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The Handycam DCR-SR68 is Sony's entry-level hard-drive-based standard-definition camcorder. The main attractions are its small size, large storage capacity, and megazoom lens, all at a sub-$350 price. It's also fairly easy to use out of the box; despite what is seemingly a never-ending menu system, there aren't a lot of shooting options. However, as with most camcorders in its class, the video results are mediocre--especially if you're watching them full screen on a large HDTV or are used to the detail of high-definition content.
If you're not terribly concerned with video quality and want a reasonably priced camcorder that's easy to use, has a megazoom lens, and can fit in a coat pocket, this Sony is worth checking out. If 80GB of storage isn't enough for you, spend $50 more on the DCR-SR88, which is identical to the SR68, but has a 120GB hard drive.
|Key specs||Sony Handycam DCR-SR68/SR88|
|Price (MSRP)||SR68, $349.99; SR88, $399.99|
|Dimensions (HWD)||2.2x2.6x4.1 inches|
|Weight (with battery and media)||11 ounces|
|Storage capacity, type||SR68, 80GB hard drive; SR88, 120GB hard drive; Memory Stick Pro Duo, SD/SDHC cards|
|Resolution, sensor size, type||680K pixels, 1/8-inch CCD|
|LCD size, resolution||2.7-inch LCD, 230K pixels (touch screen)|
|Lens (zoom, aperture, focal length)||60x, f1.8-6.0, 39-2,340mm (16:9), 44-2,640mm (4:3) (35mm equivalent)|
|Minimum illumination||3 lux (1/30-second shutter speed)|
|File format (video, audio)||MPEG-2 (.MPG), Dolby Digital 2-channel stereo|
|Resolution (video/photo)||720x480 (9Mbps)/640x480|
|Recording time at highest quality||20 hours and 33 minutes|
|Image stabilization type||Electronic|
|Battery type, rated life (typical)||Li ion rechargeable, 45 minutes|
|Included software||Sony Picture Motion Browser (Windows only)|
Available in blue, silver, and red versions, the SR68/SR88 (the SR88 is silver only) is an attractive little camcorder. Its physical controls are textbook camcorder design with a start/stop button at the back and zoom rocker up top in front of a shutter release for snapshots in Photo mode. The whole package is roughly the size of a soda can. The hand strap is comfortable if a little low and because hard drives have become so small and light, there's barely a bump encasing it, making the body mostly lens. On the top left of the hard drive is a small door hiding a power input. The battery gets charged while attached to the camcorder.
The battery juts from the back; above it is a button for switching between photo and video modes. Below the battery on the bottom of the camcorder is a card slot that supports both Memory Stick Pro Duo and SD/SDHC cards. Up front below the lens is a small door hiding a proprietary AV output; a composite cable is included, but an S-Video cable is available. A slider on the right side of the lens opens and closes the lens cover; using it once your hand is under the strap is awkward.
Flip open the touch-screen display (there is no viewfinder), and you'll find two rows of buttons in the body cavity for power; backlight compensation; direct-to-DVD recording using Sony's $149 VRD-P1 DVDirect DVD burner; turning on and off an LED lamp under the lens; and changing over to Playback mode. The last of the I/O ports are in this cavity, too: an uncovered Mini-USB port.
The touch screen is nice and sharp compared to other models in its class. On the left edge of the screen there are virtual buttons for controlling the zoom lens and starting and stopping recordings; very helpful if you're shooting at a low angle or on a tripod. The touch-based menu system is good for those who don't make a lot of changes. In other words, it's responsive, but because all of the options are in one long row, it can feel like the list goes on forever. At least Sony lets you configure an opening menu screen with six items you frequently adjust.
For those of you attracted to the megazoom lens, be warned: the camcorder is very difficult to hold still when shooting one-handed. To get the best results, it really needs to be on a tripod or some other stable support. Also, Sony went with electronic image stabilization, which is better than nothing, but won't come close to keeping your movies from being a shaky mess with the lens extended.
|Features||Sony Handycam DCR-SR68/SR88|
|Inputs/Outputs||DC in/Mini-USB, AV|
|White balance||Auto, Outdoor, Indoor, Manual|
|Scene modes||Auto, Twilight, Candle, Sunrise & Sunset, Fireworks, Landscape, Portrait, Spotlight, Sports, Beach, Snow|
|Focus||Auto, Manual, Spot AF, Tele Macro|
|Lens cover (auto or manual)||Manual|
|Video light/flash||LED video light/no|
This camcorder was designed for hassle-free recording and as such doesn't have a lot of extra shooting options. A majority of my field testing was done with the SR68/SR88 set to Auto for white balance, scene selection, and focus and it performed satisfactorily. There are more scene options if you chose to get specific and the same goes for white balance. Also, should you want to be more hands-on with focus and exposure, you can control both by touching the spot onscreen you'd like the camcorder to draw its information from.
For its low-end status, the SR68/SR88 performs reasonably well. It has an instant-on option that gets the camcorder powered up and ready to record very fast simply by opening the LCD (not an uncommon feature, but nice nonetheless). The autofocus is responsive, but when zoomed out it does hunt trying to focus, particularly in low-light conditions. The rated battery life for the included pack is 100 minutes of continuous shooting; expect less if you're frequently turning it on and off and reviewing clips. Extended-life batteries are available, one of which Sony claims has a life of up to 13 hours of continuous shooting.
Video quality overall is very soft; the only time a somewhat sharp picture was obtained was in Tele Macro mode. Clips also display quite a bit of noise and digital artifacts until you scale down to YouTube-size dimensions. There's a distinct pattern to the noise, too, which is distracting. There's noticeable purple fringing around subjects as well. If you still live completely in a low-resolution world, recordings are destined for video-sharing Web sites, or simply want to capture the moment no matter how it looks, the SR68/SR88 will suffice. Colors look OK but are cooler than they should be. Low-light video is loaded with grainy noise and yellow blotches. The LED lamp can help a bit if your subject is close to the lens, but it does little to improve the video quality and of course won't brighten distant subjects. Lastly, though the camcorder does take still shots, you'll likely get better photos out of a camera phone, and they can't be captured if you're recording video.
It's true you can get much better video from an HD camcorder that costs $100 to $200 more. However, standard-definition video is less demanding to play and edit on an average desktop or laptop, and SD camcorders are less expensive. With the Sony Handycam DCR-SR68/SR88 you're trading off video quality for a lot of storage and a 60x zoom lens. Of course, it's small, lightweight, and easy to use, too. Just don't expect HD when you're paying for SD.