Given their ease of use and the fact that they potentially eliminate the need for media, it's a wonder that hard-drive-based camcorders still haven't replaced DVD-based camcorders in the post-MiniDV world. After all, a camcorder the likes of Sony's Handycam DCR-SR40 can store as much as 440 minutes of MPEG-2 video in its highest-quality setting on its built-in 30GB hard drive -- dropping to the lowest-quality option bumps that up to 1,250 minutes.
Plus, you can record as many as 9,999 fine quality JPEG images, but since the camera uses only 340,000 pixels to capture video or stills, don't expect to get decent 100x150mm (4x6-inch) prints from this camcorder.
The DCR-SR40's somewhat boxy design and plain silver-plastic finish isn't as attractive as some Sony camcorders, but it's far from ugly. To Sony's credit, there's not a lot you can do with a big 20x optical zoom lens, a hard drive and a 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD. Measuring 71mm by 69mm by 117mm, it's neither large nor small, but at 391g, with the included NP-FP50 680mAh rechargeable InfoLithium battery, it's fairly lightweight and comfortable to shoot with for extended periods of time.
As usual, Sony's touchscreen interface is... well... a touchy subject. Some people love it and some hate it. However, even fans of the system may find the 64mm 4:3 LCD a bit cramped, and as with any touchscreen, fingerprints build up fast. If you often adjust shooting modes and other settings, you should try the touchscreen interface in a store before committing. One of the nicest things about the screen is the three buttons -- two for zoom and one for record -- to its left. Though not as responsive as we'd like, they're conveniently located, and the fixed zoom offered by the LCD-mounted buttons provides a nice counterpoint to the variable zoom rocker.
Unlike the hard-drive camcorders further up Sony's line, the DCR-SR40 doesn't include an accessory shoe, so you can't add a video light, a flash or a microphone. Likewise, it doesn't include a line-in jack or analogue-to-digital converter, so you'll have to move up the line if you want to use a camcorder to convert your old tapes to digital format.
Given the lack of expansion options, it's obvious that Sony is targeting casual shooters rather than tweakers, but it still includes a decent feature set for those who want to experiment. Highlights include spot focus, manual focus, manual exposure, spot metering and six preprogram autoexposure modes. Of course, since you have to cover up a portion of the screen to execute most of these functions, some of them become less useful than we'd like, depending on the scene you're shooting. A separate multicontroller of some sort would probably go a long way towards alleviating some users' discontent with Sony's touchscreen controls.