Sony HDR-SR11& HDR-SR12 Hybrid HD Camcorders
by Eli Spalter
In a marketplace that has already shifted focus to Flash-Memory-based camcorders, it’s a forgivable sin if you were to overlook - or even dismiss - hard-disk-based HD camcorders. But it’s also safe to say you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t take a close look at Sony’s HDR-SR11 and HDR-SR12, which as you might have guessed by now are two very capable hard-disk-based HandyCams from the nice folks at Sony.
The two models differ only in their storage capacities: the SR11 houses a 60GB hard disk drive (HDD), while the SR12 has a whopping 120GB of storage space. I was lucky enough to play with the SR12 for a week, and as such was the camcorder I reviewed for this story.
The Nuts & Bolts
The SR12 is a hybrid camcorder; this means that it can capture media (both video and still images) to its internal hard disk drive (HDD) as well as to a Memory Stick PRO Duo flash-based memory card. While other formats tend to flaunt their “superior speed”, the one characteristic that really makes HDD camcorders stand above the competition are their high storage capacities; and the SR12 is no exception. With a built-in 120GB hard drive you can store more than 84 hours of standard definition (SD) video in LP mode or over 14 hours of video in the most data-rich high definition (HD) video mode! Add an 8GB Memory Stick PRO Duo to the equation, and you can increase that number by five and a half hours of video in LP mode or just under an hour in full HD. And while the SR12 has a slower start-up time as compared to rival flash-based camcorders, its Quick On hibernation mode takes it from standby mode to active mode in just one second.
These are part of Sony’s 3rd generation of AVCHD1 camcorders; and it seems like this format is finally maturing into the likely replacement for HDV2, whose picture quality set the standards in the HD consumer camcorder market. Always looking to improve their products, Sony really stepped up their game with the resolution in this camcorder. The SR12’s predecessor, the HDR-SR7, was only able to capture video at 1440 x 1080, the SR12 captures images at HD’s full resolution of 1920 x 1080. The still images have also been enhanced from 6 megapixels to an incredible 10.2 megapixels (interpolated3 , 3.81 native)!
The SR12’s 1/3.15” ClearVID4 CMOS5 sensor comes with two noise reducing features: the Exmor6 noise reduction enhanced sensor and BIONZ7 noise reduction processing, which lets this camera capture clean, virtually noiseless imagery. If these technologies sound a little familiar that’s probably because they are currently used in the Sony EX1 XDCAM EX8 camcorder and the Sony Alpha-series of DSLRs. Of course these technologies would be useless without superior optics, which is why Sony equipped the SR12 with a Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar T 12x optical zoom lens with an automatic lens closure system.
Most of the controls on this camcorder can be found on or near the impressive 3.2” Xtra Fine LCD touch-screen, the exception being the zoom and manual controls, the latter of which are controlled via the manual cam control knob on the front of the camera. I’ve never been a big fan of touch-screen interfaces, but I must admit on a screen this size I forgot my gripes and managed to navigate through the menus without a complaint. And like all camcorder with a touch screen interface, the SR12’s screen did tend to smudge with fingerprints, but was easy to clean with a wipe of a micro-fiber cloth.
The SR12’s LCD has a huge 921,600 pixel resolution, which is a technology borrowed from Sony’s Alpha-series DSLRs. Sony also outfitted the camcorder with a viewfinder, something that has become increasingly uncommon, as well as an “Active Interface” hot shoe9.
In The Real World
The first thing I noticed about the SR12 was its size. Being more accustomed to today’s smaller flash-based camcorders, by comparison the SR12 seems a bit bulky. But as soon as I held it in my hand it felt quite right. With other cameras I have always felt like I was compensating for the weight, but this camera felt like it was designed just for me. Many of my colleagues related the same sentiments in their handling of it. The body feels sturdy and solid, meaning it will take more than a few minor bumps and bruises to hinder the performance of this rugged camera. Rugged feel aside, I highly recommend backing up your videos on a regular basis, as hard-disk drives tend to be more shock-sensitive than their solid-state brethren, and the last thing you want to do is lose any hard-earned data.
One of the coolest design choices that Sony made with the SR12 was the sliding doors they used to hide all the connectivity ports. I actually prefer this method to the rubber plugs camcorders usually employ, since those tend to tear or fall out, leaving your ports unprotected. The “Bond-like” doors hide a plethora of connectivity options including a Mic input, headphone jack, USB port, Digital AV out and a mini-HDMI port with 5.1 channel audio support. Let’s not forget the “Active Interface” hot shoe on the top of the camera which utilizes the same sliding cover. The SR12 also comes with a dock which adds S-video and Component video connectivity.
The camera’s ergonomic design, intuitive interface and features make it a real pleasure to shoot with. In fact when I handed the camera over to my wife for what I like to call the “layman’s test”, (sorry honey), she was able to use most of the camera’s features immediately, and I had to plead with her to get the camera back to conduct the remainder of my tests. One feature she liked was the zoom Mic, which focuses the Mic on a target when you zoom in. While not comparable with a shotgun Mic by any standard, it was definitely a handy feature. We also liked the camera’s battery life, which didn’t quite meet Sony’s expected 90 minutes, but was a respectable 75-80 minutes of heavy use. You may want to consider adding an extra battery into your travel bag for some additional recording time.
