Have tape- and DVD-based camcorders gone the way of the VCR and the cassette Walkman? It sure looks that way, as we’re pretty hard-pressed to find a super cool model featuring those media types. And how do you beat something like Sony’s high-def HDR-XR500V, with a 120GB hard drive, 6-megapixel CMOS imager and GPS map tagging? It’s tough. The XR500V is definitely not cheap, at $1,299, and is far from perfect, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s see what state-of-the-art looks like in the consumer camcorder arena.
Features and Design
Like the recently reviewed Canon Vixia HF S10 and last year’s Sony HDR-SR12, the HDR-XR500V is not a camcorder for wimps: It’s big, bulky, and definitely not something you’ll pop in your pocket for some casual vids. Oh, it’s easy to use, all right, but this is heavy-duty firepower geared for someone very serious about home videos, or who has aspirations of going beyond YouTube clips made with a cell phone or Flip.
The XR500V has gloss black and charcoal gray finishes, which exude a competent, high-tech vibe like the HF S10. It measures 2.9 x 3 x 5.5 (W x H x D, in inches), and weighs 20 ounces with the battery. Helping tip the scales is the 120GB hard drive on the right side, near the comfortable strap. One of the great benefits of a HDD is storage; You can save over 14 hours of best-quality AVCHD video, blowing away purely flash memory models. And don’t even mention tape or disk editions in the same breath. Even the highly-rated HF S10 has “just” 32GB embedded, which can be supplemented by SDHC cards. And if 120GB is not enough, the $1,499 Sony XR520V has an amazing 240GB. As we said, nothing comes close, although in time Samsung will have larger solid state drives in its new HD camcorders (64GB is the current max for the $899 HMX106).
The front of the camcorder is dominated by the 12x zoom, but instead of the typical Zeiss glass, it features a Sony G lens with low-dispersion aspheric elements. That’s photo-geek speak for better quality. We’ll see how it works in the performance section. The front also hosts a flash for improved still quality, a remote sensor, and a manual dial. With this, you can dedicate a specific function, such as focus, to adjust by turning the knurled dial when you’re in manual modes.
On the top is a 5.1-channel surround mic, a hot shoe and an adjustable, pull-out electronic viewfinder (EVF), something not found on the HF S10. A diopter control lets you adjust it to your eyesight. The EVF is a failsafe option if the LCD wipes out in direct sunshine, a problem we didn’t have with the Canon. The S10 only offers two-channel stereo, so keep that in mind if surround ambience appeals to you. There’s also a wide/tele zoom switch and a dedicated photo button. A GPS logo designates this is the first camcorder with a built-in tagging device. Pretty cool stuff.
The left side has a huge flip-out 3.2-inch touch screen LCD rated at 921K pixels, which is about as good as they get right now. You’ll tap on the screen to cruise through the various menu options and make your picks. The icons are fairly straightforward, and simple to navigate. On the left bezel are four controls including home, wide/tele for the zoom, and start/stop. The overall menu layout is fine, but it’s not nearly as sophisticated as the new top-end Canons. Still, you’ll have no problems making the most of the features.
On the body, opposite the screen, is a slot for a Memory Stick Pro Duo card and a speaker. There are controls for playback, easy no-brainer mode, disk burn, power, and display, to eliminate icon clutter on the screen. There’s also switch to enable and disable GPS, and another to pick your options for low-light shooting: standard, low lux and NightShot. That setting is designed for recording still subjects in almost total darkness. The results are pretty poor, and look like night vision goggle clips seen on CNN. But still sleeping babies and kitties look cute—even if they are green.
On the back is a mode button for switching between stills and video, the record button, as well as a slot for the recess battery and a jack for DC-in for charging. Connections for headphones, accessory mics, USB, mini-HDMI and component video flank the hard drive on the right. On the bottom of the Made In Japan camcorder is a metal tripod mount and battery release.
What’s In The Box
The Sony HDR-XR500V comes with the body, battery, AC adaptor, a 65-page operating guide, a short guide to GPS, component, A/V and USB cables, and a remote. The CD-ROM has Picture Motion Browser software and a PDF of the full owner’s manual.
