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You flip this switch to open and close the built-in lens cover.
The Sony Handycam DCR-HC40 takes a very minimalist approach to physical controls. The camera sports just a handful of buttons, with all but a few functions controlled via the touch-sensitive, 2.5-inch fold-out LCD. While we can't say we miss having a dozen buttons on the camera, choosing functions with the touch screen can take longer than locating and pressing a dedicated key. The touch-screen experience with the HC40 is at least better than with the previous generation of Sony cameras. The new menu system is laid out more logically--though it would have been easier to navigate with a jog dial--and it's completely customizable, allowing you to put your most used functions on a Personal Menu for quick access. The Easy mode button makes the controls larger and eliminates most advanced options.
|You can activate the infrared low-light modes with the NightShot switch.|
|The backlight button is one of the few physical controls on the camera. The Easy button lets you throw the HC40 into full automatic mode.|
New to this generation of Sony camcorders is the addition of a second Record button on the LCD panel. This comes in extremely handy when you're holding the camera in unusual shooting positions, such as high above your head.
The DCR-HC40 has one design flaw that can be very annoying: If you're not careful with the zoom toggle, it will make a little click when you release it, and that click will be recorded as a very audible pop in your footage. Another design downside to be aware of: When using a tripod, you'll have to remove the camera to change tapes.
The DCR-HC40 has a Memory Stick Duo slot for storing stills and MPEG EX video files. If you invest in a large Duo card, you can use an adapter to make it compatible with standard Memory Stick slots in other devices.
As is typical with Sony camcorders, you'll find a variety of special effects, including image overlays, the ever-popular Old Movie mode, and strobe and trail effects. The company has improved infrared shooting with the new Super NightShot Plus mode, which increases light sensitivity. Slow Shot mode offers truer color for low-light conditions, but the trade-off is a slow shutter speed. An accessory shoe lets you attach an optional video light, which is usually the best way to get good night shots. You can also mount an external mic on the accessory shoe.
Along with analog-to-digital conversion, handy for moving your old tapes to digital format, the DCR-HC40 offers a surprisingly full-featured digital program-editing feature. You can mark segments of footage as scenes, then arrange them in any order you like before outputting them to tape. An infrared transmitter on the front of the camera controls your VCR, starting and stopping the recording as necessary while the camera locates the next scene to transfer. Unfortunately, the included software for editing your footage on a computer isn't as impressive; plan to buy a separate software package if you want to do anything beyond the basics.
You'll run out of battery life sooner than you run out of tape using the tiny battery Sony includes with the camera. It offers just 45 minutes of shooting power when the LCD is on. Of course, Sony offers extended-life cells in a variety of capacities.
At least the LCD offers good detail for focusing, and it stands up well in bright sunlight. The color viewfinder is also excellent and provides just as much visual information as the display.
The Super SteadyShot electronic image stabilization does a very good job of damping down typical hand movements without discernibly affecting the quality of your footage. The DCR-HC40's precise optical zoom control handles rapid and slow zooms with equal smoothness, but beware of the popping noise we mentioned in the Design section.
The front-mounted microphone works well under normal conditions, but it lacks a wind-noise filter. Unfortunately, there's no headphone jack on the DCR-HC40. The Sony Handycam DCR-HC40's video quality is good for a camera in its price class. The camera does an excellent job of quickly and accurately determining proper exposure in a variety of shooting conditions. Colors are realistic, without the intensity boost that you too often get from consumer camcorders. The one very noticeable flaw we saw were quilting artifacts that produced a crawling effect on diagonal lines.
Standard low-light footage is a bit noisy, although less so than the results from many competitors. Sony offers plenty of options for working around this problem. The Slow Shot mode brings out color in dark situations, at the cost of slowing down the shutter speed so that your footage appears jumpy and blurred. Super NightShot Plus mode activates an infrared light that illuminates dark objects so that it looks like you're shining a green flashlight on them. If neither option is appealing, you can use the accessory shoe to attach an external light.
With its 1-megapixel CCD, the DCR-HC40 captures photos that are somewhat better than VGA camcorder stills. That said, they can't compete with what you can get from even the least expensive digital still camera. The lack of a flash makes for noisy indoor images, and even outdoor shots lack a typical still camera's sharpness.