Thanks to a large LCD screen and responsive performance, shooting with the Sony Handycam DCR-DVD505 is a pleasure; throw in its superior video quality, and the camcorder makes an excellent alternative to MiniDV models if you're looking for straight-to-player convenience. And paired with the optional Bluetooth center-channel microphone, its 5.1-channel sound capture is bound to impress. At the top of Sony's DVD camcorder line, the DCR-DVD505 shares much with its next sibling down, the DCR-DVD405--everything, in fact, except for the 3.5-inch LCD and the new 2-megapixel ClearVid CMOS imager; the DCR-DVD405 uses the same 2.7-inch LCD and 3.3-megapixel CCD as last year's DCR-DVD403. The Sony Handycam DCR-DVD505 is a bit longer than typical compact MiniDV cameras such as --relatively small but large enough to challenge some jacket pockets. Weighing in at 1 pound, 6 ounces, it's hefty but not so much so that you'll have any problems holding it during extended shooting sessions. Its nondescript silver-and-gray chassis is constructed of thick plastic, which gives the camcorder a solid feel that should stand up well to everyday handling.
As is typical for Sony camcorders, the camera sports very few buttons, with most functions accessed using menus on the LCD touch screen. A programmable Quick menu makes it relatively fast and easy to get to your most commonly used settings, but the full menu is so loaded with options that it can take significant time to scroll through the available adjustments to find the one you want. Casual shooters can just press the Easy button to put the camera in fully automatic mode.
The zoom rocker as well as the still-photo and record buttons are all comfortably located for typical one-handed shooting. Additionally, buttons on the LCD's bezel let you start and stop recording and adjust the zoom. These touch-sensitive buttons are handy when holding the camera at unusual angles, where reaching the traditional zoom rocker and start button can be tricky.
The DVD drive sits on the right side of the unit and opens to the side, and the battery clips onto the rear, allowing you to easily swap discs and batteries while the camera is mounted on a tripod. The Sony Handycam DCR-DVD505 incorporates Sony's new 2-megapixel ClearVid CMOS sensor, the same chip used by the company's DCR-HC3 camcorder. Its Carl Zeiss lens has a mere 10X reach; we'd have liked to have seen 20X on a high-end camera such as this.
Along with the fully automatic Easy mode, the DCR-DVD505 includes a full suite of programmed and manual settings, including manual exposure and focus. Particularly useful are the spot-focus and spot-exposure features, which let you use the touch-screen LCD to select the portion of your image that you want to set as a reference point. While this feature is somewhat difficult to access on Sony camcorders with smaller screens, it works very well with the DCR-DVD505's generously sized 3.5-inch wide-screen display.
The new Smooth Slow Record feature will be of interest to racing, air-show, and sports fans, as well as to golfers looking to deconstruct their swings. It grabs 3 seconds of video at four times the normal rate (240fps), resulting in a 12-second slow-motion playback of your subject.
The DCR-DVD505 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.
As with its predecessors, the DCR-DVD505 records to 3-inch write-once DVD-R/+R or rewriteable DVD-RW/+RW discs. With the latter, you gain some basic editing capabilities, including the ability to split, reorder, and delete scenes. When you finalize the disc, the DCR-DVD505 can optionally create a DVD menu, complete with customizable title, your choice of four backgrounds, and thumbnails that you can use to navigate your clips on a stand-alone player. It can also create a slide show of any images on the disc.
A proprietary Sony hotshoe allows you to attach lights, microphones, and other accessories. One particularly cool option is Sony's Bluetooth microphone/receiver combo. Attach the receiver to the DCR-DVD505 and clip the microphone to your subject; the camera will record that audio as the center channel of the 5.1 surround sound. This could be extremely handy for, say, recording a child's part in a school play, as long as you're within the 100-foot range of the Bluetooth transmitter. The Bluetooth receiver also includes a headphone jack, a feature that the DCR-DVD505 lacks.
Unlike its predecessor, the DCR-DVD403, the DCR-DVD505 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 stills of as much as 3 megapixels while shooting video. The supplied composite/S-Video cable lets you connect to a television for playback or to record video from analog sources to DVD. The Sony Handycam DCR-DVD505 suffers from none of the sluggish performance that affected early generations of DVD camcorders. Start-up takes only a few seconds, and there's barely any delay between when you press Record and its beginning to capture video. Not only are stills saved quickly to Memory Stick Duo, but you can even grab stills without interrupting video capture.
