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Sony HDR-CX5 review: Sony HDR-CX5

Sony HDR-CX5

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Lori Grunin
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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.

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8 min read

OVR
7.6

Sony HDR-CX5

The Good

Compact design; first-rate video quality and performance; geotagging videos is fun, if limited.

The Bad

No SD card support; awkward control layout; no wind filter; no manual shutter speed, iris, or audio controls; expensive.

The Bottom Line

The geotagging capability remains mostly a novelty, but the top-notch video quality of the Sony Handycam HDR-CX500V and HDR-CX520V make them worthy options. Because internal memory is overpriced, the HDR-XR500V is the better deal of the two, though you may want to opt for a 2010 model that supports SD cards rather than Sony's Memory Stick.

With a six-month lag behind their hard-drive-based siblings, the HDR-XR500V and HDR-XR520V, the HDR-CX500V and CX520V promised some much-needed interface enhancements over their solid-but-flawed brothers. While I don't think the interface and control layout changes make much of an improvement, many people will probably feel the operational annoyances are worth the trade-off: the same high-quality video and performance of their hard-disk-based counterparts in more compact packages.

The two models differ only by built-in memory--the CX500V has 32GB, while the CX520V includes 64GB. While these flash models retain most of the capabilities of the hard-drive versions, Sony did jettison the EVF, moving that into the newer CX550V along with the microphone and headphone jacks (since the CX550V uses a different lens, we don't consider it part of the line from a testing perspective). However, that leaves the Panasonic HDC-TM700 as the only sub-$1,000 model with an EVF.


Comparative specs: Sony models Sony Handycam HDR-CX500V/CX520V Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V Sony Handycam HDR-XR500V/XR520V
Sensor 6-megapixel Exmor-R CMOS 6-megapixel Exmor-R CMOS 6-megapixel Exmor-R CMOS
1/2.88 inch 1/2.88 inch 1/2.88 inch
Lens 12x
f1.8-3.4
43 - 516mm
10x
f1.8-3.4
29.8 - 298mm
12x
f1.8-3.4
43 - 516mm
Min illumination (lux) rec: n/a
low light: 11
night: 3
IR: 0
rec: n/a
low light: 11
night: 3
IR: 0
rec: n/a
low light: 11
night: 3
IR: 0

EVF

No Yes Yes
LCD 3.0-inch 230,000-dot touch screen 3.5-inch 921,000-dot touch screen 3.2-inch 921,000-dot touch screen
Primary media 32GB/64GB flash; Memory Stick Duo 64GB flash; SDHC 120GB/240GB hard disk; Memory Stick Duo
HD recording AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 16Mbps; 1440x1080/60i @ 9,7,5 Mbps
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 24, 16 Mbps; 1440x1080/60i @ 9,7,5 Mbps
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 16Mbps; 1440x1080/60i @ 9,7,5 Mbps
Manual shutter speed and iris No No No
Accessory shoe Yes Yes Yes
Audio 5.1 channels 5.1 channels; mic and headphone jacks 5.1 channels; mic and headphone jacks
Body dimensions (WHD, inches) 2.5 x 2.6 x 5.4 2.6 x 3.0 x 5.8 2.9 x 3.0 x 5.5
Operating weight (ounces) 15.8 17.0 (est) 20.4
Mfr. Price $999.99/$1,299.99 $1,199.99 $999.99/$1,149.99

While not as compact as a lot of flash-based camcorders, that's due in part to the CX500V/CX520V's excellent and necessarily large lens. It's still relatively small and light, fitting into a large jacket pocket. Overall, the camcorder feels very solid and well-constructed. It's generally comfortable to shoot with, but I still felt frustration with some of the operational quirks.

For example, Sony moved the manual dial from the front of the camcorder to the back, where you still operate it with your left hand. You hold down the button to bring up your manual choices: Focus, Exposure, AE shift, and WB shift. But both the location and feel of the dial's design means it can only be rotated in small increments, and it's tight and doesn't feel terribly responsive. Worse, because of the location, your left hand blocks the LCD while you're operating it.

