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A total redesign of the DCR-HC85, Sony's previous high-end single-chip Handycam, the DCR-HC90 offers a lighter, more compact build. It measures about 4.5 inches long by 2.8 inches wide and weighs 1.1 pounds, so you can easily slip it into a bag or a coat pocket--but not without a telltale bulge. It also whips the DCR-HC85 in the looks department, with much sleeker lines and a cool, barrel-shaped top end. Ironically, the DCR-HC90 is so compact and streamlined that it's almost hard to take seriously as a midlevel model.
The plus side, of course, is that the DCR-HC90 fits oh so comfortably in your hand. Your fingertips come to rest on a zoom rocker and a photo button, while your thumb has easy access to the power/mode slider and the start/stop button. Other rear-facing elements include a wide-screen LCD and flash buttons, a sliding diopter adjuster (which, while a nice amenity, is hard to fine-tune), and a plastic door that hides the Memory Stick Duo Pro slot and the lithium-ion battery pack. Although the latter is internal, not a clip-on, Sony does offer a higher-capacity battery, the NP-FA70, which promises nearly twice the juice per charge.
The DCR-HC90's other controls include a dedicated NightShot on/off switch, a backlight button (which, when engaged, compensates for backlit subjects), and an Easy button that caters to novices by automating most image settings and even increasing the font size of the onscreen display. A slick rotating cover hides the camera's accessory shoe, which accepts video lights, microphones, and the like; it closes flush along the barrel, not interrupting the design aesthetic in the slightest. The DCR-HC90 loads from the top, meaning you can swap tapes without having to remove it from your tripod.
Although the touch-screen LCD measures just 2.7 inches diagonally--smaller than the DCR-HC85's 3.5-incher--it has the advantage of being a 16:9 display. That means when you switch to Wide mode, the LCD shows the full image instead of a letterboxed equivalent. Of course, when shooting in 4:3 mode, black bars flank the image, making the LCD seem particularly small (which, at 2.1 inches in this mode, it is).
As with many of Sony's latest Handycams, the LCD doubles as an interface. You tap onscreen buttons to access menus, modify settings, and even control playback. We found these controls a bit awkward, mostly due to a few confusingly labeled options, but also because of the nature of the interface. While some features are accessible just by tapping large text buttons, others require delving into one of those rolling 3D menus, complete with rolling 3D submenus. We frequently had trouble finding the settings we wanted to adjust. Even worse, in order to make manual adjustments to things such as focus and exposure, you have to tap onscreen plus and minus buttons--not exactly precision tools. We'd rather have an analog control, such as a jog dial, for operations such as this.
One useful design holdover is the set of start/stop and wide/telephoto buttons on the side of the LCD, the idea being that if you're holding the camcorder in a nontraditional way--say, down by your knees--you can record and zoom more easily. We were also glad to find a built-in autoclosing lens cover, which slightly increases start-up time but still beats a snap-on cover.
The Sony DCR-HC90's optics closely resemble those of the DCR-85: a Carl Zeiss lens offering 10X zoom. It's compatible with 30mm filters and optional wide-angle and telephoto lenses. The big difference here, however, is the bump in resolution. The 1/3-inch CCD serves up just more than 2 megapixels for video and 3 megapixels (effective) for still photos. That spacious CCD enables the camcorder to deliver splendid low-light performance, as discussed in the Image Quality section. It also makes possible true 16:9 recording. (Note, however, that when you play back 16:9 content on a 4:3 screen, it looks squashed--the camera doesn't automatically letterbox it.)
While the camcorder's Easy mode simplifies shooting for novices, videographers will find plenty of manual controls at their disposal. The DCR-HC90 offers spot focus and spot metering (excellent features, both--just tap the LCD wherever you want to focus or meter); manual exposure, white balance, and focus; and half a dozen preset exposure modes for common shooting situations such as sunsets and sports events. One notably absent manual control is shutter speed--a disappointment, given that camcorders such as the Canon ZR300, which sell for half the price, offer it. Sony does provide Slow Shutter Mode, an automated setting designed for low-light, tripod-mounted shooting, but that's it.
Sony also includes some nice fader effects, though curiously, they're fade-in only--they don't reverse (fade out) when you stop recording. As for digital effects, they're a mixture of cool, as in the case of Old Movie, and lame, as with the nauseating Delay Motion. In most cases, you're better off adding effects in postproduction anyway.