A minor but decidedly worthwhile update of the DCR-HC30, the Sony Handycam DCR-HC32 offers a much more powerful optical zoom, a killer docking station, an accessory shoe, and a lower price tag. Plus, this MiniDV model carries over most of the features that made its predecessor a compelling family camcorder, including a compact design, friendly ergonomics, and abundant manual adjustments. Only image quality spoils the party: be prepared for tame colors and some noticeable noise in lower-light settings. If your budget can swing it, spending an extra $100 will get you a bigger sensor that should improve image quality and more features from the next model up, the Handycam DCR-HC42. Physically, the Sony Handycam DCR-HC32 hasn't changed much. It's a dead ringer for its predecessor, the DCR-HC30--a positive thing, considering that model's svelte, lightweight design. In fact, the DCR-HC32 is a smidgen wider and heavier, but it's still very comfortable to hold and easy to slip into a coat pocket or a travel bag.
Like many of Sony's camcorders, the DCR-HC32 relies on a touch-screen LCD--a love-it-or-hate-it feature if ever there was one. To its credit, this system keeps control clutter to a minimum. There are just a few buttons on the camera body, and they're clearly and logically labeled. Back Light, for example, adjusts exposure for heavily backlit subjects, such as someone standing in front of a window. The Disp/Batt Info button toggles between display options or, when the camcorder is off, activates a colorful, full-screen battery gauge that tells how much shooting time you have left. Finally, the novice-minded Easy button activates an eponymous mode that automates just about everything.
Save for a convenient NightShot on/off switch, all other controls and settings reside within the touch-screen menu system. The highlight here is P-Menu, a customizable front end that lets you add or remove preferred settings for quick access. It's a bit awkward to configure but a definite asset once you've organized it to your liking. It also lets you steer clear of the main interface, a rather intimidating set of "rolling" 3D menus and submenus. Novices will undoubtedly need to spend some time with the manual.
As on more expensive camcorders, such as Sony's Handycam DCR-HC90, the 2.5-inch LCD provides its own set of record and zoom-control buttons. These come in handy when you're holding the camcorder high over your head to shoot above a crowd or down low to capture, say, a crawling toddler.
The DCR-HC32's battery snaps onto the rear. If you purchase one of Sony's bulkier extended-life batteries, you'll appreciate the viewfinder's ability to extend back almost a full inch. Alas, it doesn't tilt up. And it's now black-and-white, an odd downgrade from the DCR-HC30's color viewfinder.
Sony wisely added an accessory shoe--albeit a "cold" one that doesn't provide power or communicate with the camera--for mounting a video light. Adding an external microphone isn't an option, as the DCR-HC32 lacks an audio input. That's one more reason to move up to the DCR-HC42, which has a hotshoe. The DCR-HC32's plastic shoe cover is removable and therefore easily misplaced.
Thankfully, the same can't be said of the lens cover, which is built-in but not automatic. You have to remember to slide a switch to open and close it, but that's infinitely better than a removable cover that dangles or gets lost. Indeed, our only real complaint about the DCR-HC32's design is its bottom-loading tape compartment--a hassle for tripod users. The Sony Handycam DCR-HC32 incorporates a 1/6-inch CCD that's capable of capturing 340,000 pixels (effective). For $100 more, the DCR-HC42 provides a slightly larger CCD and more than double the effective resolution (690,000 pixels). That not only gives you improved image quality but also a wide-screen mode that spans the full width of the sensor. Shooting wide-screen on the DCR-HC32 results in images that are cut off at the top and the bottom.
As usual, Sony supplies a Zeiss lens that's compatible with a handful of optional lens converters and filters. In an effort to make the camcorder more competitive in its price class, the company bumped the optical zoom to 20X--a big improvement over the DCR-HC30's 10X. (Even so, the similarly priced Canon ZR300 retains a slight edge with its 22X zoom.) Here's the only downside to stepping up to the DCR-HC42: you'll be stepping down to a lesser 12X zoom. Our take is that it's worth the trade-off.
