Shoot in HD

Sony's Handycam brings high-def to life

After you buy a high-definition TV, you begin to resent standard definition. It looks so lame, especially the black bars on either side of the picture. You can always confine your TV viewing to HD broadcasts, but when you plug in the camcorder to watch family videos, it's back to boxy, low-resolution images and black bars. Solution: Buy a camcorder that shoots in HD. Sony's excellent new Handycam HDR-SR1 (about $1,800) is a good bet.

The HDR-SR1 stores video on a non-removable 30-gigabyte hard drive. That's enough for four hours of the best-quality HD video. Hard drives aren't as robust as MiniDV cassettes or as convenient as DVDs, the most popular camcorder storage media. And once you've filled the disk, you need to transfer to a PC, DVD burner or VCR and wipe the disk before you can shoot more.

On the plus side, though, this model does have circuitry that senses if you drop the camera, and automatically turns off the hard drive to reduce risk of damage. And it's actually easier to transfer video to a computer from a hard drive than from MiniDV tape. You can do it over a standard USB connection–fairly quickly–with no special video capture device required.

The HDR-SR1's CMOS image sensor captures still images at up to four megapixels (MP). Most modern camcorders let you shoot stills as well as video, but usually at lower resolution. The lens, another crucial component, is a 10-times optical zoom from the very good German maker Carl Zeiss. The HDR-SR1 also has Sony's Super SteadyShot Image Stabilization system for reducing jiggle in hand-held shots.

Sony uses the MPEG4-based AVCHD video-processing and compression system. It produces sparkling 1080/60i video, the same resolution as most broadcast HD. Video shot in daylight looked crisp and richly coloured on my widescreen 32-inch HDTV. Indoor shots were naturally noisier (grainy looking) and less crisp, but still better than low-light video from most camcorders.

The HDR-SR1 has some cool special features. You can press the shutter button to take up to three still shots while recording video. NightShot mode lets you shoot in very low light using infrared. Scenes are virtually monochrome and greenish, but remarkably clear. The backlight feature adjusts settings so a backlit subject will be properly exposed. And the five auto-exposure modes work for special shooting situations such as Beach & Ski and Landscape.

The HDR-SR1 lets you take manual control of focus, exposure and white balance. Turning the knurled ring at the front of the lens after pressing the Manual Cam Ctrl button changes focus by default, but you can use the very good and intuitive menu system on the big 3.5-inch touch-screen LCD viewfinder to change it so turning the ring adjusts exposure or white balance instead. It's awkward enough that you likely won't use manual control often, but it's good to have the option available.

The included software (PC only) automatically downloads images and video to a computer and lets you view and trim video clips. Another program simplifies burning a DVD with downloaded clips and stills.

Even with the hard drive, the impressive array of camcorder features, and both component and HDMI sockets for best-quality connection to an HDTV, the HDR-SR1 is surprisingly petite. At 78-by-84-by-165 millimitres and 720 grams, it's not the smallest camcorder on the market, but it's smaller than my old MiniDV unit.

Bottom line: If you own an HDTV, you definitely want an HD camcorder. If you edit video on your PC (calling all YouTubers), hard drive storage is a definite plus–as long as you'll never need to shoot for more than four hours before offloading. The one downside: a hefty price tag. But, hey, it's bonus time.