Given their ease of use and the fact that they potentially eliminate the need for media, it's a wonder that hard-drive-based camcorders still haven't replaced DVD-based camcorders in the post-MiniDV world. After all, a camcorder the likes of Sony's Handycam DCR-SR40 can store as much as 440 minutes of MPEG-2 video in its highest-quality setting on its built-in 30GB hard drive. Dropping to the lowest-quality option bumps that up to 1,250 minutes. Plus, you can record as many as 9,999 fine quality JPEG images, but since the camera uses only 340,000 pixels to capture video or stills, don't expect to get decent 4x6 prints from this camcorder.
The DCR-SR40's somewhat boxy design and plain silver-plastic finish isn't as attractive as some Sony camcorders, but it's far from ugly. To Sony's credit, there's not a lot you can do with a big 20X optical zoom lens, a hard drive, and a 2.5-inch LCD. Measuring 2.8 by 2.7 by 4.6 inches, it's neither large nor small, but at 13.8 ounces, with the included NP-FP50 680mAh rechargeable InfoLithium battery, it's fairly lightweight and comfortable to shoot with for extended periods of time.
As usual, Sony's touch-screen interface is...well...a touchy subject. Some people love it, and some hate it. However, even fans of the system may find the 2.5-inch 4:3 LCD a bit cramped and as with any touch screen, fingerprints build up fast. If you often adjust shooting modes and other settings, you should try the touch-screen interface in a store before committing. One of the nicest things about the screen is the three buttons--two for zoom and one for record--to its left. Though not as responsive as we'd like, they're conveniently located, and the fixed zoom offered by the LCD-mounted buttons provide a nice counterpoint to the variable zoom rocker.
Unlike the hard-drive camcorders further up Sony's line, the DCR- SR40 doesn't include an accessory shoe, so you can't add a video light, a flash, or a microphone. Likewise, it doesn't include a line-in jack or analog-to-digital converter, so you'll have to move up the line if you want to use a camcorder to convert your old tapes to digital format.
Given the lack of expansion options, it's obvious that Sony is targeting casual shooters rather than tweakers, but they still include a decent feature set for those who want to experiment. Highlights include spot focus, manual focus, manual exposure, spot metering, and six preprogram autoexposure modes. Of course, since you have to cover up a portion of the screen to execute most of these functions, some of them become less useful than we'd like, depending on the scene you're shooting. A separate multicontroller of some sort would probably go a long way toward alleviating some users' discontent with Sony's touch-screen controls.
Overall, the SR40's performance was pleasing. Startup and autofocus were both very fast, the zoom controller responded well and switched speeds comfortably, and we experienced little delay between pressing the record button and the start of video capture. Likewise, shutter lag during photo capture was minimal for a camcorder. Autofocus and autoexposure reacted well to shifts in zoom, lighting, or scenery, though, as usual, response time for these dropped noticeably in lower light.