations that require your full attention, making it too dangerous to operate a regular camcorder: driving a vehicle, skateboarding, tightrope walking, skydiving or conducting criminal "sting" operations.
Despite the built-in image stabilizer, the resulting video is not for those who suffer from motion discomfort. Otherwise, though, this thing works amazingly well. Here at Pogue Labs, our 7-year-old shared with his family a rider's-eye view of what he sees when he zooms around the neighborhood on his bike. Only now do we know what his sister sees when she sails over the ground, hanging from the handles of an overhead cable ride stretched between two trees. (There's even a microphone on the lens, so you hear her shrieks of delight.) And after equipping Bullwinkle the Wonder Dog with the camcorder and lens, we finally know where he's picking up all the mud and burrs when we let him out in the morning.
Unfortunately, the Samsung is still saddled with all the limitations of memory-based camcorders. Its 512 megabytes of built-in memory can hold only 10 minutes of video at the best-quality setting. The lower settings offer as much as 60 minutes of recording, but the results look like cameraphone or Webcam videos.
You can add storage in the form of a Memory Stick, but the maximum capacity for this camcorder (one gigabyte) costs about $90 online and adds only 22 more minutes of best-quality recording.
The battery life isn't great, either: 45 to 60 minutes a charge. (The external lens requires its own pair of AAA batteries.) At least the battery is rechargeable and removable, so that you can keep a spare ready to go. (Extra batteries go on sale in July.)
Then there's the little matter of the video quality. At the highest setting, the video is O.K. (you can see a sample at www.nytimes.com/circuits
). But it often contains blown-out highlights and muddy dark patches, the autofocus is slow to react and low-light recordings look grainy. In short, don't expect the stunning quality of MiniDV camcorders - especially when you use the external lens. (You get better results with the built-in lens.)
Yet somehow, on this camcorder, these disappointments don't seem quite as crushing as they would on any other model. For example, the recording-time limits don't seem so dire when you consider that extreme sports, hidden-camera interviews and canine expeditions are usually pretty short. Nobody's pretending that you'd use this camcorder to record the school play.
It's even easy to excuse the so-so video quality of your paragliding or luge run when you consider the alternative: having no video at all.
Meanwhile, going tapeless also confers perks all its own, like random access to your video. You can jump from scene to scene without any rewinding or fast-forwarding. You can delete a shot with a couple of clicks, freeing up memory for more recordings. And it's impossible to record over a beloved scene by accident.
Finally, bringing the video to your Mac or PC is very fast. You just put the camera in its U.S.B. cradle and then, when the camera's icon appears on your desktop, drag the MPEG-4 video files to your hard drive.
Over all, Samsung has done a very good job of designing this camcorder, considering how little room there is for controls. The two-inch screen is excellent; in direct sunlight, you can tap a button to shut off the backlight, harnessing the sunshine itself to keep the image bright and saving battery power in the process. The camcorder's buttons are all on the skinny trailing edge facing you, ready for your thumb; they include Menu, Record, O.K. and a slider for the 10X variable-speed optical zoom.
In the next incarnation, though, the company should consider making two important changes.
First, the camera should auto-recognize when you've plugged in the external lens. You shouldn't have to dig into the menu system and manually switch the video source to External - and then reverse the process when you detach the cable. That's just silly.
Along the same lines, you shouldn't have to go into a menu just to switch from video to photo mode; the camcorder should have a simple switch. (The menu lists things like voice recording and MP3 music playback. Those features work well enough, but seem a bit indulgent on a device that's so tight on storage and power.) Then again, this might be an irrelevant complaint, considering how poor the photos are. At 800 by 600 pixels, they don't even have enough resolution for a 4-by-6 print.
Even so, Samsung has designed a tool that does a job no other tool can do: it permits hands-free, attention-free recording of otherwise unrecordable events. Polishing it up can come later. Even in its 1.0 version, the SC-X105L may be the most persuasive evidence yet that our grandchildren will live in a tapeless future.