TOKYO Struggling to grow in a stagnant market, two Japanese consumer giants have leveraged their miniaturization expertise to shrink down or pack new functions into their maturing digital camcorders.
Sony Corp. has rolled out a proprietary tape format that is the first to deliver MPEG-2 compression. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. has endowed its camcorder with a detachable rather than integral digital still camera. And both vendors equipped their units with Bluetooth connectivity for the requisite Internet access.
The efforts come as a string of Japanese electronics giants including NEC, Fujitsu, Toshiba and Hitachi have announced plans to lay off thousands in recent weeks.
The camcorder market has plateaued at about 12 million units worldwide, and vendors are looking to push the miniaturization envelope while adding features to try to jump-start sales.
"Users strongly demand compactness. We can discuss standardization later on," Keiji Kimura, president of Sony Mobile Network Co., said in defending the decision to pursue a proprietary format for the DCR-IP7 camcorder. Touted as the smallest and lightest unit available, the system sacrifices compatibility with the DV digital format in order to accommodate MPEG-2.
Matsushita believes "the competition to develop smaller camcorders is reaching its limit. Compactness alone does not necessarily differentiate our products," said Mamoru Yoshida, who oversees movie and printer products at Matsushita AVC Co. "So what features will attract consumers? We dared to make the camcorder's digital still camera detachable. This should differentiate it from competing products."
But Sony saw still more wiggle room to shrink the format. The new MicroMV cassette, a 1/6-inch, 680,000-pixel CCD image sensor and a 2.5-inch, 210,000-pixel LCD yielded a camcorder measuring 4.7 cm wide x 10.3 cm high x 8.0 cm deep and weighing 310 grams.
MicroMV cassettes measure 46 x 30.2 x 8.2 mm about 30 percent the size of a miniDV cassette but can house 3.8-mm tape with about a 10-Gbyte capacity. That enables 60 minutes of MPEG-2 video recording at a 12-Mbit/second data rate with MPEG-1 Audio Layer2 audio.
Video and audio data is recorded in 5-micron-pitch tracks, a threefold density increase over the DV format. Sony enabled that density with magnetoresistive heads, like those in hard drives, in a helical double-scan scheme.
MicroMV brings to four the number of camcorder formats supported by Sony; the others are analog 8-mm video, digital 8-mm video and DV. "We believe that each format has its own place in the market," said Shoji Nemoto, president of Sony Personal Video Co.
Silicon developed for the camcorder included the CXD2890 MPEG codec with 48 Mbits of embedded DRAM, and the CXD1451 signal processor with 12 Mbits of on-chip DRAM. Both devices tap an 0.18-micron process for both the DRAM and logic. Sony has been working with foundry partner Fujitsu Ltd. on the 0.18-micron process.
The CXD2890 can simultaneously encode and decode MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 images. It integrates 1.5 million gates of logic with the on-chip DRAM. The codec runs at 33.75 MHz externally and 67.5 MHz internally off a single 1.5-volt power supply. Power consumption is 170 mW for encoding and 90 mW for decoding.
The codec comes in low-profile fine-pitch land grid array (LFLGA) package that measure 1.2 mm thick with 328 pins on a 0.5-mm pitch.
The CXD1451 integrates 1.85 million gates and 12 Mbits of DRAM. It runs at 13.5 MHz externally and 13.5 MHz internally, and it taps a single 1.5-V supply for both logic and DRAM. Power consumption is 340 mW for recording and 220 mW for playback. The part's LFLGA package measures 1.2 mm thick with 308 pins on a 0.5-mm pitch.
The DCR-IP7 will debut in Japan next month at 170,000 yen (about $1,580). Introduction in Europe will follow soon after. The initial monthly production target is 15,000 units.
Matsushita's design assumed that in a down economy a multipurpose platform would attract more consumers than a straight camcorder. The key was to up the frequency of use, so the still camera was made detachable rather than integral to the unit, as in the case of some competing products to maximize users' options and enhance the perception of utility.
"Our user survey, to our surprise, found that users use a camcorder only twice a month on average," said Katsunori Maeda, coordinator of product planning at the AVC Network Business Group of Matsushita AVC.
The DV-format camcorder, marketed under the Panasonic brand as the NV-EX21, has a 1.08-megapixel CCD image sensor, a built-in Leica Dicomar lens with a 10x optical and 25x/100x digital zoom, and a 200,000-pixel color LCD. It is equipped with an SD Memory Card slot.
The combined unit weighs 490 grams. Detached from the tape-drive unit, the SD Memory Card-based MPEG-4 movie/still camera weighs 300 grams.
The unit debuts in Japan this month at 205,000 yen (about $1,700). It will also be marketed overseas at a future date.
Bluetooth functionality figures highly in the positioning of both products.
Sony calls its offering the Network Handycam IP to stress the browser-equipped unit's Internet accessibility. Access is via an optional Bluetooth-compatible modem adapter or a Bluetooth-compatible mobile phone. MPEG-1 video or still images stored in a Memory Stick can be sent directly to the Web, but given the limitations of the communications infrastructure, 12-Mbit/s MPEG-2 video footage over the Web is not supported.
In Matsushita's camera, a 64-Mbyte SD Memory Card (sold separately) can store up to 65 minutes of MPEG-4 video, 240 minutes of voice recording, or 280 still images at megapixel resolution or 1,760 images at VGA resolution. Images and audio can be sent to a PC via SD cards, Bluetooth or cable connections for editing, e-mail attachment and uploading to Web sites.
The Panasonic NV-EX21 supports 176 x 144-pixel-resolution MPEG-4 video. "We considered offering higher resolution than MPEG-4, but considering the current Internet infrastructure, we opted for MPEG-4 video," said Maeda.