The camcorder's automatic adjustments react very quickly. Panning from brightly lit to dimmer subjects, the DCR-DVD505 swiftly and accurately adjusts focus and exposure for the new shooting conditions. The only time that automatic focus doesn't work well is in complete darkness using the NightShot mode, where it has problems locking on distant objects. Manual focus is available, and the large LCD makes it a viable option, though the touch-screen controls are sluggish and unnatural compared to a traditional focus ring. Image stabilization is very effective through most of the zoom range, with slight shaking noticeable at only the full 10X zoom.
Spot exposure works very well for bringing out details in situations with dramatic lighting contrasts. With a bright sky background, for instance, we could touch the sky to bring out details in the clouds or adjust exposure to the landscape below.
The 3.5-inch wide-screen LCD is excellent in all respects; it's one of the nicest displays I've seen on a consumer camcorder. It's large enough to make spot focus and exposure useful, it offers solid detail, and it remains viewable even in bright sunlight. However, the LCD coating picked up noticeable fingerprints, and given the touch-screen interface, fingerprints are unavoidable. The color viewfinder offers decent detail, though its 4:3 aspect ratio makes for a small image when you're shooting in wide-screen 16:9 mode.
The 5.1-channel microphone does a great job of picking up both close and distant sounds. Stereo separation is very good for a built-in microphone, though front/back positioning was rarely discernable; as you'd expect, the front audio is emphasized. The optional Bluetooth microphone delivered excellent clarity, and its use of the center channel for recording makes the surround sound far more noticeable during playback. The built-in microphone's placement directly atop the camcorder gives good coverage to sounds both in front of and behind the DCR-DVD505 and alleviates the lack of a wind filter.
The supplied battery offers just 40 minutes of recording time under typical conditions. Though this is fairly short, you'll be stopping every 20 minutes to swap discs anyway, at which point you can swap in an optional extended-capacity battery, which can last as long as two hours. The most interesting development in the Sony Handycam DCR-DVD505 is the 1/3-inch Sony ClearVid CMOS. It's a sensor with 2 million photosites--what we usually consider a 2-megapixel sensor--that's rotated 45 degrees off its typical axis. Plus, green filters comprise two-thirds of its RGB color filter array (CFA), compared to only half in a Bayer CFA used by the typical sensor. In theory, this should yield a sharper image: the green channel is generally the cleanest, best-resolved channel from a sensor, so adding one-third more image data should increase the signal-to-noise ratio. Furthermore, the rotation decreases the distance between the center of adjacent pixels (known as pixel pitch), without having to reduce the pixel size, which would reduce the chip's sensitivity.
The ClearVid CMOS delivers on its promised video-quality improvements; image quality is noticeably better than that of the DCR-DVD505's predecessor, the already-impressive 3.3-megapixel DCR-DVD403. Sharpness and detail rival those of some prosumer single-CCD MiniDV cameras, with very good resolution overall. Dynamic range is decent, with detail loss in shadowed or highlighted areas evident only when a shot has dramatic contrasts in lighting. Color is relatively accurate and well saturated in normal lighting. Automatic and manual white-balance settings both work well, but the One Push white-balance setting gives footage a noticeable bluish cast when shooting in natural light.
Generally, DVD's biggest quality issue compared to MiniDV is artifacts, a result of the extensive compression necessary to fit footage on disc. Though some compression artifacts were noticeable in our footage, particularly when playing back on a projection TV, the compression quality was the best overall that we've seen on a DVD camcorder. Areas with tightly spaced parallel lines, such as a home heating vent, showed some compression shimmer. But generally, color gradations, complex textures such as grass, and other typical victims of compression remained smooth and shimmer-free.
Outdoor-lit footage showed almost no graininess. Indoors, the DCR-DVD505 is a more average performer. Footage is noticeably grainy in dimmer conditions but less so than many competing single-CCD cameras. The NightShot mode does a good job of maintaining a clear--albeit green-toned--image even in total darkness. The color slow-shutter mode keeps hues more accurate, but as the environment dims, the footage gets increasingly blurry.
Photo quality is very good for a camcorder, particularly considering that it's interpolating a 4-megapixel image from a 2-megapixel CCD. Images lack some detail compared to those of dedicated still cameras, but overall, they're sharp enough for acceptable 4x6 prints, and they boast decent color. The flash works well when capturing in dimmer situations, though we found its red-eye-reduction mode ineffective. When capturing stills at the same time that you're shooting video, the flash doesn't fire, so indoor stills captured this way are likely to be grainy or blurry.