Sony Xperia Z1: First Impressions Round Up

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Since Sony bought Ericsson’s stake in Sony Ericsson in 2011, the company’s Android handsets have improved significantly, with the new Xperia Z1 the most accomplished to date.

Unveiled at this week’s IFA tech show in Berlin, Sony’s new flagship Android handset has a lot going for it: it’s fully waterproof, comes with a gargantuan 20.7 megapixel camera, featuring Sony’s award winning ‘G Lens’, and has a stunning 1080p full HD screen utilising Sony’s Triliminos display technology.

As far as high-end phone specs go it’s very much on the money, the main headline takeaway is, of course, the 20.7 megapixel camera, which uses Sony’s ‘G Lens’ which has been designed to take clear and colourful photographs. Whilst the camera might be overkill for a phone it does includes a F2.0 Sony G Lens with a 27mm wide angle and a 3x zoom, which Sony’s boss Ken Hirai stated offers “zero loss of quality.”

The camera also comes with a host of new applications and social features including the ability to share videos in real-time with Facebook.

Looks-wise the Xperia Z1 takes a lot of design cues from its cousin, the Xperia Z, this time, however, it is made up from a one-piece aluminum frame that is finished in black, white, or purple. The front and rear of the handset is finished with glass giving it a sturdy, premium feel – something lacking with a lot of other Android handsets. Overall the handset is slightly thicker, longer and heavier than a Samsung S4, but for the extra horsepower and features you’re getting it’s certainly not a deal breaker.

Measuring 5-inches the new Xperia Z1 features a super-snappy quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, running at an impressive 2.2 GHz alongside 2 GB of RAM. There’s 16 GB of onboard storage and the ability to upgrade via SD to 64GB, are you listening HTC? The handset is also 4G LTE compatible meaning it’s perfect for anyone who is planning to join one of the new super-fast 4G networks.

Elsewhere Sony has bestowed the handset with a capacious 3000 mAh battery, and has also added BatterySTAMINA Mode that automatically turns off certain functions to save juice when you’re not using them and restarts them when you do.

At 170gram it’s light enough without ever feeling too flimsy, and the stunning 1080p ‘Triluminous’ display certainly makes any pictures or videos taken on the camera stand out with deep blacks and eye-piercing colours.

One of the major bugbears with many Android handsets is the manufacturers need to fill their handsets with unnecessary bloatware and changed to the user interface. Thankfully, Sony’s changes to Android 4.2.2 don’t seem too overbearing from first impressions and to the untrained eye you’d be hard pressed to notice them.

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In a similar vein to the Xperia Z, the Z1 is fully waterproof so you can dunk the handset in 1.5 metres of water for an impressive 30 minutes. This time, however, Sony has made Z1’s headphone jack waterproof itself, meaning you don’t need to undo the flap every time you want to listen to music – which is a clever revision to this year’s version.

Overall Sony’s Xperia Z1 is an accomplished handset with some significant features that other handsets just don’t offer. If you’re the type of person that spends a lot of time outdoors and requires a sturdy waterproof handset with a killer specs list, and best in-class camera, then the Xperia Z1 is a no-brainer.

The guys over at IT Portal pointed out that the Xperia Z1’s spec sheet is “exactly where it needs to be at the premium end of the smartphone scale, replete with a stunning 5in Full HD screen, a powerful 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor from Qualcomm, and a 20.7-megapixel camera which leverages Sony’s famed digital imaging technology.”

Meanwhile in their hands-on, the Independent said:

“At first glance, it’s very similar to the Xperia Z, though a touch bigger in every direction – which is worrying as the Z was quite big enough, thank you. The same design language is evident here: glass front and back, matte frame and engraved power button gleaming on the side.”

In relation to its waterproof nature, the team at Cnet wrote:

“If you’ve destroyed a phone by dropping it in the toilet — or by making calls in the rain — the Z1 might be the phone for you. It keeps water out by sealing its ports with smaller flaps. While the Xperia Z placed a flap over the headphone jack, the Z1 has simply made the jack itself waterproof, meaning you don’t need to undo it every time you want to plug your headphones in.”

