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The Sony Handycam DCR-SR85 offers almost everything the company claims. It's very easy to use, goes from off to recording in seconds, is small enough to throw in a bag, and its 60GB hard drive delivers anywhere from 14 to 41 hours of recording time depending on the quality settings. It also records video to Memory Stick Pro Duo cards making it a "hybrid" camcorder. But even at the SR85's highest-quality settings, the camcorder's standard-definition, MPEG-2 video is, well, still standard definition. Although the video quality is better than its less-competent sibling, the DCR-SR45, and commensurate with its class, it's not a great deal when compared with last year's still excellent but only a bit more expensive HD models, such as the Canon HG10.
At only 14 ounces with battery and 3.1 inches high by 3 inches wide by 4.5 inches deep, the silver-and-black SR85 is compact and lightweight. Sony improved the body design over its predecessor's, the DCR-SR82. Instead of separate mode and record controls, the power/movie/still dial for the SR85 sits naturally under your thumb, while the dead-center record button lets you start fast without much thought. Above it are power and activity lights topped by a Quick On button that takes the camcorder quickly in and out of a standby mode. On top sit the camera shutter button for taking stills (though you'll probably get better pictures from newer cell phones) and the rocker switch for the Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 25x zoom lens. The switch operates smoothly as does the zoom, allowing for stutter-free close-ups. However, since it lacks optical image stabilization, those extreme close-ups will require a tripod.
At the front above the lens sits a stereo zoom microphone--it attenuates with the lens to better capture the audio coming from the subject--that performed much better than expected. Just behind it is an accessory shoe for Sony lights and microphones. Under the lens is a switch to open and close the built-in lens cover. There are no mic or headphone jacks, which would be welcome, but manufacturers tend to jettison them for budget models. What you will find under a sliding door on the right side is a mini-USB port and an AV-out designed for use with the included cable. (A Handycam docking station is part of the package, too, featuring the same connections and a DC-in for charging.) Another sliding door on top hides a Memory Stick Pro Duo card slot, while a flip-down door below the main control dial hides the jack for the power cable. All the cover-ups make for a clean appearance. Also, hidden in plain sight off on the inside of the grip is the switch for the camcorder's Nightshot Plus infrared light, which lets you capture creepy night-vision video of people sleeping or whatever else you choose to shoot in complete darkness.
You access all menus through the 2.7-inch wide-aspect touch-panel LCD. Despite the use of tiny onscreen icons to navigate settings, the screen was very responsive and accurate to tapping. There are two menu systems: a Home menu to get to all feature settings and an Options menu to get directly to the available functions for video and still images, such as focus, white balance, and recording modes. It might take awhile to remember when and how to use the menus, but again the screen is so responsive that flying through the menus to find what you need goes fairly fast. There's also a set of four buttons lining the left LCD bezel that come in handy when recording overhead or at a low angle: home, zoom in, zoom out, and start/stop recording.
The SR85's video quality is tolerable for full-screen playback on small-to-medium-size TVs and computer monitors. However, video looks soft, lacking detail and clarity and tends to look washed out. Noise is within a reasonable level for its class, but quickly panning the camcorder--say, to capture a football pass or someone running on a playing field--turns the picture blocky, and moving while recording creates enough jerkiness to give you a headache when watching the playback.
On the upside, other aspects of the camcorder's performance are better, like its responsive autofocus, pretty good white balance, and quickly adjusting autoexposure. And the quality is better than the SR45, likely because of the larger 1-megapixel CCD sensor. (The SR45 is only 680,000 pixels). If you still live completely in a low-resolution world, plan to share resulting video on the Web, or simply want to capture the moment and don't mind losing detail and aren't concerned with visual imperfections, the SR85 should do the trick.
The Sony Handycam DCR-SR85 overall is a good camcorder. The 60GB of storage means you can more than likely take it on a vacation without worrying about running out of space. Plus you can save video and stills to Memory Stick Pro Duo cards up to 8GB. Its compact, lightweight build is great for grab-and-go videos. It's easy to operate, too, thanks in part to a responsive, 2.7-inch touch-screen LCD. But with HD camcorders coming within striking distance of the SR85's price tag, the quality of its SD video output is a definite sticking point.