Sony DCR-VX review: Sony DCR-VX

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The Good Great interlaced video quality; outstanding low-light performance; impressive battery life; smart lens cap.

The Bad No 24P or HD video; no professional audio connections or controls; no focus marks.

The Bottom Line This three-chip camera offers excellent video quality to amateurs, but it's not ready for professional prime time.

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7.7 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8
  • Image quality 8


Sony's Handycam DCR-VX2100 is both successor to the DCR-VX2000 and grandchild of the groundbreaking DCR-VX1000, the first prosumer DV camera widely adopted by professionals. As the name indicates, the DCR-VX2100 is just a slightly improved DCR-VX2000, with slightly better low-light performance, slightly cleaner audio, and slightly more convenient controls. In other words, if you're looking for a three-chip camera, this one is a strong candidate, but if you already own the DCR-VX2000, it probably isn't worth the expense of upgrading.

What the DCR-VX2100 does--capture crisp, vibrant interlaced video on MiniDV cassettes--it does as well as or better than its competition. The catch is that the competition now offers features that this camcorder simply doesn't have, including professional audio connections, 24P and HD video, sophisticated image-parameter controls, and interchangeable lenses, to name a few. If you're after these cutting-edge features, look elsewhere. If you're familiar with Sony's DCR-VX1000 or DCR-VX2000, you'll be right at home with the Handycam DCR-VX2100. In fact, only close inspection will reveal that the DCR-VX2100 isn't a DCR-VX2000. Like the earlier models, this camera follows the classic Handycam design: a viewfinder centered on the back with the battery mounted below, a tape compartment and a zoom rocker on the right, a flip-out LCD monitor on the left, and a lens with zoom and focus rings protruding from the front, capped with a rectangular lens hood.

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The side-mounted cassette hatch allows you to change tapes while using a tripod.

The DCR-VX2100 departs from its predecessors with a slightly darker silver-gray finish and a larger viewfinder and eyecup. Its handle is also a bit taller and now includes a zoom control and a record button for low-angle shooting. Perhaps the biggest improvement is as clever as it is simple: Sony has incorporated a mechanical shutter into the lens hood to eliminate the need for an easily lost lens cap.

You'll notice the DCR-VX2100's solid, well-balanced feel as soon as you pick it up. It weighs a comfortable 4 pounds, and its materials and construction are solid. The mostly metal body should have no problem shaking off the occasional bump.

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You can adjust the white balance, the shutter speed, the audio level, and the exposure mode via controls on the left-rear corner.

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You'll find numerous buttons and switches for playback and effects in the LCD well. The Zebra switch lets you set the level for onscreen overexposure indicators.

With a few minor exceptions, the DCR-VX2100's external controls are the same as the DCR-VX2000's. In a broader sense, this camera shares the control philosophy of its predecessors: while all functions can be adjusted manually, there is clearly a bias in favor of automation. For example, you have to override the automatic shutter speed, white balance, and audio-level defaults with a tiny button, then adjust them with a tiny wheel. This will be fine with casual moviemakers who would rather let the camera take care of itself, but it will frustrate serious videographers and pros who want to take control of the image.

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With the switch on the left, you can apply the built-in neutral-density filters to cut down on glare and contrast. The control dial at the right lets you shift the automatic exposure.

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Under the lens, you'll find the Fader button and other controls to help you quickly adjust the automatic exposure for backlit and spotlit subjects. The Push Auto button lets you switch quickly from manual focus to autofocus.

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You can save stills to a Memory Stick card.

In terms of its feature set, the Sony Handycam DCR-VX2100 is a virtual clone of its predecessor, the DCR-VX2000, with three 1/3-inch, 380,000-pixel CCDs, a 12X zoom lens with optical stabilization, and a variety of exposure modes. Among the other prosumer-oriented features the two cameras share are an anamorphic 16:9 mode, Sony's Intelligent accessory shoe, a color-bar generator, adjustable zebra stripes for judging exposure, and two built-in neutral-density filters. The DCR-VX2100 does allow slightly more subtle exposure adjustments, with 24 f-stop increments instead of the DCR-VX2000's 19. The zoom range of the lens is good but not spectacular, and it doesn't go very wide. If you're planning to shoot in tight spaces, put a wide-angle adapter on your shopping list.

The DCR-VX2100 also retains a few of its predecessor's quirks. There is no independent gain control. Rather, gain and aperture share the same adjustment wheel; when you reach the widest aperture and keep turning, the gain starts to increase. Combining these controls isn't a bad idea for most purposes, but you won't be able to dirty up the image by increasing the gain unless the lens is wide open.

More problematic for advanced videographers are this camcorder's limited audio capabilities. Although it records two independent tracks of audio, the DCR-VX2100 has only one meter and one audio-level adjustment, which affects both tracks simultaneously. This is a very poor solution when you're dealing with two tracks that have significantly different levels. The camera also lacks a set of XLR mic inputs, offering only a flimsy minijack instead. You can purchase an XLR adapter from a third-party vendor--a somewhat kludgy solution--or you can take a step up to the DVCam version of the DCR-VX2100, Sony's PD-170. That camera has XLR inputs and a few other enhancements but is otherwise so similar to the DCR-VX2100 that its significantly higher price is a little hard to swallow.

If you want the image quality of a three-chip camera but don't care to deal with pro audio equipment or the most advanced manual controls, this camera's feature set might be just right for you. However, if you're on the pro end of the prosumer spectrum, you'll probably be disappointed at the omission of features that the competition offers for just a little more money. The DCR-VX2100 lacks full-motion progressive imagery, gamma controls, and focus marks. We found the Sony Handycam DCR-VX2100 very responsive. Its focus and zoom rings and rockers all work precisely--though with the oddly detached feel we've come to expect from servo-controlled devices. The autofocus is remarkably quick and precise, provided you're interested in whatever happens to be situated in the dead center of the screen. The camera also starts up quickly and takes little time to begin recording.

While the flip-out LCD at first appears identical to the DCR-VX2000's screen, it is a new hybrid model that provides significantly greater visibility in bright light. Audio capture is another area where the DCR-VX2100 slightly improves on its predecessor. The sound we captured with the built-in stereo microphone was clean and fairly free of camera noise. Be warned, though, that the mic is not very directional and will thus be of limited value in noisy environments.

Thanks to Sony's InfoLithium battery technology, you can expect to get a full day of shooting out of one standard cell. If you rely heavily on automatic controls and want to capture interlaced video, the Sony Handycam DCR-VX2100 will give you results as good as or better than what you can get from any other MiniDV camera. Its images are consistently crisp and well exposed, the colors it captures are well saturated and realistic, and its automatic white balance is accurate--even under difficult conditions.

Latitude--the ability of a camera to handle a wide range of brightness within one image--is a weakness of every video camera, but the DCR-VX2100 handles broad brightness ranges better than most. As a result, you should get fewer blown-out highlight areas from this camera than from lesser prosumer cameras.

The DCR-VX2100 also delivers the best low-light performance we've seen in a DV camera. Under dim conditions, where other cameras deliver murky, grainy images, the DCR-VX2100 somehow manages to extract a clean, colorful picture.

Despite its high-quality image capture, this camcorder isn't for everyone. If you're a very advanced videographer and want to shoot progressive video or make fine adjustments to color and tonal curves, this camera won't give you the sophisticated controls you need. And of course it doesn't capture high-def video either.

The DCR-VX2100's still imagery is as weak as its video imagery is strong. In short, the half-megapixel images the camera can store on Memory Sticks are little better than video stills. But this is a camcorder primarily for video enthusiasts, so that's not a major complaint.

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