Sony Handycam DCR-HC85
The high-end, single-chip entry in Sony's consumer Handycam line, the DCR-HC85 offers all the features you'd expect from a camcorder in its price range, including a very usable night-shooting mode. Its touch-screen interface and minimalist button design make the camera a snap to learn, though wading through menus is frustrating when you're trying to quickly get set up for a shot. It's a good model for shooting outdoors and in brightly lit rooms, but with mediocre low-light results, you'll want to consider an accessory video light for indoor shooting. The Sony Handycam DCR-HC85's silver-plastic-and-metal case has a very solid feel, with just over 1.5 pounds of camcorder packed into a relatively small package. At 6.9 inches, it's a bit longer than typical compact camcorders, but it still fits comfortably in a jacket pocket.
The DCR-HC85 sports a total of just 10 buttons and switches, a fraction of what you'll find on most camcorders. The buttons are comfortably and logically placed for one-handed usage. You access the rest of the camcorder's functions via menus displayed on the 3.5-inch touch-screen LCD. The menus are extremely well designed: a programmable screen gives you relatively quick access to your most-used functions, and the full menus are better organized than on earlier Sony touch-screen models.
We have mixed feelings about the touch-screen design, however. Though dedicated buttons give quick access to a few functions, such as manual focus, NightShot Plus, and flash settings, you'll have to wade through touch-screen menus for other common functions, such as exposure settings and program autoexposure modes. This can be a hassle if you're, say, trying to quickly switch to Sports mode to grab a child's first solo bike ride. Casual users can just press the Easy button and use the camera in fully automatic mode, which hides all but the setup options.
The touch screen does offer a significant advantage over traditional button setups for a couple of capabilities: spot focus and spot metering. You can set the focus or exposure based on an off-center subject by simply touching the subject on the LCD. Other nice details include a Record button next to the touch screen--handy for starting a recording when holding the camera above a crowd--and the inclusion of a traditional focus ring around the lens. The ring is typically easier and more precise for focusing manually than the buttons or dials used on many consumer camcorders.
As is often the case with smaller camcorders, the DCR-HC85's tape ejects from the bottom of the camera, so you'll have to remove the camcorder from a tripod to swap tapes.The Sony Handycam DCR-HC85's 1/3.6-inch single CCD offers a bit more than a megapixel of effective resolution for DV shooting (which gets sampled down to DV resolution) and slightly less than 2 megapixels for still shots. The Carl Zeiss lens offers 10X optical zoom and 120X digital. You can limit the digital zoom to a reasonable 20X, a handy feature for getting in close on those objects where 10X isn't enough reach, without accidentally zooming into the pixelated mess you start to see with any camcorder at extreme digital-zoom levels. The lens accepts 37mm filters, as well as optional 0.7X wide-angle and 2X teleconverter lenses.
The camcorder offers a good assortment of manual and programmed features. Manual focus is a snap--just press the Manual button and use the focus ring to sharpen the image. In addition to manual-exposure mode, there are also six program AE modes. Auto white balance is supplanted by indoor and outdoor options, as well as a one-push option for manually setting it by framing a white object.
In addition to Sony's trademarked infrared NightShot Plus mode for shooting in the dark, the DCR-HC85 also boasts a slow-shutter mode that offers truer colors at the expense of frame rate. The two modes can be combined, which Sony dubs Super NightShot Plus. An accessory lets you attach external devices, such as a video light.
The DCR-HC85 has above-average still photo options. There's a built-in flash, complete with a red-eye-reduction feature, and a progressive shutter function to eliminate interlace artifacts. Though this is a midsize camcorder, it uses tiny Memory Stick Duo cards instead of traditional Memory Sticks. The too-small 8MB card that ships with the camera does include an adapter that will let you use the Duo in devices that take full-size Memory Sticks.