With the popularity of posting low-resolution video to the Web showing no signs of waning, it's easy to see why the Sony Handycam DCR-SR45 exists. It's very easy to use, goes from off to recording in seconds, is small enough to throw in a bag and go, and its internal 30GB hard drive gives you anywhere from 7 to 20 hours of recording time depending on the quality settings you choose. But even at the SR45's highest quality settings, the camcorder's standard-definition, MPEG-2 video--while OK for online sharing--doesn't look very good, and if you've gotten used to the definition and clarity of HD video, the SR45 won't be satisfying.
At only 14 ounces with battery and 3.1 inches high by 3 inches wide by 4.5 inches deep, the silver-and-black SR45 is compact and lightweight. Sony improved the body design over its predecessor's, the DCR-SR42. The power/movie/still dial sits more in line with your thumb, while the dead-center record button lets you start fast without much thought. Above it are power and activity lights topped by a Quick On button that takes the camcorder quickly in and out of a standby mode. On top sit the camera shutter button for taking stills and the rocker switch for the Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 40x zoom lens. The switch operates smoothly as does the zoom, allowing for stutter-free close-ups. However, since it lacks optical image stabilization, those extreme close-ups will require a tripod.
At the front above the lens sits a stereo zoom microphone--it attenuates with the lens to better capture the audio coming from the subject--that performed much better than expected. Under the lens is a switch to open and close the built-in lens cover. There are no mic or headphone jacks, which would be welcome, but manufacturers tend to jettison them for budget models. What you will find under a sliding door on the right side is a mini-USB port and an AV-out designed for use with the included cable. Another sliding door on top hides a Memory Stick Pro Duo card slot--it looks very similar to an accessory shoe cover, but those are rare in this price class--while a flip-down door below the main control dial hides the jack for the power cable. All the cover-ups make for a clean appearance. Also, hidden in plain sight off on the inside of the grip is the switch for the camcorder's Nightshot Plus infrared light, which lets you capture creepy night-vision video of people sleeping or whatever else you choose to shoot in complete darkness.
You access all menus through the 2.7-inch wide-aspect touch-panel LCD. Despite the use of tiny onscreen icons to navigate settings, the screen was very responsive and accurate to tapping. There are two menu systems: a Home menu to get to all feature settings and an Options menu to get directly to the available functions for video and still images, such as focus, white balance, and recording modes. It might take awhile to remember when and how to use the menus, but again the screen is so responsive that flying through the menus to find what you need goes fairly fast. There's also a set of four buttons lining the left LCD bezel that come in handy when recording overhead or at a low angle: home, zoom in, zoom out, and start/stop recording.
Maybe I've become spoiled by the sharpness and detail of HD video, but as with many budget standard-def camcorders I find the SR45's video quality disappointing. Nor does it appear to have improved from the SR42. Video looks soft and displays quite a bit of noise and artifacts until you scale down to YouTube-size dimensions. Anyone planning on full-screen playback on even a small TV will likely be unhappy with the results. If you still live completely in a low-resolution world or simply want to capture the moment no matter how it looks, the SR45 will suffice. But you might get better photos out of your camera phone. On the upside, it performs pretty well, with responsive autofocus, pretty good white balance, and quickly adjusting autoexposure.
The Sony Handycam DCR-SR45 is better than most entry-level HDD camcorders. Its compact, lightweight build is great for grab-and-go videos. The 30GB hard drive allows for plenty of storage, plus you can save video and stills to Memory Stick Pro Duo cards up to 8GB. And it's easy to operate thanks in part to a responsive, 2.7-inch touch-screen LCD. Sadly, it's only the video quality that doesn't live up to the rest of the package. But if you don't care about that, neither do we.