It's hard to tell Sony's line of MiniDV camcorders apart just by looking at them. That's because the entry-level Sony Handycam DCR-HC26, the step-up Handycam DCR-HC36, and the midlevel Handycam DCR-HC46 all have the same basic shell and extremely similar feature sets. But inside, each has a different CCD sensor, which means there should be some difference in performance. We found that the difference between the DCR-HC26 and DCR-HC36 was minor, and unless you feel you need its low-quality still images, we saw no need to step up to the DCR-HC36. However, the DCR-HC46 offers a more significant boost in video and still imaging for a modest increase in price, making it a decent value for the money.
Like its siblings, the Handycam DCR-HC46 is small and lightweight and will easily find a spot in a backpack or other bag. The layout is essentially the same as the DCR-HC36's. The main difference is the HC46's slightly-larger wide-screen 2.7-inch LCD touch screen. If you dislike Sony's touch-screen interface, this modest increase in size isn't likely to change your mind, especially since the HC46's wide-screen LCD is not as tall as the HC36's 4:3 display, but the increased size is nice for 16:9 shooting.
For shooters willing to venture out of Easy mode, the DCR-HC46 as a decent amount of control, including some autoexposure presets, manual exposure, and both manual and autofocus. As usual, Sony's NightShot plus did a fine job of capturing footage, even at extremely low light levels. Sure, the results are greenish, monotone images, but that's still more enjoyable than the grainy or blurry shots you'll get from most camcorders in this price range.
Another major difference between the DCR-HC46 and its less-expensive cousins is its connectivity. While the HC36 has FireWire and USB jacks built into the camera, the HC46 and the more-expensive HC96 come with a dock that includes A/V output (via a breakout cable), as well as USB and FireWire connections. The camera itself includes an A/V output--again via a breakout cable--so you can still hook the camera up to your TV and watch video directly from the camera. The HC46 doesn't include an analog-to-digital converter, so if you plan on digitizing your analog video, you'll need to spend the big bucks on the Handycam DCR-HC96 or another similarly equipped camcorder.
We were pleased with the Sony Handycam DCR-HC46's performance. Autofocus and autoexposure both responded quickly and yielded accurate results. Image stabilization was effective though most of the camera's 12X optical zoom range. Sony rates the included rechargeable lithium-ion battery to provide about 55 to 65 minutes of typical recording time on one charge. That's enough to fill a tape, but a little more headroom would've been nice. To their credit, Sony offers optional larger capacity batteries, so it might be a good idea to get an extra, especially if you plan to bring this Handycam on vacation.
Video from the DCR-HC46 is slightly above average. It was noticeably sharper than the video we got from the DCR-HC36, which shouldn't be a surprise, given the HC46's larger sensor, which captures footage with about twice as many pixels as the HC36's. Colors were slightly over saturated, but not absurdly so. Still images also showed more detail than those captured by the HC36 and had fairly accurate color for a camcorder, though at 1 megapixel, you still won't get high-quality prints from them.
While it was hard to make the case to step up from the DCR-HC26 to the DCR-HC36, the Sony Handycam DCR-HC46 is a logical improvement, with a noticeable bump in video quality for your extra dollars. Casual videographers who care about video quality but don't want to break the bank on a camcorder should keep the Handycam DCR-HC46 on their short list.