At the top of Sony's consumer MiniDV camcorder line, the compact Handycam DCR-HC96 earns its place with excellent video quality, a full suite of manual and automatic functions and above-average photo quality. However, its normally merely awkward touch-screen interface becomes downright frustrating on the Sony Handycam DCR-HC96's insufficiently large 69mm (2.7-inch) LCD.
Though the DCR-HC96 is the high-end entry in the company's single-CCD Handycam lineup, it has a decidedly midrange feel. Its compact case belies its high-end feature set, but the plastic feels thin and flimsy in spots. However, at slightly just under 500g with battery and tape, the diminutive DCR-HC96 is easy to carry in a jacket pocket or small bag.
The DCR-HC96 fits comfortably in your hand, with the primary controls resting below your thumb and forefinger -- there are very few switches and buttons. The Easy button puts the camcorder into fully automatic mode, and other buttons activate frequently needed settings such as NightShot and backlight-compensation modes. The primary interface, though, is the menu system on the 16:9, 69mm touch-screen LCD. You can customise a personal menu with your most-used options, or plow through a scrolling, 3D menu with all of the camera's functions. Menu items are clearly labelled, but finding specific settings can be difficult with so many menu categories and options available. Furthermore, the touch screen makes manual controls difficult and time-consuming to operate, mostly because the screen is too small. Manual focus is especially hard to gauge, and it's difficult to accurately select points for spot metering and focus.
Below the LCD, you'll find buttons to start and stop recording, zoom in and out, and switch between 4:3 and 16:9 modes. These make recording and zooming easier when holding the camera at unusual angles.
The DCR-HC96 moves the USB and FireWire/iLink ports to the small, bundled cradle, which also duplicates the AV and power ports present on the camcorder. Some may consider the convenience of just snapping the camera into a cradle to recharge or transfer footage to be a benefit, while others are likely to find the need to carry yet another accessory along to be a hindrance.
While its predecessor, the Sony DCR-HC90, used a small internal battery, the DCR-HC96 reverts back to the traditional clip-on-the-back design. This design is a bit more cumbersome but allows you to attach larger, extended-capacity batteries.
The top-loading tape design lets you change tapes without removing the camera from its tripod. You can easily access the Memory Stick Duo slot, which sits beneath the LCD screen, without having to flip open any hatches to switch tapes.The Sony Handycam DCR-HC96's 8mm (1/3-inch) single CCD offers 2 megapixels of effective resolution for DV shooting (which gets downsampled to DV resolution) and 3 megapixels for stills. The 10x Carl Zeiss lens features an optical multilayer coating that Sony claims reduces glare and flare while increasing contrast.
As with its predecessors, the DCR-HC96 offers an excellent assortment of automatic and manual features, ranging from the fully automated Easy mode to full manual focus, exposure and sharpness. The AE Shift function lets you brighten or darken your footage while maintaining automatic exposure. When combined with the zebra-stripes feature, it's easy to adjust brightness. You'll find six program autoexposure modes, as well as a variety of digital effects, such as sepia and black-and-white.
Spot meter and spot focus let you set exposure and focus by touching a reference point on the LCD. This extremely handy feature is difficult to use, though, because it requires a precise touch on the small 69mm LCD. It's particularly hard to choose the correct spot when shooting in 4:3 mode, in which the LCD is effectively a tiny 56mm.
An active accessory shoe rests below a flip-open cover. Among the add-ons available for this shoe are standard and infrared lights, as well as stereo and shotgun microphones.