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SmallHD FOCUS Monitor Review


Today we are doing our first of several monitor reviews here on LensVid. The monitor that we are starting with is one of the most popular models of the past year – the smallHD FOCUS.

There are already quite a few reviews of this monitor online, so we will just stick to what we really liked about this monitor and what we think smallHD still needs to address.

The smallHD FOCUS (this is what happens when you shoot the monitor with the camera attached)

Lots to like

  • The FOCUS is made of plastic for the most part, it would be nice if it was made out of metal like some of smallHDs more expensive models, but the upside is that this is a very light monitor (ready to go with the battery and arm it is just over 440g or a bit over 15.5 ounces) which is ideal for placing on top of small mirrorless cameras like the A6500 which we used for this review.
  • When we learned that the FOCUS has a screen resolution of only 720p, when some less expensive monitors are 1080p, we were a little bit concerned, but after using this monitor we can tell you that it is certainly sharp enough for critical focus for a 5-inch monitor.

Only 720p – but stills sharp

  • The Focus has a fantastic touch screen, which combined with the really neat interface smallHD designed which is based on screens that you can flip between, add tools to and turn them off quickly, is a joy to use.

Great touch screen and interface

  • The screen itself has good viewing angles, significantly better than the poor quality of the Sony A6500 display.
  • As for daylight viewing, we got this monitor in the early winter so we didn’t really have a chance to view it in the bright midsummer sun, but from our testing it seems to perform well although we are still a bit skeptical that its 800 nits of brightness will truly be perfectly viewable in the middle of a bright summer’s day (one other thing – you still get some glare with this screen and the touch screen catches fingerprints like a magnet).
  • The monitor has lots and lots of features. Tapping on the left side of the screen will bring the option to add a new tool. You can change the aspect ratio, set safe zones, crosshair, add different exposure tools such as exposure assist (which is basically false colors although there is no option to change the colors), zebras, color picker or different type of scopes such as live histogram, waveform or vectroscope.
  • For focus, you have focus assist and peaking but we actually prefer the pinch to zoom which works great although it would be nice if double tapping on the screen would bring you to 1:1 magnification. You also get the option to overlay info such as LUTs (more on this in a second), image overlay and even capture a stills image to an SD card. Maybe the most important tool here is the sound meters which are very helpful and you can also hear the sound by connecting headphones to the headphone jack although that has one important limitation (see later on). There are a few other options, but these are the important ones.
  • Adding LUTs is extremely simple, just put them on an SD card and turn them on in the monitor’s menu. What’s nice is that you can have a dedicated screen for your LUT so you can work with or without it by swiping left or right (or choose different ones for different screens – very useful).
  • The menu system is super simple and the latest firmware version allows for calibration, which is really nice although you would need a dedicated tool for proper calibration (which our review unit might actually need).
  • You can buy the FOCUS on its own but we got it as a kit which cost an extra $100 and is actually very rich including the really nice swivel arm, two micro HDMI cables (one micro HDMI to Micro HDMI and one to Full female HDMI as well as a cold shoe, a dummy battery, a screen protector and a USB cable for some future use).
  • One of the coolest features of the FOCUS is its ability to charge your camera by using the battery that powers the monitor. All you need to do is pick up the right dummy battery for your camera when you get the kit – we went with Sony dummy battery which worked for two or even three times the life of camera’s battery (it really depends on your camera and settings). Do note that we had a small issue with our dummy battery – more on that in a second.
  • The NP-F battery that came with the kit lasts for a long time and we got through a full day of shooting with it (it didn’t power our camera though). However, it is recommended that you get a second battery if you are shooting for a long time or even two if you are also powering your camera.
  • Our FOCUS also came with a nice padded soft case. If you are using the monitor without the arm – that is great – however if you do want to keep the arm attached to the monitor for travel when you remove it from the camera, a different case would be better – we happen to have this inexpensive padded pouch which fits the monitor with the arm and even the battery and the accessories – very cool and it is also really inexpensive (here is a link to the case; smallHD should make one of their own if you ask us).
  • For us one of the most useful features of the FOCUS is something really tiny, but super helpful and that is the inclusion of a gyroscope which turns the view on the screen 180 degrees when you flip it, allowing you to easily shoot yourself and make sure the framing is correct – this is, of course, possible due to the great smallHD arm that comes with the kit.