Price and availability of the Xperia Z1 has yet to be announced.

Hands on With Sony Vegas Pro 12

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Regular visitors will know that when we’re not writing about gadgets, we’re busy filming them for our YouTube channel. Over the years we’ve experimented with a variety of video editors and for the last few months we’ve been checking out Sony Vegas Pro 12 – which is aimed at the professional end of the market. We imagine it could also be an attractive choice for those have outgrown Sony’s Movie Studio and who don’t want to start from scratch with the likes of the more expensive Premiere Pro or Final Cut.

If, like us, you are new to Sony Vegas Pro (SVP), then it can all be a little overwhelming at first. As soon as the software loads, it’s immediately apparent that you’ve stepped up a gear (or three) in terms of features and complexity when compared to the more consumer level products such as Power Director and MAGIX Movie Edit Pro – both of which compete more closely with Movie Studio.

Sony Vegas Pro 12 largely focuses on further improvements to software’s workflow. There are over 20 changes in this area alone, including an expanded edit mode. This enables you to see ‘in’ and ‘out’ frames via a split-screen preview and there’s also the ability to identify unused, available frames from within the timeline.

Expanded import options
Expanded import options

Proxy editing has also been introduced. When full frame rate playback is difficult to achieve, this “Smart Proxy” feature will automatically and dynamically replace clips on the timeline with high quality, edit friendly HD proxies. As you’d expect, the software still uses the original media files to ensure a high quality final render.

Another workflow improvement is the ability for users to hold the shift key (for trim) or ctrl+alt+shift (for adjacent trim) while dragging an event edge to quickly ignore event grouping – this allows for fast “J” and “L” cuts.

Similarly handy are the new rectangle/square and circle/oval masking tools which make it easier to mask sections of your media. FX masking is also available which, by masking an effect rather than the image itself, enables you to easily blur or pixelate an area of a video clip – handy for those situations when you want to obscure a face, logo, etc.

New Color Match plugin
New Color Match plugin

There are a number of new plugins, including “Color Match” – which enables you to match the colour characteristics from one clip to another. Using this same technology, there is also the new LAB Adjust plugin which takes advantage of the L*a*b colour standard to provide precise control over the colour characteristics of your content.

Those looking to swap to Vegas Pro from other editors will appreciate the “Project Interchange” feature. As you may have guessed from the name, this enables you to exchange projects between SVP and other popular video editors. The conversion engine currently supports Final Cut Pro 7, Final Cut Pro X (albeit export only), Avid Pro Tools 10 as well as Premiere Pro and After Effects CS6.

Having produced a number of videos that feature colour effects, titles and transitions – we still feel that we’ve only just scratched the surface of what SVP has to offer. That being said, I’ve always preferred to have too many tools and plugins rather than be left wanting. The learning curve, while pretty steep, is certainly achievable and that’s coming from someone who has mainly dabbled with more consumer level products in the past. Within a few days of playing around (and regular use of the undo button), I quickly found myself appreciating some of the “power” features which are often lacking in cheaper, slimmed down programs.

LAB Adjust plugin
LAB Adjust plugin

Some user reviews have identified various compatibility and stability issues, but we didn’t encounter any of these and, apart from a strange EULA acceptance “nag screen” each time we started the software, SVP was very stable and handled rendering and effects in its stride. For those interested in such things, our test system was  a Dell XPS 8300 (i7-2600, 8GB RAM) running Windows 8 Pro (64-bit) with a AMD Radeon HD 6800 series graphics card.

All in all, SVP 12 gets the thumbs up from us. It’s a powerhouse of an editor and this is reflected in its price. Those with a smaller budget and who can live without DVD Architect Pro and the ability to encode their audio in Dolby 5.1, may wish to check out the new “Edit” version of SVP 12 which comes in at around £180 cheaper. We’d recommend checking out this page on the Sony site which gives a handy comparison of the two Pro versions as well as the consumer-focused Movie Studio range.

Top 5 Car Stereos

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It’s a rite of passage for any first-time driver to upgrade their car stereo, and with the proliferation of mp3s, streaming services and smartphones there’s never been a better time to buy a new car stereo to use with your new smart device.

