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Though inexpensive flash memory camcorders have been snapped up by consumers in droves in recent years, even casual users recognize their severe limitations. Typically, these devices offer a lackluster lens, provide only digital zoom, and perform poorly in dim light or an unsteady hand. Manual controls, touch screens, and GPS simply aren't included in the equipment. All this helps explain why cameras that record to tape or hard disks continue to be preferred by home video enthusiasts.
Still, the camcorder world is moving to solid-state memory because of the notable advantages it provides. Since embedded memory is more compact than a tape or disk drive, the camera can be smaller. Flash memory also provides faster access to scenes, and, as it needs no moving parts as tape or disk drives do, draws less power from the battery extending camera runtime.
Sony has recently introduced two camcorders built entirely around flash memory: the HDR-CX500V High Definition Handycam with 32 gigabytes of built-in memory and the HDR-CX520V with 64 gigabytes. Both models are Memory Stick-expandable. Each camera weighs just a pound, yet packs a litany of cutting-edge features. This pair of camcorders is Sony's follow-up to the upright HDR-TG5V flash memory Handycam.
I tested the HDR-CX500V, which features GPS, as do all of Sony's models ending in "V". The sensor on this camera, is a 1/2.88-inch "Exmor R" CMOS sensor. The camera comes with an AC adapter, rechargeable battery, remote, component A/V cable, USB cable, and application software.
The CX500V is best positioned for shooting with your hand sandwiched between its 5-inch long body and padded strap. Opening the 3-inch 16:9 LCD panel turns on the camera and retracts the built-in lens cover. I found that the included infoLITHIUM battery provided about two hours of usage. The built-in storage space was ample even when recording at highest resolution, which is the AVCHD format of 16 megabits per second.
I was initially skeptical about the value of the CX500V's Global Positioning System (GPS) feature, especially since I couldn't get a signal indoors or on city streets where skyscrapers blocked the reception of satellite signals. But once I started using the camera in open areas, such as intersections with low-rise buildings or lots open on at least two corners, I became a believer. The latitude and longitude appeared in the lower right corner of the screen, and I could even pinpoint my position on a map in the camera itself. It's always good to know where you're at.
More detailed maps are available once you upload your recordings to an Internet-connected computer. I found a cluster of pinpoints from various locations where I had used the camera on the West Side of Manhattan and in Queens. Using the included Picture Motion Browser (PMB) software, you can access street maps, satellite photos, and a hybrid of both. The red dot on the hybrid image (see above) marks my shooting position. I'm convinced that geo-tagging your videos and photos can prove at least as valuable as their date of origin for searching an archive.
Another outstanding feature is the camera's touch screen. Touching the menu icon in the upper left corner of the live or recorded view with your finger causes control buttons to be superimposed. You can do most everything you want from the screen including tweaking manual settings like white balance, focus, and exposure; scrolling through thumbnails depicting photos or a scenes' opening frames; and even simple editing in which you split one scene into two for the purpose of discarding the unwanted portion. I do wish, though, that the touch buttons were larger. Shooters with beefy hands may want to shy away from this model. (At least the touch panel is 0.3-inches larger than the one on the HDR-TG5V, though it's 0.2-inches smaller than the hard drive-based HDR-XR500V.)
I was impressed with the upgraded Optical SteadyShot image stabilization that uses what Sony refers to as 3-Way Shake Canceling. Besides horizontal and vertical optical image stabilization, Sony has added electronic roll stability for even smoother video capture. None of this means that you should chuck your tripod, but at least chronic hand-holders will get some additional support.
The camera has a low-lux setting that worked well when I walked the dog at night in a poorly-lit courtyard. When we reached a dark side street, I switched to the camera's Nightshot mode, which turned screen blackness into greenish daylight (and bestowed my dachshund with fiendish eyes). This shooting mode is a pre-digital frill that continues to find new audiences.
The ability to shoot bursts in slow motion adds yet another quill to the videographer's quiver of video techniques. The Smooth Slow Record mode raises the record rate from 60 to 240 frames per second, enabling you to grab 3 seconds of fast motion that play back in twelve. I effectively slowed an atrium's waterfall, though you might be more tempted to immortalize a Little Leaguer's turn at bat or your own golf swing.
The camcorder's built-in microphone captures ambient sound with surprising quality, as I discovered when I played back some cityscape video through my Sony receiver and 5.1 speakers. Though the camcorder lacks an external microphone input, the Active Interface Shoe does let you mount specific external microphones and lights.
The CX500V also does double duty as a high-performance 12 megapixel still camera with built-in flash. It shares the camcorder's professional-quality Sony G Lens with 12X optical zoom and a thread for attaching filters. There's also a convenient dual-record feature that allows you to take 8.3 MP still images while shooting high definition video, without having to switch recording modes.
What Sony refers to as "integrated advanced Smile Shutter with Face Touch" may sound like marketing jargon run amok, but the feature does have its merits. It lets you designate a face in a group on the screen before you take the picture, assigning that person as the smile the camera uses to trigger the shutter. You can even prioritize the assigned face in terms of focus, skin color, and brightness. For example, if you're shooting a birthday party, Face Touch could be set to the boy or girl being celebrated, ensuring more perfectly automated photo fests.
You can plug the camcorder into your HDTV set using the included component video A/V cable or with an optional HDMI cable. The CX500V also has a Burn Direct feature that lets you attach the USB cable to Sony's Multi-Function DVD Recorder, the VRD-MC6. I successfully copied my videos to a couple of DVD-R discs that then played in gorgeous high definition on my Sony Blu-ray Disc player.
To put it all together, the HDR-CX500V isn't meant for the novice who puts rudimentary controls ahead of excellent results. But for home enthusiasts who take pride in the quality of their recordings and crave all the hottest features – especially flash media, GPS, and touch-screen operation – the HDR-CX500V is a premium camcorder that can create stunning video memories.