The DCR-SR40's somewhat boxy design and plain silver-plastic finish isn't as attractive as some Sony camcorders, but it's far from ugly. To Sony's credit, there's not a lot you can do with a big 20X optical zoom lens, a hard drive, and a 2.5-inch LCD. Measuring 2.8 by 2.7 by 4.6 inches, it's neither large nor small, but at 13.8 ounces, with the included NP-FP50 680mAh rechargeable InfoLithium battery, it's fairly lightweight and comfortable to shoot with for extended periods of time.
As usual, Sony's touch-screen interface is...well...a touchy subject. Some people love it, and some hate it. However, even fans of the system may find the 2.5-inch 4:3 LCD a bit cramped and as with any touch screen, fingerprints build up fast. If you often adjust shooting modes and other settings, you should try the touch-screen interface in a store before committing. One of the nicest things about the screen is the three buttons--two for zoom and one for record--to its left. Though not as responsive as we'd like, they're conveniently located, and the fixed zoom offered by the LCD-mounted buttons provide a nice counterpoint to the variable zoom rocker.
Unlike the hard-drive camcorders further up Sony's line, the DCR- SR40 doesn't include an accessory shoe, so you can't add a video light, a flash, or a microphone. Likewise, it doesn't include a line-in jack or analog-to-digital converter, so you'll have to move up the line if you want to use a camcorder to convert your old tapes to digital format.
Given the lack of expansion options, it's obvious that Sony is targeting casual shooters rather than tweakers, but they still include a decent feature set for those who want to experiment. Highlights include spot focus, manual focus, manual exposure, spot metering, and six preprogram autoexposure modes. Of course, since you have to cover up a portion of the screen to execute most of these functions, some of them become less useful than we'd like, depending on the scene you're shooting. A separate multicontroller of some sort would probably go a long way toward alleviating some users' discontent with Sony's touch-screen controls.
Overall, the SR40's performance was pleasing. Startup and autofocus were both very fast, the zoom controller responded well and switched speeds comfortably, and we experienced little delay between pressing the record button and the start of video capture. Likewise, shutter lag during photo capture was minimal for a camcorder. Autofocus and autoexposure reacted well to shifts in zoom, lighting, or scenery, though, as usual, response time for these dropped noticeably in lower light.
Sony's SteadyShot image stabilization worked well, but couldn't quite keep up with this camcorder's 20X optical zoom range. We found that it was effective to as much as about three-quarters of the zoom range. If you plan to shoot extreme close-ups, or long shots, you'll probably want to set up a tripod, unless you like that herky-jerky Blair Witch Project look.
Sony rates the DCR-SR40's battery life at 125 minutes for continuous recording, though you should expect slightly more than half of that during normal use. It's probably a good idea to get a spare battery if you plan to shoot for any serious length of time, or before you take this camcorder on vacation. Like most other Sony camcorders, the SR40 displays remaining battery power in estimated minutes remaining, which is more useful and convenient than the broken bar chart approach employed by some manufacturers.
Despite its smallish CCD and an effective pixel count of 340,000, we were impressed with the image quality of the DCR-SR40. While obviously not as sharp as the footage you'd get from a camcorder with more pixels, such as Sony's own DCR-SR80 or DCR-SR100 models, the SR40's footage still yielded an admirable amount of detail with few compression artifacts and well-saturated colors. Colors were a touch cool when shooting outdoors and slightly warm indoors, but not as bad as those of some other camcorders we've seen. As we mentioned in our review of the DCR-SR100, Sony seems to be doing a better job with MPEG-2 footage than JVC does, except for JVC's three-chip Everio GZ-MG505.
Still-photo enthusiasts who want to make 4x6 prints will want to steer clear of the DCR-SR40 or supplement it with a dedicated digital still camera. When printed at 4x6 inches, still images from the SR40 were rather blurry, with jaggy edges on curved lines and bland, though fairly accurate colors.
Overall, Sony's Handycam DCR-SR40 is a decent choice for an entry-level hard-drive-based camcorder. Tweakers and still-image buffs will probably want to move up the line, but casual shooters, such as those who just want to document birthday parties and the occasional holiday, should enjoy the convenience and conservation of leaving the tapes and mini-DVDs at the store.