With its moderately compact body and grip-belt design, the TRV80 is configured for handheld shooting. Finely crafted and machined, this camcorder has a solid feel and weighs 1 pound, 12 ounces with the battery and the cassette loaded. The controls are well labeled, and most people will master basic operation in no time. The cassette hatch is bottom-loading, which means you can't change tapes while the camera is on a tripod. This probably won't be a concern for the typical user, but keep it in mind if you're taping long presentations or performances.
To get the most control, you don't so much hold the camera as let it hang off the back of your right hand, fastening the adjustable belt firmly, as the manual suggests. Even when we did so, we found the ergonomics inconsistent. The Start/Stop button is rather awkwardly placed for the thumb, whose most natural position is considerably lower on the body, over the Memory Stick slot. On the other hand, the pressure-sensitive, spring-loaded zoom lever and the Photo button right behind it are within easy reach of the index and middle fingers.
The power/mode dial and the Record button fall in the usual place under your right thumb.
The zoom switch offers variable speed control; you can snap a still by pressing the Photo button.
One of the distinguishing features of Sony's latest TRV models is their touch-screen menu system, which you use instead of physical controls to activate almost all functions. The setup will appeal to some more than others. For the most part, navigating is easy, although the more-esoteric options will definitely require you to crack the manual.
These conveniently placed buttons are for selecting the Backlight exposure mode and switching between automatic and manual focus.
Shooting in the dark? These controls let you cycle through still-shot flash modes or activate the infrared NightShot mode.
If you prefer the viewfinder to the LCD but want the ability to adjust exposure, you can turn off the LCD and fold it against the camcorder body with the screen facing outward. When you want to adjust exposure or activate the fader, you still touch the LCD, but it remains dark while the relevant settings appear and change on the viewfinder. While this awkward setup is a little better than having no exposure control during viewfinder use, an exposure dial on the camcorder body would have been a lot simpler.
The Edit Search control lets you quickly review your most-recent footage and pick up shooting where you left off without switching to VCR mode.
Sony created the TRV80 for the kind of buyer who springs for the fully loaded Mercedes instead of the stripped-down Ferrari. The camcorder offers all the little luxuries a casual moviemaker could want, but it doesn't provide the manual controls and the shooting power a serious videographer needs.
The TRV80's 2.1-megapixel CCD enables you to supplement the 10X optical zoom with an exceptionally sharp digital zoom that holds together remarkably well, even when you push it to the 120X extreme. The big sensor also beefs up the camcorder's photo mode, allowing you to shoot 1.9-megapixel (1,600x1,200-pixel) stills. The useful selection of photo features includes a pop-up flash, exposure bracketing, continuous-shooting modes, and Sony's Hologram AF for focusing quickly and accurately in low light. For all of these reasons, this camcorder should shine at Little League games, dance recitals, and the like.
Adjusting exposure while shooting is a little tricky as you have to do it via the touch screen. We invariably failed to maintain our shot. Again, we wish Sony had added a traditional wheel to the camcorder body--we'd love to see it right under the manual-focus button on the TRV80's successor. You adjust the overall exposure via an exposure-shift function; you can't set the iris, the shutter speed, and the gain independently. You can choose from Spotlight, Sports, and a variety of other programmed exposure modes; select a spot-metering point on the touch screen; and activate the Backlight mode with one button-press. Spot focusing is available through the touch screen, too, and plenty of special effects are at your disposal.
You can save photos and MPEG-1 clips on Memory Sticks or higher-capacity Memory Stick Pro media.
Bluetooth, USB streaming, and networking capabilities add gadget appeal to the TRV80 and may be useful to some videographers. You can beam photos and MPEG-1 movies from the Memory Stick to Bluetooth-enabled mobiles, PDAs, and other devices. Alternatively, if you get the optional phone modem or Ethernet adapter, you can use the camera itself to send and receive e-mail with JPEG stills or MPEG-1 videos attached.
When put through its paces, the TRV80 holds its own. The quick and consistent autofocus doesn't drift and wavers only before the serious challenge of very low light. Thanks to a well-placed button and a burly focus ring on the lens barrel--right where it should be--manual focus is a snap, and we particularly like the distance feedback displayed on the LCD.
The 184,000-pixel, 3.5-inch fold-out LCD is a joy to use, providing a sharp and clean view with true colors. It's useful for even the trickiest manual focusing. If you're casually gauging exposure by eye, the LCD won't steer you wrong, though both it and the viewfinder are a little bright. We bumped the onscreen LCD Brt slider down a notch from its default center position to get the most-accurate exposure preview. The viewfinder, which we didn't turn to a lot, was equally clear and functional.
When you manipulate it very carefully, the pressure-sensitive zoom is extremely smooth and permits any speed from artfully slow to dizzyingly fast. However, we don't have the finger discipline necessary to achieve a consistently slow zoom throughout the entire range. We'd love a menu setting for the speed; then we could maintain it even while pressing the lever fully.
While we'd prefer optical image stabilization, which allows a greater maximum wide angle as well as stabilization in progressive mode, we have to admit that the TRV80's electronic stabilization is rock solid and produces no telling artifacts.
In general, we were very pleased with the TRV80's image quality; our test footage was sharp and well exposed, with vivid and accurate colors. The camera ably handles scenes with mixed light levels, maintaining details in shadow areas and not excessively blowing out bright spots. Using exposure shift and spot metering to cleanly and consistently adjust the exposure is easy and holds no surprises.
The camera will automatically pump up the gain significantly (up to +18dB) in low light, but in our tests, the increase didn't result in excessive noise or murkiness. As expected, in dim conditions, colors become desaturated, but they don't skew. In near or even total darkness, you can use the NightShot mode with or without the built-in infrared illuminator to capture somewhat eerie monochrome footage. Color Slow Shutter lets you retain your scene's color, but it also adds a heavy dose of motion blur--the mode is generally more useful as a special effect than a way to restore vibrancy to a dimly lit setting.
And what about those 1.9-megapixel stills? They're among the best photos we've seen from a camcorder to date, and if you e-mail them or post them on the Web, you'll be pleased with their quality. Even prints at 4x6 and smaller are reasonably acceptable. However, artifacts and inconsistent color saturation keep the TRV80's shots from competing with those from dedicated 2-megapixel still cameras.