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Sony may not be the first manufacturer to enter the hard drive camcorder market--that distinction goes to JVC's Everio models. But with excellent video quality and fluid operation, the Sony Handycam DCR-SR100 puts all but the more expensive JVC 500 series models--as well as Sony's own DVD-based models--to shame. Video quality still can't quite match that of similarly priced MiniDV models, and MPEG-2 video degrades on editing, but you certainly won't be embarrassed by the vacation videos you shoot with it, and there's always the cool factor. Make sure you can live with the touch-screen interface before you commit, though. The Sony Handycam DCR-SR100 seems designed around the constraints of its long, wide 10X zoom lens and the 2.7-inch-wide touch-screen LCD; it's a squat, squared-off cylinder that's odd looking but not unattractive. It feels quite solid and comfortable to hold--not too heavy at 1.3 pounds--but it's big enough to require a carrying case.
We've complained before about Sony's touch-screen interface--that it's simply annoying on a large LCD and close to unusable on a small one such as the DCR-SR100's. It's full of tiny buttons and the touch screen itself is prone to smudges and fingerprints. Tweak-happy users will find themselves either cursing this camera or praying for a stylus. If you like the touch screen, however, then you can kick the SR100's design rating up by a point. The left bezel sports duplicate zoom and record buttons, though they're neither responsive nor very useful.
As befitting its price class, Sony put some nice finishing touching on the DCR-SR100, including an automatic lens cover and a snug accessory shoe protector. Although it might sound trivial, that lens cover eliminates a significant speed bump when you're shooting. Like JVC's Everio models, the Sony Handycam DCR-SR100 records directly to a hard drive. Its 30GB drive can store as much as 440 minutes of high-quality video, 1,250 minutes of low-quality video, or 10,000 3-megapixel still images. You can play the video directly on a TV via the bundled composite cable or copy the files to your PC; the camcorder mounts as a hard drive via a USB 2.0 connection. Like DVD camcorders, hard drive camcorders record using MPEG-2, and Sony saves the files as media-player-readable MPG files; your system--Mac or PC--may require a codec update in order to play or edit them, however.
For the DCR-SR100, Sony couples its 3-megapixel HAD CCD with one of the better Zeiss T* lenses. It uses 2 megapixels to capture video before downsampling to 720x480 (16:9) or 640x480 (4:3), and snaps 3-megapixel still photos in both 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios.