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Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V review: Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V

Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V

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Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
Lori Grunin
9 min read

Given its accoutrements--a large G series lens, 64GB memory built in, 3.5-inch LCD and EVF, headphone and mic jacks, and shutter and iris controls--the Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V's price north of $1,000 may be a bit painful, but not much of a surprise. One of Sony's two nearly identical high-end models for its prosumer line, the CX550V differs from its sibling, the XR550V, primarily with its recording media and by having a slightly different body design. Their designs differ only because of their storage media--the XR550V's 240GB hard drive versus the CX550V's flash memory. This review is based on our testing of the XR550V.

7.9

Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V

The Good

Full manual feature set for video; geotagging for video is fun, if not very practical; autofocus system performs very well.

The Bad

Annoying menu system; no wind filter or meaningful audio controls; relatively big and heavy; expensive; defaults to low resolution, not-full-HD video quality; cumbersome touch-screen interface.

The Bottom Line

The Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V fares well compared with the competition, though its video could be a bit sharper and the interface less cumbersome. Unless you absolutely need to store a lot of video on the camcorder--which I don't suggest--or if have large hands that could benefit from the extra grip that the hard drive provides, the CX550V is a better deal than its hard-disk-based sibling.


  Sony Handycam HDR-CX300/CX350V Sony Handycam HDR-XR350V Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V Sony Handycam HDR-XR550V
Sensor 4-megapixel Exmor R CMOS 4-megapixel Exmor R CMOS 6-megapixel Exmor R CMOS 6-megapixel Exmor R CMOS
1/4 inch 1/4 inch 1/2.88 inch 1/2.88 inch
Lens
(with Active SteadyShot disabled)
12x
f1.8-3.4
29.8 - 357.6mm (16:9)
12x
f1.8-3.4
29.8 - 357.6mm (16:9)
10x
f1.8-3.4
29.8 - 298mm (16:9)
10x
f1.8-3.4
29.8 - 298mm (16:9)
Min illumination (lux) standard: 11
low light: 3
standard: 11
low light: 3
standard: 11
low light: 3
Night Shot (IR): 0
standard: 11
low light: 3
Night Shot (IR): 0

EVF

No No Yes
0.2 inch 201,000 pixel
Yes
0.2 inch, 201,000 pixel
LCD 2.7-inch 230,000-dot touch screen 2.7-inch 230,000-dot touch screen 3.5-inch 921,000-dot touch screen 3.5-inch 921,000-dot touch screen
Primary media 16GB/32GB flash; SDHC 160GB hard disk; SDHC 64GB flash; SDXC 240GB hard disk; SDXC
HD recording AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1,440x1,080/60i @ 9,5 Mbps
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1,440x1,080/60i @ 9,5 Mbps
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1,440x1,080/60i @ 9,5 Mbps
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1,440x1,080/60i @ 9,5 Mbps
Manual shutter speed and iris No No Yes Yes
Accessory shoe Yes Yes Yes Yes
Audio 2 channels 2 channels 5.1 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
5.1 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
Body dimensions (WHD, inches) 2.1x2.6x5.0 2.4x2.8x4.5 2.6x3x5.8 2.9x3x5.8
Operating weight (ounces) 13.3 (est) 15.3 (est) 17 (est) 20
Mfr. Price $899.99 $999.99 $1,199.99 $1,249.99
Ship date February 2010 February 2010 February 2010 March 2010

Though Sony changed some of the controls, the camcorder's design is fundamentally the same as last year's models. The camcorder feels quite sturdy. However, if you've got larger hands, the hard disk's protrusion on the XR550V might give you a more comfortable grip. All of the camcorder's door covers are solidly attached. The camcorder has a sliding door on top for the accessory shoe; another slider near the lens on the right side covering the mic and headphone jacks; two separate covers underneath the record button for the proprietary AV out and DC power in; and one inside the LCD hiding the Mini-HDMI and USB connectors. I don't like the location of the latter connectors, since I hate to leave the LCD open with cables running out of it. Also, its location makes it awkward to hold and move the camera around when you connect it to a TV. However, this seems to be a popular place for manufacturers' to stash the connectors.

