Sony's HDR-SR1 Camcorder: A Mini-Marvel
The Good: Easy and intuitive navigation, high-definition recording
The Bad: Pricey; multiple features and settings may confuse novice users
The Bottom Line: Hard-disk drive and high-definition recording in a compact package
The first thing you notice when unboxing Sony's HDR-SR1 high-definition camcorder is how compact it is. For a device that includes a 30-GB hard drive, offers high-definition and standard recording, as well as the ability to snap digital photos, it's surprising how comfortably it fits in one hand.
Despite its diminutive size, the well-proportioned gray and black device packs a heck of a lot of features to satisfy the novice and expert alike.
Sony one-ups competitors by making the HDR-SR1 capable of being used as a point-and-shoot, while adding enough of the high-end goodies found on more expensive camcorders to please aficionados. These include electronic image stabilization, jacks for headphones, external mics, and a flash for digital stills of up to 4 megapixels.
Most of the action occurs on the left side. A 3.5-inch liquid crystal display touch screen handles most of the adjustments and toggles between the camcorder's different features. On the bottom of the LCD, there's a button that duplicates what you can do through the on-screen menu, offering among other things quick recording, menu home, and a one-touch upload key for burning recordings to disc.
While the keys are redundant, you will quickly discover they're nice to have because they cut down on the finger smudges resulting from repeated taps on the LCD.
Below the screen, hidden by a drop-down panel, are ports for connecting to other devices. You get the standard red, yellow, and white composite output, as well as component out. There's even a nice goodie: a high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) out for sending digital video and audio down a single cable to the HDTV.
With the LCD open, you can also insert a Memory Stick Duo memory card and connect to a PC via a USB 2.0 high-speed cable. On the left-front, there's a switch to adjust for recording at night or in dark room, and a backlight button.
In that same left-front area, there's also a button that activates a separate control for manually adjusting focus, exposure, white balance, and other features. That's in addition to letting the user make such adjustments by navigating through an excellent touch-screen menu.
Indeed, redundant features are a recurring theme with the HDR-SR1. There's a regular viewfinder for those who don't want to use the touch screen. And for left-handed users like me, Sony throws in a second zoom control on the LCD, though the toggle on the top is well-placed and easy to reach
Zooming Around the Windy City
In my testing, after trying out the controls and finding them fairly straightforward, I generally let Sony handle such adjustments automatically. The automatic controls don't disappoint. Even difficult high-definition shots using the Carl Zeiss lens, which offers 10 times optical and 80 times digital zoom, stayed wonderfully in focus as I moved around and zoomed in and out on subjects.
On a trip to Chicago, I zoomed in on construction workers half a block away and could easily make out little details of what they were doing. Pictures I took of a friend's dog clearly showed its soulful eyes looking back at me.
Sony records information using a relatively new format called AVCHD. It's a derivative of MPEG-4 compression that offers more efficient coding of information, while still delivering exceptional quality pictures.
One of the highlights of the HDR-SR1 is the ability to find images quickly. Since you're likely to record to the hard drive, the camcorder automatically breaks images into thumbnails that appear during on-screen browsing. Menu tabs at the bottom of the screen let you quickly toggle between video recorded in high-def, standard definition and digital stills, and you can erase particular scenes or pictures at the flick of a finger.
Some may find this hard-drive camcorder a bit too feature-filled for their tastes, particularly since it costs a relatively pricey $1,200. But for those looking for a nice and painless way to begin amassing your own high-definition content to complement the HDTVs adorning the home, this is the device for you.