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>> Lori: Hi, I'm Lori Grunin, Senior Editor for CNET and this is the Sony Handycam HDR-XR550B. Given its accoutrement a large G Series lens, 240 gigabyte hard disk, 3 1/2 inch LCD, EVF, headphone and mic jacks and shutter speed and an iris controls the XR550V's price well north of $1,000 may be a bit painful but it's not much of a surprise. It has a nearly identical sibling which has 64 gigabytes flash memory built-in instead of the hard drive, the CX550V. Though Sony changed some of the controls from previous models the camcorder's design is fundamentally the same as last year's models. It feels quite sturdy and if you have larger hands the hard disk protrusion above the body gives you a little extra to grip. But if you're looking for a slimmer and lighter model check out the CX550V. All of the camcorder's door covers are solidly attached. The camcorder has a sliding door on top for the accessory shoe, another slider near the lens on the right side covering the mic and headphone jacks and one inside the LCD hiding the mini HDMI and USB connectors. At the front of the camcorder you'll find a big barreled lens with electronic lens cover and a flash on top. There's no built-in video light and there's a manual dial to the side. The manual control dial has long been a staple on Sony's top-end consumer models but Sony expanded its capabilities a bit for this one. Pressing the dial's center button toggles the operation to the currently selected option. Holding the button in lets you select which manual function you'd like it to have. It has options for focus, exposure, iris, shutter speed, AE shift and white balance shift. The top front of the unit is the 5 channel microphone. Though it has a mic input the recorder doesn't have any recorder volume controls except for the reference level with 2 choices normal and low. The electronic view finder has a higher resolution than its predecessors had and its higher resolution than those of its competitors but it is smaller. That said given the choice between size and resolution I prefer Sony's higher resolution. The camcorder's large touch-screen is relatively high resolution too and it's nice to work with. It's also reasonably viewable in direct sunlight but I still found it difficult to judge manual focus on it or with the EVF. When you hit the Menu option on the LCD the first screen you see is the customizable my menu, that's pretty convenient and straightforward to use. Hitting the Show Others button takes you to the annoying endless scrolling menu, but at least you have arrows to make scrolling functional unlike Canon's touch-screen implementation. Like the other V models the XR550V and CX550V support Geotagging for video and stills. Keep in mind that there's still no standard way to use the video Geotag information and you're stuck using Sony's mediocre picture motion browser software or just using it for a map index within the camcorder. I've got no complaints about the camcorder's performance. Sony's AF system really stands out compared with its competitors and Sony seems to have improved it over previous models. While it doesn't snap quite as quickly as Canon and Panasonic's it's far more accurate at judging what should be the subject of the scene. The camcorder's only real performance weakness is the battery life. In practice it only lasts about an hour. The deep battery cavity seems designed for the optional higher capacity battery. Though it's still good for its class when viewed on a computer its video quality doesn't look quite as sharp as the previous generation did. It does use the same 6 megapixel X more R backside illuminated sensor but it has a shorter 10X zoom G Series lens that's a wider angle. On a TV the video looks great. At its best colors are bright, saturated and accurate and there's a fair bit of dynamic range. As it's typical of its class it still shows a tendency to blow out highlights but with a lot less clipping of both the highs and lows than usual. When shooting in the highest bit rate mode the video looks notably higher contrast than when shot in the lower rates. That makes it doubly annoying but Sony defaults to the 1440 by 1080 9 megabits per second mode but claims 12 megapixel photos using tripulation to scale-up the native 6 megapixel images. At small sizes you can't tell what a post-processed looking mess the interpolated images are. That said they should all print decently up to 8 by 10. For the price I have to admit I expected just a little better. Slightly sharper video, improved low-light performance and a less cumbersome interface top the list. Unless you absolutely need to store a lot of video on the camcorder, which I don't suggest, or if you have large hands that could benefit from the extra grip the hard drive provides the cheaper CX550V is a much better deal. I'm Lori Grunin and this is the Sony Handycam HDR-XR550V.
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