The differences between Sony's entry-level MiniDV camcorders, the Handycam DCR-HC26 and the DCR-HC36, don't add up to much. The biggest is the HC36's Memory Stick Duo Pro slot for still-image recording. But, since the camera's 1/6-inch CCD outputs stills at a resolution of 340,000 pixels, you shouldn't expect to get decent prints from it. So, unless you really enjoy e-mailing drab, low-res images to your friends, that feature won't help you much. The other main difference is the HC36's remote control, which might come in handy when watching your tapes, but probably isn't worth the difference in price.
On the plus side, the Sony Handycam DCR-HC36 is small and lightweight, making it easy to throw in a bag or shoot with for extended periods of time. Plus, the top-loading tape compartment makes switching tapes easier if you're using a tripod. The basic controls are all in the right place, with the record button exactly where your thumb falls naturally, and the same applies to the side-to-side zoom rocker. Three buttons on the camera's left side control the amount of info that appears on the display and let you enter backlight or Easy mode. Everything else--including menu access--happens through the 2.5-inch touch-screen LCD. While the touch-screen interface is well designed and the menus are intuitive, the LCD felt too small for the task, as is often the case with Sony camcorders. Joystick controls, such as those found on some newer Canon camcorders are more comfortable to use, but Sony's touch screen is still much better than the hidden buttons found on Hitachi's DVD camcorders.
If you venture outside of the fully automatic Easy mode, Sony offers a fair amount of manual control. In addition to a handful of program autoexposure presets, such as Landscape and Portrait, you can also opt for full manual exposure. Of course, both auto and manual focus are also available, though setting critical focus manually via the LCD screen was not easy. Not only was the screen too small to tell if finer details were actually in focus, but we had a hard time getting the focus to land in the right place with the touch-screen controls. We were much more pleased with the camcorder's NightShot plus mode, which uses an infrared assist lamp to create monotone, greenish video, even in total darkness, that's much more pleasing than the extremely grainy and/or blurry footage you get from most camcorders.
Connections include A/V output though a breakout cable, USB, and FireWire. The DCR-HC36 can accept incoming signals through its FireWire connection, but not via USB or A/V. If you want to use your camcorder to digitize your analog video collection, you'll have to step up to Sony's Handycam DCR-HC96 or another camcorder with a built-in analog-to-digital converter.
We were generally happy with the DCR-HC36's performance. Both the autofocus and autoexposure systems responded quickly and turned in accurate results, even while panning. Image stabilization was effective to just past the first half of the camera's 20X optical zoom range. Though larger capacity batteries are available separately, Sony rates the included 500mAh lithium-ion rechargeable to provide about 40 to 50 minutes of typical recording time, or as much as 105 minutes continuous. That's a bit short for our taste, so plan on buying a bigger battery, especially if you're going to bring this camcorder on vacation.
Unfortunately, despite its many pleasing aspects, the DCR-HC36's video quality is decidedly mediocre. We noticed grain even in well-lit scenes, and it became much more noticeable in dimmer situations. Colors seemed accurate but oversaturated. Naturally, the 640,000-pixel sensor, 340,000 of which are actually used to record video, doesn't deliver the same level of detail offered by megapixel-plus sensors. In our sample footage, fine details, such as hair or the texture in a cloth, turned out fuzzy.
In the end, it's difficult to recommend the Sony Handycam DCR-HC36. If your budget allows, you'll be better served stepping up to something along the lines of the Sony Handycam DCR-HC46 or Canon's Elura 100. If your budget doesn't allow the step up, you're still probably better off saving some cash with the Sony DCR-HC26 unless the HC36's remote is that important to you. After all, the extra cash could help buy that spare battery.