It wasn't long ago that you'd have paid a premium for a camcorder this compact. Weighing just 419g with tape and battery, the Sony DCR-HC26 slips easily into a small bag or a jacket pocket. In a nice improvement over last year's Handycam DCR-HC21, this camcorder has a top-ejecting tape slot that lets you change tapes without removing the unit from a tripod.
Press the Easy button and everything's fully automatic. Turn off Easy mode, and you'll find that the DCR-HC26 gives you a reasonable amount of manual control. It offers a variety of program autoexposure modes, such as Sports and Portrait, as well as manual settings for exposure and focus. The spot-focus and spot-meter controls let you specify a portion of the touch-screen image for the camera to use when determining focus or exposure. The NightShot Plus infrared mode lets you shoot in total darkness. While it gives everything a ghostly, greenish cast, it's generally more effective than the slow-shutter modes on many camcorders, which result in unusably blurry footage.
Though the DCR-HC26's 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD screen is on the small side, it's reasonably sharp and viewable, even in direct sunlight. You can give your subject a look at the shot by flipping over the LCD -- however, doing that doesn't activate the colour viewfinder, so you have to shoot blind.
While the camera includes video and S-Video outputs, it lacks analogue inputs, which means you can't use it to transfer your old analogue tapes to digital format. There's no memory-card slot, either, so you're limited to shooting VGA-resolution stills on MiniDV tape.
For features on an entry-level camera, the Sony Handycam DCR-HC26's automatic focus and exposure perform reasonably well, reacting quickly and accurately after you pan to a new subject. Image stabilisation works effectively through the first half of the zoom range, though shake becomes increasingly evident as you approach 20x magnification. The included battery is rated for just 45 to 55 minutes of typical shooting, so a larger-capacity battery would be a wise purchase for the holiday-bound.
The Sony DCR-HC26's low-end design is most evident, unfortunately, in its video quality, which is noticeably grainy even in bright light and extremely so under dimmer conditions. Colour hues are accurate but overly vibrant. The small 1/6-inch, 640,000-pixel CCD can't capture the level of detail obtained by higher-end cameras -- a limitation evidenced by a general fuzziness in areas of high detail, such as grass, hair and textured cloth.
Unless your budget is extremely tight, we suggest you move up a price class to around £400; the video quality of products priced below that mark is unlikely to please even casual users.
Edited by Lori Grunin
Additional editing by Kate Macefield