In what's probably the most interesting development in consumer camcorders thus far in 2009, Sony serves up the Handycam HDR-XR500 series, a pair of hard-disk-based AVCHD camcorders that integrate the dual firsts of built-in GPS and a new Exmor-R back-illuminated CMOS sensor. Though the GPS aspect isn't quite ready for prime time--because of a variety of limitations, it's more of a fun-to-have novelty than a reliable feature--the new sensor and G-series lens combination delivers great video quality. Toss in some advancements to its SteadyShot image stabilization system and a solid consumer-oriented feature set and you have a winning combination--albeit one dragged down by the awkward touch-screen interface and a high price.
There are two models in this series, identical except for the hard-disk size: the HDR-XR500V includes a 120GB drive (14.5 hours best quality video), while the XR520V doubles that for 240GB (29.3 hours at best quality). We tested the HDR-XR500V for this review.
|Key comparative specs||Sony Handycam HDR-XR500V/XR520V||Panasonic HDC-HS300||Canon Vixia HF S10|
|Sensor||6-megapixel Exmor-R CMOS||3 2.07-megapixel 3MOS chips||6-megapixel CMOS|
|1/2.88 inch||1/4.1 inch||1/2.6 inch|
|Lens||12x f1.8-3.4 43 - 516mm (16:9)||12x f1.8-2.8 44.9 - 539mm (16:9)||10x f1.8-3.0 43.5 - 435mm (4:3)|
|LCD||3.2-inch touch screen||2.7-inch touch screen||2.7-inch|
|Primary media||120GB/240GB hard disk||120GB hard disk||32GB flash|
|Maximum bit rate||16Mbps||17Mbps||24Mbps|
|Manual shutter speed and iris||No||Yes||Yes|
|Body dimensions (WHD, inches)||2.9x3.0x5.5||2.8x2.9x5.5||2.8x2.7x5.4|
|Operating weight (ounces)||20.4||18||17|
Bigger and heavier than most consumer camcorders, the XR500V/XR520V will fit in a loose jacket pocket but will probably drag it down a bit. Because of the size, though, it's as comfortable to grip as the camcorders of yesteryear, with a depression above the hard drive to sink your back fingers into, and it feels particularly sturdy. All the door covers feel very solidly attached.
The zoom switch falls directly under your right ring finger, which pushes the surprisingly small photo button to the very corner, where it's borderline difficult to feel. Though the record button falls under your right thumb, the mode button, for switching between video and stills, is oddly positioned; it's too high up to reach with your thumb and too far back to reach with your forefinger. I ended up using my left hand to switch modes. Toward the front top of the unit is the five-channel mic (I'd rather see Sony put that space to use for a stereo mic with good separation), and behind it is a clever sliding cover hiding the accessory shoe. And behind that is a vanishing commodity: an electronic viewfinder, which pulls out and tilts up.
On the right side, on either end of the hard disk under doors, sit a variety of ports and connectors. To the front is a proprietary jack for composite and component output, USB, and mini HDMI, and to the back are 3.5-millimeter headphone and mic jacks.
At the front of the camcorder you'll note the big-barreled lens with electronic lens cover flanked by a flash (there's no built-in video light) and manual dial. Though you select the default function for the dial in the menus, to switch among the adjustments the dial controls--focus, exposure, AE shift, and WB shift--you press the central button in and hold it. Figuring that out required a trip to the slim documentation. The dial operates sufficiently responsively to control these features. One disappointment, though, is the lack of direct control over shutter speed, iris, or audio levels as similarly priced models offer.
The XR500V/XR520V incorporates a large, sharp 3.2-inch display with Home, zoom, and record buttons on the bezel. In its recess sit the covered Memory Stick Duo Pro slot, display toggle, Easy operation button, direct-to-DVD button for use in conjunction with Sony's DVDirect Express VRD-P1 DVD Writer, and speaker. There are also direct playback and Power buttons; you use the latter to override the on/off operation when you close the LCD or pull out the EVF.