Sony may not be the first manufacturer to enter the hard drive camcorder market--that distinction goes to JVC's Everio models. But with excellent video quality and fluid operation, the Sony Handycam DCR-SR100 puts all but the more expensive JVC 500 series models--as well as Sony's own DVD-based models--to shame. Video quality still can't quite match that of similarly priced MiniDV models, and MPEG-2 video degrades on editing, but you certainly won't be embarrassed by the vacation videos you shoot with it, and there's always the cool factor. Make sure you can live with the touch-screen interface before you commit, though. The Sony Handycam DCR-SR100 seems designed around the constraints of its long, wide 10X zoom lens and the 2.7-inch-wide touch-screen LCD; it's a squat, squared-off cylinder that's odd looking but not unattractive. It feels quite solid and comfortable to hold--not too heavy at 1.3 pounds--but it's big enough to require a carrying case.
We've complained before about Sony's touch-screen interface--that it's simply annoying on a large LCD and close to unusable on a small one such as the DCR-SR100's. It's full of tiny buttons and the touch screen itself is prone to smudges and fingerprints. Tweak-happy users will find themselves either cursing this camera or praying for a stylus. If you like the touch screen, however, then you can kick the SR100's design rating up by a point. The left bezel sports duplicate zoom and record buttons, though they're neither responsive nor very useful.
As befitting its price class, Sony put some nice finishing touching on the DCR-SR100, including an automatic lens cover and a snug accessory shoe protector. Although it might sound trivial, that lens cover eliminates a significant speed bump when you're shooting. Like JVC's Everio models, the Sony Handycam DCR-SR100 records directly to a hard drive. Its 30GB drive can store as much as 440 minutes of high-quality video, 1,250 minutes of low-quality video, or 10,000 3-megapixel still images. You can play the video directly on a TV via the bundled composite cable or copy the files to your PC; the camcorder mounts as a hard drive via a USB 2.0 connection. Like DVD camcorders, hard drive camcorders record using MPEG-2, and Sony saves the files as media-player-readable MPG files; your system--Mac or PC--may require a codec update in order to play or edit them, however.
For the DCR-SR100, Sony couples its 3-megapixel HAD CCD with one of the better Zeiss T* lenses. It uses 2 megapixels to capture video before downsampling to 720x480 (16:9) or 640x480 (4:3), and snaps 3-megapixel still photos in both 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios.
You'll find the typical array of Sony premium-priced features in the DCR-SR100, such as Super SteadyShot hybrid image stabilization, NightShot and Super NightShot infrared modes, and a four-channel microphone for Dolby 5.1 Surround audio recording. With an optional mic, you can capture center-channel sound. The hotshoe can also accept a flash/video light, to replace the SR100's built-in lamp.
Despite these upmarket capabilities, however, the Sony Handycam DCR-SR100 is more suited to the point-and-shoot crowd than to the prosumer set--those more likely to push the Easy button than to dive into the menu system for a handful of scene modes or fingertip-dexterity-dependent exposure adjustment, spot focus, and spot metering. Fast power-up, responsive zoom operation, and generally zippy autofocus contribute to the Sony Handycam DCR-SR100 's fluid performance. The camcorder begins recording within a second of pressing record and imposes only minor shutter lag when shooting still photos. The autofocus and autoexposure adjust quickly to changes in subject, illumination, or zoom; the only exception is in dim light, where the autofocus seems to glide rather than snap into focus. Unfortunately, the touch screen itself is awkward to use and isn't as bright as some camcorders' LCDs.
When activated, SteadyShot reduces considerable amount of jerkiness and shake throughout the zoom range and doesn't get confused by panning. However, the stabilization becomes borderline effective at the full 10X; if you're shooting after a caffeine fix, you might want to mount it on a tripod before zooming in for a close-up.
As with most Sony cameras and camcorders, the DCR-SR100 uses an InfoLithium battery that displays how much power it thinks is left and how much longer it can shoot. Sony claims a battery life of more than two hours for the SR100, but in typical use, you can expect slightly shorter life. We suggest you stock an extra battery and watch the battery meter. There's a lot to like about the Sony Handycam DCR-SR100's video, though there's room for improvement as well. The picture looks soft when zoomed out but gets sharper as you zoom in; by 10X, it's extremely sharp, with no visible compression artifacts. Colors are saturated, though the auto white balance renders them a bit cool outdoors and slightly warm indoors. Dynamic range is typical of a single-chip camcorder, with little latitude in the shadows and highlights, resulting in muddy grays for the former and blown-out, flat whites for the latter. However, the DCR-SR100 generally produces very low-noise, artifact-free video, even in low light. Thus far, we've seen better MPEG-2 footage from only the 3-chip JVC Everio GZ-MG505. It's also better than that of the Sony Sony Handycam DCR-DVD505's, with far less edge crawl.
Though the DCR-SR100's 3-megapixel photos are adequate, they have that odd combination of softness and oversharpening that produces edge halos and other disturbing artifacts that appear on close inspection. But they're fine for Web sites, e-mail, or small prints. The Sony Handycam DCR-SR100 isn't a true digital camera replacement, but it does the trick if you just want an occasional snapshot, and you're not too picky about quality.