Sony compromised on the location of frequently--but not ubiquitously--used options. Buttons for backlight and spotlight compensation and shot transition presets are gone, replaced by six buttons (three on the barrel, three under the LCD) to which you can each assign one of 15 controls, including Steady Shot, color bar display, and focus peaking. I think a couple of those still deserve their own keys, such as Steady Shot. However, the company did address one of our complaints about the HDR-FX1, so you can now use focus peaking and Zebra stripes simultaneously. Gain, shutter speed, and white balance still have their own dedicated buttons. And a handy Status Check button, which sits next to the custom-setting Picture Profile control, pulls up all your current settings, because there's a lot to remember.
I'm not crazy about the zoom-ring operation, however, which in typical servo fashion has no defined beginning or end point. I much prefer the zoom rocker, which has a nice, responsive feel. A lens cover is built into the bundled lens hood, which is great if you leave the lens hood on all the time. If you take it off, as I do, it's not so great.
Sony packed enough features into the FX7 that you should feel like you're getting your money's worth. It records 1080i HD video, as well as standard MiniDV, to tape. Each of the three, 1/4-inch ClearVid sensors has a 1.1-megapixel gross resolution, for effective video and still resolutions of 1 megapixel for 16:9 and 778K in 4:3 mode. The 20x Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* lens--one of the good Zeiss lenses--covers the 35mm-equivalent angle of view as 37.4mm-748mm (16:9) and 45.7mm-914mm (4:3), with a nice maximum aperture of f/1.6-2.8, and the camcorder supports a shutter speed range of 1/4 secpnd to 1/10,000 second. As you'd expect, it incorporates Sony's Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization technology.
Though it has a cold (unpowered) accessory shoe, it does have a powered mic minijack--a completely undocumented and ambiguously labeled mic jack and accessory shoe. In fact, the audio support on this model is seriously underwhelming; it basically consists of the built-in mic, the aforementioned jack, and a single input volume control which doesn't allow for adjusting the stereo channels individually. Call me cynical, but it seems intentionally limited to keep from cannibalizing the market for the almost identical pro model, the HVR-V1U, which provides 2 XLR inputs (and some other stuff) for another $1,000 or so. There is a headphone minijack, however.
Other ports include a LANC terminal for controlling external devices, component and HDMI output, and a FireWire (i.Link) connector. You can snap stills to a Memory Stick Duo Pro and download them to your PC via the USB 1.1 connection.
Overall, the HDR-FX7 performs quite well. It has a smooth, responsive zoom, a quick autofocus system and a usable manual-focus mechanism, combined with a bright 3.5-inch LCD that's pretty good in direct sunlight and excellent eye-level viewfinder. Similarly, the video quality in both bright sunlight and dim interiors is pretty impressive--within the limitations of the HD video format.
Because of its weak audio options, as well as a lack of time-code controls and other editing-friendly essentials, I wouldn't recommend the Handycam HDR-FX7 for budding indie filmmakers, despite the attractive price for those users. The admittedly more expensive Panasonic AG-HVX200 remains my top choice for prosumers who put the emphasis on "pro." But if you want lots of video adjustment options and have only basic audio needs, the HDR-FX7 will can make a great HD starter camcorder for early-stage wannabes.