Sometimes an excellent operating system can be made even better
- Excellent video, easy to use, good build quality and features
- Microphone not the best, hard drive could be bigger
One of the best Sony camcorders we've seen in a long time, and an excellent choice for anyone who wants High Definition video
Price$ 2,499.00 (AUD)
Sony really seems keen to take the bull by the horns with High Definition and has just rolled out another two models to its line-up of HD camcorders. This takes its range of High Definition consumer models to four, which is far more than any other manufacturer. The most interesting of the new models is the HDR-SR1, which combines exceptional image quality, great features and an intuitive interface, to make one of the best camcorders we've seen to date. It is also the first High Definition hard disk drive camcorder on the market.
The HDR-SR1 represents something of an evolution in camcorder design both for Sony and the market at large. From a market perspective, this is the first time we've seen the amalgamation of so many high tech concepts in a consumer camcorder. From a Sony perspective, they've finally listened to the grievances of the camcorder legions and included some features which would usually be lacking. When this is all put together it adds up to one of the finest Sony camcorders we've seen in a long time.
From a design perspective Sony has done a sterling job with the HDR-SR1. The camcorder certainly looks the part, finished in a combination of gloss black and matte silver. The chassis is on the large side, which isn't surprising for such a highly featured model. A 3.5in widescreen LCD flips out from the side, behind which sit all the major connections cleverly concealed with sliding covers. There's a USB port for connecting to a PC and HDMI, and Component and Composite out for connecting to a TV. Sony is obviously keen to cover every possibility with the HDR-SR1 which is good to see, and the presence of HDMI is particularly noteworthy.
One of the other great inclusions is the addition of both a microphone and headphone jack. This is almost unheard of for Sony, so it's good to see the company listening to critics. A five channel microphone is included on top, in addition to Sony's proprietary accessory mount. Like all Sony camcorders, the HDR-SR1 utilises a touch screen LCD, which negates the need to have buttons cluttering up the camera. The few buttons that remain are all in handy to reach places. Sony has totally redesigned the menu interface for this camera, and we found it far more intuitive than the old one. One final control of note is the multi-function focus ring that adorns the front of the camera. This is another excellent inclusion as it allows you to easily make fine adjustments to all kinds of settings, ranging from white balance through to focus and exposure.
When it came to using the camera we were impressed by how easy it all was. There's certainly a fair few functions to discover on the HDR-SR1, but once these are mastered it's a pleasure to use. The screen is clear and bright, even in direct sunlight (although it does tend to attract fingerprints), while the 10x optical zoom is rapid and precise. Our one disappointment regarding the controls is the lack of some advanced manual options. While the inclusion of spot metering and focus is nice, we missed the ability to set the aperture, shutter speed and gain manually. Sony is one of the few manufacturers that choose to omit these features even on relatively high-end models.
There are a whole host of video quality settings available on the HDR-SR1, across both High Definition (HD) and Standard Definition (SD). For HD these vary from the 15Mbps XP mode, offering up to four hours of recording, to the 5Mbps LP mode offering about eleven hours. For SD the camcorder offers just over seven hours at the highest quality. Although the picture is still good with SD, there's no real reason not to shoot in HD unless you're trying to conserve space, as the camera can output to both HD and SD televisions regardless of which you choose.
Sony has implemented a new recording format known as AVCHD for the HDR-SR1, and we were very impressed with the quality of these videos. The camcorder shoots in 1080i, so the picture understandably exhibits exceptional clarity. Colours were vivid and bright, with little over-saturation and only the slightest trace of fringing. The picture was also crisp and smooth, with no signs of the ghosting on rapidly moving objects we associate with MPEG2 recording. Low light footage also looked good, with colour reproduction remaining fairly accurate and noise levels staying low.
However we did have a few issues with the white balance when set to automatic. The camcorder had a repeated tendency to swathe the picture in a bluish hue when moving from areas of shade to light. This blue colour would remain for around five to 10 seconds while the camera adjusted the light settings. As usual, Sony's steadyshot image stabilisation worked perfectly. Do take note, as this camera uses Sony's new proprietary format, currently your options for editing the footage are rather slim. In the coming year, more software will become available that supports AVCHD, with Sony committing to a compatible version of the Vegas editing application by next Autumn and other companies signing on to follow, but for the moment you are stuck with the rather limited options present in Sony's software package.
Sound was one area that we found a little disappointing with the HDR-SR1, as the built in microphone seemed very adept at picking up ambient noise, but less good at picking up noise from nearby subjects. Wind noise and traffic in particular caused problems. At one point in our recording, a distant voice narrated "and that's the sound of the M2 Motorway you can just about hear in the background." At the time it really did seem like background noise, as the M2 was about 500m away, but on camera it sounds like the person is standing in the fast lane. These problems would probably be fixed with an external microphone, so it's lucky Sony thought to include the aforementioned jack.
Like all recently released camcorders, the HDR-SR1 can capture still images, but their quality leaves a little to be desired. The four megapixel images are certainly good enough to make small 6 x 4in prints, but they are no competition to those taken with the most basic standalone digital camera. We also found the HDR-SR1, like other Sony camcorders, had a tendency to produce blurry pictures unless we used the flash.
The final step when using a Hard Disk camcorder is to copy the video to an external device. Obviously, with limited recording space, in this case only 30GB, and the high capacity required for High Definition footage, you'll be doing this somewhat regularly. Usually with HDD camcorders, the obvious choice is to copy straight to DVD. With High Definition that's not really possible, unless you happen to have one of the new Blu-ray drives, as the footage is just too big. At present it's best to just make do and store the videos on your computer's hard drive. Sony includes all the necessary software to do this, and it's incredibly simple to use. We managed to get just under an hour's worth of recording time out of the HDR-SR1 before needing a recharge, which is good to see considering the larger than average LCD.
Overall, the HDR-SR1 is an excellent camcorder. It's not too far off hitting top marks, as its combination of excellent video and simplicity of use makes it an attractive proposition. We have given it four and a half stars, with the caveat that the software companies do need to release their compatible versions of video editing software in the near future. There are no major problems with the camera, though in an ideal world we would have liked to see more manual options and a larger hard drive. It's also the most expensive camcorder in Sony's consumer line-up, so factor in the increased cost when considering a purchase. However, this cost seems justified, and at present the HDR-SR1 is one of the best options on the market.
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