Whilst car stereos haven’t changed all that much over the past 10 years, it’s safe to say the way we consumer music has. With this in mind it’s now really easy to stream music from your phone onto your car’s stereo, and with our top 5 car stereos you can all do of that and so much more.

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Pioneer MVH-350BT

The long-time car stereo experts Pioneer have recently released the MVH-350BT, which is specifically designed to play music stored on your portable devices for under £150. On the front there’s an illuminated USB and Aux-in gives your iPod, iPhone, or Android smartphone direct connection to your car speakers.

The system is fully Bluetooth-enabled so you can easily make hands-free calls and stream Bluetooth audio from your device, whether it’s iOS or Android.

The MVH-350B’s built-in amplifier is capable of a solid 50-watts across four channels. There are also 2 RCA pre-outs so you can hook up another stereo component, like a subwoofer for some extra kick. The only downside for the Pioneer is the lack of CD playback, which might be a deal breaker for some.

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Pure Highway H240Di

In-car entertainment manufacturer Pure has joined forces with Halfords to develop and manufacture a range of car stereos that will get you streaming music from your iPod or iPhone in no time at all.

The mid-range Highway H240Di costs £129, but for that you do get quite a lot of bang for your buck; it comes with digital DAB radio, traditional FM and AM tuners, and there’s connectivity for iOS devices via USB.

If you’re still using CDs as your main source of music, the head unit is compatible with a range of mediums including CD/CD-R/RW, CD/CD-ROM and MP3 CD/ USB playback. There’s also a clever bookmarking feature, which is perfect for listening to audio books on the commute to work. There’s an AUX input, and enough power to run four 45-watt speakers.

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Pure Highway H260DBi

Pure’s has also released Highway H260DBi, which costs a little bit more, coming in at £149. But for the extra £20 you get full wireless Bluetooth streaming and hands-free calling via Bluetooth, and an extra 5-watts across all four channels.

Drivers are able to safely make and receive phone calls via the Bluetooth receiver using the Highway’s controls and an external microphone to ensure the best call quality possible. Finally, you can also customise the button lighting to better suit your dashboard’s internal lighting.

Parrot-Asteroid

Parrot Asteroid

Newcomers to the in-car entertainment market Parrot offer the world’s first Android powered car stereo but for the added functionality you should expect to pay around £240.

The Asteroid is capable of running Internet applications and can access geo-location information via 3G and GPS. You can also listen to Internet radio stations and music streaming services too. Basically it’s like a fully-fledged Android tablet but for your car.

The Android-powered system comes with a decent sized 3.2-inch colour screen, which displays your phonebook, menus, music, playlists, album covers and Internet applications.

The Parrot Asteroid is compatible with an array of music sources whether it’s an iPod, iPhone, USB, SD card or Bluetooth wireless streaming. You can also access to your music via voice command; just say the name of the artist and the music will be launched automatically.

The Asteroid comes equipped with an impressive 55-watt MOSFET amplifier, spread across 4 channels. And there are subwoofer and 6xRCA preamp-outputs, too.

Thanks to a new technology called MirrorLink, it is now possible to bring smartphone apps directly to the screen of our car’s stereo. And, the new Sony XAV-601BT is one of the first systems to offer MirrorLink connectivity.

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Sony XAV-601BT

The Sony XAV-601BT is a double-DIN audio-video center for your dashboard, so it’s quite a bit bigger than you standard head unit. There are a number of ways to enjoy music on the system whether it is via Sirius XM or Pandora, via the app control feature. There’s iPod compatibility, as well as Bluetooth, dual USB inputs and CD and DVD playback. The XAV-601BT comes standard with everything you could possibly want – except perhaps GPS navigation, but there is an added option for that too.

The main selling point of this is system is obviously 6.1-inch WVGA TFT touch screen, which is running a pin-sharp 800×480 resolution. The system is also Navigation ready – so you can add an optional TomTom satnav module and external GPS antenna for fast, accurate route planning. Passengers are also able to control the system with the Control App. For all this space-aged functionality expect to pay a not unreasonable £270.

