Sony's DCR-PC55 MiniDV Handycam is a stylish shooting companion that's small and light enough to fit in your pants pocket. With a 10X optical zoom and a decent selection of automatic and manual shooting modes, the DCR-PC55 provides most of the capabilities of larger counterparts. Unfortunately, it compromises on video quality, which runs from mediocre under optimal conditions to poor in low light. So unless portability and style are your paramount concerns, you can do better than this.
The Sony Handycam DCR-PC55 is amazingly light and compact and looks as if it would feel more at home hanging out in a crowd of iPods than on a shelf with the other camcorders. It's small enough to fit, albeit tightly, in your jeans pocket, and weighs a mere 12.8 ounces with battery and tape installed. This camera goes for style as much as function, and comes in four colors: silver, red, black, and white. Despite its light weight, the camera feels very solid, which you'd expect when packing a camcorder into such a tight space. The camcorder should be safe in your pocket, thanks to an automatic lens cover that closes when you turn the DCR-PC55 off.
The three-inch LCD swings out of the side and must be swiveled 90 degrees for shooting, due to the camera's vertically oriented design. There's no electronic viewfinder, so you must always have the LCD open to frame your shots. The compact design can also be somewhat awkward to operate. While shooting, you must be very careful to avoid blocking the lens with your index finger. The camera's design also makes it somewhat harder to hold steady than a more traditional, horizontally oriented camcorder.
You access most functions using the LCD touch-screen menus. While this is simpler than hunting for the right control on camcorders that boast 20 or more dedicated buttons, it takes longer to drill through the menus than it would if there were dedicated controls available for common functions.
At least the primary menu is customizable, so you can put your most commonly used functions on the first few pages. When you do need to go deeper into the menu system, you'll find menu items clearly labeled and easy to navigate. There's also an Easy mode, which puts all of the camera operations on automatic and removes almost all the menu items from view.
Notably, the DCR-PC55 includes a charging/transfer cradle. The camera itself has only USB and A/V ports; these are duplicated on the cradle, which also features the all-important FireWire port for transferring video to your computer. The A/V port is a tiny custom connector to which you attach an included cable that features S-Video, composite, and stereo audio inputs and outputs. There's a stereo microphone mounted on the top of the camcorder; you can also attach an external microphone or flash to the custom accessory shoe directly behind the microphone.
You can eject a tape from the side-loading door while the camcorder is mounted on a tripod, but you must remove it from the tripod to swap batteries.
Most small electronics make some compromises, and the Sony Handycam DCR-PC55's most significant is its lens, which has just a 10X optical zoom. The lens can't accept accessories, so you can't add a teleconverter or a wide-angle converter. It also features a 120X digital zoom, but as is true with virtually all camcorders, digital zoom causes such a dramatic loss of detail that it's not really a viable option. Its 1/6-inch, 680,000-pixel sensor is also a bit low-resolution, given the camcorder's price range.
The lens does support manual focus via icons on the touch screen. Unfortunately, this arrangement makes it difficult to finely adjust the focus with one hand while keeping your subject in view. A better option is the spot-focus function, which lets you use the touch screen to specify what object in the screen the camera should focus on.
The touch screen also scores points when you're working with tricky exposures. With the spot-meter function, you frame your subject, then touch the screen at the spot that you want to use as an exposure reference. There are also manual exposure and white-balance settings, something you might not expect on such a compact camcorder.
The DCR-PC55 includes the typical array of automatic exposure modes, including Spotlight, Portrait, Sports, Beach & Ski, Sunset & Moon, and Landscape. You'll also find a series of built-in faders and an assortment of gimmicky digital effects such as Old Movie, Pastel, and Mosaic. Sony's trademark infrared Night Shot modes are absent here; the only low-light option is a Color Slow Shutter mode.
The camcorder shoots still images at VGA (640x480) resolution and can capture MPEG movies at 320x240 or 160x120 pixels. A 16MB Memory Stick Duo card is included for saving stills and video clips. There's no built-in flash, but you can attach an external flash or flash/video-light combo to the camcorder's accessory shoe.
The Sony Handycam DCR-PC55's automatic modes perform well in most shooting conditions. Auto white balance and autoexposure are very quick, autofocus is snappy, and the camera quickly adjusts to fast changes in lighting conditions. The digital image stabilizer fares worse, with very noticeable camera shake when using the zoom. This is probably more a result of the camera's awkward-to-hold-steady shape making the stabilizer work extra hard than any deficiency with the stabilizer itself.
Manual controls are a mixed bag. Manual focus is time-consuming and imprecise using the touch screen, but the spot-metering and focus functions that let you touch the portion of the frame you want to use as a reference work very well.
The LCD provides a clear, bright picture and, at three inches, is quite large for such a tiny camcorder. It works well in bright light, which is good, since there's no viewfinder to fall back on.
The stereo microphone worked well, picking up subtle noises without recording the sound of the camera motor. Its placement on top of the camera makes it more sensitive to the shooter's voice than the subject's, however, and the lack of a wind-filter function made for some noisy outdoor shots in our testing on a breezy day.
While Sony didn't compromise many features in making the Handycam DCR-PC55 small, we unfortunately can't say the same about image quality. The video quality is among the poorest we've seen for a model in this price class. No matter how good the lighting, we saw noticeable video noise in our shots, indoors and out. There's also a noticeable lack of resolution. Footage lacks detail, and objects such as rooflines have a very noticeable stair-step effect.
Color on our bright, outdoor shots looked accurate and saturated, but both indoors and in dimly lit situations, color faded out very noticeably while video noise increased dramatically. This camcorder is definitely best suited for outdoor shooting. The Color Slow Shutter mode brings colors out a bit more in dark situations but at the expense of a very slow frame rate and blurry panning shots. Furthermore, in situations with extremes of exposure--say, a lamp in a very dim room--the lighted area blows out while the dark areas remain underexposed.
Still pictures are merely VGA resolution and thus lack detail. Brightly lit outdoor images are OK for basic Web or e-mail use, but indoor shots are very muddy. This definitely isn't a viable substitute for a dedicated still camera.