The Sony Handycam DCR-HC26 packs a powerful 20X zoom into an extremely compact, lightweight chassis at a very low price. But while this easy-to-use, touch-screen-controlled MiniDV camcorder won't break the bank, its grainy footage and poor low-light performance won't win any awards, either.
It wasn't long ago that you'd have paid a premium for a camcorder this compact. Weighing just 14.8 ounces with tape and battery, the Sony DCR-HC26 slips easily into a purse or a jacket pocket. In a nice improvement over last year's Handycam DCR-HC21, this camcorder has a top-ejecting tape slot that lets you change tapes without removing the unit from a tripod.
Press the Easy button and everything's fully automatic. Turn off Easy mode, and you'll find that the DCR-HC26 gives you a reasonable amount of manual control. It offers a variety of program autoexposure modes, such as Sports and Portrait, as well as manual settings for exposure and focus. The spot-focus and spot-meter controls let you specify a portion of the touch-screen image for the camera to use when determining focus or exposure. The NightShot Plus infrared mode lets you shoot in total darkness. While it gives everything a ghostly, greenish cast, it's generally more effective than the slow-shutter modes on many camcorders, which result in unusably blurry footage.
Though the DCR-HC26's 2.5-inch LCD screen is on the small side, it's reasonably sharp and viewable, even in direct sunlight. You can give your subject a look at the shot by flipping over the LCD; however, doing that doesn't activate the color viewfinder, so you have to shoot blind. And while the camera includes video and S-Video outputs, it lacks analog inputs, which means you can't use it to transfer your old analog tapes to digital format. There's no memory-card slot, either; you're limited to shooting VGA-resolution stills on MiniDV tape.
For features on an entry-level camera, the Sony Handycam DCR-HC26's automatic focus and exposure perform quite well, reacting quickly and accurately after you pan to a new subject. Image stabilization works effectively through the first half of the zoom range, though shake becomes increasingly evident as you approach 20X magnification. The included battery is rated for just 45 to 55 minutes of typical shooting, so a larger-capacity battery would be a wise purchase for the vacation-bound.
The Sony DCR-HC26's low-end design is most evident, unfortunately, in its video quality, which is noticeably grainy even in bright light and extremely so under dimmer conditions. Colors hues are accurate but overly vibrant. The small 1/6-inch, 640,000-pixel CCD can't capture the level of detail obtained by higher-end cameras--a limitation evidenced by a general fuzziness in areas of high detail, such as grass, hair, and textured cloth.
Unless your budget is extremely tight, we suggest you move up a price class to around $400; the video quality of products priced below that mark isn't yet ready for vacation time, much less prime time.