Two switches control the GPS and low-light shooting modes. GPS support, indicated by the "V" at the end of Sony's camcorder product names, comprises a built-in antenna and in-camera geotagging of videos and photos. 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. You can use the geo data for a map display of all your videos, which Sony serves up in-camcorder on a map. The Class 4 data doesn't include street names or even a complete set of landmarks; for instance, here in NYC it shows the Flatiron building and Teddy Roosevelt's birthplace, but not the Empire State Building. It marks galleries and museums, but not parks. Once you download the video to a PC, your options for video are even more limited. Unlike with photos, there's no metadata standard for storing the information with the files. As a result, Sony has to store it in a sidecar file with data that can only be parsed by its eternally annoying Picture Motion Browser software.
Unfortunately, the camcorder couldn't get a GPS lock here in Manhattan. While that's an expected problem among the tall buildings, some devices do manage to get a usable lock. It worked fine further upstate on the banks of the Hudson river, however.
While the LCD is large enough to support the touch-screen operation, the menu system is poorly designed, as it's been for the last several generations of Sony camcorders. Sony is obviously aware of this, as it overhauled the user interface when it rolled out the HDR-TG5V this spring. It's split into two sections, Home and Options menus. The former is for settings you can't change while shooting, such as choosing HD versus SD, quality, 2-channel or 5.1-channel audio, or SteadyShot Active/Standard/Off. The latter is for those you might want to change while recording, including spot meter/focus, exposure adjustments, program scene modes, or toggling the flash. Quick--which menu do you pick for enabling Face Detection or Smile Shutter? I'd think Options, but it's Home. There's just too much head scratching and menu bouncing to find any given setting when you need it. (For a complete rundown of the XR500/XR520's features and menu system, you can download the PDF manual.)
The lens performance and video quality really stand out on this model. Its G-series lens, based off the same optics as Sony's dSLR lenses, seems to deliver as good (or even better) results than the excellent Zeiss T*-coated lenses on previous prosumer models. Video looks sharp, and there's no visible fringing or aberration. Plus, the lens focuses surprisingly close. I wish it could focus a little faster while panning, but that's not unusual. The AF and autoexposure systems operate pretty quickly, though as with most AF systems it frequently gets confused between foreground and background objects--that's where the touch-screen-based spot focus and spot meter come in handy.
The SteadyShot stabilization system works well as usual, and the new Active mode, which compensates for lower-frequency motion than handshake, like walking, makes a big difference (though not rock steady). It's optional because the larger coverage area can result in some resolution degradation around the edges of the images, though I couldn't spot any on my test shots. Even the LCD is better than usual; it's large and retains visibility in direct sunlight, and in combination with the manual focus dial is adequate for performing manual focus. While the EVF feels a bit small and coarse, the color and exposure appears relatively accurate. The only real weakness in the camcorder's performance is battery life, which in practice seems to last only about an hour.
Video quality, while imperfect, still ranks high for a consumer model. Its 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 detail in extremely high-bandwidth scenes, such as a busy water fountain, can get a little mushy--a higher bit rate than its 16Mbps maximum might help in cases like these--and there's some jitter on rapidly moving subjects like a flag luffing in the wind.
Though the back-illuminated sensor isn't new, this is the first time we're seeing it in a product. The technology, which flips the layers so that the photosites are above the electronics where they can get more light, definitely seems an effective way to improve low-light performance, the continuing weak aspect of consumer camcorders. The camcorder really fares well in low light compared with all its competitors, maintaining a surprisingly sharp, saturated picture with only a modest amount of image noise. 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, no slow-shutter-speed artifacts (it won't drop below 1/30 sec), and very little desaturation. Compared with the current class leaders, all from Canon, the low-light video looks more pleasing; though there's a touch more noise, it produces better midtone and shadow reproduction, for better perceived sharpness, and with more saturated colors. However, none of them do a great job of maintaining white balance in low light.
The audio sounds good as well, and the mic is sensitive, though it could really use a wind filter. Still photos look OK, though as you'd expect at the touted 12-megapixel resolution--interpolated up from the sensor's native 6 megapixels--photos look overprocessed with occasionally ugly edge artifacts. The 6-megapixel shots look better. However, they should all print decently up to 8x10.
Aside from the irritating interface, the Sony Handycam HDR-XR500V and XR520V are burdened by a high price. They're full-featured consumer HD camcorders, but models targeted at home video creators are going for at least $250 less, especially since those users are usually willing to forgo the EVF. In their price class, you expect more prosumer-oriented manual controls. So despite being generally first-rate camcorders, you'll probably be just as happy with something a little cheaper.