Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V review: Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V

When you hit the menu option on the LCD, the first screen you see is the customizable My Menu that is pretty convenient and straightforward to use. Hitting the Show Others button takes you to the annoying endless scrolling menu. But at least you have arrows to make scrolling functional, unlike Canon's touch-screen implementation.

Like the other "V" models, the XR550V and CX550V support geotagging for video and stills; keep in mind that there's still no standard way to use the video geotag information, and you're stuck using Sony's mediocre PMB software or just using it for a map index within the camcorder. Sony licenses Navteq's Class 4 map data to provide embedded maps within the camcorder and links to GPS satellites. (Geotagging and map data isn't available for all locations, so check before you buy or travel.) The implementation is fun, but limited. The Class 4 data doesn't include street names or even a complete set of landmarks. Once you download the video to a PC, your options for video are even more limited.


  Canon HF S200/S20 JVC Everio GZ-HM1 Panasonic HDC-TM700 Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V
Sensor 9-megapixel CMOS 10-megapixel BIS CMOS 3 x 3-megapixel 3CMOS 6-megapixel Exmor R CMOS
1/2.6 inch 1/2.3 inch 1/4.1 inch 1/2.88 inch
Lens 10x
f1.8-3.0
43.5 - 435mm (16:9)
10x
f2.8-4.5
n/a
12x
f1.5-2.8
35 - 420mm (16:9)
10x
f1.8-3.4
29.8 - 298mm (16:9)
Min illumination (lux) standard: 4
low light: 0.3
standard: 11
low light: 3
Night Shot (IR): 0
standard: 1400
low light: 1.6
Color Night View: 1
standard: 11
low light: 3
Night Shot (IR): 0

EVF

No No Yes
0.27 inch, 123,000 dots
Yes
0.2 inch 201,000 pixel
LCD 3.5-inch 922,000-dot touch screen 2.8-inch n/a 3-inch 230,400-dot 3.5-inch 921,000-dot touch screen
Primary media 0GB/32GB flash; SDHC 64GB flash; SDHC 32GB flash; SDXC 64GB flash; SDXC
HD recording AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1440x1080/60i @ 12, 7, 5 Mbps
H.264 MPEG-4:
1080/60i @ 24, 17, 12, 5 Mbps
MPEG-4: 1080/60p 28Mbps;
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 17, 13, 9 ,5 Mbps
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1440x1080/60i @ 9,5 Mbps
Manual shutter speed and iris Yes Yes Yes Yes
Accessory shoe Yes Yes Yes Yes
Audio 2 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
2 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
5.1 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
5.1 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
Body dimensions (WHD, inches) 3 x 2.9 x 5.5 2.7 x 2.9 x 5.4 2.6 x 2.7 x 5.4 2.6 x 3 x 5.8
Operating weight (ounces) 18 17 (est) 15.2 17 (est)
Mfr. Price $999/$1,099.99 $1,199.95 $999 $1,199.99
Ship date April 2010 March 2010 April 2010 February 2010

While getting a GPS lock with a lot of these cameras and camcorders in Manhattan is near impossible, it turns out that if you sit in the pedestrian mall outside the Flatiron building for about 10 minutes, it can find a satellite. Cities with less dense high-rise architecture should be fine. (For a complete account of the XR550V and CX550V's features and operation, you can download the PDF manual.)

I have no complaints about the camcorder's performance. Sony's autofocus system really stands out compared with its competitors' systems, and Sony seems to have improved it over previous models. While it doesn't snap quite as quickly as Canon and Panasonic's, it's far more accurate at judging what should be the subject of the scene, incorrectly focusing on the background with far less frequency than the other camcorders. Plus, the lens focuses unusually close.

I wish the camcorder could focus a little faster while panning, but that's not unusual, and I think it's the trade-off for accuracy. While it offers a touch-screen-based spot focus and spot meter, over time I've found that when I need these, they're for situations where the subject is relatively small in the scene or behind a fence and therefore my finger is too large/screen sensitivity too weak to accurately pinpoint it anyway. The SteadyShot stabilization system works well as usual. The camcorders only real weakness is its battery life. In practice, its battery seems to last only about an hour; however, it's still better than some of the competition's battery life. The deep battery cavity seems designed for the optional higher-capacity NP-FV70 battery.

Though it's still good for its class, when viewed on a computer, its video quality doesn't look quite as sharp as the previous generation did; it uses the same sensor, but it has a shorter, wider-angle G-series lens. But on a TV, the video looks great. Overall, its video has quite a bit of fringing. At its best, colors are bright, saturated, and accurate, and there's a fair bit of dynamic range; as is typical of its class, it still shows a tendency to blow out highlights, but with a lot less clipping of both the highs and lows than usual. The video detail in extremely high-bandwidth scenes, such as a busy water fountain, can get a little mushy. When shooting in the highest bitrate mode, the video looks notably higher contrast than when shot the lower rates. That makes it doubly annoying that Sony defaults to the 1,440x1,080-pixel 9-megabits-per-second mode; I didn't understand its decision to do that in a $500 model and I certainly don't understand it in a $1,200 model.

The camcorder fares well in low light compared with its single-chip competitors, maintaining a reasonably sharp picture with only a modest amount of image noise; however, Panasonic's high-end 3-chip models deliver more saturated, less noisy results in the same circumstances. Low Lux mode seems more intelligent than most low-light modes, only gaining up if necessary. It definitely produces a brighter image than standard mode, with only a modest increase in image noise and no slow-shutter-speed artifacts (it won't drop below 1/30 second). However, as it zoomed into the test scene, there was a notable change in the white balance and decrease in saturation as it crossed the threshold (when the focal length got long and necessitated a change in either shutter speed or iris). The less-saturated setting "stuck" as I zoomed back out.

Frustratingly, Sony's been overstating its camcorder photo resolution for years: the 12-megapixel photos use interpolation, a process for scaling up the native 6-megapixel images. At small sizes, you can't tell what a postprocessed-looking mess the interpolated images are. However, they should all print decently up to 8x10 inches.

For the price, I have to admit I expected a little better--slightly sharper video, improved low-light performance and a less cumbersome interface top the list--but Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V still fares quite well compared with its competitors. Unless you absolutely need to store a lot of video on the camcorder--which I don't suggest--or if you have large hands that could benefit from the extra grip the hard drive provides, the cheaper CX550V is also a much better deal than its more expensive sibling.

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Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V

Part Number: HDR-CX550V Released: Mar. 15, 2010
MSRP: $1,299.99 Low Price: $1,999.00 See all prices

Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Mar. 15, 2010
  • Optical Sensor Type Exmor R CMOS
  • Type built-in flash
  • Width 2.6 in
  • Depth 5.6 in
  • Height 2.9 in
  • Weight 15.5 oz