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Review: SmallHD Focus OLED Camera-Top Monitor

Paul Schmutzler tests the SmallHD Focus OLED Camera-Top Monitor on an intense two-week shoot comprising multiple locations indoors and outdoors.

This review will look at the the SmallHD OLED Focus Monitor. This is a 5.5” screen that SmallHD introduced at NAB 2018. The biggest difference between this and previous models is the design of the hardware, but also the fact that it's an OLED screen. OLED screens are mostly known for their super-deep blacks and high contrast.

With a 5.5” screen, the OLED Focus (Figure 1, below) is one of SmallHD’s smallest monitors, and it's designed to be used for very compact shooting situations. Maybe you're using a run-and-gun package on a DSLR or, like me, are you shooting on a motorized gimbal, like the MoVI Pro. I requested this unit from SmallHD specifically to use on a shoot that I was doing over the last two weeks, and I worked with the monitor almost exclusively on the MoVI Pro.

Figure 1. The 5.5” SmallHD OLED Focus Monitor

I mounted the Focus to the top ring of the MoVI Pro (Figure 2, below) and had a great time using it. It was exactly what I needed for my shoot.

Figure 2. The Focus mounted on the top ring of the MoVI Pro

Construction

First, let’s have a look at the hardware, the design, and construction of the monitor. As you can see in Figure 3 (below), I'm using the monitor mounted to this little fake magic arm on this camera, but if you're using it with the DSLR, they include the really nice little tilt mount shown in Figure 1.

Figure 3. The Focus mounted on a magic arm on the Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro 4.6K

If you've got a cold shoe mount on the bottom that goes right on top of a DSLR, or a lot of camcorders that have those, the tilt mount screws into the side of the monitor, which allows you to easily just tilt it by hand without having to loosen anything. I found that it stays put really well. Whatever angle I set it at, it would stay there even when I'm moving the camera around. But it comes off and allows you to put the monitor on any camera with any setup that you would need.

If you've used some of SmallHDs, more compact monitors like this one in the past, you'll be pretty familiar with everything about it, especially the software. If you've used one SmallHD monitor, you've pretty much used them all as far as the software is concerned, with a few minor variations between them.

SmallHD Software

This one is no exception. It has multiple screens that you can set up with different parameters, whether you want one screen to have LUTs applied or focus assist or zebra or waveform monitors (Figure 4, below). You can set all those up custom for each screen.

Figure 4. Working with a waveform monitor on the Focus

Design

I was a little concerned when I first pulled this Focus monitor out of the package, because of the fact that it's all screen on the front and has none of the bulky bezels we used to find on some of the older models.

They would usually protrude out the front so that I didn't have to worry so much if I were to drop it about smashing the screen like a phone, because it had that little bumper so that even if it fell face down, the bumper would keep it from making contact with the surface that it fell onto. This would prevent you from damaging the screen.

Now I'm sure SmallHD has taken that into consideration, and they've built a tough monitor, but still it was a worry that I had. Until you actually drop it, you don't know whether it's going to be tough enough or not. I didn't drop it while I had it.

On three sides--top, left, and the bottom, there are 1/4-20 female threaded mounts for mounting the Focus in any orientation you need.

Through the menu, you can also invert the image, so if you need to mount it upside down, you can do that. I was able to just mount it with this knockoff magic arm that I have, so I always use the bottom mount.

The power button (Figure 5, below) is on the side, and one of the nice things about the software on this monitor is that when it's not receiving a signal, it automatically powers off immediately. You can power it off by holding the power button or you can simply turn your camera off or unplug the cable and it will power off itself to save battery. I didn't have to think about it when I was powering off my gear because I had to power off my MoVI, and I had to power off the camera, but it was one less thing I had to worry about was wearing the battery out on this by accident.

Figure 5. The Focus’s power button

On lower-right corner of the monitor, there are three ports which are very hard to find and very hard to identify. But on the back panel there are little raised letters shown in Figure 6 (below). One has power out, to power something else. The corner is HDMI, which is a micro HDMI connector, and then on the back bottom there's a USB port. On the other corner there's an audio port and a full-size SD card slot.

Figure 6. Three ports identified on the back of the Focus monitor

The SD card slot is typically used for loading LUTs into the monitor itself, and the USB port would probably be for updating firmware, which SmallHD does often. On the back center you have a power connection which uses Sony series batteries. You can also purchase an optional AC adapter which will plug into that slot and then go to a wall.

One of the challenges I had with this newer design of this monitor was finding where everything is. It's very compact and very elegantly designed, but this made it kind of difficult to find certain things. First of all, just finding the ports was difficult because the raised letters blend in with the back. They're all black and they're barely noticeable on the rest of the design.

Another challenge I had was, once I got the battery on, figuring out how to get it back off. And I finally found that at the top corner of the battery mount, there's a little imperceptible button that you press in, and that releases the battery.

Brightness

This monitor is 350 nits, which is a moderately bright monitor. It's not super-bright. In fact, SmallHD has a series of monitors that they call the Bright series, which are meant for more demanding outdoor applications when you've got a lot of sun. I chose not to use this with a hood and I didn't have that shipped in the review kit. There was really only one situation when I was using this monitor where I found that it was lacking in brightness and I had it cranked up to 100%. I was on top of a mountain in the Smokies around 9:00 in the morning, and we were shooting in diffused sunlight. The sun was bright but it was coming through clouds and fog, and it made for a very hazy situation. Again, I was shooting with it on top of the MoVI Pro, so it was right there in full sun (Figure 7, below).

Figure 7. Shooting with the Focus without a hood in the bright sun

I did not have a hood on it to block it from any of that light. Putting a hood on it would kind of defeat the purpose of using it with a gimbal, because the beauty of the gimbal is being able to move the camera and the whole setup anywhere or with any orientation you need to--left, right, twisted, up, or down--and being able to do that without having to set up a crane or something like that. So the problem I had was, I was holding the rig up high, looking at the monitor, and also looking at the bright white clouds that were blasting the sun in my face, so it was a little bit challenging in that the monitor was up with the clouds right behind it with the sun coming through, and it has a glossy screen that reflects everything. Those things combined made it a little challenging to use in that situation.

Again, if I put a hood on it, that would pretty much solve the problem there. So there was really only that one situation where I found that the monitor was a little bit lacking.

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