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I used to think that hard-drive models would take over the camcorder market as miniDV slowly faded into the horizon. I've since changed my tune after using flash-based models, especially those that include some onboard memory. However, if you shoot a lot of video--or just don't bother to back it up very often--then a hard-drive model probably makes sense for you, at least until the flash-based camcorders start to include more onboard memory or the price of flash memory cards declines. Sony's Handycam HDR-SR11 is among the cream of the hard-drive AVCHD crop right now, and the same is true for its sister, the HDR-SR12, since the only difference between them is the size of their respective hard drives. (For this review, we tested an SR11.) The SR11 sports a 60GB drive, while the SR12 packs 120GB into its attractive HD-recording body.
That body design is quite nice, though it does have some quirks and comes across as chunky compared with most flash-based models. It's about the same size as a miniDV camcorder, thanks to its hard drive. Plus, that drive gives you a nice grip, while some flash camcorders have awkwardly designed grips. Sony placed the controls well, however, you will have to use the 3.2-inch touch screen to get to some important functions, which can be an annoying way to use a camcorder. The large size of the screen helps a bit compared with some other Sony models, but the screen is still fingerprint prone. The fingerprints can be distracting when recording, and if you try to change a setting while shooting, you'll likely end up jostling the camcorder while you make the change. Thankfully, Sony included a small button up front, below the lens, for backlight compensation, so you won't have to hit the menus for that.
Just above that button 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. This wouldn't be the end of the world, but you have to dig pretty deep into the menu to assign something to the wheel. Sony didn't call the menu item CAM CTL, instead it called it Dial Setting. True, it's the only dial on the camcorder, but if you're going to label it the CAM CTL on the body, you should be consistent in the menu. My other main gripe about the body design is that Sony used a mini HDMI connector (Type C) instead of a normal-size connector. The mini cables are harder to find and more expensive. With a camcorder this size, Sony could have found room for a full-size connector. I did like the doors that cover the various connectors though. The doors are plastic and have nifty hinges and slides to get them out of the way while using the jacks. I was worried that the headphone or mic-in jacks might not have enough room, but after trying several headphones with various size connectors, I was impressed that all fit amply. An Active Interface Shoe (Sony's proprietary hot shoe) sits atop the camcorder so you can add one of Sony's microphones or video lights.
In a most welcome step up from last year's SR7, the SR11, and SR12 offer full 1,920x1080 HD capture, thanks to its maximum 16-megabit-per-second AVCHD recording mode. The other three AVCHD recording modes record at 1,440x1,080 resolution, like last year's models. At the top AVCHD quality level, you can fit up to 7 hours and 10 minutes of video on the SR11's 60GB hard drive. If you bring the quality level down to the minimum HD setting of 5Mb per second, you can fit up to 22 hours, 50 minutes of video. Stepping down to standard definition, you can record up to 14 hours, 40 minutes of video at the highest quality setting and up to 41 hours, 50 minutes at the lowest-quality setting. Double those numbers for the SR12's 120GB drive. The NP-FH60 lithium ion battery gives you up to 90 minutes of continuous recording time, according to Sony, though you should expect more in the range of 40 minutes to 50 minutes during regular use when recording to the hard drive.
High-resolution video capture demands a high quality lens and Sony didn't skimp. Sony included a 12x optical Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar T* f/1.8-3.1 zoom lens. It covers a 35mm equivalent range of 40-480mm in 16:9 mode, or 49-588mm in 4:3 mode. The lens focuses its light onto a 5-megapixel sensor that uses 2.86MP to capture 4:3 video, 3.81MP to capture 16:9 video, 5.08MP for 4:3 stills, and 3.81MP for 16:9 stills. The camera can interpolate the stills up to 10.2MP.
Video from the HDR-SR11 is quite impressive. Colors are very accurate and images are quite sharp. The camera's white balance does a nice job of keeping color casts out of your video in most lighting situations, and the camcorder is quick to adjust to changes in lighting types and levels when in the appropriate auto modes. Autofocus also locks very quickly, and the optical image stabilization is effective across the entire zoom range. Autofocus slows in low light, but it was still able to lock, even in very low light situations. I enjoyed using the CAM CTL dial for manual focus--it's much nicer than using the touch screen. The built-in microphone does a good job of capturing audio and can be set to zoom along with the lens. You can also notch the recording level down to low if you're in a setting with particularly loud sound. It's not quite as nice as some higher-end camcorders that let you adjust audio levels in multiple steps, but it's better than nothing, and appropriate for this level of camcorder.
Sony added face detection this year. The camcorder is fairly quick to notice faces and uses them to set exposure and focus. I tried it in a tricky situation, a diner, and it did a great job of locking on my friend's face and stuck with her when she moved around in the frame and kept the exposure correct for her face. Sony continues to include x.v.Color (their name for the xvYCC color space), though we have yet to see any appreciable difference, despite using the camcorder with the appropriate Sony TVs. The remote control included with the SR11 will likely make more of a positive difference than x.v.Color if you plan to attach the camcorder to your TV to view footage.
If you plan to watch, or edit your video on a computer, you should check out Lori Grunin's blog post on the subject of AVCHD and editing software. Sony includes its Picture Motion software with the SR11 and SR12, but it would be much better off including Vegas Movie Studio Platinum with a camcorder of this price. Picture Motion lets you view your footage, but it can only make extremely basic modifications.
There's a whole lot to like about the Handycam HDR-SR11 and HDR-SR12. It captures beautiful video as well as very nice stills, for a camcorder. If you're in the market for a hard-drive-based high-definition camcorder, you won't go wrong with one of these Sonys. If 60GB isn't enough for you, the HDR-SR12 offers a 120GB drive and is the same as the SR11 in all other respects.