At the front of the camcorder, you'll find a big-barreled lens with electronic lens cover and a flash on top--there's no built-in video light--as well as manual dial to the side. The manual control dial has long been a staple on Sony's top-end consumer models, but Sony expanded its capabilities a bit. Pressing the dial's center button toggles the operation to the currently selected option; holding the button in lets you select which manual function you'd like it to have. As for manual functions, the CX550V has options for focus, exposure, iris, shutter speed, autoexposure shift, and white balance shift. I've always liked the dial for its feel, but if you use the manual focus, shutter speed, and iris controls a lot, it gets annoying bouncing around the options with only the single control. However, this is how all of the prosumer models operate and is a trade-off for their relatively small sizes.

Toward the front-top of the unit is the five-channel mic; for the gazillionth time, I'll say I'd rather see Sony use that space for a stereo mic with good separation. In addition, though it has a mic input, the camcorder doesn't have any recording volume controls except for the reference level with two choices: Normal and Low.

The electronic viewfinder has a higher resolution than its predecessors had, as well as those on several of its competitors, but it is smaller. While EVFs are a disappearing breed and I find them essential no matter how bad, I'm disappointed with how small and low magnification the CX550V's is. That said, given the choice between size and resolution, I prefer the higher resolution.

The camcorder's large touch screen is relatively high resolution and nice to work with. It's also reasonably viewable in direct sunlight, but I still found it difficult to judge manual focus on it or in the EVF. Part of the problem is that there's neither focus assist--it doesn't magnify the subject on the LCD or in the viewfinder while using manual focus--nor peaking control to amplify the edge displays. Instead, the manual instructs you to zoom in, focus, and zoom out.

Under the LCD are buttons that trigger NightShot (infrared) and intelligent auto mode--a replacement for Easy--playback, and direct-to-DVD burning for use in conjunction with Sony's DVDirect dock or through software when connected to a PC. The GPS is switch controllable, and there's a manual power button in addition to the automatic operation when you pull out the EVF or open the LCD.

The camera's zoom switch falls directly under your right ring finger, which pushes the surprisingly small photo button to the very corner, where it's borderline difficult to feel. The zoom has a nice touch, and it's easy to maintain a steady rate. I complained about the location of the mode button--for switching between recording video and shooting still photos--in Sony's previous models, and now it sits just to the left of the EVF, a much better place and one that's easier to get to when you're shooting with the EVF.

When you hit the menu option on the LCD, the first screen you see is the customizable My Menu that is pretty convenient and straightforward to use. Hitting the Show Others button takes you to the annoying endless scrolling menu. But at least you have arrows to make scrolling functional, unlike Canon's touch-screen implementation.

Like the other "V" models, the XR550V and CX550V support geotagging for video and stills; keep in mind that there's still no standard way to use the video geotag information, and you're stuck using Sony's mediocre PMB software or just using it for a map index within the camcorder. Sony licenses Navteq's Class 4 map data to provide embedded maps within the camcorder and links to GPS satellites. (Geotagging and map data isn't available for all locations, so check before you buy or travel.) The implementation is fun, but limited. The Class 4 data doesn't include street names or even a complete set of landmarks. Once you download the video to a PC, your options for video are even more limited.


  Canon HF S200/S20 JVC Everio GZ-HM1 Panasonic HDC-TM700 Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V
Sensor 9-megapixel CMOS 10-megapixel BIS CMOS 3 x 3-megapixel 3CMOS 6-megapixel Exmor R CMOS
1/2.6 inch 1/2.3 inch 1/4.1 inch 1/2.88 inch
Lens 10x
f1.8-3.0
43.5 - 435mm (16:9)
10x
f2.8-4.5
n/a
12x
f1.5-2.8
35 - 420mm (16:9)
10x
f1.8-3.4
29.8 - 298mm (16:9)
Min illumination (lux) standard: 4
low light: 0.3
standard: 11
low light: 3
Night Shot (IR): 0
standard: 1400
low light: 1.6
Color Night View: 1
standard: 11
low light: 3
Night Shot (IR): 0

