How much do you want HD? That's the question you'll have to answer when surveying the camcorder landscape at $2,000, where the Sony Handycam HDR-HC1 makes its debut. On one hand, the HC1's 2.8-megapixel CMOS sensor delivers visibly sharper 1080i HD video (via the HDV format) and standard MiniDV in a surprisingly compact, generally well-designed body. On the other hand, at that price level, it competes with three-chip models from Panasonic, such as the , which produce much better color accuracy and dynamic range and deliver easier-to-edit video. And you always have the option of going with a cheaper model that simply records wide screen in standard DV. If your shooting style includes intensive adjustments and copious use of the eye-level viewfinder, the Sony Handycam HDR-HC1 is not the camcorder for you. Though it provides an excellent viewfinder and a good set of options to tweak, the design of the HC1 assumes you'll be using the LCD for recording. As with most of its consumer camcorders, Sony incorporates a touch-screen menu system in the HDR-HC1, which can be quite annoying if you're shooting with the viewfinder. For instance, to adjust the white balance, you have to lower the camcorder from your eye, flip open the LCD (with the concomitant surge in battery drain), choose your option, close the LCD, and bring the viewfinder back to your eye to reframe the shot. Even more irritating, to use the camcorder's white-balance fine-tuning control, you have to operate an onscreen slider by touching fairly small plus and minus icons--which effectively eradicates the fine from fine-tuning. Of course, for spot focus and spot metering, the touch screen is invaluable. Sony still needs to find the right balance of touch-screen and physical controls for models such as this one.
The HC1 may not be the most efficiently designed camcorder for shooting, but it's both extremely solid and compact--it weighs about a pound and a half--making it comfortable to hold for extended periods. A textured piece of plastic makes it clear where your right hand should grip the top, and your remaining fingers fall naturally in place over the rest of the shooting controls. The especially comfortable viewfinder tilts up and has both an enlarged eyecup and a very bright screen. The Sony Handycam HDR-HC1's real draw is its ability to record 1080i HD video on standard MiniDV cassettes; it uses the recently implemented HDV format, which employs MPEG-2 compression rather than DV. Not much software currently supports HDV for digitizing, and the packages that do tend to be expensive products such as Adobe Premiere Pro 1.5 and Apple Final Cut Pro 5.0. So the HC1 also provides HD-to-DV downconversion for editing or playback on a standard-def (SD) TV. Like its big brother, the , it incorporates Sony's Cinematic mode for simulating the appearance of 24fps film. It can also record standard DV. The camcorder supports component-video output and supplies the necessary cables, but if you have a FireWire port on your TV, you'll get the best playback quality that way.
For the HC1's sensor, Sony uses a 1/3-inch, 3-megapixel CMOS chip with an RGB filter array. That provides an effective 2.0 megapixels for HD shooting and stills, 1.5 megapixels for SD video, and 2.8 megapixels for 4:3 photos. Its Zeiss T* 10X zoom lens won't win any spec wars, but it's perfectly sufficient for most shots, and Sony boosts the zoom effectiveness with its Super SteadyShot electronic stabilization.
The rest of the HC1's features compete respectably with those of most camcorders in the same price bracket. You can select among automatic, manual, or spot focus. The Expanded Focus button enlarges the center of the scene for easier manual focusing, and the Tele Macro button will defocus the background to bring out the subject. In addition to using automatic adjustment and a handful of exposure presets, you can manually adjust the exposure or select the shutter speed. Same goes for the white balance, which includes a manual color-bias slider within the menu system. A zebra-stripe overexposure display and a live histogram supplement your exposure options, and for low-light shooting, you can turn to Sony's infrared NightShot mode and Super NightShot, which uses infrared and the built-in video light. An on-camera flash works for still photography, and Sony's Active Interface Shoe allows for more accessories. You can adjust the audio levels manually, and the HC1 includes connectors for an external microphone and headphones. Overall, the Sony Handycam HDR-HC1 performed well, though it had its hiccups. The bright, sharp wide-screen viewfinder was a pleasure to work with, as was the 2.7-inch wide-screen LCD. However, it seemed much easier to control the zoom speed with the camcorder raised to eye level than in the lower position usually required when using the LCD for framing.
Like many consumer autofocus systems, the HC1's has some difficulty locking in low light, but it works relatively well under better lighting. The one baffling exception was a large brown dog standing in front of a background of green leaves on a well-lit afternoon; the camcorder couldn't seem to lock on to the dog, repeatedly fixing on the leaves instead.
The SteadyShot image stabilization works adequately, as does the audio recording. Though it provides some image-quality advantages over the , the Sony Handycam HDR-HC1 ultimately suffers from similar weaknesses. On the plus side, viewing the native 1080i video on an HDTV drives home how much resolution we're missing on standard DV; when the HC1 is sharp, it's very, very sharp. So if you plan to view your videos solely on an HDTV via a FireWire connection and want the sharpest picture possible, this is your camcorder.
However, what the HC1 gains in sharpness it sacrifices in dynamic range and color accuracy. Both video and stills lack detail in the shadows and the darker tones, even as the camcorder blows out highlights. Colors are extremely saturated but mildly inaccurate on an HDTV, and undersaturated and mildly inaccurate when downconverted and digitized. Furthermore, you can see interlace artifacts in still images and movies downloaded or viewed at actual size on a good display. When the video was less than 100 percent sharp, we also noticed a tendency to produce more purple fringing than expected. Still photos looked noisy and soft, though probably acceptable for small prints or e-mailing.