Given its accoutrements--a large G series lens, 240GB hard disk, 3.5-inch LCD and EVF--the XR550V's large size and weight (for a consumer model) comes as little surprise. If you want a slightly slimmer, lighter weight version, check out the flash-based CX550V.
The manual control dial has long been a staple on Sony's top-end consumer models, but Sony expanded its capabilities a bit. Pressing the dial's center button toggles the operation to the currently selected option; holding the button in lets you select which manual function you'd like it to have. As for manual functions, the XR550V has options for focus, exposure, iris, shutter speed, autoexposure shift, and white balance shift.
I've always liked the dial for its feel, but if you use the manual focus, shutter speed, and iris controls a lot, it gets annoying bouncing around the options with only the single control.
Under the LCD are buttons that trigger NightShot (infrared) and intelligent auto mode--a replacement for Easy--playback, and direct-to-DVD burning for use in conjunction with Sony's DVDirect dock or through software when connected to a PC. The GPS is switch controllable. USB and Mini-HDMI connectors sit under a sliding door, a location I don't like. I hate to leave the LCD open with cables running out, and the location makes it awkward to hold and move around when connected to a TV. Still, this seems to be a popular place to stash the connectors.
The camcorder's large touch screen is relatively and nice to work with, but I still found it difficult to judge manual focus on it. While EVFs are a disappearing breed and I find them essential no matter how bad, I was also disappointed with how small and low magnification the XR550V's is.
The mode button on the upper right lets you select between still and video modes, and a really welcome alternative to using the touch screen for that function.
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.
When you hit the menu option on the LCD, the first screen you see is the customizable My Menu, which is pretty convenient and straightforward to use. Hitting the Show Others button takes you to the annoying endless scrolling menu. But at least you've got arrows to make scrolling functional, unlike Canon's touch-screen implementation.
Frustratingly, Sony's been overstating its camcorder photo resolution for years: the XR550V's 12-megapixel photos use interpolation, a process for scaling up the native 6-megapixel images. As you can see, at small sizes you can't tell what a postprocessed-looking mess they are.
While these are stills, not video, they do show some auto white balance inconsistency in the camcorder. They all have the same exposure; the bottom was a 12-megapixel interpolated shot, while the other two are shot at the camcorder's native 6-megapixel resolution.
As the camcorder zoomed into the test scene (from top to bottom), there was a notable change in the white balance and saturation as it crossed the threshold (when the focal length got long and necessitated a change in either shutter speed or iris). The changed white balance then "stuck" as the camcorder zoomed back out.