“Video results in easy mode were good - not great - although much better than the Everio GZ-MG505.”
- 3.3MP CCD; 30GB HDD; 5.1 Dolby Digital sound; color viewfinder
- Colors a bit washed out; no memory card slot; awkward placement of mode dial
I was there when it happened at CES. In January, Sony executives announced they were entering the hard-disc drive camcorder category, a new type of home video maker pioneered by JVC’s Everio G series. Remembering full well what happened when Sony decided to sell DVD camcorders after Hitachi and Panasonic labored at it for years, I had a feeling of déjà vu all over again (credit goes to baseball-great Yogi Berra for that cool line).
In case you’re not up on the latest market share stats, here’s the scoop. Once Sony released several DVD camcorders, it practically obliterated the competition because Sony knows what camcorder owners want—easy-to-use models that deliver good video. Now that DVD cams are an ancient battle with Sony on top, the company is moving into JVC’s turf with the new DCR-SR100. On paper it’s somewhat similar to the recently reviewed $1,299 GZ-MG505. Instead of a trio of CCDs, however, this has only one, but it’s the same 3.3MP chip used in the DCR-HC96 we liked so much.
There are other differences between the two that we’ll go into on the following pages. Now is this camcorder worth $999 versus the more expensive JVC? Keep reading…
Features and Design
The Sony DCR-SR100 looks completely different than the JVC GZ-MG505 even though both have 30GB HDDs. This size drive holds seven hours of MPEG2 DVD-level video, a simply incredible amount that puts any tape- or disc-based camcorder to shame. There are issues dealing with all the info on the drive but we’ll get into that in a moment. The SR100 is much bigger and heavier than the JVC. It measures 3.4 x 2.75 x 5.9 (WHD, in inches) and weighs 21.4 ounces with battery and wrist strap. By comparison the JVC weighs 17.6 ounces and is 2.9 x 2.9 x 4.9. Neither is pants-pocket sized but the Sony is much bigger. The Sony also has a silver finish compared to the all-black GZ-MG505.
The DCR-SR100 is not the most elegant piece of electronics I’ve handled recently but it’s not ugly, it just takes getting used to. The front is dominated by the 10x optical zoom Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* (T-star) lens that can be digitally boosted to 120x. Although the JVC hits 300x digitally, I suggest you turn off the digital zoom in either case since picture quality really suffers. Hurray! This camcorder has a built-in lens cover, something that eluded the designers of the JVC and recently reviewed Toshiba gigashot HDD camcorder. You’ll also find a flash to help with stills and a remote control sensor.
The right side has the comfortable Velcro wrist strap with black and gray plastic covering the HDD. An embossed HDD logo lets the world know you’re using a hard disc drive camcorder. There’s also an input for optional remote accessories.
The top is clean with a large microphone that records Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. In some earlier iterations of this system—such as its DVD cams –Sony required an optional mic to get a complete sound field. Not so with this model. It is simply amazing that no other company has incorporated surround sound in its camcorders. Granted the effects can be a little disconcerting such as hearing your narration coming from the back of the room but if you have a Home Theater with the requisite six speakers (or more) why wouldn’t you want your memories to have enhanced audio? I guess that’s why Sony is still a dominant CE company even after it stumbled during the transition to flat panel TVs (and let’s not forget that little product called the iPod). But I digress…also on the top of the SR100 is a hot accessory shoe, something the MG505 neglected to include. With this hot shoe, you can connect a light or the very cool Sony Bluetooth wireless microphone that lets you record a specific person as the center dialog channel. It’s perfect if you have a budding thespian. Also on top are the wide/tele zoom switch and a separate key for taking stills.
Image Courtesy of Sony
The left side is dominated by a flip-out 2.7-inch touch screen widescreen monitor rated 123K pixels versus 115K for the MG505; the JVC is not a touch screen but has a joystick to move through the menus instead of your fingertip. The Sony screen has wide/tele zoom controls on the side as well as a start/stop button. Even though there are only a few K pixels separating them, the Sony appears much more accurate and detailed. Guess there’s more to LCD screen technology than pixels…
When the screen is open you have access to several controls including Easy, DVD Burn, Wide Select and Disp (Display)/Batt Info (Battery Info). You also find a small speaker but forget about a surround experience with it. On the body below the screen is a Back Light Compensation key, NightShot On/Off and a compartment that covers the A/V and USB out and DC in ports.
The rear of the SR100 has a pull-out color viewfinder with diopter control, something totally missing from the JVC. This is a life-saver if your screen wipes outs in bright sunshine. You’ll also find the battery which is rated 45 minutes in real world use. Be prepared to buy some spares if you plan to take seven hours worth of video at one time. Also here is the mode key for choosing between video, stills or playback. I really don’t like the placement of this dial since it can be easily moved as your index finger moves from the zoom and snapshot keys. Oh well, nothing’s perfect—or even close to it. There’s a record stop/start button and lights to indicate your current mode setting. The bottom only has tripod and accessory mounts. Surprisingly, the SR100 does not have a memory card slot—Memory Stick Duo, SD or otherwise—something the JVC offers. The MG505 wins for that one just for convenience sake.