In the LCD nook are the power, playback, Night Shot, and disc burn buttons as well as the switch for the GPS. Under a cover you'll find the Mini-HDMI and USB connectors as well as the Memory Stick Duo slot. While this is a relatively traditional control layout, I kept hitting the buttons when picking up the device (as it sat on my desk before or after uploading video).

The zoom and photo buttons on top of the camcorder fall comfortably under your right forefinger. The zoom control feels exceptionally well-balanced, neither too loose nor too tight, and it's very easy to maintain a slow, steady rate. As usual, the 5.1-channel mic sits in the front of the camcorder--there's no separation, one of the reasons I find the 5.1 recording no more than a marketing gimmick--and the accessory shoe lies under a sliding door. Sony got rid of the zoom and record buttons on the LCD bezel, opting to make them part of the touch-screen display. While I don't mind that for record, which is a touch-and-release operation, I don't like using the touch screen for zooming, where you have to hold it down.

In the revised menu system, you can put six menu choices on a custom menu that pops up before you enter the full menu listing, with different custom menus appearing for video, still, and playback modes. While it's nice that the old Home/Options menu dichotomy has disappeared, I still found the more straightforward endless scrolling list confusing and tedious to navigate.


Comparative specs: competing models Sony Handycam HDR-CX500V/CX520V Panasonic HDC-TM700 Canon Vixia HF S200/S20
Sensor 6-megapixel Exmor-R CMOS 3X 3.05-megapixel 3MOS 6-megapixel CMOS
1/2.88 inch 1/1.4 inch 1/2.6 inch
Lens 12x
f1.8-3.4
43 - 516mm
12x
f1.8-2.8
44.9-539mm
10x
f1.8-3.0
43.5 - 435mm
Min illumination (lux) rec: n/a
low light: 11
night: 3
IR: 0
rec:1400
low light: 1.6
night: 1
rec:100
low light: 4
night: 0.3

EVF

No Yes No
LCD 3.0-inch 230,000-dot touch screen 3-inch 230,400 dot 3.5-inch 921,000-dot touch screen
Primary media 32GB/64GB flash; Memory Stick Duo 32GB flash; SDXC None/32GB flash; SDXC
HD recording AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 16Mbps; 1440x1080/60i @ 9,7,5 Mbps
AVC/H.264 MPEG-4:
1080/60p @ 28 Mbps
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 17, 13, 9, 5 Mbps
AVCHD: 1080/60i/30p/24p @ 24, 17Mbps;
1440x1080/60i @12, 7, 5 Mbps
Manual shutter speed and iris No Yes Yes
Accessory shoe Yes Yes Yes
Audio 5.1 channels 5.1 channels; mic and headphone jacks Stereo; mic and headphone jacks
Body dimensions (WHD, inches) 2.5 x 2.6 x 5.4 2.6 x 2.7 x 5.4 3.0 x 2.9 x 5.5
Operating weight (ounces) 15.8 15.4 (est) 17.0 (est)
Mfr. Price $999.99/$1,299.99 $999.95 $999/$1,399.99

The GPS support, indicated by the "V" at the end of Sony's camcorder product names, hasn't changed at all from the earlier models. It comprises a built-in antenna and in-camera geotagging of videos and photos. 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. You can use the geo data for a map display of all your videos, which Sony serves up in-camcorder on a map. The Class 4 data doesn't include street names or even a complete set of landmarks; for instance, here in New York it shows the Flatiron Building and Teddy Roosevelt's birthplace, but not the Empire State Building. It marks galleries and museums, but not parks. Once you download the video to a PC, your options for video are even more limited. Unlike with photos, there's no metadata standard for storing the information with the files. As a result, Sony has to store it in a sidecar file with data that can only be parsed by its eternally annoying Picture Motion Browser software.

