Recording high-definition footage is no longer limited to digital video (DV) professionals. Thanks to products such as Sony's HDR-HC3E, it's possible to score a HD camera that offers up an ultra-compact form factor and an affordable price tag.
HD camcorders have certainly come a long way since the jumbo-sized and jumbo-priced first generation offerings, such as Sony's HDR-FX1. The HDR-HC3E weighs just 500g and can comfortably be operated using only your right hand, so on your next vacation you'll look more like a curious tourist than an invasive TV cameraman. That said, those with average forearm strength may find the HDR-HC3E's weight to be a slight burden after extended use.
Unsurprisingly (considering that it's now a standard feature on Sony's consumer camcorders), the unit offers up a 2.7-inch LCD touch screen display. The touch screen allows for pain-free access to most oft-used functions, but digging down to find more specific settings can be tedious and time consuming. Thankfully, the camcorder offers up an "Easy" button for novice shooters, which locks out the advanced features and presents you only with the essentials.
Setting adjustments can also be made using the various buttons located around the body. White balance, exposure, zoom, manual focus, recording and other basic functions can all be adjusted without venturing near the touch screen. We found the positioning of these buttons to be ideal for one-hand shooting.
Typical of Sony products, the HDR-HC3 is solidly constructed and its brushed-metal chassis looks and feels great. It should fare well against the wear and tear of an active lifestyle, and an automatic lens cover guards against dust and fingerprinting.
The tape ejects upward, and the Memory Stick Duo card slot sits behind the LCD screen, making both easy to swap when using a tripod. Though the battery sits at the back of the camera, the release latch is on the bottom, and some bulkier tripod mounts may make changing the battery without removing the tripod difficult.
Of course, the standout feature of the HDR-HC3E is its ability to record at the 1080i high-definition resolution. The greater resolution results in a higher level of detail than a regular DV recording; Sony promises "4.5 times the definition of DV". It uses the same MiniDV tapes you're used to, and around an hour of 1080i footage will fit on a single tape.
For when picture quality isn't a big issue, standard definition recording is also supported.
The camcorder uses a Carl Zeiss lens supporting 10x optical zoom and a 2.3-megapixel Sony ClearVid CMOS sensor. It can take up to 4-megapixel still images, and there's a Memory Stick slot behind the LCD to provide storage space for these images. Transferring footage to a PC is handled using the Firewire connection, but you'll need to supply your own editing software.
It's important to note that, unless you own a shiny new Blu-ray burner, you're limited in what you can do with your HD footage. It won't fit on a standard DVD, so if you'd like to share your home videos with friends you'll probably need to resort to using an external hard drive. That is, unless you want to down-convert the footage to a resolution that's acceptable for DVD distribution.
Unless you want to edit your footage, it's not entirely necessary to transfer it to a PC; the HDR-HC3E offers up a number of ports for displaying footage direct to a TV. These include HDMI, component and S-Video.
As mentioned, manual focus and exposure is available, and the touch screen makes adjusting these settings extremely simple. All you've got to do is touch the subject on the screen and the settings will be adjusted accordingly.
You can choose between a variety of white-balance settings, use one-push white balance to adjust for current lighting conditions, or use white-balance shift to manually tweak the hue. A zebra pattern and a histogram help guide brightness adjustments of your scene. The HDR-HC3 includes Sony's Digital Cinema effect, which does a reasonable job of creating the appearance of 24fps film.
There's no video light, but there is a flash for shooting stills. The camcorder includes a built-in stereo microphone but lacks a jack for an external microphone. You can use the proprietary hotshoe to connect a Sony-brand microphone, but you'll be unable to attach a video light.
Novice users will find the HDR-HC3E to be extremely easy to use. White balance, focus and exposure settings are updated quickly and accurately when set to automatic mode, and the image stabilisation feature works a charm.
The Sony Handycam HDR-HC3E's high-definition video quality is excellent. The detail in our shots was a dramatic improvement from the best DV cameras we've tested. Though the HDV format uses MPEG-2 compression to fit footage on MiniDV tapes, we didn't notice any of the compression artefacts, sparkles, and other issues that we've seen on DVD and hard disk camcorders that use the same compression. Shown as footage on a 21-inch computer screen, it looked flawless. When watching video on a 56-inch DLP HDTV, the only issue we could detect was an occasional blurring at the edge of high-contrast areas when panning. With a direct connection to a Sony KF-WS60A1 (60-inch rear projection LCD), the HDMI output yielded a significantly better picture than the Firewire and component options.
Colour balance was solid overall. Video appeared a bit oversaturated but not distractingly so. Indoor footage in typical room light shows a very subtle grain. Only in very dim conditions does graininess start to become an issue, but even then, the graininess is far less noticeable than on standard-definition cameras. Poor dynamic range is probably the HDR-HC3E's biggest quality flaw. For example, in bright sunlight, it blew out large areas of the face of a very light-skinned child. Manually exposing for the face resulted in a lack of detail in shadows.
In DV mode, the HDR-HC3E's video quality remains good, with reasonably good detail, accurate colour, and sharp images in outdoor shots. Indoor shots in dimmer light were grainier than the HD footage shot in the same conditions. After shooting in HD, we down-converted the footage to DV format before transferring it to the computer via Firewire, and the results were poor. Though the image had good detail, we saw very noticeable stair-step jagged edges on many objects. Our best standard-def footage quality came from using Vegas+DVD to transfer the movie in HD format, then render the final video at DVD resolution, but that's a slow process even on a fast dual-core computer.
Photo quality was surprisingly good, particularly considering that the HDR-HC3E must interpolate a 4-megapixel image from a 2-megapixel CMOS sensor. Images lack some detail compared to those from dedicated still cameras, but overall, they're sharp enough for acceptable 4 x 6 prints, and they boast decent colour. Indoor shots with flash looked good as well, but frames we grabbed inside while shooting video were grainy and muddy, since the flash can't fire while the camcorder is recording.
The built-in stereo microphone offers clean sound. It's sensitive enough to pick up subtle sounds, yet it didn't pick up motor noise from the camera.
Sony rates the HDR-HC3E for 175 minutes of continuous recording time. We found this to be closer to 120 minutes, but of course your results will vary dramatically depending on how frequently you start/stop recording.