Sharing a perch at the top of Sony's HD prosumer camcorder line, the Handycam HDR-SR7 manages to combine a raft of cutting-edge capabilities without forgetting that its primary function is capturing high-quality HD video. This facility still doesn't come cheap or easy, but if you've got the bucks and the patience, the SR7 delivers the bang you've been waiting for.
Along with its trio of siblings--the tape-based HDR-HC7, the flash-based CX7, and the DVD-based UX7--the SR7 uses Sony's 1/2.9-inch, 3.2-megapixel ClearVid CMOS sensor, recording video at 2.3-megapixel (HD) or 1.7-megapixel (SD) resolution before downsampling and encoding to 1080i HD (1,440x1,080) or SD (720x480), respectively. It also shoots photos at native 2.3-megapixel (16:9) or 3-megapixel (4:3) resolutions, despite the grandiose 6-megapixel claim on the body, which refers to a maximum interpolated resolution. It sports a 10x zoom Zeiss T*-coated lens and 5.1 Dolby surround-sound recording.
If all you plan to do is play the video back on an HDTV, the SR7 is a great fit. For editing, though, there are still some hurdles to jump. Most important, the AVCHD format used by Sony, Panasonic, and Canon for file-based HD recording faces some glitchy-to-nonexistent software support. In Sony's case, it really should drop the feeble Picture Motion Browser software bundle and include the more functional Vegas Video Movie Studio Platinum Edition, at least for the folks who drop over $1,000 on the HD Handycams. Other cutting-edge pitfalls include a mini-HDMI connector (Type C), which requires a cable that's not yet ubiquitous and support for the mostly still unviewable x.v.Color (xvYCC) color space.
That's all unfortunate, because the SR7 otherwise delivers a very good HD experience. From a design and operation perspective, it has everything we liked about the HC7. It weighs a bit less--1 pound, 5 ounces with battery--but feels similarly comfortable to hold and shoot; only using the touch screen requires an awkward two-handed balancing act. Though inconvenient for menu navigation, the LCD otherwise works well and remains visible in harsh lighting. I generally prefer shooting with an eye-level viewfinder, though, and wish Sony had padded the hard plastic eyecup. Like most of Sony's consumer models, the SR7 incorporates the love-it-or-hate-it touch screen interface; I fall more into the hate-it camp, especially on the SR7's smaller 16:9 2.7-inch LCD.
Within the menus you'll find eight scene modes; 24-step exposure shift; manual, indoor, outdoor, and auto white balance; and manual shutter-speed adjustment between 1/2 and 1/500 second. Spot Focus and Spot Meter take advantage of the interface by letting you literally point at your subject. You can assign one shooting adjustment setting--manual focus, exposure compensation/exposure shift, white balance shift (toward red or blue), and shutter speed--to control via the rather slippery CAM CTL dial. For shooting convenience, Sony provides its excellent SuperSteadyShot optical image stabilizer and Active Interface Shoe, plus Super NightShot infrared mode for when you need to record in the dark. Other niceties include a built-in electronic lens cover and a flash for still photos.
A relatively generous selection of jacks populate the SR7, including the aforementioned mini-HDMI 1.3; component and AV outputs; and a wired remote 2.5mm minijack. However, there's no USB port on the camcorder body; it's on the Handycam Station dock, along with a button that will launch DVD burning. It would have been nice if Sony had put a full-size HDMI connector on the dock as well, at least until the mini connector becomes more popular.
On its 60GB hard drive, the SR7 manages 8 hours of best-quality, 2.1MB-per-second HD video. And that best-quality video looks pretty good. As with the HC7, the auto white balance could be a bit more neutral, but overall the colors emerge ballpark accurate and saturated. I probably wouldn't print the stills any larger than would fit on a letter-size sheet, but I tend to be a bit conservative when it comes to print sizes.
As usual with the Zeiss T* lenses, video renders sharply, especially when shot in conjunction with Sony's great Super SteadyShot optical image stabilizer. It helps that the lens doesn't have to stretch beyond 10x zoom; that means neither the optical system nor the stabilizer face undue challenges.
The autofocus and metering systems also perform quite well. The HC7 renders correct exposures in a variety of situations ranging from overcast evening skies to glaring midday summer light. In a typical single-lamp living room environment it fares better than many competitors for sharpness, noise, and color. And the autofocus adapts relatively quickly to changes in position and zoom.
Like the HDR-SR1 before it, the Sony Handycam HDR-SR7 is an excellent HD camcorder that tries to deliver the promised convenience of hard-disk-based recording. But the lack of widespread software support remains an insurmountable inconvenience, holding me back from recommending it to all but the bravest of video geeks.