The SR12 offers great image quality and an impressive low-light performance, thanks to its BIONZ Image Processor, Exmor Imaging Sensor and Dynamic “D-Range” Optimizer. The D-Range Optimizer enhances both bright areas and shadows, making sure that your pictures don’t have blackout or streaking areas, which are common maladies found in consumer camcorders.
The SR12‘s video optimization tools include Multiple Face detection for video and still photos and x.v. Color10. The face detection software has been a very popular feature in point-and-shoot cameras and is only just beginning to appear in camcorders. This technology recognizes up to 8 faces and automatically adjusts the focus, exposure, and color to help capture faces brightly and clearly. During my tests I watched my footage via the component and HDMI ports and both proved to display stunning HD picture. As an added bonus Sony gave the SR12 x.v. Color technology which, according to Sony, captures and displays almost twice as many viewable colors as formerly possible.
The Carl Zeiss T lens has a 37mm filter diameter for attaching filters and converter lenses. If you choose to employ a Wide-angle or Tele-converter lens, the SR12 has a special “Conversion Lens” setting that is meant to enhance either lens. I was unable to test this feature, due to not being provided with a converter lens to test, so we’ll have to take Sony’s word on how these settings affect the actual images. There is also a built-in Tele Macro mode which automatically extends the zoom to 12x for macro shooting from a distance. The SR12 also features an Optical image stabilization system, which compensates for typical hand shaking during filming.
All of these features are great, but the one that really won me over was the still image mode. One of the most frequently asked questions I encounter is, “Which camcorder takes the best still photos, so I won’t have to carry a point-and–shoot camera in addition to my camcorder?” to which I used to reply quite honestly, “None”. The SR12 changes all that. The built-in still image camera takes the best still images I have ever seen in a camcorder. The 10.2 megapixel camera with features such as face recognition and a designated camera flash took sharp, detailed photos and exhibited less lag time than some of the low end point-and-shoot cameras I have used. The SR12 can also take still images, not screen shots, while capturing video with its Dual Record technology. I really enjoyed shooting still images in camera mode, and was equally impressed with the picture quality. I hope this is indicative to the direction consumer camcorders are moving.
All in all, the HDR-SR12 is a great HD video camera with astounding image quality. So if you are in the market for a high-end HD camcorder with a lot of storage, great connectivity options, a sleek look and all the bells and whistles you could possibly need, Sony’s HDR-SR12 and SR11 are definitely worth serious consideration.
- AVCHD is a high definition format co-developed by Sony and Panasonic that incorporates the widely popular H.264 MPEG-4 compression algorithm. AVC HD is primarily geared towards hard drive, flash media, and DVD-based consumer camcorders. The highly sophisticated compression of AVC HD makes long runtimes possible without any large amount of quality loss. AVC HD can be accessed randomly like pictures on a digital camera or tracks on a CD, making viewing on a television quick and easy. Editing AVC HD material requires a faster computer since compressed HD footage is more CPU intensive.
- HDV is considered the High Definition successor to MiniDV; it uses MiniDV tapes to record full high definition video. MiniDV tapes are easy to find, extremely durable, and can be archived without the use of expensive drives. The format itself incorporates MPEG-2 compression to save space and bandwidth.
- SOFTWARE INTERPOLATION is the process by which one can enlarge an image by increasing the amount of pixels in the image. These images will have generated pixels used to fill in any blank areas when the image is stretched. The pixel colors are generated by creating a hybrid of the neighboring pixels. This process results in an Interpolated image.
- CLEARVID is Sony’s improvement on the standard CMOS Sensor which allows them to fit more pixels into a smaller sensor. By changing the sensor layout and the Color Filter Array Sony achieves an improved low-light-sensitivity and image resolution (1.4x better by Sony’s reckoning).
- CMOS is a semiconductor device that converts optical images to electronic signals through the use of metal–oxide–semiconductor field-effect transistors. Unlike a CCD sensor, CMOS sensors use less power. While neither has the distinct advantage over the other, CMOS sensors are known for producing “haloing effect” otherwise known as Vertical Smear.
- EXMOR is Sony’s advanced CMOS sensor chip employing Sony’s noise reduction technology on the sensor itself. The Exmor sensor also has a multi-layer filter which suppresses color artifacts and moiré patterns.
- BIONZ is the name of Sony’s internal processing circuitry.
- XDCAM EX is Sony’s professional-level tapeless video camera system format.
- SHOE a small slot on top of a camcorder, useful for attaching a light or other accessory devices. A hot shoe provides power to the attached accessory, while a cold shoe provides only the mount without any power.
- x.v. Color is an extended color gamut which is exclusive to Sony products, using an x.v. color gamut produces 1.8x the amount of colors available in the standard RGB color space.