Unfortunately, the camcorder couldn't get a GPS lock here in Manhattan. While that's an expected problem among the tall buildings, some devices do manage to get a usable lock. We couldn't test it out of town, but I assume it will work in more rural areas as the previous models we tested did.

There are a couple notable features carried over from the rest of Sony's camcorders. Smooth Slow Record lets you get brief, slow-motion captures; it's the fun and useful predecessor of the Golf Shot mode from the newer CX550V. My one disappointment with SSR is that because of the fast frame rate it needs, it's relatively unusable in low light; I tried to record some slo-mo footage of a kitten playing in living-room lighting, and it came out muddy and dark compared with standard footage. And these models include Sony's infrared Night Shot mode, which the company dropped from a lot of its models. It's definitely a specialty function, but can come in handy on occasion. Aside from those and the GPS, with an implementation that still rates as a novelty, the CX500V and CX520V don't have any other particularly notable features, especially given their prices. Other updates over the hard-disk versions: Face Touch for face detection, the capability to upconvert to 60p playback when connected to a TV via HDMI and in-camcorder downconverting to MPEG-2 for direct-to-DVD transfers. (For a complete rundown of the XR500/XR520's features and menu system, you can download the PDF manual.)

The CX500V and CX520V use the same Exmor-R back-illuminated sensor and G-series 12X zoom lens as the XR versions, and unsurprisingly deliver similar video quality and performance. They also incorporate Active SteadyShot image stabilization, for improved stability while walking. And, as usual, it works very well, producing steady video out to the end of the zoom range. Focus and exposure were quite responsive, down to relatively dim indoor lighting. In general, though, automatic exposures looked a bit darker than expected, especially in backlit situations, even with the auto backlight correction turned on or using spot exposure. As is typical, focus wasn't quite as zippy in low light as in bright, but it was better than average. Plus, the lens focuses surprisingly close. I wish it could focus a little faster while panning, but that's not unusual. The AF and autoexposure systems operate pretty quickly, though as with most AF systems it frequently gets confused between foreground and background objects--that's where the touch-screen-based spot focus and spot meter come in handy. However, though the LCD is only a hair smaller than that of the XR models, it has a much lower resolution and I found it frustrating for manual and touch focus. And if memory serves (compared to the XR models), it's not quite as dependably visible in bright sunlight.

Though not perfect, the video looks very good; in bright light it's fairly sharp, and there's no substantial fringing or aberration, and most users will be pleased with it even in low light. The automatic white balance looks good, as does the color rendering. In living room light it delivers a surprisingly good dynamic range without too much color desaturation. There's the inevitable visual noise in low light, which becomes more obvious if you bring the video in for postprocessing, but nothing atypical for its class. On the downside, even with deinterlaced playback you can see lots of rolling edges and there's a slightly mushy overprocessed look on details like fur when you're not zoomed in close.

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, no slow-shutter-speed artifacts (it won't drop below 1/30 sec), and very little desaturation. Compared with most models we've seen, the low-light video looks more pleasing; though there's a touch more noise, it produces better midtone and shadow reproduction, for better perceived sharpness, and with more saturated colors.

The audio sounds good as well, and the mic is sensitive, though it could really use a wind filter. Still photos look OK, though as you'd expect at the touted 12-megapixel resolution--interpolated up from the sensor's native 6 megapixels--photos look overprocessed and quite mushy. However, they should print decently up to 8x10.

If you're looking for the same high-quality video as the hard-disk models in a more compact design, and don't mind forgoing features like an EVF and audio jacks, the HDR-CX500V and CX520V are fine options. Given what's left out, though, they're a bit expensive compared with their siblings and more recent competitors from Panasonic and Canon (as well as the newer CX550V). Of the two, the CX500V is definitely the better deal.

OVR
7.6

Sony HDR-CX5

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 8Image quality 8
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