The HDR-HC3 offers Sony's trademark NightShot and Super NightShot infrared modes for low-light shooting, as well as a color slow-shutter mode for when you're willing to sacrifice frame rate to maintain the original colors and avoid the greenish cast found in infrared shots. There's no video light, but there is a flash for shooting stills.
The camcorder includes a built-in stereo microphone but lacks a jack for an external microphone. You can use the proprietary hotshoe to connect a Sony-brand microphone, but you'll be unable to attach a video light.
The HDR-HC3 includes a Memory Stick Duo slot for saving still pictures. The camcorder can shoot still photos at as much as 4 megapixels (interpolated) or grab 16:9 stills at 3 megapixels while shooting wide-screen video.
The Sony Handycam HDR-HC3's automatic focus, exposure, and white balance are accurate and responsive, adjusting almost instantly to rapid changes in subject. The only difficulty I encountered was its occasional inability to focus when initially zoomed in on a relatively close object; this was easily corrected by zooming out and back. The SteadyShot image stabilization feature does a good job of dampening camera shakes throughout the zoom range.
The wheel near the lens works well for adjusting manual focus, though I sometimes had difficulty getting a precise focus using the relatively small 2.7-inch wide-screen LCD. This model lacks the convenient magnifying Expanded Focus mode found on the
The LCD is reasonably sharp, but at 211,200 pixels, it doesn't even display standard-definition content at full resolution, much less HD. It's very bright, though, with accurate color representation, and is visible even in direct sunlight.
The built-in stereo microphone offers clean sound. It's sensitive enough to pick up subtle sounds, yet it didn't pick up motor noise from the camera.
Battery life is average, offering between an hour and 90 minutes of recording time, depending on how often you start, stop, and review footage. Sony's InfoLithium technology is very accurate at reporting remaining battery life.
The Sony Handycam HDR-HC3's high-definition video quality is excellent. The detail in our shots was a dramatic improvement from the best DV cameras we've tested. Though the HDV format uses MPEG-2 compression to fit footage on MiniDV tapes, we didn't notice any of the compression artifacts, sparkles, and other issues that we've seen on DVD and hard disk camcorders that use the same compression. Shown as footage on a 21-inch computer screen, it looked flawless. When watching video on a 56-inch DLP HDTV, the only issue we could detect was an occasional blurring at the edge of high-contrast areas when panning. With a direct connection to a Sony KDS-R60XBR1, the HDMI output yielded a significantly better picture than the iLink and component options.
Color balance was solid overall. Video appeared a bit oversaturated but not distractingly so. Indoor footage in typical room light shows a very subtle grain. Only in very dim conditions does graininess start to become an issue, but even then, the graininess is far less noticeable than on standard-definition cameras.
Poor dynamic range is probably the HDR-HC3's biggest quality flaw. For example, in bright sunlight, it blew out large areas of the face of a very light-skinned child. Manually exposing for the face resulted in a lack of detail in shadows.
In DV mode, the HDR-HC3's video quality remains good, with reasonably good detail, accurate color, and sharp images in outdoor shots. Indoor shots in dimmer light were grainier than the HD footage shot in the same conditions. After shooting in HD, we downconverted the footage to DV format before transferring it to the computer via iLink, and the results were poor. Though the image had good detail, we saw very noticeable stair-step jaggies on the edges of many objects. Our best standard-def footage quality came from using Vegas+DVD to transfer the movie in HD format, then render the final video at DVD resolution, but that's a slow process even on a fast dual-core computer.
Photo quality was surprisingly good, particularly considering that the HDR-HC3 must interpolate a 4-megapixel image from a 2-megapixel CMOS sensor. Images lack some detail compared to those from dedicated still cameras, but overall, they're sharp enough for acceptable 4x6 prints, and they boast decent color. Indoor shots with flash looked good as well, but frames we grabbed inside while shooting video were grainy and muddy, since the flash can't fire while the camcorder is recording.