Digital Trends readers know full well that when it comes to true high-def video, we believe nothing beats a “real” camcorder, not one of those funky small models (that means you Sanyo and Flip Video – or should we say Cisco). Although DSLRs like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, just announced EOS Rebel T1i and Nikon D90 can record HD, they are more cumbersome, and have auto focusing issues that are problematic. Don’t get us wrong: every technology has its place. But if you just want to record top-quality home videos, HD camcorders are the way go. Until this year, they cost a ton, turning off lots of buyers. Now, Sony has broken the magic $600 level with the $599 AVCHD Flash Memory Handycam HDR-CX100. It offers a 10x zoom, a 2.3MP CMOS chip, 8GB of onboard flash memory and loads of other goodies. Let’s see how this one plays out, shall we?
Features and Design
When we first took the HDR-CX100 out of the carton, we were amazed at its compact size. Just like the wow factor of the new iPod shuffle, this camcorder is unbelievably small, and easily fits in the palm of your hand. Even if you don’t buy this high-def model, check it out at the local retailer: It’s quite impressive.
The CX100 measures 2.25 x 2.4 x 4.5 (W x H x D, in inches) and weighs 10.4 ounces with the battery. You can carry this one around all day, no problem. We tested a red model, which has black and silver accents, but Sony also makes silver and black versions. Overall the camcorder looks slick, but it’s hardly a standout.
The front is dominated by a 10x Zeiss Vario-Tessar zoom, with a focal range of 42-497mm in widescreen mode. It has a 30mm filter diameter. Below the lens is a stereo mic, with a built-in zooming feature and that’s it – no flash or LED light. The right side has a comfortable strap, a switch to open the lens cap, a fairly good-sized speaker, and a compartment for DC-in to charge the battery and A/V out. The top is as plain as can be, with no hot shoe – just a wide-tele zoom switch and a “photo” button for taking snapshots while shooting video (2.3 megapixels) or an interpolated 4 megapixels in still mode. The rear has the battery which doesn’t protrude too much, mode indicators (video or still) and the record button.
The left side is where you’ll live once you open the 2.7-inch, 16:9 touch-screen monitor. The CX100 automatically powers up when you open the LCD (a new feature this year) in less than two seconds, and you’re ready to go. The screen, rated 211K pixels, works well at all light levels, including direct sunshine. It’s a touch screen, so you make menu and mode adjustments by tapping icons, which is very simple and intuitive. The mode dial found on most 2008 HD Handycams is now gone, which helped cut the price. On the far left bezel are four control buttons: home, W and T for the zoom as well as start/stop. Opposite the LCD on the body are a few additional keys for playback, display, power, disc burn and “easy,” which is Sony’s no-brainer mode. There is also a Memory Stick Pro Duo card slot for additional storage. Another compartment has the mini HDMI and USB outs. On the bottom of this Made In Japan model are a metal tripod mount and a battery release.
What’s In The Box
Don’t expect a mini HDMI cable at this price. In fact, no camcorder comes with one, so put it on your shopping list. You do get the CX100, rechargeable battery, AC adaptor, A/V, USB and component cables, and a 62-page operating guide. The CD-ROM has the Picture Motion Browser and the Handycam Handbook, which is for Windows only. There’s also a link to download Blu-ray burning software if you have a BD drive.
After charging the battery and popping in a 1GB Duo card, it was time to record some HD.
Performance and Use
The Sony HDR-CX100 has a 2.3-megapixel Exmor ClearVid CMOS sensor, meaning it records full HD: 1920 x 1080 pixels. Most top-end AVCHD camcorders offer this, but vary in encoding rates, which determine how much storage each second of footage takes up. The best offer 24 megabytes per second (Mb/s); the Sony does 16 Mb/s. Does this mean much on your TV screen? We’ll soon see…
We started off in the easy, no-brainer mode. Inexplicably, as in prior years, easy does not let you record in full HD at 16 Mb/s—it drops to 9. But on the plus side, you do get more time. Why Sony does this is a mystery. Switch out of easy and you can record full HD, with the onboard 8GB giving you 55 minutes at this best level. Do the math, and the 1GB card adds another 6 minutes. It’s hardly the 120/240GB of ’09 HDD camcorders but you don’t have the added weight, bulk or expense. An hour will do the trick for the vast majority of users – especially those who just want to record high-quality vids with a minimum of hassle – which is exactly the person who would buy this camcorder.
After shooting some clips and photos in this mode, it was time to disengage easy, which, for a camcorder, means a six-year-old can use it, instead of toddler. In this mode, you can shoot in straight auto, any number of typical scene modes, and make a few manual adjustments like focus and white balance. You make all the adjustments via the screen, and it’s fairly simple, requiring just a few peeks at the owner’s manual to get the hang of it.
Once done, it was time to quickly connect the CX100 to a 50-inch Panasonic plasma via HDMI. Here you can definitely see the difference between frame rates. Easy videos shot with enough light looked accurate and held their own on the big screen. Unfortunately, scenes taken indoors in dim, available light had loads of digital noise, something we were not thrilled to see. On the plus side, the camcorder handled the exposure of mixed lighting very well, including delivering fluorescents without the typical greenish cast. Still faces taken indoors had too much noise, giving them an almost a wax-like texture. Things were a lot better once the frame rate hit 16 Mb/s—especially in good light, with more accurate skin tones and natural colors. Image stabilization, even though not optical, did a good job smoothing the shakes from handheld videos.
Still photos were nothing to write home about at all, but it’s a rare camcorder – other than higher-end Canons – that do a good job.
We congratulate Sony for breaking the $600 barrier for a quality full HD camcorder. It’s just a matter of time before the $500 wall is breached – praise be! We’ve always been fans of HD camcorders, but the caveat has always been price. Now, for the most part, this is gone. Granted, the CX100 isn’t the most fully-featured model on the block, nor does it do greatest job in low light. We have our eyes on the new Canon Vixia HF200 (due in May) as another low-priced contender, but until then, Sony’s CX100 remains the best option for full HD on a budget.
- Very affordable HD
- Quality AVCHD videos in good light
- Drop-dead easy to use
- Very good LCD touch screen
- Too much noise in low light
- No optical image stabilization
- No hot shoe or mic input
- So-so stills