The Good: Good image quality for video and photos; excellent storage
The Bad: Unintuitive at the outset; unhelpful user guide; navigating menus on touch-screen LCD while viewing video is confusing and distracting
The Bottom Line: Overall, a very good camcorder, but the learning curve is steep
As far as camcorders go, I have to admit I have lived in a cave for the last several years. Before testing the Sony Handycam DCR-SR80, the last camcorder I used was the size of a toaster, and it weighed about as much.
So when I got my hands on the latest Sony (SNE) Handycam, measuring 2.8 by 2.7 by 4.6 in. and weighing 13.8 oz., my hopes started running high. Even more impressive, the device features a 60-GB hard-disk drive, which can hold almost 10,000 photos or 14 hours of high-quality video. The trouble is, I found it hard to use at first and consider some of its features cumbersome.
If you're considering buying a camcorder and the Sony is on your short list, indulge me as I recount my travails. For starters, the user's guide was anything but user-friendly. As a relative newbie to camcorder use, I needed a lot of help getting started, and the 35-page guide that came with the device was inadequate. By contrast, the guide to another camcorder I am reviewing, the Panasonic VDR-D300, runs 180 pages. The Sony could have used the extra pages. Sony does provide an expanded, 130-page manual available on CD-ROM, but I didn't find instructions there clear or sufficiently detailed either. When I came to wit's end, I fell back on tech support, which, thankfully, was stellar.
What was so frustrating about getting started? Plenty. First, you need to use a cradle to connect the camcorder to the PC. I like to use a camcorder while traveling, so I prefer a device with fewer moving parts—specifically, one that plugs directly into the USB port. Then, by trial and error (and a call to tech support), I realized that I would have to reconfigure the camcorder's settings, using the LCD screen, before my PC would recognize it. Why this feature couldn't be included as a default is still unclear to me.
Speaking of the LCD screen, I have a gripe about that, too. The display functions both as a viewer that shows what's being recorded as well as a touch screen for operating the camera. At first, I thought that was a good idea—until I realized I'd need to push buttons on the screen while trying to watch what I was shooting. Some people love the touch screen, but I am not one of them.
Ultimately, I figured out what the camera could do, and how the various menus worked (the manual was dog-eared by the end) and concluded that this camcorder is packed with cool features. A burst feature records several still images one after another. Spot focus selects and adjusts the focus point to aim at a subject not located in the center of the screen. There are also manual settings for focus and exposure. The camera comes with a self-timer and a night light, emitting infrared light for recording in dark places. You can burn DVDs with the push of one button. The list goes on.
Image quality is very good, and replay is lots of fun. The camera comes with 12X optical zoom and 800X digital zoom. The photos and the videos look crisp. The device's internal mic picks up sounds very well. When you replay video, the camcorder's software breaks continuous footage into clips, so you don't have to watch the whole recording from start to finish. PC software that comes with the device lets you create videos set to music and background images (a cake with candles for video footage shot at a birthday party, for instance). I loved a feature called "Playback Zoom" that lets you zoom in on an image during playback.
My favorite feature is the internal, 60-GB hard drive. While camcorders with DVD drives are all the rage, a DVD can get corrupted—a problem you won't encounter with a hard-disk drive. With this Sony camcorder, you also won't have to keep buying DVDs to record (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/13/06, "Canon's Clever Camcorder"). A downside is that the hard drive can get destroyed if you drop the device, but Sony includes several safeguards against data loss.
In short, Sony has come up with a good device for the price ($700 to $800, depending on the seller), but unless you're an experienced camcorder user, get ready for a steep learning curve before getting started.