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Z-Cage

Review of the SmallHD DP4-EVF
4.3" High-Resolution Monitor & EVF


Review by Ron Risman, September 2011


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Introduction

About two months ago I published my review of the Zacuto Z-Finder Pro EVF after testing out the the monitor on three different wedding films.   Today, I am finally writing my review of the new SmallHD DP4-EVF.  I have had the DP4-EVF in my possession for almost four weeks and while I haven't used it as extensively as I did the Zacuto EVF I have spent enough time with it in the studio and to a lesser degree in the field to feel that I have enough knowledge of it to provide useful thoughts on the product.

Three weeks ago I was lucky enough to film a behind-the-scenes "making of" film for a commercial client.  This shoot took me to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah during Speed week as well as to Goblin Valley Utah and Hurrah Pass in Moab, UT.    I figured this would be an ideal shoot to test out the SmallHD DP4-EVF.   SmallHD agreed to 2-day the EVF to me so that I would have it in time for the shoot, but Fedex ended up screwing up the delivery, getting it to me a day after my flight to Utah.   I decided to have it shipped to me in Moab, so I would at least have it to test for part of the shoot.   Two days and $135 later I finally had the SmallHD monitor in my hands.

I spent the evening charging the batteries, reading the manual, and trying out a few configurations.  My first thought was "Wow, this is one big EVF."  While I didn't have the Zacuto EVF to put side-by-side with it, there was no comparison when it came to bulk.  The SmallHD was definitely bulkier. Of course, the SmallHD features a 4.3" LCD display compared to Zacuto's 3.2" display.   This extra 1.1" diagonal gives it a screen area virtually twice that of the Zacuto.  The EVF magnifier snaps over the 4.3" Monitor and allows you to use the kit as a professional 800x480 resolution electronic viewfinder.  The EVF Loupe magnifies the LCD monitor and blocks out all light, making the DP4-EVF usable even in the brightest of conditions.

The loaner was sent to me in a Pelican hard case and included two LP-E6 compatible batteries, which power the DP4 monitor, a lightweight hot-shoe mountable ball-head, Battery Charger, AC adapter block and cable, LP-E6 battery plate, flexible pivoting arm (strong arm), multiple HDMI-to-Mini HDMI cables and an HDMI "L" connector.   The retail version of the kit includes:

  • LP-E6 Battery Plate
  • Ball Mount
  • Sunhood
  • Screen Protector
  • US Power Supply

While trying to configure the SmallHD DP4-EVF I just couldn't seem to get the monitor / EVF combination to stay in position long enough to make it field ready.   One of the problems is that the SmallHD DP4-EVF with two LP-E6 attached is quite heavy.  The weight when attached via a ¼-20" screw kept coming loose. The weight also caused problems when I tried to use it with the flexible, pivoting arm. Not only did the monitor want to pivot on the 1/4-20" thread, but the connection point between the pivoting arm and the rod system also kept pivoting out of place due to the weight. Yes, the arm itself is strong enough to support the DP4-EVF at virtually any angle / configuration –but the ¼-20" connector at its base, where it connects to the hot-shoe or rod clamp kept coming loose. 

I have to admit that most of these issues are NOT the fault of the monitor, although something more reliable than a 1/4-20" connection would have been nice. Instead, these problems were exasperated by the fact that the monitor shipped to me with a very lightweight ball head and the fact that I really didn't have access to any mounts that were solid enough to support the weight of the DP4-EVF when extended into position.

I discovered that if I put some elbow-grease into tightening the ball head to the DP4-EVF I could get a pretty solid connection, but as soon as I started moving around with the camera, the weight of the DP4-EVF would force it to loosen on the connector and/or the loupe would flip backwards depending on the angle of the camera.   So despite paying $$$ to have it sent overnight to Moab and then spending a couple of hours trying to get a usable configuration I just couldn't risk using it in the field.   I was so disappointed.

Okay, the bad news is out of the way.   The good news is if you have or can get a stable mount for the monitor (hopefully SmallHD will have a better mounting solution soon) you'll love the quality of the screen and the EVF.  Nothing is perfect and I never go into a product test looking for perfection, but there are some products that are more perfect for you than others.    When testing this monitor I was looking for how well it would perform during event filmmaking.  Event filmmaking puts a lot of stress on gear.   One minute you may be on a tripod, the next minute on a slider, Steadicam, shoulder rig, handheld, or monopod.   Being able to quickly adapt by adding and subtracting components quickly is so important.

