The popularity of hard disk drive standard definition and high-def camcorders continues to climb. Nothing beats the storage capability of a HDD video maker—just think, you can record hour after hour of baby giggles, if that’s your thing (and new parents, you can admit it). Hard drive cams are great for everyone else too since you can record anything to your heart’s content for much longer than any tape or disk-based system. And nothing beats the instantly generated thumbnails that let you hop from scene to scene during playback. Sony dominates the HDD market for SD and HD video makers—just as they do every other camcorder format. That said we were happy to get our hands on the new HDR-SR12, the company’s top-of-the-line HDD model that records Full HD 1920 x 1080I video along with 10-megapixel digital stills to a hefty 120GB hard drive. The camcorder even has Face Detection, the digicam feature du jour that works for video and stills. Even though there were no toddlers in the house, we definitely wanted to start recording ASAP…
Features and Design
The Sony HDR-SR12 is a solid, beefy charcoal-gray and black-bodied camcorder. Pick it up and you know it’s sturdy without the lighter-than-air feel of inexpensive Mini DV and DVD camcorders or even expensive flash-only models such as the Canon Vixia HF10 . It weighs 20.4 ounces without the battery, 23.4 with and measures 3.37 x 3 x 5.5 (WHD, in inches). By comparison the HF10 with 16GB of on-board capacity weighs around 15 ounces but it holds only two hours of Full HD video versus nearly 15 for the Sony. Even with the extra weight it fits nicely in the palm of your hand once you adjust the Velcro wrist strap.
The front of the -SR12 is dominated by a 12x Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* (T star) lens which equals 40-480mm in 35mm terms. This is a solid range but like the HF10, I wish the opening focal length was a bit wider for shooting landscapes. The lens has a built-in cover that opens and shuts when you power on/off. Also here is a built-in auto flash to help your stills. This camcorder is one of the first featuring a 5.7-megapixel CMOS imaging device which not only helps deliver the Full HD video but improves photos as well. Sony uses a bit of digital legerdemain (interpolation) to give the 10MP images touted on the spec sheet (more on these in the Performance and Use section). Still this 5.7MP sensor is one of the most potent ever used in a consumer camcorder. The $1,099 Vixia HF10 uses a 3.2MP CMOS sensor, by comparison.
Other front features include a small backlight compensation button—a nice option to have quickly on hand–the remote sensor/infrared port and the CAM CTRL dial. The latter lets you quickly move into manual focus and fine-tune adjustments. This is the default setting but you can change it to exposure, AE or WB shift, if that’s more to your liking. And if you decide to shoot in total darkness using the NightShot mode, keep your hands off the infrared port since that’s the illumination for the video. Remember NightShot videos are lovely shades of green and an acquired taste. Sleeping babies still look cute, no matter what the color!
Along with the strap, on the right you’ll find the HDD safely tucked away with a few unobtrusive embossed logos. Unlike almost every other camcorder, the HDR-SR12 has quality doors covering the outputs rather than flimsy pieces of plastic. Nicely done, Sony. The far left compartment has the USB and A/V outs while near the front are mic and headphone jacks along with a mini HDMI output. As an added bonus, the –SR12 is supplied with a Handycam Station that repeats several of the ports found on the camcorder itself (DC-in, USB and A/V out) along with a Disc-Burn button that lets you copy material to DVD on your PC. Realize these DVDs will have AVCHD-encoded video if you’re shooting in HD and only work on Blu-ray players; you won’t see anything on a legacy DVD machine.
The left side has a piano black finish and features a swing-out 3.2-inch 16:9 touchscreen LCD. This high-quality display is rated 921K pixels, far greater than the typical 230K dots found on most screens. You use the LCD not only to frame your subjects but to walk through the various menu options. Simply tap on an icon on the bottom right with your fingertip and you have access to five screens worth off camcorder options ranging from type of focus, spot metering, scene modes, white balance, fades as well adjusting the mic and video quality. Move into camera mode and there are four screens with various options. Conversely you can just press the Easy button on opposite the LCD and the –SR12 is in full-on Auto mode where you simply aim-and-forget. For the most part, I liked the menu system; it’s very easy to follow and operate. Some may complain there are no options for shutter speed, aperture and so on but I really didn’t miss them. I did have some issues with the system as I’ll point out in the Performance section.
To the left of the LCD on the bezel and controls to start/stop recording, adjust the zoom and quickly reach the main home page that offers more options depending on your mode (video/still).
Image Courtesy of Sony
Since the vast majority of adjustments are done on the LCD, there are only a few controls on the body opposite the LCD. These include the aforementioned Easy and NightShot on/off buttons. There’s also a Display/Battery Info key to remove icons from the screen and to check how much juice is left (to the minute). The camcorder offers grid lines to keep your scenes level. There’s also playback and disc-burn button, a speaker and a compartment for Memory Stick Pro Duo cards if you’d like to save photos or video to it instead of the HDD. People with card readers might like this to quickly turn out some prints.
The top of the HDR-SR12 is as nicely designed as the rest of the unit. Near the lens is a 5.1-channel mic with zoom control so it zeroes in on the main subject. This mic is quite good and eliminates much of the roaring sound recorded by the HF10 and JVC HD6 . Next to it is a slider door covering the accessory hot shoe with an electronic viewfinder (EVF) at the rear. It has a diopter control to adjust for your eyesight. Although it doesn’t pull back it does adjust on an angle offering a variety of shooting positions. Resting on top of the HDD are the wide/tele switch and a snapshot button for stills.
