Sony's trio of entry-level camcorders -- the Handycam HDR-CX190, CX200 and CX210 -- seem amazingly, aggressively priced. But they're priced like standard-definition camcorders because they use SD-level components to produce video in HD format but not HD quality. Sony's not alone in this: both Canon and Panasonic play the same game to various degrees with their entry-level models. All of them use low-resolution sensors and interpolate the video up to HD resolution. In this case, Sony actually is using a sensor that's even smaller and lower-resolution than the 2-year-old CX110.
The three camcorders differ from each other in a few ways. The CX200 and CX210 incorporate touch screens; the CX190 has a small joystick and playback button on the LCD bezel for operation. In addition, the CX210 has 8GB of internal memory -- keep in mind when comparing prices between the CX200 and CX210 that an 8GB flash card costs less than $10. This review is based on testing of the CX190. (There's also a version of the camcorder with a built-in projector, the PJ200.)
As far as I can tell, the video quality doesn't look any worse than predecessors like the CX130, which many folks consider acceptable. If you view your video scaled down and played on a computer, or like to shoot close-ups, which usually deliver the best results for both cameras and camcorders, it looks good. But for typical tourist and home-video type shooting of middle distances and viewed at actual size or on a large-screen TV, I found it extremely soft and mushy. The combination of sensor and optics seem prone to fringing, and can produce an overall purplish cast on the video rather than just on edges. In low light -- say, early dusk -- it's even softer and quite noisy. The audio is typical for its class; a little too bright-sounding, but the mic picks up the sounds you want.
Stills look pretty bad -- soft and overprocessed. Many camera phones are better. (Unsurprising given that Sony's "5.3-megapixel" photos are actually 1.3-megapixel photos bloated up for specsmanship.) Part of the problem is that you can't pick a focus area, at least on the CX190. You just have to point and pray. The CX200 and CX210 both have spot focus and exposure via the touch screen.
On the upside, the performance isn't bad, though the battery seems to run down a little faster than I'd like -- it lasts about an hour. The LCD actually remains quite visible in bright sunlight and the camcorder focuses relatively quickly and accurately. The image stabilization works well for about three quarters of the zoom range; I think part of the problem is that the camcorder is a little too light and harder to keep steady than some.
Of course, its compact, light design is one of the attractions of the camcorder, though it also makes it feel quite plasticky and flimsy. It fits comfortably in a roomy jacket pocket or bag. The design is also typical of these entry-level models, with a zoom switch, photo shutter and mode (movie/still) button on top and a record button in the back for thumb operation. A manual switch opens and closes the lens cover.