Sony's DCR-PC55 MiniDV Handycam is a stylish shooting companion that's small and light enough to fit in your trouser pocket. With a 10x optical zoom and a decent selection of automatic and manual shooting modes, the DCR-PC55 provides most of the capabilities of larger counterparts. Unfortunately, it compromises on video quality, which runs from mediocre under optimal conditions to poor in low light. So unless portability and style are your paramount concerns, you can do better than this.
The Sony Handycam DCR-PC55 is amazingly light and compact and looks as if it would feel more at home hanging out with a crowd of iPods than on a shelf with the other camcorders. It's small enough to fit, albeit tightly, in your jeans pocket, and weighs a mere 360g with battery and tape installed. This camera goes for style as much as function, and comes in four colours: silver, red, black and white. Despite its light weight, the camera feels very solid, which you'd expect when packing all of a camcorder's bits into such a tight space. The camcorder should be safe in your pocket, thanks to an automatic lens cover that closes when you turn the DCR-PC55 off.
The three-inch LCD swings out of the side and must be swivelled 90 degrees for shooting, due to the camera's vertically oriented design. There's no electronic viewfinder, so you have to have the LCD open to frame your shots. The compact design can also be somewhat awkward to operate. While shooting, you must be very careful to avoid blocking the lens with your index finger. The camera's design also makes it somewhat harder to hold steady than a more traditional, horizontally oriented camcorder.
You access most functions using the LCD touch-screen menus. While this is simpler than hunting for the right control on camcorders that boast 20 or more dedicated buttons, it takes longer to drill through the menus than it would if there were dedicated controls available for common functions.
At least the primary menu is customisable, so you can put your most commonly used functions on the first few pages. When you do need to go deeper into the menu system, you'll find menu items clearly labelled and easy to navigate. There's also an Easy mode, which puts all of the camera operations on automatic and removes almost all the menu items from view.
Notably, the DCR-PC55 includes a charging/transfer cradle. The camera itself has only USB and A/V ports; these are duplicated on the cradle, which also features the all-important FireWire port for transferring video to your computer. The A/V port is a tiny custom connector to which you attach an included cable that features S-video, composite and stereo audio inputs and outputs. There's a stereo microphone mounted on the top of the camcorder; you can also attach an external microphone or flash to the custom accessory shoe directly behind the microphone.
You can eject a tape from the side-loading door while the camcorder is mounted on a tripod, but you must remove it from the tripod to swap batteries.
Most small electronics make some compromises, and the DCR-PC55's most significant is its lens, which has just a 10x optical zoom. The lens can't accept accessories, so you can't add a teleconverter or a wide-angle converter. It also features a 120x digital zoom, but as is true with virtually all camcorders, digital zoom causes such a dramatic loss of detail that it's not really a viable option. Its 1/6-inch, 680,000-pixel sensor is also low resolution, given the camcorder's price.
The lens does support manual focus via icons on the touch screen. Unfortunately, this arrangement makes it difficult to finely adjust the focus with one hand while keeping your subject in view. A better option is the spot-focus function, which lets you use the touch screen to specify which object in the screen the camera should focus on.
The touch screen also scores points when you're working with tricky exposures. With the spot-meter function, you frame your subject, then touch the screen at the spot that you want to use as an exposure reference. There are also manual exposure and white-balance settings, which you might not expect on such a compact camcorder.