As with all of Sony's touch screen-operated camcorders, minimal controls cover the HC7's sturdy body. The little lightning-bolt button on the lower right pops out the HC7's well-camouflaged, side-opening flash.
The few controls not operated via the HC7's touch screen menu system include backlight compensation, NightShot infrared mode, and Camera control. Camera control lets you assign one shooting adjustment setting--manual focus, exposure compensation/exposure shift, white balance shift (toward red or blue), and shutter speed--for control via the rather slippery dial. Finally, that 6.1-megapixel resolution claim is a bit slippery as well; the HC7 uses Sony's 3-megapixel ClearVid CMOS sensor.
The sliding cover for the USB port is a nice touch, but as is typical, you can only use USB for downloading photos off the Memory Stick or printing via PictBridge. Atypically, however, Sony bundles an i.Link (FireWire) cable with the HC7.
Sony claims a minimum illumination rating of 2 lux for the HC7--most consumer camcorders range from 5 to 7 lux--and the HC7 does a credible job in low light. As a reference point, the illumination on the left side of this scene measures about 14 lux. (Frame grab)
Depending upon the light and the subject matter, the HC7 can produce some very usable photos. For instance, the photo on the left, a 4.6-megapixel shot taken in 16:9 mode, creates reasonably good prints as large as 16x9 inches.
Though it's capable of taking nice photos, the HC7 is still a camcorder and can suffer from the same problems. Here you can see the almost painterly compression artifacts (left) and color noise (right).
As this frame grab shows, the HC7's video looks impressively sharp. I'm also impressed by the color saturation and exposure. The white balance tends to be either too blue or too red, but still falls within the bounds of acceptability.