A few things to consider

We loved working with the FOCUS but there are a few things that we think smallHD needs to fix if there will ever be a version 2 of this monitor and you should keep in mind before you decide to take the plunge and buy the monitor.

  • In our view, one of the biggest drawbacks of this monitor is the lack of HDMI out. This means that if you want to connect the monitor to a second – say a larger screen, you can’t. This is something that we would be willing to pay extra for and we hope will be in the next iteration of this monitor.
  • At the time of writing this, there is also no way of powering the monitor apart from an NP-F battery. However, the good news is that smallHD should have an AC power to dummy Sony NP-F battery soon and they are also trying to find a way to power the monitor using D-tap which can also be helpful if you are using larger batteries to power the rest of your gear.
  • One small but annoying thing that has to do with the design of the monitor is the location of the headphone jack. We really appreciate having a headphone jack (especially since the A6500 lacks one), but when you have the arm attached connecting a straight headphone cable can be a challenge – the jack should have been on the left side for easy access. You can bypass this with a 90-degree short extension cable, but what you can’t seem to bypass is the fact that the sound from the monitor seems to have a small but somewhat annoying delay in real time so monitoring while shooting is going to be a bit of a nuisance.

The headphone jack should have been on the side

  • We mentioned before that we had an issue with our Sony NP-FW50 dummy battery that we got in the kit. Apparently, for some reason, a bunch of these were made just a little bit too long which means that it is almost impossible to use them inside the camera (you really need to push hard). You can fix this if you really want to by shaving a bit from the top of the dummy battery (it is just plastic after all), but this is something that smallHD needs to address and they are aware of this manufacturing issue.

The dummy battery on our unit was just a tad too long

  • In the kit, you get a short thin micro HDMI to micro HDMI cable as well as a micro HDMI to female HDMI cable. Both are nice and useful. The issue is that because of the design of the connections, which were made to prevent accidental pull of the cables (a good thing by itself), the cables are proprietary which means that if they do break or get lost, you won’t be able to use just any old HDMI cable and you will need to get a replacement from smallHD.
  • The arm that comes with the kit is fantastic, it is made from metal and very useful and convenient. The only drawback is that the locking piece and connecting parts are made from plastic which might break eventually, but also seem to allow for an ever so slight angle on the monitor (maybe we are getting too picky here). Anyway, we hope smallHD will make the entire arm and all its components from metal the next time around.
  • Finally, the on/off button requires a pretty long press. This is probably to prevent accidental use. We would actually prefer a switch as it is quicker and more practical. It would also be cool if there was a sleep button for preserving power. On the plus side – the monitor does turn on and acquires a signal very quickly even as it is.

Before we conclude there is one last thing which has nothing to do with the FOCUS but more to do with the Sony A6500. If you are using any monitor with this camera you need to know that when you start recording you will lose the image on your screen which is very annoying and if you shoot slow motion in camera it will turn off the screen completely even when you are just in live view – Sony really needs to address these issues.

Annoying Sony A6500 issue – when you press record – the camera screen turns off

Conclusion

In a short amount of time the FOCUS has become enormously popular monitor and after using it for a while we definitely understand why.

The FOCUS is a compact, lightweight and sharp monitor with good viewing angles and lots of useful built-in features that are controlled by an excellent touch-based interface. It also comes with some really nice accessories which is why we would highly recommend you spend the extra money on the kit for your specific camera.

As we have noted the FOCUS has a number of limitations – the first is the lack of an HDMI out port which might not be a big deal for some users but if you want to use another monitor – you don’t have the option. Another thing is that you can’t use AC to power the monitor – this might change very soon when smallHD will introduce a dummy battery which can be a really useful solution not just for the FOCUS but for many devices that use NP-F style batteries. There are also some nagging design issues like the miss-located 3.5mm headphone jack when used with the arm and lag in sound as well as the inconvenience of having to use a proprietary HDMI cable. But if you can work around all of these you will get a really fantastic little monitor.

As for pricing, at $500 the FOCUS is certainly not the most inexpensive 5″ monitor around, but with all its features it is a very appealing option and the $100 extra for the kit is definitely a great deal, which we highly recommend that you will consider if you are buying this monitor.

You can check out more LensVid exclusive articles and reviews on the following link.

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