The SmallHD DP4-EVF: Monitor and Loupe

When you purchase the DP4-EVF you're actually getting the SmallHD DP4, which is a beautiful 4.3" external monitor with all the advanced functionality you would hope for in an LCD monitor designed for use with DSLR's, RED cameras, and others.   It offers 800x480 resolution, an HDMI Pass-through for connecting a second monitor, headphone jack for monitoring incoming audio transmitted via HDMI, DSLR scaling that provides full-screen operation even with cameras that only offer 480p output (5DMKII, Rebel T2i, 60D), a variety of battery plate options, field-updatable firmware (via USB), up to 6 hour battery life, and the ability to connect it to an external power system (Anton Bauer, etc.). As a monitor the DP4 excels in every way. It's much more compact than many 5" monitors on the market and offers the advantage of full-screen scaling that most larger monitors don't yet offer, aside from the SmallHD DP6.

When you snap on the Loupe it becomes a high-resolution electronic viewfinder that allows critical focusing and excellent color accuracy even when shooting in very bright conditions.   According to SmallHD, looking through the DP4-EVF is like viewing a 70.4" diagonal screen from 6.6' away.   Suffice to say the image looks very large through the viewfinder and it is this magnified view that helps to make you one with the scene.

The DP4-EVF features custom optics with anti-fog coatings. I didn't yet have the opportunity to test the anti-fog properties of the DP4-EVF, but searching online it does not seem that fogging is a problem with the DP4-EVF. I much prefer this method of anti-fog resiliency compared to Zacuto's Z-Finder anti-fog disc shields that I keep losing.

The Loupe also lacks an eye diopter so if you have weak close-up vision you may need to screw on an inexpensive close-up filter onto the loupe. The Loupe features a standard 46mm thread making them readily available at may retailers. With that said I had no problem using the Loupe and I typically have very poor close-up vision. My vision up close is getting to a point where I have to close one eye just to read phone numbers and other small text on my iPhone's screen, yet I had no vision problems using the SmallHD Loupe. So I personally wouldn't be too concerned with the lack of a diopter, but if you do find that the view through the Loupe needs correction, an inexpensive 46mm digital macro close-up filter will do the trick.

The one thing users need to be aware of is keeping the loupe out of direct sunlight. Since the loupe magnifies the screen it will act as a magnifier for the sun and can quickly burn the screen of the monitor. This is a problem for any EVF on the market but SmallHD has not included a protective cover for the EVF eyepiece, which would help to reduce the chance of this happening.

Goes beyond Your Camera's 3.0" LCD

When I reviewed the Zacuto Z-Finder Pro EVF I noted that the 3.2" screen size made it a perfect size for a portable EVF, but when not using it with the loupe the 3.2" monitor size didn't offer any real size advantage over the camera's LCD display - aside from the mounting flexibility.   With the SmallHD DP4-EVF you'll get an excellent 4.3" monitor that makes it much easier to pull focus while recording, has the flexible mounting advantage, and the ability to use the loupe to turn it into an EVF.  Of course, the extra screen size makes the unit bulkier as an EVF for anything but tripod or shoulder rig work.

Controls and Functions

The layout of the SmallHD DP4 is, in my opinion, superior to that of the Zacuto EVF. I loved that the HDMI ports are located on the bottom of the unit instead of on the right side. The bottom of the monitor includes HDMI, HDMI loop-through, mini-USB port, 1/8" mini stereo jack, and a 1/4-20" receptacle. The right and left sides of the monitor feature additional 1/4-20" holes, allowing mounting flexibility. The top of the monitor features the power button, headphone jack, mode dial / selector, and two function / preset buttons.

The on-screen menu system is very straightforward, making it very quick to find and change settings. You can also assign certain settings to one of two preset buttons on top of the monitor, providing quick access while recording. Here are some screen shots of the menu system and options. Click on any of the thumbnails to see a larger photo.

Under the label [P C], which may also be labeled [Image] depending on the firmware revision (My review unit is running v1.0), are all of the typical brightness, color, and contrast controls as well as the ability to switch the picture mode from standard to dynamic to soft. Picture modes I assume are presets that automatically alter contrast, sharpness, and brightness settings.




Under the [Advanced] menu are the options for selecting pro features such as Focus Assist, Peaking, False Color, Image Flip, and more.

Focus Assist helps users focus while recording by darkening the overall image then adding a thin white line around areas in focus.

Peaking is also a focus aid. It works by over sharpening the entire image, which in turn makes the in-focus areas look super-sharp, almost frosted.

False Color helps with exposure control by turning the display into what looks like a posterized effect with different colors representing different exposure levels (see color chart on right). The DP4 features two False Color modes (High/Mid/Low and High/Low). I personally am not a fan of using the false color feature as I mentioned in my review of the Zacuto EVF, however the feature is here for those that have become accustomed to using this method of exposure assist.

Image Flip allows you to flip the image upside down. This is important to have as it allows you to position the monitor either upright or upside down depending on your mounting needs. The monitor also provides the ability to keep the on-screen menu system upright or flipped, which seems to be useful when using the HDMI loop out to another monitor.

