One of the biggest first decisions to make right now when buying a camcorder is whether to get one that records to MiniDV, to mini DVDs, or to a hard drive. MiniDV, and mini DVDs offer great value for the money and convenience with home DVD players, respectively, but you can't deny the convenience of never having to buy or carry around tapes ever again. Plus, when you use the dock that comes with Sony's Handycam DCR-SR80, it's really simple to get your footage onto your computer.
The DCR-SR80's somewhat boxy design is far from sexy, but its gunmetal-ish color is more attractive than the silver plastic of the DCR-SR40. To Sony's credit, there's not a lot you can do, design-wise, with a big 12X 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 installed, it's fairly lightweight and comfortable to shoot with for extended periods of time.
Some users outright hate Sony's touch-screen interface, while others love it. If you've never used one of Sony's touch screen camcorders, you should definitely try one out before buying. Even fans of the system may find the SR80's 2.7-inch wide-screen LCD a bit cramped, and as with any touch screen, fingerprints build up fast. Three buttons to the left of the screen let you zoom the lens in or out and start or stop recording. Plus, since the LCD-mounted zoom buttons have a fixed zoom speed, they're a nice counterpoint to the zoom rocker, which provides a variable speed option.
A hotshoe on top of the camcorder, which Sony calls the Active Interface shoe, lets you attach and control accessories, such as a video light, flash, or a microphone to supplement the built-in mic. Since the SR80 has no built-in video light, low-light shooters will likely find the hotshoe helpful.
Feature highlights include spot focus, manual focus, manual exposure, spot metering, and six preprogrammed 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 would've liked, 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. Of course, the biggest feature of the DCR-SR80 is its 60GB hard drive, which can hold as much as 880 minutes of video at the camera's highest quality setting. That jumps to a whopping 2,510 minutes when you step down to the lowest quality setting. The drive also accommodates as many as 9,999 still images.