Kin to the hard-disk-based HDR-SR11, the Sony Handycam HDR-CX12 delivers the same midlevel feature set and excellent HD video quality in a more compact body that instead records to Sony Memory Stick Duo Pro flash media.
The body design is quite nice; though it's roughly the same size as Canon's HF10/HF11/HF100 models, it looks rounder and slimmer, and a bit more elegant. The gentle upward curve toward the back leaves your forefinger in a more comfortable position to operate the power/mode switch, zoom switch and photo button than the typical all-one-height design of many of the flash models. Also on top but toward the front is the Active Interface Shoe with a sliding cover and the 5-channel microphone.
One disadvantage of the smaller size of the flash model versus the hard-disk-based models is for the LCD. The CX12's 2.7-inch wide-screen LCD isn't nearly as nice, especially for touch-screen operation, as the 3.2-inch version on the SR series models. It has the same controls on the bezel, though, for zooming, recording, and calling up one of the two menu systems. On the camcorder body beneath the LCD, Sony hides the backlight compensation, Easy (full auto), info display, and play buttons, as well as the NightShot switch for toggling Sony's infrared shooting mode. A small door on the bottom covers the media slot.
Behind a plastic door on the back are a mini-HDMI connector and proprietary connector for component output; Sony bundles a component cable in the box, but like most, doesn't include an HDMI cable. A Quick On button cuts the camcorder's startup time: with a partly full 4GB card it dropped from about 5 seconds to 2 seconds. The battery, which fits into a depression beneath the Power/Mode switch, is relatively large for such a small camcorder, but doesn't protrude too much. Unfortunately, this svelte design means there's no room for a video light, eye-level viewfinder, or headphone and mic input jacks. Nor is there an onboard USB connector; you've got to dock in the bundled Handycam Station for that.
The 12x zoom lens has a nice electronic lens cover, with a photo flash mounted next to it. Just below is the CAM CTL dial. It has a button on the front of it that lets you activate manual focus, exposure compensation, white balance shift, or shutter speed, though you can only assign one such function to the wheel at any given time. You assign the function by holding the button down for a few seconds and choosing from the pop-up menu. It's not terribly obvious; you've got the read the documentation to figure it out. However, the dial works quite well for manually focusing. For those who lack the tweak-everything gene, Sony includes some of its veteran automation technologies, including face detection with Smile Shutter (the latter for stills only) and D-Range Optimizer. There's also the required handful of scene modes. (For more on features and operation, download the PDF user's guide.)
There's no built-in memory--that's fine by me, since memory prices fluctuate so much it doesn't make sense to pay for its inclusion--but Sony includes a 4GB card in the box. That can hold about 25 minutes of best quality video: 16Mbps 1,920x1,080/60i AVCHD format. The camcorder supports several lower HD quality levels of 1,440x1,080/60i as well as three standard-definition options.
Overall, the CX12 performs pretty well. Though there's a fair bit of pulsing in the focus lock in low light, it's no worse than most competitors. Otherwise, autofocus works quickly and accurately. The zoom operates smoothly, and it's easy to maintain a steady pace. And the SteadyShot optical stabilizer, as always, does a creditable job of minimizing jitter all the way out to the end of the zoom range. Sony estimates the battery life at about 3 hours and it takes about 2.5 hours to charge it up again. Higher capacity batteries are available.
Given that it incorporates the same 5-megapixel ClearVid Exmor CMOS sensor and f1.8-3.1 40-480mm-equivalent lens as the SR11, it should come as no surprise that the video looks just as good; it delivers generally sharp, excellent exposures, less clipping in highlights and shadows than most consumer models, as well as accurate colors and solid white balance. In low light the video shows quite a bit of noise, but you don't lose much detail and your shots remain quite usable. Even its still photos look very good. As long as there's no wind, the audio recording sounds fine.
Though I miss perks like an eye-level viewfinder and a larger LCD, there are simply some inescapable tradeoffs for making camcorders more compact. Though there are smaller models, in this class it's not worth it if you have to sacrifice a high-quality lens, smaller sensor or comfortable grip and feel. As it stands, the Sony Handycam HDR-CX12 delivers an excellent prosumer HD video experience.