1:1 Mapping This feature will allow 100% magnification of the input signal, which can be useful when connected to a camera that outputs a higher native resolution than 800x480. This allows the user to zoom into specification regions of the video feed in order to better check focus. This is very similar to the zoom in button on the back of most HDSLR's, except it can be used while recording unlike the camera's built-in focus assist zoom feature. Users of the Canon EOS 7D, Panasonic AG-AF100, or Sony FS100 will appreciate this feature, while users of the Canon 5D Mark II, EOS 60D, Rebel T2i cannot use this particular feature since they only output 480p through the HDMI port.

Scale allows you to select the initial aspect ratio for scaling (16:9 -- 4:3 -- 2.35:1 --- 1.85:1 --- AUTO).

Custom Scale allows you to manually set the height and width of the scaling.

Blue Only mode can make it easier to get hue & saturation correct when calibrating using color bars. Unlike the Zacuto EVF, the SmallHD DP4 does not include a built-in color bar chart for calibration. Hopefully it will be added in a future firmware release. Here's a good explanation of how to use color bars and blue-only mode.

Monochrome removes all color and leaves just the luminance data of the signal. Again this can assist with calibrating your monitor to a color bar chart and could be useful if you're planning on rendering your final film in B&W.

Freeze takes a frame grab of the current frame and keeps it displayed. Unfortunately, the monitor stops displaying the frozen image as soon as you disconnect the video signal. If they could find a way to keep the frozen image on screen this could be a useful way of matching the colors on the screen to more closely match the camera's LCD - or vice versa.

Negative reverses the colors of the screen to make a negative image. Truthfully, I'm not sure the advantage of using this mode.

The [Input] menu allows you to select which input you want to view. The monitor accepts HDMI, YPbPr, and Composite signals.


In the [Guides] menu you're able to turn on frame guides to help with framing at different aspect ratios, rule of thirds (crosshatch), cross hair center target, or to show frames for text vs. action at the same time. You cannot combine these frame guides, which would probably get confusing if you could, but it would be nice to able to use the aspect ratio frame guide along with the crosshatch. The DP4 does not remember these settings once you power down the monitor and it would be nice if, when pressing the mode dial, it remembered which menu option you were on last instead of having to start from the upper left corner each time.

The [System] menu provides access to the speaker volume, which works only if the camera you're connected too actually sends audio with its video signal, a voltage meter which displays how many volts the monitor is currently receiving from the battery(ies) - 7.9v being a full charge. After about 90 minutes of continuous usage this showed 7.7v and after about 2 hours of usage it showed 7.4v, so I'm not sure how this directly relates to time remaining on the battery.

The Backlight adjustment allows you to amp the brightness/contrast up or down depending on ambient light levels.

The Display options turns on or off the green input indicator at the upper right corner of the display. This just shows you which input you're currently viewing (HDMI, Component, YPbPr)

Menu Flip turns the menu system upside down, which you would want to do if you turn on the image flip option. I'm not sure why these wouldn't normally be in sync with each other but it might have something to do with using the HDMI pass through to view the signal on another monitor while using the DP4-EVF as a viewfinder.

The USB Power option turns power to the USB port on / off allowing you to power (charge?) external USB devices from it's port.

The Factory Reset option resets all of the options back to their factory defaults.


Under the [Misc.] menu you can view the firmware version number. My review unit is version 1.0. You can also change the opacity of the on screen overlay from this menu.

The [PIP] menu allows you to turn on picture-in-picture since the DP4 monitor is able to display the image from two different input sources simultaneously. You can also change the border color (black or blue), the position of the PIP window, the size of the PIP window, the type of PIP (PIP, Full, or 4:3), and the ability to Swap the input source.

Detachable EVF Loupe
Similar to the Zacuto EVF, the SmallHD DP4-EVF is actually an external monitor with a detachable loupe, which magnifies the image which is then viewed through a loupe. The loupe blocks out all ambient light allowing you to clearly view the image in any lighting conditions, without reflections or other distractions, and the magnification makes it even easier to pull focus while recording.

The large 4.3" screen size makes it much more useful as an external monitor when compared to the Z-Finder EVF. The 4.3" diagonal screen size offers twice the viewing area compared to a 3.2" diagonal screen. That's a very big difference. The monitor feels solid thanks to it's aluminum milled body and it actually is fairly pretty thin and light, even with two batteries attached to the rear plate.

However, the advantages of the larger 4.3" display seem to disappear when you add the loupe. The loupe unfortunately is rather large and bulky and brings the total weight of both units to 1 pound. A pound isn't a lot in the scheme of things, but when it's suspended on an extension arm or a cheap ball head that extra weight makes it prone to pivoting (loosening) on a 1/4-20" mount. The weight can also add a bit of stress to your camera's hot-shoe, so I would only recommend attaching it to the hot-shoe if you're using it directly above it on a ball-head - and preferably not the ball head that is included in the package.