Sony Vaio’s Laptop Hat Trick

Sony, never one for doing things by halves, comes roaring in with a triple set of new releases no less ensuring its position on portable power remains dominant.

Vaio-Pro

Next up is the Vaio Duo 13, a hybrid 13.3” notebook that doubles as a slate for those of you who fancy indulging in some nifty handwriting too. Featuring a Surf Slider design you can toggle between ‘slate’ and ‘keyboard’ styles to suit the way you’re working. Draw, sketch or handwrite memos in slate mode using a digital stylus or switch to keyboard mode for business documents whilst the 8 megapixel ‘Exmor RS for PC’ rear camera can take care of the odd photo or two. The Vaio Duo 13 also makes use of Bravia’s Triluminos screen technology and the mains powered WiFi router, whilst having the longest battery life of all the Ultrabooks at a whopping 15 hours.

Vaio-Fit

Last but certainly not least, the versatile entry level Vaio Fit 15E manages to wear all manner of hats in either black, pink or silver from being a slim but powerful notebook using a range of Intel processors from the Pentium 987 up to the Core i7-3537U, a high capacity hybrid HDD booting up and launching applications in a fraction of the normal time, to a touch screen using NFC (Near Field Communication) for simple and fast communications with other devices. It also comes with Sony Imagination Studio pre-installed which includes Movie Studio Platinum, ACID Music Studio, Sound Forge Audio Studio and DVD Architect Studio.

All three products come with lower spec alternatives to suit whatever budget you have and will be available from the end of June 2013.

Prices to be announced.

http://www.sony-europe.com

E3 Roundup: XBox One vs Playstation 4 – Price vs. Promising Lineup

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Gamers struggling to make a informed decision on whether to buy an Xbox 1 or PS4 this Christmas are not alone – but you will be glad to know both console makers laid their cards on the table at last night’s E3.

Both console makers gave a firm launch window of Winter 2013 for Europe and the US – basically November. The biggest headline from both shows was: price. Microsoft unveiled that their new console would cost $499/£425 – which on the face of it is quite pricey. Compared to the Xbox 360 launch the price point it’s a scary one. For example when the first Xbox 360 launched 8 years ago the base model was a mere £209, admittedly, though you didn’t get a lot of functionality for that price. When Microsoft wrapped up their presentation they unveiled their price-point and collective gasp echoed across the show floor like an icy wind.

Sony on the other hand unveiled an incredibly competitive price point of $399/£349. But that didn’t actually get the biggest cheer from the gaming fraternity. Oh no. Jack Tretton then went onto fully explain Sony’s stance on the thorny issue of DRM, he confirmed that the company wouldn’t be employing any form of draconian secondhand game policies. So if you want to lend a game to friend: you can. If you want to trade a game in at a retailer: you can. If you want to play any PS4 game offline: you can. Basically Sony made a massive song and dance that their console, on paper, is faster, it’s cheaper, and isn’t looking to completely re-write the whole paradigm of game ownership. Now, in the interest of impartiality, you can do almost all of that with Microsoft’s system, too, but their solution is a lot more convoluted and requires games to be online at least once every 24 hours, whilst secondhand games can be traded in depending on whether third party publishers get a cut of the trade-in fee – but it’s their decision, if they want to block trade-ins they can though – a worrying trend as we move towards a digital era.

Both console makers showcased as veritable smorgasbord of incredible titles coming exclusively to each console. It’s clear Sony won the battle of price and DRM, but there’s no doubt that they didn’t have a stronger software lineup compared to Microsoft’s own war chest of games. Games like Dead Rising 3 and Titanfall (from ex-Call of Duty devs) are exclusive to the Xbox One and look like hardcore games that will shift units fast. In almost every area of gaming both companies had exclusive titles; Microsoft showed of Forza 5, the latest installment of their biggest racing title, Sony’s answer was Drive Club, but on the face of it just can’t compete with Forza’s scope and vision.

Trying to decide which console to get is an exercise in futility, but now there are some big difference between the two consoles. Sony has also confirmed that their console will be region free, this means you can import a US console, for example, for a cheaper price and play games from Japan on it. Microsoft’s console on the other hand isn’t region free – again another big difference.

