If you've budgeted around £600 for your first -- or next -- camcorder, you've probably started looking at three-chip models such as the Panasonic NV-GS250. After all, three CCDs are better than one, right? In some cases, yes, but sometimes it's better to have one large CCD than three small ones -- such as when you want to shoot in low-light environments.
The Sony DCR-HC90 MiniDV Handycam positively shines when the lights are low, and it offers amenities such as a wide-screen LCD. What's more, it snaps 3-megapixel still photos and has the pocket-friendly proportions of an entry-level camcorder. Only a few hiccups, such as a sluggish autofocus system and an awkward touch-screen interface, keep the DCR-HC90 from rising to the top of the pack.
A total redesign of the DCR-HC85, Sony's previous high-end single-chip Handycam, the DCR-HC90 offers a lighter, more compact build. It measures about 109mm long by 66m wide and weighs 440g, so you can easily slip it into a bag or a coat pocket, but not without a telltale bulge. It also beats the DCR-HC85 in the looks department, with much sleeker lines and a cool, barrel-shaped top end. Ironically, the DCR-HC90 is so compact and streamlined that it's almost hard to take seriously as a midlevel model.
The plus side, of course, is that the DCR-HC90 fits very comfortably in your hand. Your fingertips come to rest on a zoom rocker and a photo button, while your thumb has easy access to the power/mode slider and the start/stop button. Other rear-facing elements include a wide-screen LCD and flash buttons, a sliding dioptre adjuster (which, while a nice amenity, is hard to fine-tune) and a plastic door that hides the Memory Stick Duo Pro slot and the lithium-ion battery pack. Although the latter is internal, not a clip-on, Sony does offer a higher-capacity battery, the NP-FA70, which promises nearly twice the juice per charge.
The DCR-HC90's other controls include a dedicated NightShot on/off switch, a backlight button (which, when engaged, compensates for backlit subjects) and an Easy button that caters to novices by automating most image settings and even increasing the font size of the onscreen display. A slick rotating cover hides the camera's accessory shoe, which accepts video lights, microphones and the like; it closes flush along the barrel, not interrupting the design aesthetic in the slightest. The DCR-HC90 loads from the top, meaning you can swap tapes without having to remove it from your tripod.
Although the touch-screen LCD measures just 69mm (2.7 inches) diagonally -- smaller than the DCR-HC85's 89mm (3.5-inch) screen -- it has the advantage of being a 16:9 display. That means when you switch to Wide mode, the LCD shows the full image instead of a letterboxed equivalent. Of course, when shooting in 4:3 mode, black bars flank the image, making the LCD seem particularly small -- which, at 53mm (2.1 inches) in this mode, it is.
As with many of Sony's latest Handycams, the LCD doubles as an interface. You tap onscreen buttons to access menus, modify settings and even control playback. We found these controls awkward, mostly due to a few confusingly labelled options, but also because of the nature of the interface. While some features are accessible just by tapping large text buttons, others require delving into one of those rolling 3D menus, complete with rolling 3D submenus. We frequently had trouble finding the settings we wanted to adjust. Even worse, in order to make manual adjustments to things such as focus and exposure, you have to tap onscreen plus and minus buttons -- not exactly precision tools. We'd rather have an analogue control, such as a jog dial, for operations such as this.
One useful design holdover is the set of start/stop and wide/telephoto buttons on the side of the LCD, the idea being that if you're holding the camcorder in a nontraditional way -- say, down by your knees -- you can record and zoom more easily. We were also glad to find a built-in autoclosing lens cover, which slightly increases start-up time, but still beats a snap-on cover.
The Sony DCR-HC90's optics closely resemble those of the DCR-85: a Carl Zeiss lens offering 10x zoom. It's compatible with 30mm filters and optional wide-angle and telephoto lenses. The big difference here, however, is the bump in resolution. The 1/3-inch CCD serves up just over 2 megapixels for video and 3 megapixels (effective) for still photos. The spacious CCD enables the camcorder to deliver splendid low-light performance, as discussed in 'Image Quality'. It also makes possible true 16:9 recording. (Note, however, that when you play back 16:9 content on a 4:3 screen, it looks squashed -- the camera doesn't automatically letterbox it.)
While the camcorder's Easy mode simplifies shooting for novices, videographers will find plenty of manual controls at their disposal. The DCR-HC90 offers spot focus and spot metering (excellent features, both -- just tap the LCD wherever you want to focus or meter); manual exposure, white balance and focus; and half a dozen preset exposure modes for common shooting situations such as sunsets and sports events. One notably absent manual control is shutter speed -- a disappointment, given that camcorders such as the Canon ZR300, which sell for half the price, offer it. Sony does provide Slow Shutter Mode, an automated setting designed for low-light, tripod-mounted shooting, but that's it.
Sony also includes some nice fader effects, though curiously, they're fade-in only -- they don't reverse (fade out) when you stop recording. As for digital effects, they're a mixture of cool, as in the case of Old Movie, and rubbish, as with the nauseating Delay Motion. In most cases, you're better off adding effects in postproduction anyway.
As a digital camera, the DCR-HC90 boasts a surprisingly robust feature set, including a burst mode -- complete with exposure bracketing, red-eye reduction and half a dozen scene modes. Indeed, most of the DCR-HC90's available video options can be applied in Picture mode -- good news for photographers who like fine control over image settings. But Sony bundles only a 16MB Memory Stick Duo Pro card, a slap in the face given the camcorder's steep price. At least you get an adaptor for plugging the Duo card into standard Memory Stick slots, plus PictBridge support for connecting directly to compatible printers.