Sony Handycam DCR-TRV480
Though it's roughly the same size as earlier Digital8 camcorders, compared to the entry-level MiniDV camcorders it competes with, the Sony Handycam DCR-TRV480 is gargantuan. Its bulky design (necessary because of the large tapes it uses) makes it difficult to fit in even the largest jacket pockets; plan on using the included shoulder strap to carry it. At 1 pound, 15 ounces with tape and battery, it's on the heavy side, but it's still light enough for one-handed shooting. It has a very solid feel, and its thick silver-and-gray plastic case should stand up well to typical shooting conditions.
In contrast to the camera's retro size, the DCR-TRV480 uses Sony's latest touch-screen LCD control scheme. This is a mixed blessing. On the upside, it keeps the buttons to a minimum--there are only five on the camera, along with the zoom rocker, the start/stop triggers, and the mode switch. While this makes getting familiar with the camera easier, you may grow frustrated with the need to navigate through the touch-screen menus to make even the most basic settings changes. At least the menu is customizable, so you can put your most commonly used functions on the first couple of pages. When you do need to go deeper into the menu system, you'll find menu items clearly labeled and navigation straightforward. An Easy mode puts all camera operations on automatic and removes almost all the menu items from view.
The Sony Handycam DCR-TRV480 is geared toward a point-and-shoot-video audience, with a decent assortment of special effects but little in the way of manual control options. The camera has a 290,000-effective-pixel CCD and a 20X zoom lens with digital image stabilization. Recording in Digital8 format, a close cousin of DV, the TRV480 uses inexpensive 8mm, Hi8, and Digital8 tapes. It doesn't record to them in analog format, but it can play back and convert analog tapes, making it an excellent choice if you want to hang onto your 8mm video library.
Press the Easy button on the side of the camera, and the Sony Handycam DCR-TRV480 will attempt to automatically choose the best exposure and other settings for the current scene. Those who want more control will find six programmed autoexposure modes but little in the way of manual settings. You can adjust exposure, but there are no manual options for settings such as shutter speed and white balance. The lens allows manual focus, however. The small assortment of picture effects includes Sepia, Solarize, and Mosaic, as well as some built-in faders. You'll also find eight preset and two customizable titles. For shooting in the dark, the DCR-TRV480 includes a built-in LED video light and supports Sony's infrared Super NightShot Plus system.
The camera's USB connection lets you use the DCR-TRV480 as a Webcam, and its versatile FireWire connection lets you transfer not only your Digital8 footage to your PC for editing or burning to DVD but your old analog 8mm and Hi8 tapes as well. You can also connect an analog video source, such as a VCR or another camcorder, and transfer footage to digital tape or your PC. The back of the camera includes a Memory Stick Pro slot for storing VGA-resolution photos or postage-stamp-size MPEG-1 movies on an optional card.
Other than a tripod mount, the Sony Handycam DCR-TRV480 lacks provisions for external accessories. It has neither an accessory shoe nor jacks for external microphones or headphones.
For an inexpensive camera, the Sony Handycam DCR-TRV480 performs well. It's quick to adjust exposure when panning to a differently lit scene. Autofocus is also fast and accurate in all but the dimmest situations. The manual focus lets you make fine adjustments, but precise focus is difficult to achieve with the relatively small 2.5-inch LCD and touch-screen focus-adjustment buttons.
The LCD presents a sharp image and is viewable in a wide variety of lighting conditions. But given the size of the camera, it seems that Sony could have included something bigger. The viewfinder image is also reasonably sharp, but it's presented in nostalgic black-and-white.
We were able to zoom precisely with the camera's rocker switch, achieving both gradual and quick zooms. We heard no motor or zoom noises on the otherwise sensitive microphone. It picks up well but unfortunately lacks a wind filter setting.
The SteadyShot digital image stabilization works well for the first half of the zoom range, but as you approach 20X, hand shakes become more evident. We didn't notice any degradation in video quality when panning with the stabilizer active.
The Sony Handycam DCR-TRV480's video quality is markedly better than that of the 8mm and Hi8 units it's likely to replace, but it's also noticeably inferior to that of most competing MiniDV camcorders. The CCD offers just 290,000 effective pixels, whereas even most low-end MiniDV units now feature sensors with effective resolutions of 340,000 pixels and more. The TRV480's images have accurate and vivid color, but they don't have quite the sharpness and detail that most competing MiniDV cameras can produce. Compared to the video of mini-DVD units, the TRV480's shows less detail but lacks the compression glitches typical in footage compressed for DVD recording.
Indoor images shot in typical room light were somewhat noisy, as is typical with consumer camcorders. The built-in video light helps in darker situations, but it illuminates objects just a few feet in front of the camera; the Super NightShot Plus infrared illumination is similarly limited in range. The infrared mode shows more color than earlier incarnations of this feature, but footage still has a strong greenish cast.
Still-image quality is poor, with a low 640x480 resolution, visible artifacts, and a lack of sharpness. Though you won't want to use the Sony Handycam DCR-TRV480 to replace your digital still camera, its ability to shoot stills in the infrared Super NightShot Plus mode can be fun to play with. The camera's MPEG-1 movie feature is a gimmick, not something you'd want to use to preserve memories. The tiny movies are jerky and display visible compression artifacts.