EVF

No No Yes
0.27 inch, 123,000 dots
Yes
0.2 inch 201,000 pixel
LCD 3.5-inch 922,000-dot touch screen 2.8-inch n/a 3-inch 230,400-dot 3.5-inch 921,000-dot touch screen
Primary media 0GB/32GB flash; SDHC 64GB flash; SDHC 32GB flash; SDXC 64GB flash; SDXC
HD recording AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1440x1080/60i @ 12, 7, 5 Mbps
H.264 MPEG-4:
1080/60i @ 24, 17, 12, 5 Mbps
MPEG-4: 1080/60p 28Mbps;
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 17, 13, 9 ,5 Mbps
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1440x1080/60i @ 9,5 Mbps
Manual shutter speed and iris Yes Yes Yes Yes
Accessory shoe Yes Yes Yes Yes
Audio 2 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
2 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
5.1 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
5.1 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
Body dimensions (WHD, inches) 3 x 2.9 x 5.5 2.7 x 2.9 x 5.4 2.6 x 2.7 x 5.4 2.6 x 3 x 5.8
Operating weight (ounces) 18 17 (est) 15.2 17 (est)
Mfr. Price $999/$1,099.99 $1,199.95 $999 $1,199.99
Ship date April 2010 March 2010 April 2010 February 2010

While getting a GPS lock with a lot of these cameras and camcorders in Manhattan is near impossible, it turns out that if you sit in the pedestrian mall outside the Flatiron building for about 10 minutes, it can find a satellite. Cities with less dense high-rise architecture should be fine. (For a complete account of the XR550V and CX550V's features and operation, you can download the PDF manual.)

I have no complaints about the camcorder's performance. Sony's autofocus system really stands out compared with its competitors' systems, and Sony seems to have improved it over previous models. While it doesn't snap quite as quickly as Canon and Panasonic's, it's far more accurate at judging what should be the subject of the scene, incorrectly focusing on the background with far less frequency than the other camcorders. Plus, the lens focuses unusually close.

I wish the camcorder could focus a little faster while panning, but that's not unusual, and I think it's the trade-off for accuracy. While it offers a touch-screen-based spot focus and spot meter, over time I've found that when I need these, they're for situations where the subject is relatively small in the scene or behind a fence and therefore my finger is too large/screen sensitivity too weak to accurately pinpoint it anyway. The SteadyShot stabilization system works well as usual. The camcorders only real weakness is its battery life. In practice, its battery seems to last only about an hour; however, it's still better than some of the competition's battery life. The deep battery cavity seems designed for the optional higher-capacity NP-FV70 battery.

Though it's still good for its class, when viewed on a computer, its video quality doesn't look quite as sharp as the previous generation did; it uses the same sensor, but it has a shorter, wider-angle G-series lens. But on a TV, the video looks great. Overall, its video has quite a bit of fringing. At its best, colors are bright, saturated, and accurate, and there's a fair bit of dynamic range; as is typical of its class, it still shows a tendency to blow out highlights, but with a lot less clipping of both the highs and lows than usual. The video detail in extremely high-bandwidth scenes, such as a busy water fountain, can get a little mushy. When shooting in the highest bitrate mode, the video looks notably higher contrast than when shot the lower rates. That makes it doubly annoying that Sony defaults to the 1,440x1,080-pixel 9-megabits-per-second mode; I didn't understand its decision to do that in a $500 model and I certainly don't understand it in a $1,200 model.

The camcorder fares well in low light compared with its single-chip competitors, maintaining a reasonably sharp picture with only a modest amount of image noise; however, Panasonic's high-end 3-chip models deliver more saturated, less noisy results in the same circumstances. Low Lux mode seems more intelligent than most low-light modes, only gaining up if necessary. It definitely produces a brighter image than standard mode, with only a modest increase in image noise and no slow-shutter-speed artifacts (it won't drop below 1/30 second). However, as it zoomed into the test scene, there was a notable change in the white balance and decrease in saturation as it crossed the threshold (when the focal length got long and necessitated a change in either shutter speed or iris). The less-saturated setting "stuck" as I zoomed back out.

Frustratingly, Sony's been overstating its camcorder photo resolution for years: the 12-megapixel photos use interpolation, a process for scaling up the native 6-megapixel images. At small sizes, you can't tell what a postprocessed-looking mess the interpolated images are. However, they should all print decently up to 8x10 inches.

For the price, I have to admit I expected a little better--slightly sharper video, improved low-light performance and a less cumbersome interface top the list--but Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V still fares quite well compared with its competitors. Unless you absolutely need to store a lot of video on the camcorder--which I don't suggest--or if you have large hands that could benefit from the extra grip the hard drive provides, the cheaper CX550V is also a much better deal than its more expensive sibling.

7.9

Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 8Image quality 7