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Sony Handycam DCR-SR290E review: Sony Handycam DCR-SR290E

Seeing is believing with Sony's Handycam DCR-SR290E. Its giant 69mm (2.7-inch) wide-screen touchscreen LCD allows you to see clearly through the Zeiss-branded 10x optical zoom lens. Along with Super SteadyShot image stablisation, you'll be looking at some excellent video

Philip Ryan
4 min read

Viewfinders have become an endangered species in the camcorder world. More and more, as is the case with Sony's Handycam DCR-SR290E hard-drive-based camcorder, we're seeing manufacturers remove viewfinders from models geared toward the mass market.

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7.5

Sony Handycam DCR-SR290E

The Good

Effective hybrid image stabilisation; a hot shoe for optional accessories.

The Bad

No viewfinder; somewhat pricey given its image quality; no minijack mic input.

The Bottom Line

The Sony DCR-SR290E digital camcorder should appeal to casual, snapshooter-type videographers, but it's somewhat pricey, since its video quality still can't match better MiniDV camcorders

Perhaps it's a nod to the still-imaging world -- where users frequently shy away from viewfinders when framing their shots -- or perhaps it's just an easy target for cost cutting. Either way, if you're a finder fan, you'll immediately have one strike against the DCR-SR290E, priced around £525, which forces you to frame your shots on its 69mm (2.7-inch) wide-screen touchscreen LCD. 

Design
As we've noted in past reviews, we're not big fans of Sony's touchscreen interface. The 69mm (2.7-inch) screen isn't big enough to accommodate more than about four virtual buttons per page, which makes the menu system cumbersome.

Sony does a decent job of designing the menus given these constraints, but other manufacturers' methods of navigation -- namely, joysticks -- tend to provide a better overall experience. Plus, with the LCD as the only way to frame your shots, a joystick could prevent the buildup of fingerprints on the screen. Of course, some people actually prefer the touchscreen interface, so if you're not familiar with it, you should try before you buy.

Since the finder is gone, Sony was able to create a nice, smooth shape to the right side of the camera and gain some real estate for buttons. Unfortunately, they didn't make use of this extra room and instead left controls for functions such as Backlight, NightShot and Easy mode on the left side behind the LCD screen.

The new positioning of the mode switch and zoom rocker is very nice. It lets your fingers fall in a more natural way across the camera body and makes finer adjustments on the variable-speed zoom rocker easier to perform. Like most of Sony's consumer camcorders, the DCR-SR290E includes four buttons on the left bezel of the LCD screen for menu access, zoom in and out, and record start and stop.

Features
A notch above the standard Zeiss-branded counterparts found in some less-expensive Sony models, the 10x optical Carl Zeiss T* zoom lens covers a healthy range. Sony's Super SteadyShot hybrid image stabilisation keeps your footage relatively shake-free across the zoom range, though you'll likely still want to use a tripod when zoomed to the 10x maximum.

We were pleased with the built-in microphone, which can create a faux Dolby 5.1 surround soundtrack and can be supplemented with an optional accessory mic -- that can mount in the DCR-SR290E's hot shoe -- if you want a dedicated mic for the center channel.

Note, though, that there's no minijack mic input, so you can't use a third-party microphone with the DCR-SR290E. If mics aren't important to you, you can also use the hot shoe to add a video light.


Performance
The DCR-SR290E uses a 3.2-megapixel CMOS sensor to capture its images, though like the vast majority of camcorders, it doesn't use the whole sensor at any given time. For video, it uses 2.28 megapixels in 16:9 mode or 1.71 megapixels in 4:3 mode. When capturing stills, it uses 3.04 megapixels in 4:3 mode or 2.28 megapixels in 16:9 mode.

To get to the 6.1-megapixel still images advertised on the backside of the LCD panel, the DCR-SR290E must interpolate the pixels actually captured by the sensor. You end up with still images with the requisite number of pixels, but you can't expect the sharpness you'd get from a real 6-megapixel image, such as one captured by a dedicated still camera.

However, images from the SR290E are a big step up from those that you'd get from its fewer-megapixel siblings. They're definitely usable for the Web or for email, and they can make decent small prints in a pinch.

Image quality
Image quality was good in some ways, but showed more compression artefacts than we'd like in video such as this. Overall, it wasn't quite what you'd get from an equivalent MiniDV camcorder.

Our footage was still plenty sharp when motion artefacts weren't obscuring details, and it had pleasing colour rendition, though occasionally the camera's automatic white balance ended up either slightly cool or warm. Focus isn't lightning-fast, but it's fast enough for most situations, especially in ample light.

In low light, focus slows down noticeably and becomes very sluggish in very dim lighting. However, given a few seconds, the SR290E does eventually focus, even in extremely low light. As usual, Sony's Super NightShot does an excellent job of capturing video in extremely low-light situations. While the resulting footage is still mostly monochrome, we prefer it to the almost unusable footage you get from some other manufacturers' night modes.

Conclusion
Given its modest array of controls, and its touchscreen design, the Sony Handycam DCR-SR290E seems best for casual shooters, who will mostly stick with the camcorder's Easy mode. If this describes you, and you think you'd prefer a hard-drive-based camcorder instead of a tape or mini-DVD-based one, then this model could be for you.

Of course, if you don't mind tape, then you could step up to a high-definition camcorder, such as Sony's Handycam HDR-HC7 or Canon's HV20 for nearly the same price as the DCR-SR290E.

Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday

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