Overall, the DCR-HC32 delivers a compelling feature set. For those inclined to move beyond Easy mode, you can choose from six autoexposure modes, indoor and outdoor white-balance presets (plus a manual mode), and the usual roster of digital effects. We particularly like the spot-meter and spot-focus options, both of which rely on simple taps of the screen to set your desired spots. There's also a handy Tele Macro feature, which lets you zoom in on small objects while staying at a distance, thereby avoiding any errant shadows. Only manual focus disappoints, as it requires you to tap or hold onscreen buttons, making precise focusing a tedious affair.
Like pricier DCR models, the HC32 can convert analog video--for example, from a VCR or an older camcorder-to-digital format. You can record these images straight to DV tape or pass them through to your PC via the FireWire port. The DCR-HC32 also doubles as a Webcam.
One thing this feature-rich camcorder can't do is replace your camera. Its photo resolution tops out at 640x480, meaning it's suitable for snapshots headed to the Web and not much else. Perhaps sensing the limited value of the DCR-HC32's photo capabilities, Sony didn't even bother to supply a Memory Stick Duo for saving stills. You can purchase one separately if you do want to take the occasional snapshot.
Another leg up on the competition is the included Handycam Station, which provides effortless charging and connectivity. This stylish clear-plastic dock provides connectors for the AC adapter, the USB and FireWire cables (the latter you'll have to purchase separately), and the A/V cable. You can leave the dock near your PC for quick and easy video transfers or near your TV for quick and easy video viewing. If there's a downside, it's that the dock is required for USB and FireWire connections, so it can't stay with the TV permanently. You'll also have to bring it along if you want to transfer video or photos to a computer while traveling. Thankfully, the camcorder has built-in A/V and power ports.
The DCR-HC32's other assets include USB and A/V cables, a wireless remote, and a shoulder strap. Sony's Picture Package software suite lets you create photo slide shows and music videos; however, it doesn't support DVD burning and lacks any real video-editing capabilities. For a camcorder in its price range, the Sony Handycam DCR-HC32 performs remarkably well. Its quick zoom and responsive autofocus can easily keep up with active videographers and subjects, and its electronic image stabilizer delivers solid results even at maximum zoom. In addition, its LCD doesn't wash out under bright skies--critical since that's where the camcorder does its best work (as we'll explain in the Image Quality section).
Having witnessed extremely jerky low-light performance from several recent Canon camcorders, we were impressed by how smoothly the DCR-HC32 handled panning and zooming under dim lighting. Unfortunately, we can't say the same for other aspects of video quality, as discussed in the Image Quality section.
Sony claims the included NP-FP30 battery will let you shoot continuously for 80 minutes with the LCD and 95 minutes without it. Unfortunately, those numbers are cut in half in real-world use, so plan on packing at least one extra battery. The good news is that the camcorder's battery meter counts down the available minutes remaining instead of forcing you to rely on a cryptic three-bar gauge. For all its great features and commendable design elements, the Sony Handycam DCR-HC32 can't quite overcome its small CCD. Colors seemed a bit muted, and the camera seemed to have trouble managing high-contrast exposures. For instance, the top side of a yellow playground slide appeared totally washed out, which we could understand on a sunny day--but it was cloudy when we shot it.
The bigger problem is visual noise. Although images stayed clear in outdoor and extremely well-lit indoor environments, noise crept in as ambient light diminished. That's fairly common, but the DCR-HC32 exhibited a distracting amount of noise even under typical indoor lighting. Even Sony's terrific NightShot Plus mode, which makes it possible to shoot in almost pitch-black environments, produced noticeable noise levels. We'd gladly bring the camera on our next vacation or use it to capture backyard cookouts, but it wouldn't be our first choice for birthday parties and other indoor events--unless strong lighting was ensured.