Viewfinders have become an endangered species in the camcorder world. More and more, as is the case with Sony's Handycam DCR-SR300 hard-drive-based camcorder, we're seeing manufacturers remove viewfinders from models geared toward the mass market. Perhaps it's a nod to the still-imaging world--where users frequently shy away from viewfinders when framing their shots--or perhaps it's just an easy target for cost cutting. Either way, if you're a finder fan, you'll immediately have one strike against the DCR-SR300, which forces you to frame your shots on its 2.7-inch wide-screen touch screen LCD. If you shoot a lot of video, though, you'll appreciate the fact that Sony offers the SR300 in both 40GB and 100GB models. As with most camcorders, in addition to the NTSC video format used in the U.S., you can also find a PAL version of this model in case you plan to shoot video to view in a country where they use that format or in case you have a monitor that supports it.
As we've noted in past reviews, we're not big fans of Sony's touch screen interface. The 2.7-inch screen isn't big enough to accommodate more than about four virtual buttons per page, which makes the menu system cumbersome. Sony does a decent job of designing the menus given these constraints, but other manufacturers' methods of navigation--namely, joysticks--tend to provide a better overall experience. Plus, with the LCD as the only way to frame your shots, a joystick could prevent the buildup of fingerprints on the screen. Of course, some people actually prefer the touch screen interface, so if you're not familiar with it, you should try before you buy.
Since the finder is gone, Sony was able to create a nice, smooth shape to the right side of the camera and gain some real estate for buttons. Unfortunately, they didn't make use of this extra room and instead left controls for functions such as Backlight, NightShot, and Easy mode on the left side behind the LCD screen. The new positioning of the mode switch and zoom rocker is very nice; it lets your fingers fall in a more natural way across the camera body and makes finer adjustments on the variable-speed zoom rocker easier to perform. Like most of Sony's consumer camcorders, the DCR-SR300 includes four buttons on the left bezel of the LCD screen for menu access, zoom in and out, and record start and stop.
A notch above the standard Zeiss-branded counterparts found in some less-expensive Sony models, the 10x optical Carl Zeiss T* zoom lens covers a healthy range. Sony's Super SteadyShot hybrid image stabilization keeps your footage relatively shake-free across the zoom range, though you'll likely still want to use a tripod when zoomed to the 10x maximum. I was pleased with the built-in microphone, which can create a faux Dolby 5.1 surround soundtrack and can be supplemented with an optional accessory mic (that can mount in the SR300's hot shoe) if you want a dedicated mic for the center channel. Note, though, that there's no minijack mic input, so you can't use a third-party microphone with the DCR-SR300. If mics aren't important to you, you can also use the hot shoe to add a video light.