Sony Handycam HDR-FX7
Though "budget" isn't a term that readily applies to a $3,500 camcorder, you might think of Sony's Handycam HDR-FX7 as a budget version of its older sibling, the $3,700 Handycam HDR-FX1. Like the HDR-FX1, the HDR-FX7 is a three-chip, "prosumer" HD video model; they have roughly the same design and feature set. That's where the similarities end, however, as the HDR-FX7 has completely different sensors and optics that effectively make it an altogether different camcorder.
Many of the changes make this a more consumer-friendly model--or, to be more specific, a consumer-sales-friendly model. For instance, the HDR-FX1 has a practical, 12x zoom lens with an excellent (for a camcorder) wide-angle start of 32.5mm (35mm-equivalent). For the HDR-FX7, Sony sacrifices some wide-angle attitude for a more marketing-driven 20x zoom monster.
Rather than the three CCDs of the HDR-FX1, the HDR-FX7 uses a trio of Sony's 1-megapixel ClearVid CMOS chips, the same sensor technology used by the single-chip HDR-HC3. CMOS technology typically draws less battery power than CCD does, and Sony rates the HDR-FX7's battery life at about 8 hours, compared with the HDR-FX1's 6.5 hours. Each of the HDR-FX7's sensors has a lower resolution than the HDR-HC3's, though.
Its smaller body and streamlined feature set also ground the FX7 more firmly in the prosumer category. It weighs about 3.3 pounds with tape and its 2,200 mAh NP-F570 battery. If the battery seems lost in the huge cavity designed for it, that's because the camcorder can accommodate the 6,600 mAh NP-F970 as well, for triple the battery life. The battery lasts a reasonably long time, but it won't charge while the camcorder is on, which can be quite annoying. If you think that would annoy you as well, you'll probably want to spring for the external battery charger.
Shooters accustomed to midrange camcorders will have little trouble adjusting to the HDR-FX7; using it is very much like using models such as the older HDR-HC1 or the Panasonic AG-DVX100B. When shooting at eye level, your right hand controls only zooming and snapping still photos. The bulk of the operational burden--and the weight of the camcorder--falls on your left hand.
On the lens barrel are servo-controlled zoom and focus rings and a dial for adjusting exposure. Focusing via the ring works very well, especially when used in conjunction with the Expanded Focus button that falls under your left thumb; popping into EF mode zooms the view of the middle of the area for easier manual focus. A one-push override provides an autofocus lock that you can tweak manually, which makes it much faster to focus on hard-to-lock subjects; just use the override to focus on something nearby, then manually adjust for the subject. There's also a two-step neutral-density filter control, which I really like.
Sony compromised on the location of frequently--but not ubiquitously--used options. Buttons for backlight and spotlight compensation and shot transition presets are gone, replaced by six buttons (three on the barrel, three under the LCD) to which you can each assign one of 15 controls, including Steady Shot, color bar display, and focus peaking. I think a couple of those still deserve their own keys, such as Steady Shot. However, the company did address one of our complaints about the HDR-FX1, so you can now use focus peaking and Zebra stripes simultaneously. Gain, shutter speed, and white balance still have their own dedicated buttons. And a handy Status Check button, which sits next to the custom-setting Picture Profile control, pulls up all your current settings, because there's a lot to remember.
I'm not crazy about the zoom-ring operation, however, which in typical servo fashion has no defined beginning or end point. I much prefer the zoom rocker, which has a nice, responsive feel. A lens cover is built into the bundled lens hood, which is great if you leave the lens hood on all the time. If you take it off, as I do, it's not so great.