The Sony Handycam DCR-TRV460 is well worth a look if you're upgrading from an 8mm or a Hi8 camcorder. It will play your old analog tapes and help you transfer them to a PC, and it records new footage in the superior Digital8 format. Its notable features include a powerful 20X zoom lens, a built-in video light, a NightShot mode for shooting in the dark, and the ability to double as a USB Webcam. Compared to competing MiniDV cameras, though, it's bulky and offers slightly inferior video quality. The Sony Handycam DCR-TRV460 is significantly larger than typical entry-level MiniDV cameras, mainly due to its use of bigger cassettes. It's also fairly hefty, weighing a bit less than two pounds with battery and tape installed. You'll find it compact compared to older 8mm and Hi8 recorders, but if size matters to you, go with a MiniDV camera equipped with an analog input for digitizing your old tapes.
Sony takes an extremely minimalist approach to the DCR-TRV460's controls. Most of the camera's functions are controlled via menus on the LCD touch screen. You'll find physical buttons for power, zoom, and photo, as well as display toggles for NightShot Plus, the video light, and the backlight mode. The only other button engages Easy mode, which sets all the camera's functions to automatic and disables most of the menu items.
You can customize the display with the Personal Menu function, putting your most-used options a screen tap or two away. The menu functions are clearly labeled and self-explanatory, though navigating the full menu would be easier if Sony had included a scrollwheel on the camera. The camcorder's scrolling graphical interface can be cumbersome to navigate via the touch screen. The DCR-TRV460 lacks the handy LCD-mounted record button found on many of Sony's other recent camcorders.
The DCR-TRV460's tape hatch opens on the bottom, so you must remove the camera from a tripod to swap tapes. The Sony Handycam DCR-TRV460 records in Digital8 format, a very close cousin of DV. Though it can use inexpensive 8mm and Hi8 tapes, it can't record in those older analog formats. It can, however, play back analog tapes, making it a prime choice if you want to upgrade to digital quality and get additional features but don't want to sacrifice your existing library of 8mm video.
Like many MiniDV cameras, the DCR-TRV460 features analog inputs for copying analog tapes to digital format. It goes one better, though, by also supporting direct FireWire transfer of analog 8mm and Hi8 tapes from the camera to your computer. There's no easier way to get old 8mm footage onto your PC, and the quality is very good.
The 20X optical zoom lens has excellent reach for a camcorder in this price range. Along with fully automatic and spot-focus modes, it offers manual focus. However, you have to use the LCD touch screen to select focus points, which is far less natural than using a focus ring. Manual exposure adjustments, six programmed autoexposure modes, and spot metering give you some creative control. The DCR-TRV460 also provides an assortment of special effects, including fades, wipes, and seven digital effects that include Old Movie and Trail.
The built-in video light is handy for shooting nearby subjects in dark situations, and it can also be used for stills. Sony's NightShot mode uses infrared light to let you shoot in total darkness without a giveaway video light--though the images are extremely green. The Color Slow Shutter mode sacrifices frame rate to avoid the green cast when shooting in darkness. Impressively, our test footage showed more color than we could see with our own eyes when shooting in a twilight setting, but any motion became extremely blurred, and the footage was noisy.
The camcorder shoots VGA-resolution stills and MPEG-1 videos and stores them on Memory Stick cards. Given the camera's low still resolution and the poor frame rates and visual artifacting of its MPEG-1 videos, we can't really recommend it for either purpose. Sony includes a USB cable for transferring pictures and videos from the Memory Stick; this cable also lets the DCR-TRV460 double as a Webcam. Overall, the Sony Handycam DCR-TRV460 performs well for a low-end camera. Autofocus is quick and accurate in all but the dimmest light. The manual focus offers precise adjustments--but good luck making them with the 2.5-inch LCD and the touch-screen focus-adjustment buttons. The monochrome viewfinder is no better for judging focus. Though small for a camcorder screen, the LCD offers a sharp image, viewable under a wide variety of lighting conditions.
Using the zoom switch, you can quickly or gradually zoom to a precise magnification; however, releasing the switch makes a very noticeable clicking sound, which we heard in all our early footage. We had to make a conscious and distracting effort to carefully let go of the zoom switch to avoid the clicks. As you might infer, the microphone works well and is very sensitive. Our only gripe is the lack of a wind-filter setting.
The digital image stabilizer works well at all but the longest zooms, where hand shakes become more evident. We didn't notice any degradation in video quality when panning with the stabilizer active. The Sony Handycam DCR-TRV460's image quality is excellent compared to that of the 8mm and Hi8 units it's likely to replace, but it is not so hot compared even to low-end MiniDV camcorders. The CCD offers just 290,000 effective pixels, whereas low-end MiniDV units tend to fall in the 360,000-pixel range. As a result, the TRV460's shots don't quite match the sharpness and the detail of MiniDV cameras'.
Surprisingly, indoor images shot in typical room light showed less noise than we usually see with entry-level MiniDV cameras. The built-in video light helps in darker situations, but it illuminates objects just a few feet in front of the camera; the Super NightShot infrared illumination is similarly limited in range.
Colors appear accurate and vivid but not exaggerated. In a few brightly lit outdoor shots, light skin tones were blown out and ended up a reflective white, with no detail. The camera does an excellent job adjusting quickly to lighting changes in situations such as a subject walking out of a dark garage into direct sunlight.
Still-image quality is extremely poor, with visible artifacts and a lack of sharpness even in scenes shot in bright outdoor light. The camera's MPEG-1 movie quality is abysmal. The movies show inaccurate exposure, jerky frame rates, and visible compression artifacts.