With a large internal hard drive, wide-angle zoom lens, advanced image stabilisation and a built-in GPS sensor, the Sony Handycam HDR-XR350VE is rammed to its digital gills with powerful technology. But how likely is it that you'll actually end up making use of all that it has to offer, and is it ultimately worth the £680 asking price?
So, you've got £700 burning a camcorder-shaped hole in your pocket. For that amount of cash, you could potentially bag yourself some serious hardware, but what should you prioritise? Best possible picture quality? Widest range of features? Or maybe a bit of both? As ever, the answer almost certainly depends on how you intend to use your new video device. If you're an enthusiast, for example, you'll probably be looking for manual controls and ways to optimise performance, whereas those who are planning on shooting little more than holiday movies might appreciate ease of use, convenience and portability. In many ways, Sony's HDR-XR350VE offers something of a middle ground between these extremes. Impressive specs on the camera side of things are balanced by a varied selection of features aimed at helping both budding pros and casual users to get more from their investment.
At the heart of the HDR-XR350VE is a 1/4-inch Exmor R image sensor, which records 1080i high-definition video at a rate of 50 interlaced frames per second. The device's top-quality mode sets the video bit rate to 24Mbps, the highest rate currently possible under the AVCHD standard. In photo mode, the camera can snap stills at up to 7.1-megapixel quality.
The wide-angle (26.3mm for still, 29.8mm for video) Sony 'G' lens is very welcome, especially when it comes to landscape and group portrait situations. Its 12x optical zoom isn't massively generous these days, though it's probably more than adequate for most people's needs. The large (160GB) internal hard disk -- capable of holding up to 67 hours of HD footage -- is another obvious boon. Again, however, not everyone will need such a vast amount of built-in storage, especially when it's so cheap to add your own SD or Memory Stick card as and when you need it.
Manual controls are all available via the HDR-XR350VE's on-screen menus rather than dedicated buttons or dials. This may put off serious videographers, but won't be too much of a concern for most users. The menus are navigated using touch controls and, though these can take a little getting used to, they soon become second nature. The 2.7-inch screen is just about large enough to sustain a fingertip-friendly user interface.
Many of you are likely to leave the device in auto mode -- thankfully, the Handycam's automatic functions are well up to the task. The 'intelligent auto' system does a particularly good job of understanding and quickly adapting to different environments, situations and even people's faces. Sony's 'OSS active' image stabiliser, meanwhile, does an excellent job of keeping your shots steady. It's less effective at the longer end of the zoom, but still far superior to many other IS systems we've encountered.
Whether you rely on auto-pilot, or take control yourself, picture quality is of a very high standard. We took the HDR-XR350VE for a stroll among the autumn leaves and, at top quality, we were highly impressed by the bold, striking colours and remarkable level of detail. Even indoors, the Handycam performs well, bravely holding on to clarity and colours in the face of diminished natural light.
There's no option for progressive filming, and it's harder to pull off the kind of professional-looking depth-of-field effects we've seen more expensive models on the market achieve recently. But make no mistake, the HDR-XR350VE is an extremely capable camcorder, and you're unlikely to find yourself complaining about the device from a video-quality point of view. Photos are quite good, too. Perhaps not up to dSLR standard, colours are just as vibrant and edges are just as sharp as they are in movie mode. A flash is available, and it's possible to frame your snaps in proper 4:3 photo format before you take your shot.
One slightly left-field feature of the HDR-XR350VE is its built-in GPS system. Why would you want a camcorder with its own sat-nav, we hear you ask? The main benefit is that you can add geo-positional data to all your recordings and photos, tagging your clips with the exact location of where you were when you recorded them. If you do plenty of travelling and want to share your voyages with others, this is a pretty cool extra. But if you're only going to be filming your kids mucking about in the back garden, the geotagging feature probably isn't going to come in handy. Since its GPS capabilities are likely to account for a significant slice of the HDR-XR350VE's asking price, you'll need to consider carefully whether it's something you really need, as you'll almost certainly be able to save money by opting for a non-GPS-enabled camcorder of roughly the same calibre.
Having all that technology crammed in does have a knock-on effect. The HDR-XR350VE is a surprisingly heavy little fellow. Its weight distribution combined with its lopsided design means it doesn't fit in your palm all that well. This can result in either some minor discomfort or slightly wonky framing (or both).
From a performance point of view, we have absolutely no argument with the Sony Handycam HDR-XR350VE. Picture quality is excellent, and its low-light sensitivity is much appreciated. It is, however, a tad on the pricey side. While there are probably lots of people who will find the camera's advanced GPS features highly useful, we would warn against paying for features you don't really need.
Edited by Emma Bayly