Tiffen sent us in their "Davis & Sanford" W3 universal dolly tripod for a review. We put the product to the test as to how it performs, and we weigh in if it can be considered a steady-cam alternative or not.
The tripod dolly came well-packed. It features a handle, so it was easy to remove it from the box by sliding it out. When folded it's easy to carry around, just like a folded tripod is. It is heavier than most consumer tripods, but lighter than pro tripods. The building material is steardy, heavy duty, trustable.
The legs can spread and adjusted in a way that makes it easy to fit any tripod. You can adjust the exact place where the tripod feet are mounting on the dolly, and when it's setup, you screw them against the dolly. Even a thousand words are not as good as a picture, so here's how the mounting mechanism looks like. There is also a ball bearing rubber wheel with a step-on brake that locks/unlocks the rolling & swivel movements.
We tested the dolly with our Canon HV20. The results we got were dissapointing in absolute value, but one has to consider that you can't cheat physics. A dolly with suspension and bigger wheels would probably fair better, but that would make the product much more expensive. Steadycams can provide really smooth results, but they are very difficult to put together by the average person, and they are expensive too. Tripod dollys on the other hand only cost $50 and they do go as far as that price allows.
In our tests, the dolly performed exceptionally well on thick smooth caprets. It felt easy to handle, it made no noise, and it delivered a result that's close to professional standards. In fact, the recorded quality was higher than going hand-held.
The W3 on the test
Anything that has an engraving pattern though, like asphalt, non-smooth carpets/marble, pavements etc, the performance will range from bad to worse. More over, we found it difficult to keep the dolly going straight under these conditions and instead it was pulling us left and right. Finally, if you would drive the dolly in a walking or even sub-walking speed, be prepared to also record wheel noise. These problems don't exist on a smooth and flat carpet environment though. A heavier camera/tripod might help the situation but don't expect a huge difference.
Overall, we believe that the product has a place in the market, if you have the right carpet with you at all times on the shooting location. It can be a hassle for non-professionals, but if you are an indie director with a small crew, this is not really a problem. More over, it is a useful accessory to move tripods from one studio location to another.