The rear is nicely done too with the battery fitting neatly into the body so it barely sticks out. Slightly to the right is a dial that turns the unit on and changes the modes—from still to video. In the middle of it is the record button. There are also access lights and a Quick On button. When you’ve done recording, you hit this button and the camcorder goes into standby so it quickly “boots up” in a second so it’s ready to go. The camcorder does go to a deeper sleep if you don’t use it quickly, however. The bottom of this Made in Japan camcorder has a tripod mount, a dock connection and the battery release switch.
The HDR-SR12 comes with almost everything you need other than a mini HDMI cable and MS Pro Duo card. You’ll find a battery (rated 85 minutes continuous recording in HD), charger, Handycam Station, A/V and USB cables, remote and CD-ROM with Picture Motion Browser and the full manual. Sony only supplies a 35-page quick guide in English that’s mirrored in Spanish. This is too bad since most people don’t carry their laptops around with their camcorders. I’m all for saving trees but Sony’s doing some nice things recycling older TVs so including a larger guide would be forgiven—Al Gore take note.
After charging the battery, setting it to record video to the HDD and stills to a 2GB card, it was time to see how it worked in the real world.
Image Courtesy of Sony
Performance and Use
Since this is a hard-drive camcorder, it boots up fairly quickly and you can record in about 3 seconds. I started off in the Easy mode which basically limits your options to point-and-shoot. Although I’m all for making life simple, you’re better off not using this setting since you cannot record in Full HD. This is big-time ouch and Sony should rectify this for the next generation. And by avoiding Easy, you’re really not giving up anything other than the right to mess up the settings. Still it’s pretty hard to screw things up unless you go crazy adjusting white balance and so on. A smidgen of common sense goes a long way here.
During a visit to NYC on a bright sunny day I did a lot of recording near Madison Square Park right near the Flat Iron building, a classic Manhattan landmark. Safely on a traffic island, I shot the area as taxis and buses zoomed by. I also recorded people hustling off to who-knows-where, blooming spring plants and other objects that caught my eye. One thing I did notice was the LCD since it had a rough time with direct sunlight, forcing me to use the viewfinder. Yes, you can adjust the screen but it takes multiple steps and Sony engineers should add a dedicated button for this task. Or they should add directions to the Quick Guide or supply a full-blown manual like the competition.
I found the HDR-SR12 effortless to operate and it was nicely balanced in my hand. Controls are nicely placed, especially the zoom switch. Although there were some issues with the screen, the large size made it a breeze framing my scenes—and I especially liked the grid lines to keep things level. As noted earlier, this camcorder has Face Detection technology—just like almost all quality digital cameras. When you’re shooting video boxes appear around faces in the frame—and the frames follow the faces as they move (or you move the unit). This is a welcome feature and it also works in still mode. Once done shooting indoors as well as outside, it was time to review my work, make some prints and burn a DVD.
Connecting the camcorder to a 50-inch plasma via HDMI I was quite pleased with the outdoor video taken in Manhattan. Colors really popped including brightly-painted tourist buses, speeding yellow taxis and the like. There was hardly any trace of noise in the blue skies or as I zoomed in on the architectural details of the nearby buildings. The SteadyShot optical image stabilization worked really well with barely a hint of “shakes” from my handheld pans. Some brightly blooming red azaleas looked extremely lifelike. Face Detection also worked well and the 5.1-channel surround sound was fun, especially with traffic coming up behind you. Besides the HDMI connection I also burned a DVD using Sony’s truly effortless One-Touch DVD Burn system and played the material back through a Panasonic BD30 Blu-ray player. There was a touch more noise than the direct HDMI connection (to be expected) but the overall results were quite good.
Where the –SR12 fell down was shooting indoors with very low light. Images were filled with digital noise, particularly in a shadowy, dim room. Once more ambient light was available, the camcorder did a much better job. Overall video quality was on a par with my FiOS HDTV service—which is no small accomplishment.
On a more positive note the stills were top-notch. Yes there was a bit a digital noise in some shots but colors were excellent and you’ll be more than pleased with the results. In fact, these were the best stills I’ve ever taken with a camcorder.
The Sony Handycam HDR-SR12 is a slightly mixed bag with the ledger heavily weighted to the positive. Full HD 1920 x 1080I videos taken outdoors were terrific and they’re solid indoors when there’s enough light. Try shooting in very dim rooms and you’ll have problems with digital noise. Audio quality is excellent and the stills are the finest I’ve taken with any camcorder. With its large LCD and hard drive, the unit goes through batteries quickly so spares are a definite must buy—especially if you think you’ll save anywhere near the 15 hours of Full HD the HDR-SR12 is capable of recording. The menus are a bit quirky and it would be great if Sony supplied a full-blown printed owner’s manual. With the dim-light caveat on the table I’d recommend this camcorder for anyone going on vacation. The video and stills are hard to beat. And if $1,399 is too much, consider the HDR-SR11 with a 60GB HDD for $1,199.
• Takes beautiful HD video outdoors
• Best camcorder stills yet
• Incredible storage
• Falls down in very low light
• Clunky menu system for key features (LCD brightness, for example)
• Eats batteries