The DSCR-SR100 comes with the basics—an AC adaptor, power cord, A/V and USB cables, a remote and a rechargeable lithium ion battery (NP-FP60) that’s rated 45 minutes in typical use, similar to the JVC. In other words, expect to buy a spare like the NP-FP90 that works for almost two hours. The 108-page owner’s manual is O.K. but filled with the cutesy anime-influenced illustrations. At least it was translated into English. The software CD ROM has ImageMixer for HDD to help you edit and burn discs.
After the battery was charged it was time to put the DCR-SR100 through its paces to see if we could fill the 30GB HDD.
Image Courtesy of Sony
The weather on the East Cost has been miserable so it took awhile for the sun to finally come out. When it did I took a trip to the beach and some colorful scenery to see how the SR100 handled it all. And it can handle a lot. The 30GB drive holds seven hours of MPEG2 video. You’ll wear out many batteries before you can get close to filling the drive.
I started out using Sony’s Easy setting which basically makes video and still recording idiot proof—which is good for an inveterate button pusher like me! After the camcorder booted up in less than two seconds, I shot a lot of video. When I saw an interesting subject, switched to still mode and hit the snapshot button to grab a 3-megapixel still.
Video results in Easy were good—not great—although much better than the Everio MG505. Granted there were some jagged edges on straight lines but for the most part the video looked good on my Toshiba HDTV. It was shot in 4:3 mode but you can easily switch to 16:9 at the touch of a key. Where the camcorder had problems was with strong colors such as bright red and dark blue swimming pool floats. Scenes shot indoors with available light were more accurate. Luckily there was very little noise, miles ahead of you-know-what. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is a gas and really adds to your videos but it can be disconcerting. In one instance I closed a gate behind me and you could hear it in the rear speakers. Weird but fun.
Moving from Easy into more advanced settings is a breeze. Just hit the Easy key to turn it off then you can change settings using the touch screen LCD. Other than a few strange typos, the menu system is very simple to follow. There are six Program AE options along with Auto such as Portrait, Beach&Snow and so on. You can tweak the exposure, sound settings, focus and spot metering. It’s more than the average home video maker will ever need. Even adjusting them, I still couldn’t get the colors to be totally on the money.
As for the stills, 8x10s were decent but you really shouldn’t go beyond 4×6. I simply connected the camcorder to my PictBridge-enabled printer, followed the onscreen menu and it was done. Three megapixels isn’t great but the convenience and the enormous storage make up for it.
One of the key issues with HDD camcorders is getting the footage out. Here Sony does a great job with its DVD Burn system. After you load the supplied software on your PC, you connect the SR100 to it, then press the DVD Burn key on the camcorder. A series of onscreen prompts walks you through burning a disc. It’s really simple—just make sure you burn a dash R (-R) disc instead of plus R (+R) if your equipment requires it; my Panasonic DMR-E60 didn’t take too kindly to the plus format. Ah, the joys of modern technology!
It’s pretty simple—if you want to take the HDD camcorder plunge this is the one to buy—even though were problems with color accuracy. Sony is the dominant player in the camcorder world for a reason—it knows how to build high-quality, easy-to-use home video makers. And this is all the vast majority of buyers want. There’s no question dealing with all the material on a hard drive is a challenge but Sony makes it simple to handle with the one-touch DVD Burn. If you want tons of storage for your next vacation and don’t want to deal with tapes or discs, give this HDD camcorder a test drive. If surround sound isn’t important and if you’re feeling old fashioned, the Sony DCR-HC96 MiniDV model for $799 or less, is a very good alternative.
Note: Sony realizes not everyone wants to spend close to a grand for a camcorder—even with mega storage. In mid September it will introduce three new HDD models starting at $599 for the DCR-SR40 with a 30GB HDD, a 680K pixel CCD, 20x optical zoom and a 2.5-inch LCD. Another $100 gets you an improved 1MP CCD, a 2.7-inch widescreen LCD and a 12x optical zoom with the DCR-SR60. For $799, the DCR-SR80 adds another 30GB capacity (60GB total) to the DCR-SR60 package. And a further note for high-def aficionados: in mid October the company will introduce the first AVC HD HDD camcorder. The $1,499 HDR-SR1 records true high definition video (1080I) onto a 30GB HDD using a new codec created by Panasonic and Sony. It has the potential to be a blockbuster but we’ll reserve judgment until we get one in our sweaty hands.
- Takes 7 hours of DVD-level video
- Records 5.1 Dolby Digital sound
- Very easy to use
- High-quality 2.7-inch 16:9 touch screen LCD
- Colors not as accurate as could be
- Awkward placement of mode dial
- No memory card slot