It’s clear that Microsoft and Sony have two different visions for their respective consoles. Microsoft is going for a walled-garden system akin to Apple’s iOS, with full control. They want to move the console into the world of the digital era, and, along with it, change the way we buy and consume games. This means games are intrinsically linked to your profile – much like they are on any digital store. Whilst Sony has stuck to its guns and will continue with the current model of open trading of games and the traditional ownership model – much to the delight of hardcore gamers.

E3 on the whole was great for both Microsoft and Sony – Microsoft clearly had the stronger software lineup with Titanfall, Forza 5 and Ryse, all shooting for the lucrative launch window. Whilst Sony nailed the all-important price point and DRM model, though their software lineup didn’t eclipse Microsoft’s with Killzone: Shadow Fall, Drive Club and The Order.

It’s clear that many gamers are still on the fence when it comes to choosing their next console, and that won’t change until they can get their hands on the controller, the system and, most importantly, the games. But on the face of it Sony’s decision to undercut Microsoft’s price point could well be the smoking gun for many. After all with such a dire economic outlook a cheaper price point is likely to secure a lot of those floating gamers who have yet to make their decision.

Will Microsoft rethink its price point? Unlikely. Will they rein in some of their draconian DRM? Quite possibly, but it’s been long suggested that their decision on DRM was at the behest of publishers unhappy at losing revenue to secondhand sales. So quite how Sony has managed to negotiate a different model does seem a bit puzzling, though, Sony’s decision to charge for online gaming could see a cut of that money going to publishers now – but at the moment that’s just pure speculation.

Sony STR-DN1040 and STR-DN840: Wireless 7.2 Audio and 4K Upscaling

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Wireless AV receivers can be a bit of a mixed bag, especially when it comes to video. High definition resolutions can struggle on typical home setups, particularly if a lot of other devices are using the wireless feed, but in recent times we’ve been impressed by the technology’s adaption to cope with modern standards. Sony should know a thing or two about this, and is looking to up its game following stiff competition from the likes of Denon, Yamaha and Pioneer with the 165W STR-DN1040 and slightly less powerful 150W STR-DN840, delivering 7.2 cinema-quality sound along with 4K movie upscaling sans cables.

A rather striking yet minimalist design sets these apart from cheaper models immediately, and both are packed with connectivity that includes inputs for Blu-ray and DVD players, set top boxes, games consoles and an SA-CD player with USB to instantly connect and play back from MP3 players or flash drives. You can stream audio or HD video straight from a smartphone or tablet, and the optional SideView app means input source and volume adjustment can be done from a handheld.

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Sony is obviously putting a lot of emphasis on the audio quality here. Both receivers use 192kHz/24-bit audio that’ll do justice to lossless formats such as FLAC and high-bitrate compressed formats, and according to Sony can “recreate the authentic acoustics of Hollywood’s finest theatres”, with a concert mode that supposedly apes the acoustics of famous venues such as the Berlin Philharmonic Hall, Concertgebouw Amsterdam and Musikverein Vienna. There’s a good degree of customisation here as well, with an advanced sound optimiser that can tailor frequencies for extra clarity and something called Advanced Digital Cinema Automatic Calibration (D.C.A.C.) that fine-tunes sound from each speaker to get the best from the layout of your living room.

Wireless capabilities include streaming music from cloud services like Music Unlimited, a range of internet radio stations via vTuner, Spotify and support for AirPlay to offer Mac users streaming support from the whole range of Apple’s devices.

Both models are scheduled for release this month, with no pricing available as yet.

Top 5 Gadget Flops

Creating a new piece of technology requires years of research, painstaking development, numerous product designs and a great deal of testing. Vast teams of engineers with boundless experience work tirelessly to produce the latest gadget that aims to revolutionise the way we go about our daily lives. However, not every product is a success, with even the most esteemed tech aficionados getting it wrong. So for your viewing pleasure, here is a run-down of the five most futile and fruitless gadgets ever:

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1. Apple Newton MessagePad

A vision of the future? Ahead of its time? Or just a terrible product? Apple’s Newton MessagePad has been heralded by some as the initial inspiration for the iPad, however this early tablet variant ultimately failed to secure any notable success.