Once the battery was charged and a 1GB card loaded, it was time to start recording.
Performance and Use
If you checked out the review of the 2008 Sony SR12, you saw we liked the results of videos taken with good light, but there was loads of noise with dark scenes. Sony took these issues to heart, and engineered a completely new CMOS sensor for the 2009 XR500V and XR520V. In this case, it’s a 6MP Exmor R imager, versus the 5.6MP ClearVid sensor of the SR12. Besides the tiny gap in resolution, the Exmor R is a back-illuminated sensor instead of front illuminated, giving it twice the sensitivity and reduced grain, according to Sony. Of course, we put this to the test with loads of scenes indoors and subjects in the shade and in the dark.
Since this is a full-HD AVCHD camcorder, it records 1920 x 1080 pixel videos. But in highest quality mode, the compression rate is 17 Mbps, versus 24 Mbps used by Canon, JVC and others. This is one knock on the camcorder. The other is the fact that in easy mode, you cannot use the highest quality setting, something Canon lets you do. Why does Sony think someone using easy doesn’t want the finest quality? We still don’t get this, and will keep pestering Sony until they change this approach. Yes, we know they get more recording time, but do you really need over 40 hours of friends acting out in front of the lens?
We started recording in easy, but quickly ditched that for the enhanced quality Sony labels as FH, meaning full HD at 17 Mbps. From the basic auto, we tried some of the manual options, shooting outdoors in bright blue skies, and indoors as well. Before getting into the results, like the Canon HF S10, the Sony is simple to use and comfortable with controls all within reach. The LCD handled direct sunlight with few issues, and we barely had to use the viewfinder (nice to know it’s there, though). Once done, it was time to review our efforts on a 50-inch 1080p plasma and make full-bleed prints.
We have to admit to being very pleasantly surprised at the quality of video in easy mode, which was solid and noise free even in low light. That said, colors had more depth and richness after moving to FH mode. We still suggest shooting at the higher bit rate, but if you’re close to filling the HDD while on vacation, by all means drop back to easy. The new Exmor R sensor is a definite improvement over the ClearVid imaging device, and it’s very noticeable in dim scenes. An LED light really should be part of this package. Another plus is the enhanced optical image stabilization, which really eliminated most of the shakes from handheld recordings. It’s a winner.
We have to note the GPS feature is very cool. Tap the icon on the screen, and you’ll see where you are on the built-in NAVTEQ maps. Forget about using this to find the nearest gas station or quickest route home. It’s stripped down, but still pinpoints your location. A nice touch is the ability to sort through videos by location. Just tap on the marker and all related vids appear.
We’ve always taken issue with Sony’s photo resolution claims, since they use interpolation to boost the native rate. In this case the 6MP CMOS sensor turns out 12.1-megapixel stills. To keep it honest, we kept resolution at 6MP when we took our shots. Although you make some adjustments in the photo mode, it’s not nearly as sophisticated as the aperture- and shutter-priority of the new Canons, nor does it have as many autofocus points. While you’re shooting video, it takes an interpolated 8.3MP still. We checked them out as well, with 8.5 x 11 prints. Unfortunately, the results were uneven, with OK colors, but they didn’t have nearly the sharpness or accuracy of Canon’s new camcorders, or even a low-priced point-and-shoot from a decent brand. The quality of the Sony T900, which we recently reviewed, simply blew the XR500V’s stills out of the water. Sony camcorder photos are simply not as good as Canon’s.
The new Handycam does some cool tricks with its built-in GPS, hefty storage, new 6-megapixel imager and enhanced OIS. If we hadn’t reviewed the Canon HF S10, we’d probably shouting hosannas in its praise for the video, hefty storage and cool GPS tagging. However, we did test the Canon, and it remains our current camcorder king, since the videos and stills are much better. It’s hard beating that 8.59MP CMOS sensor.
- 120GB storage
- New 6-megapixel CMOS sensor
- 3.2-inch touch control LCD and EVF
- 5.1-channel surround
- 12x stabilized zoom
- 17 Mbps compression, versus 24 Mbps of competitors
- Heavy, expensive
- Can’t control compression in easy mode
- No LED light