The loupe features three small powerful magnets that will hold the loupe in a tilt-away position when you would like to use the DP4 as a monitor. If you plan on mounting the DP4-EVF upside down, remember to remove the loupe and flip it over so that the magnets are on the top. Otherwise the loupe will easily flip downward on its hinge, since the magnets that hold it against the monitor are no match for gravity.

Headphone / Audio Monitoring
The SmallHD DP4 features a built-in headphone jack allowing you to monitor audio if your camera outputs audio via it's HDMI port. Interestingly enough, the Canon 5D Mark II does not send audio through HDMI while recording, but does when playing back footage. Once all cameras start to send out all needed information via HDMI this feature will become that much more useful. It would have been nice to have a small speaker for use when playing black video from the camera, but it's more of a wish than a necessity.

Power Options:
The SmallHD DP4-EVF currently ships with a battery plate that accepts one or two Canon LP-E6 Li-Ion Rechargeable Batteries. Each battery gives the unit about 3 hours of battery power or 6 hours of continuous power with two batteries. SmallHD will also be producing additional plates for other popular battery formats, though none have been officially announced as of this review (September 8, 2011).

The unit can also be powered via AC (Power adapter included) or using an external DC battery source.

In the Box
The retail boxed version ships with the following accessories:

  • 12V 1.5A DC Wall Power Adapter (North American Plug Style)
  • DP4-EVF Users Manual
  • Canon 5D/7D Battery Bracket (LP-E6)
  • Ships with DP4-EVF Hot Shoe Ball Mount
  • YPbPr Breakout Cable
  • Mini-HDMI to HDMI Cable, 3 ft
  • HDMI 90-degree adapter, male to female
  • 1.4' USB-A Female to mini-USB 5-Pin
  • Sunhood
  • DP4 Screen Protector
  • Cleaning Cloth

Review Conclusion
As a stand alone monitor, the SmallHD DP4 is one of my favorite external monitors. It's well built, uses the same batteries that I already use with my Canon cameras, offers a great screen that can be seen even in bright conditions (even without the sunshade), supports automatic scaling for different resolution inputs, and has all of the features that will allow me to grow with it (HDMI loop-thru, headphone jack, HDMI, Component, and Composite inputs, Peaking, Focus Assist, and more). Many HDSLR's like the Canon 5D Mark II, EOS 60D, Rebel T2i only output a 480p signal via the HDMI out. The scaling feature in the monitor senses the 480p signal and will scale it to fit the screen. The only issue I had with the scaling feature was the long delay (usually 4 seconds) when pressing the record button from standby mode. During this 4-second delay you'll get a blue-screen that will initially flash the word "no sync" until it finds sync again. When you stop recording you'll get the blue screen once again but only for about 2-seconds. The Zacuto EVF by comparison is almost instant. When you press record from live view / standby it takes only about 0.5 second. Let's keep our fingers crossed that this delay can & will be reduced in future firmware revisions.

As an electronic viewfinder (monitor & loupe combined) I find the package to be a little too bulky for run & gun situations. If I could find a solid mounting solution I would probably change my mind, but based on the accessories that ship with the package and the accessories I had in my own kit I just couldn't find a reliable way to keeping the monitor tight when using it with the flexible 'strong arm' or ball head. I do have a ball head that better supported the EVF, but it still came loose after a short while and mounting it to the hot-shoe took away the spot that I mount my external microphone.

If you are thinking of getting an external monitor and would also like it to perform as an EVF when locked down on a tripod I would highly recommend the SmallHD DP4-EVF. However, if you want an EVF that is flexible and can easily work in a run n' gun situation or locked down on a tripod then I think the SmallHD is probably the wrong choice. Last but not least, if you really just want a very usable external monitor that offers a larger screen than what is on your camera and has professional features to help assist you with focus and exposure then I whole hearteningly recommend the DP4 as a stand alone monitor. At $549 for just the DP4 monitor you won't be disappointed. At $749 as a monitor and EVF I think you'll find that the mounting solution will ultimately determine your overall satisfaction, as it did mine.

I've included a link below to a Zacuto Monitor Mounting Kit that is being sold at B&H Photo. I haven't yet tried the kit but plan to in the very near future. It's very expensive but if you're looking for an EVF extension arm that won't allow the monitor/EVF combo to pivot this looks like a perfect solution. The mounting place features two curved fingers that look like they would keep the monitor from turning on the mounting screw. Again, I have not tested this yet but discovered it today as I went searching for a better solution for the SmallHD DP4-EVF.

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