REVIEW : SmallHD Focus 5


If you shoot video, and you use either a DSLR or Mirrorless camera to do it, you've already figured out that the camera LCD while a nice idea is just too darn small to be practical.  You've also figured out that you need an external display.

If you've ever shot outside, you also have figured out that whatever external display you choose, it had better be really bright, particularly if you are shooting in one of the very flat LOG formats.

I happened to be doing an evaluation of the Fujifilm X-H1 at the time that the Focus arrived.  It's a brilliant camera, so have a look at the review for it.  Thus I chose to pair the two together as it would provide me the ability to check the Focus using either a 2K or 4K send out the X-H1's HDMI port as that is selectable, and it would also enable me to try LUTs on the Focus that were not part of the base internal offerings.  Thanks to my dear friend Lindsay for making the Focus available for the short evaluation.

Unboxing and First Use

Unpacking the Focus gives you the unit, a couple of cables, a hotshoe mount bracket and a two sided instruction card.  There is a screen protector and a micro-fibre cloth.  I have a number of the big Sony NP-F970 batteries because I use them for my Atomos Shogun amongst other purposes, so I slid one into the battery tray and fired up the Focus.

Just incredibly usable.  Bright display on a useful mount with the accessory cold shoe to hold a microphone

Just incredibly usable.  Bright display on a useful mount with the accessory cold shoe to hold a microphone

I was asked if I wanted to activate the unit, and it looked like doing so was going to be needed if I wanted to update the firmware.  Apparently that's not the case, but the activation was simple regardless.  I checked the firmware and is often the case, time had passed since the unit was shipped from the factory and so I downloaded and updated the firmware.  The update was about 65MB and took about 10 minutes to install.  I was reminded once again about the importance of quality SD cards.  I grabbed one off the shelf without looking too closely and nothing would work, despite the card having shown up on the Mac desktop.  Transcend cards are junk.  I replaced it with a Sandisk and all was well.  I then wiped the card and loaded three LUTs from Fujifilm onto the SD card and inserted it into the onboard SD card slot.  I hadn't even used the SmallHD Focus and I was already excited.  Here is a product that is not built to be obsolete in the next couple of months.

My usual monitor is a 7" unit and I was concerned that the 5" would be hard to read.  Nope.  The SmallHD display is very crisp 1280x720 with excellent colour and contrast.  It also goes to 800 NITS of brightness, making it ideal for monitoring in very bright conditions.

I took my dog to the off-leash park and put the X-H1 with vertical battery grip and 16-55/2.8 on a Manfrotto video monopod.  Working off the X-H1 LCD was possible, but I really couldn't see it very well in the bright sun, and it was a bit hard to check focus.  This has less to do with the camera, than my eyes and the level of ambient light.  I powered on the Focus and any visibility issues went away.  I set the camera to record UHD 4K internally at 23.98 fps and this means that the push out the HDMI is FullHD, which is just fine for monitoring.  No lag, no jello, just a nice clean image.  I had set the X-H1 not to push any information out the HDMI port, leaving it clean because I wanted to see how the Focus tools would work.

Integrated Pro Video Tools

When you set up the Focus, there are no tools active.  This may sound odd, but there is so much flexibility in the device, you have the power to set up which tools you want quick access to.  I put Safe Zones, Waveform, Looks, Audio Meters, Peaking and Zebras into my tool bar.  You can change the parameters for each with a touch on the icon and activate or deactivate each of them independently with just a touch.  So practical!

The NP-F970 outweights the rest of the unit.  The hotshoe arm, attaches to the side of the Focus and provides very simple tilt capability.  There are 1/4-20 mounts on the top and bottom sides as well but not on the left side as that is where the power button is.  There is no power LED, so patience for the 2-3 seconds before the display lights up is required.  

Connection from the camera uses a MicroHDMI male into the SmallHD with a female full size HDMI jack on the other end of the included 8" cable.  As the X-H1 also uses MicroHDMI for its output, I just used the same cable I would use from any such camera into a monitor or recorder that takes full size HDMI in.

For most first foray, I shot a number of very short clips outdoors in bright sun using F-LOG on the camera.  I like that it is one tap on the Focus to switch between viewing the direct signal or applying a LUT.  The very nicely flat F-LOG did what I hoped, and when I activated the Wide Dynamic Range LUT that I got from Fujifilm, the playback on the SmallHD looked terrific.  I then used the LUT activated to monitor inbound footage, and there was no lag and great colour.  Fujifilm makes only three LUTs available, but the SmallHD Focus reads standard CUBE LUTs.  It also comes with a stack of them preinstalled including support for ArriLogC, Blackmagic BMDF, Canon C log and C log2, GoPro Protune, Panasonic V Log, REDLogfilm and Sony S-Log, S-Log2 and S-Log3.  All the LUTS preinstalled align the output to the Rec709 standard view.  I like the ability to load your own CUBE Luts which will provide the ability to use LUTs designed to provide different looks such as those for Rec2020.  

Construction feels solid.  The casing feels like a pseudo rubberized plastic, but solid plastic, not the flimsy crap like so many small monitors.  All the ports are recessed, and the spring locking SD slot is on the bottom of the unit.  There is a microUSB connection as well as a 7.2VDC power out.

The Focus can handle 4K inbound at 4:4:4 8 bit at 29.97fps and 4:4:4 10 or 8 bit at 23.98fps.  Once you move down to FullHD, it can handle 4:4:4 in 8/10/12 bit at up to 59.94fps.

If your needs run to SDI inputs, note that there is a Focus model that offers SDI as the input instead of HDMI

You can also order separately the BTR-1 wireless remote if required.  I got the default unit, without a battery or charger, but if you want, you can order a kit for about $780 that includes a battery and a charger matched for one of Canon, Nikon, Sony (mirrorless) and Panasonic.  Personally, I prefer the giant NP-F970 batteries.  Even after well over an hour of continuous use, the indicator had not moved off 100% but in the same time, I halfway killed off one of the three batteries I had in the X-H1.  There's an optional sun hood and I would suggest spending the $28 to get it.


Wrap Up

I certainly understand that for those who have never used a really top line monitor, you might wonder what makes the SmallHD Focus which sells for about $650 CAD so much better than one of the clone units in the $300 price range.  The brightness is one thing.  The easy to use LUTs are another.  The colour integrity and built in tools are the third.  You can spend less, and you can spend more, in fact a lot more, for a good 5" monitor, but you're going to have work really hard to beat this one.

If you want OLED instead of LCD, that is available as are larger displays.  SmallHD gets the needs of the videographer and is delivering high quality offerings at very fair prices that will stand up to real world use.

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