Staking Their Claim

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For anyone who's bought--or considered buying--a video camera in the last couple years, these are certainly interesting times. That's especially true in the consumer camcorder world, where tape has gone the way of the Tyrannosaurus, taking evolutionary wing into a cloud of 1's and 0's. Whether recording to hard drives or memory cards--and whether or not you're ready for it--solid state recording is the method of choice.

Even Canon, creator of the popular HV-series camcorders, seemed to get that memo, having announced no new tape-based camcorders in over a year.

Sony's consumer division ditched the crinkly brown stuff a few generations back. And while those camcorders were quick to embrace file-based technology--at the same time providing excellent image quality, great lowlight performance, and consumer-friendly features like Face Detection and Nightshot--the fact is, the headlines often went to Canon's 24p/30p capability, Panasonic's robust manual control, and other manufacturers' competitive pricing.

Learning to Play with Others

But the sleeping giant has been nudged awake. Exhibit A is the PRO Duo Memory Stick--a.k.a., the digital elephant in the room where Sony products are concerned. Despite the widespread adoption of SD/SDHC cards by nearly all consumer electronics companies, Sony long ago drew a line--some would say, buried its head--in the sand by offering only its proprietary (and more expensive) Memory Sticks as the de facto removable recording media. But a combination of the current economy and enough customer dissatisfaction seems to have convinced the company that it's time to jump into the sandbox with everyone else. And so, at last, Sony is offering SD/SDHC compatibility on its 2010 camcorders.

As momentous a move as this may seem, it's far from the only selling point of Sony's new flagship camcorders. Not only has the company signaled its desire to play well with others, it seems genuinely interested in offering many of the features provided by the competition. Along the way, it's refined existing features to a level that very nearly redefines "high quality" in a consumer camcorder.

Achieving Parity

Let's start with the models in question: the HDR-CX550V and the HDR-XR550V. Previous CX and XR equivalents were substantially different from one another, with the XR500V series getting a larger share of high-end features. But in 2010 the CX is being given full parity, so that both models are virtually identical save for their differing storage formats: the CX550V captures full 1920 x 1080 HD video, SD video, or 12MP stills to 64GB of internal flash memory, while the XR550V records to a 240GB hard drive (with the aforementioned Memory Stick/SD card slot available on both).

This makes the XR550V slightly larger and heavier than the CX550V, but it also means you can record nearly 23 hours of continuous footage at the highest HD setting. Think about that: 23 hours. You could fly to Europe and back. You could drive halfway across North America. You could record yourself watching an entire season of 24, including bonus features and bathroom breaks, and still have time to do an impression of Kiefer Sutherland yelling "Who do you work for!?!" That's just crazy.

And that's using the highest (HQ) setting, which, for the first time on a Sony consumer camcorder, goes up to 24Mbps--the maximum recording rate in the AVCHD format (which both cameras use). Other manufacturers have offered 24Mbps for the last couple years, so this is another positive sign that Sony is paying attention. It's certainly welcome, especially if you're looking to burn files directly to Blu-ray. But for those impressed with big numbers, it's important to realize that the next lowest setting, 16Mbps, is also capable of extraordinary HD video, with potential differences only noticeable in highly detailed scenes with lots of pans or quick movement. For everyday use, the increased file size (nearly double) may not be worth the tradeoff in quality. Remember, unlike tape, all those hours of video you shoot will need to be stored somewhere, so you'll also want to consider how many shoeboxes full of hard drives you can fit under your bed.

 Greater Control, Increased Visibility

Another area Sony has beefed up is manual control. The assignable dial at the front of the camera now controls more than simply focus and basic exposure; it also lets you assign white balance, iris, and shutter speed settings. This degree of control is unusual in consumer-level cameras, and it means that you--not the camera--decide the levels of sharpness and depth of field your picture should have. Also available (as on previous XR500V cameras) are dedicated mic and headphone jacks, giving you the option of plugging in an external microphone for improved sound recording.

Alone, these controls push Sony's new camcorders close to prosumer functionality. But the company has some other tricks up its sleeve. A new 3.5" Xtra Fine LCD monitor ups the screen size and resolution on both previous models, making for easier use of touchscreen menus as well as improved picture quality and viewability. But if you prefer--or if conditions demand it--a 0.27" color viewfinder is also provided. Viewfinders are becoming increasingly rare on modern consumer cams, so it's nice to see that both cameras offer one. The fact that it extends outward for more convenient viewing is an added bonus.

Viewing versatility is increased further with the new wide angle G-lens, which goes as wide as 29.8mm in video mode (26.3mm for stills) and captures a much broader field of view than most camcorder lenses. Given that the previous CX/XR500V lens offered a 12x zoom versus the current 10x, this may seem like a downgrade, but the older lens' 43mm focal length made it difficult to shoot indoors without cutting off important subject areas. Some users will miss the extended reach of the old zoom (516mm vs. 298mm), but Sony wisely went with the greater need, i.e., squeezing a whole group, room, or landscape into a single shot. For further reach, a telephoto adapter, such as Sony's VCL-HG1737C, will always do the trick.

 Hands Off

Many people, of course, are less interested in manual control than in simply getting a great image with minimal effort. Sony has made improvements in that area, as well. The usual assortment of auto shooting modes are available--Portrait, Scenery, Low Light, etc.--along with quite a few others (Baby mode?). And Sony continues to take advantage of its advanced BIONZ processor to offer Face Detection and Smile Shutter. But what sets the new cameras apart is a trio of image-control features that really can do most of the work for you: Intelligent Auto, Quick AF, and an improved Optical Steady Shot.

Adapted from Sony's Cyber shot point-and-shoot cameras, Intelligent Auto, or iAuto, analyzes each shot and draws from 10 scene modes to adjust the image into one of 90 different quality combinations. The camera's autofocus system, meanwhile, has been improved to provide sharp focus two times more quickly than in previous models, even in low light (where achieving focus can be especially frustrating). At the same time, the Optical Steady Shot with Active Mode carries over its 3-Way Shake-Canceling from last year's cams and adds a new level of electronic stabilization to keep your images steady even while zooming. So even if all you want to do is point, compose, and shoot, the CX550V and XR550V can deliver impressive video quality.

Assuming you'll want to share your video with others, Sony provides a variety of ways to view and offload your footage. You can, of course, simply hook the camera up to your HDTV using an HDMI cable (for compatible TVs, 1080/60p playback  is another new option for 2010). Or you could use the camera to copy selected video files directly to an external hard drive (no computer needed)--or to one of Sony's standalone DVD burners, like the DVDirect VRD-MC6. Even cooler, the camera can access files stored on an external drive and play them back on your television.

Provided software allows for easy browsing, managing, and uploading of video and image files, including the ability to downconvert HD footage to standard definition for easier editing and sharing. Both cameras sport numerous specialized features, from GPS tracking and Highlight Playback to the new Golf Shot, which can break an action down into a sequence of still images for easy analysis. Even the less flashy improvements--such as decreased power consumption and newly formulated batteries with 15% greater capacity--show that Sony is not only listening to customers but paying attention to details. For any company, that's a great way to do business.

Granted, neither of these cameras offers progressive recording (i.e., 24p/30p), which is often coveted by filmmakers seeking a quick-and-dirty "film" look. But then Sony has always reserved that feature for its prosumer and professional lineups, so that's no surprise--and it's simply not what these cameras were designed for. They're for shooting casual video at the highest possible quality, no matter what the conditions. For prospective camcorder buyers looking for reasons to purchase their first Sony, the HDR-CX550V and HDR-XR550V provide more than enough.