The Newton received a great deal of ridicule for its handwriting recognition feature. The technology had to learn the user’s handwriting over a long period of time and struggled to detect common dictionary words. An episode of The Simpsons even made light of this infamous shortcoming.

Too big to be carried around in the user’s pocket but lacking the computing power for serious work, the Newton struggled to find a niche in the market. Apple’s ambitious promises and optimistic marketing campaign couldn’t attract consumers either.

Sony-MiniDisc

2. Sony MiniDisc

In theory, the MiniDisc player had the potential to be magnificent – a compact data storage device with the ability to play high quality audio. Unfortunately for Sony, its arrival came too late to make an impact on the CD market and then suffered from the emergence of MP3 players towards the end of the nineties.

Despite popularity in Japan, a high price point meant MiniDisc players were out of reach for a vital teenage market. What’s more, the major record labels did not give support to a format introduced by music industry rivals Sony.

Virtual-Boy

3. Nintendo Virtual Boy

Promoted as the first video game console capable of producing 3D graphics, the Nintendo Virtual Boy promised a virtual reality experience. However in the real world, the head-mounted display delivered basic depth-of-field imaging and in some cases, nauseating side effects.

The monochromatic display and awkward ergonomic design left gamers with dizziness and headaches. It’s hefty price tag left consumers feeling sick to the stomach as well.

Some critics praised the consoles novelty, while others felt the Virtual Boy was a gimmick without much substance.

Nokia-NGage

4. Nokia N-Gage

A mobile phone lacking coherent design for day-to-day use combined with a portable games console devoid of any immersive visual stimulation, the Nokia N-Gage was doomed from the start. The phrase ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ seems most appropriate here.

Humorously described as a ‘taco’ by several commentators, Nokia’s poor design also required users to remove the battery to insert a game. The keyboard layout was difficult for entering text and even worse when it came to interacting with a poor selection of content.

Sony-BetaMax

5. Sony Betamax

One of the greatest consumer electronics companies of our time, yet Sony manages another product flop with its ill-fated Betamax video cassette player. Once again, Sony was the victim of its own success, as it chose not to license the technology to other manufacturers, believing it could conquer the market alone.

Even though the format was released a year earlier than JVC’s VHS alternative, the longer recording times of its rival saw Beta lose an established film studio and home video market share.

Sony DEV-50V Digital Recording Binoculars: Bring Nature Close

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For many people, their phone is now a camera and their music player is now a phone. Doubling up on functions, however, works best when the two purposes are connected. Enter Sony’s new DEV-50V digital recording binoculars. Improving on the previous model, the DEV-50V is almost one third lighter, and with splash and dust resistance it allows for easy viewing and recording of various far-away scenes. The SEV-50V is ideal for nature-lovers, with rare or unusual wildlife now easier both to see from a distance and easier to record, whether via HD video or digital photographs in a very nice 20.4 megapixels. Of course, it is also of benefit for sports-watchers and holiday-makers.

Sony-DEV3-Binoculars

The DEV-50V offers a host of technological tricks to make taking video as easy as possible. The main draw for many may be the weight reduction to just over 0.75kg, but inside the housing (99% recycled material), is some very fancy software and hardware. The XGA OLED Tru-Finder allow for clearer images via improved contrast and resolution. Active Mode image stabilisation with Optical Steady Shot minimizes blurs even at full 25X zoom, so that tiny robin or bluetit is easily seen and admired. Inbuilt GPS lets you keep an accurate record of your favourite locations. Autofocus smooths out the viewing experience, which is something anyone used to the tricky focusing of normal binoculars will welcome. For early morning or late evening pursuits, the Hyper Gain function offers increased brightness in dim lighting conditions. Late night football game with the action way down at the other end of the pitch? No problem.

The Dev-50V offers HD and 3D recording, which is appealing to gadget-fans, although 3D viewing devices still don’t have widespread penetration. However, for those that have already invested in a 3D TV, the June launch of the DEV-50V is sure to be even more anticipated.