The DCR-HC96 fits comfortably in your hand, with the primary controls resting below your thumb and forefinger; there are very few switches and buttons. The Easy button puts the camcorder into fully automatic mode, and other buttons activate frequently needed settings such as NightShot and backlight-compensation modes. The primary interface, though, is the menu system on the 16:9, 2.7-inch touch-screen LCD. You can customize a personal menu with your most-used options, or plow through a scrolling, 3D menu with all of the camera's functions. Menu items are clearly labeled, but finding specific settings can be difficult with so many menu categories and options available. Furthermore, the touch screen makes manual controls difficult and time-consuming to operate, mostly because the screen is too small. Manual focus is especially hard to gauge, and it's difficult to accurately select points for spot metering and focus.
Below the LCD, you'll find buttons to start and stop recording, zoom in and out, and switch between 4:3 and 16:9 modes. These make recording and zooming easier when holding the camera at unusual angles.
The DCR-HC96 moves the USB and FireWire/iLink ports to the small, bundled cradle, which also duplicates the A/V and power ports present on the camcorder. Some may consider the convenience of just snapping the camera into a cradle to recharge or transfer footage to be a benefit, while others are likely to find the need to carry yet another accessory along to be a hindrance.
While its predecessor, the Sony DCR-HC90, used a small internal battery, the DCR-HC96 reverts back to the traditional clip-on-the-back design. This design is a bit more cumbersome but allows you to attach larger, extended-capacity batteries.
The top-loading tape design lets you change tapes without removing the camera from its tripod. You can easily access the Memory Stick Duo slot, which sits beneath the LCD screen, without having to flip open any hatches to switch tapes. The Sony Handycam DCR-HC96's 1/3-inch single CCD offers 2 megapixels of effective resolution for DV shooting (which gets downsampled to DV resolution) and 3 megapixels for stills. The 10X Carl Zeiss lens features an optical multilayer coating that Sony claims reduces glare and flare while increasing contrast.
As with its predecessors, the DCR-HC96 offers an excellent assortment of automatic and manual features, ranging from the fully automated Easy mode to full manual focus, exposure, and sharpness. The AE Shift function lets you brighten or darken your footage while maintaining automatic exposure. When combined with the zebra-stripes feature, it's easy to adjust brightness. You'll find six program autoexposure modes, as well as a variety of digital effects, such as sepia and black-and-white.
Spot meter and spot focus let you set exposure and focus by touching a reference point on the LCD. This extremely handy feature is difficult to use, though, because it requires a precise touch on the small 2.7-inch LCD. It's particularly hard to choose the correct spot when shooting in 4:3 mode, in which the LCD is effectively a tiny 2.2 inches.
An active accessory shoe rests below a flip-open cover. Among the add-ons available for this shoe are standard and infrared lights, as well as stereo and shotgun microphones.
The Sony Handycam DCR-HC96 features a built-in flash but no video light. It can capture 3-megapixel still images to Memory Stick Duo cards. Some manual and program AE modes are available when shooting stills, while others, including the Sports AE mode, which would help address the camera's blurry still issues, go missing in still mode. You can capture video in 30fps progressive mode, which makes for better still-frame grabs from video footage. The Sony Handycam DCR-HC96's automatic modes perform well across the gamut of shooting conditions. Automatic white balance and autoexposure react speedily, autofocus is snappy, and the camera quickly adjusts to fast changes in lighting. The Super SteadyShot digital image stabilization effectively dampens camera shake throughout the zoom range.
The DCR-HC96's zoom rocker takes some getting used to, as it requires a very light touch. I initially found it difficult to zoom slowly but with practice developed a feel for it.
The sharp, bright LCD is easily viewable, even in direct sunlight, and its wide-screen aspect ratio comes in handy when shooting 16:9 footage. Though the screen offers decent detail, the effective display area becomes very small when shooting 4:3 footage, thanks to the large black bars on both sides. Audio quality was very clear, without discernable motor noise. Unfortunately, the stereo microphone lacks a wind filter.
The Sony Handycam DCR-HC96's battery life with the stock battery is unimpressive, offering about 45 minutes of recording under typical conditions. Optional extended batteries can boost this to as much as 165 minutes between recharges, making them a wise investment before hitting the road. As we've come to expect from Sony's higher-end consumer models, the Sony Handycam DCR-HC96 delivers excellent video quality in both dim and bright light; it's very crisp, with rich detail evident in materials that many other cameras have difficulty with, such as hair, grass, and cloth. Overall, color was very realistic, with only bright greens showing any signs of unnatural saturation. Outdoor shots showed no graininess or artifacts.
In dimmer lighting, footage starts to pick up some noise but far less than is typical with similar camcorders. Colors remain vibrant and accurate. When things get really dark and you switch on the NightShot mode, everything picks up a greenish, night-vision-goggles tone, but that's an acceptable compromise compared to the alternative of blurry slow-shutter filming.
Photo quality is also better than a camcorder typically produces. The DCR-HC96's 3-megapixel images look sharp and detailed, with accurate color reproduction and a low level of noise. However, the images are somewhat soft, and with a lack of detail when magnified, they don't stand up well to significant cropping. Also, shooting moving subjects is unpredictable--while some shots look great, others are blurred. So the Sony Handycam DCR-HC96 makes a fine camera for typical 4x6 snapshots, but for sports events, small kids, or shots that you may want to enlarge, you'll want to use a real camera.