The Sony Handycam DCR-SR58E is small, has a stupidly long zoom and comes with enough built-in storage to film your own version of Gone with the Wind several times over. But when the overwhelming majority of modern camcorders can record video in gloriously detailed 1080p vision, why on Earth would you shell out the considerable sum of £250 for a model that can only capture at boring old standard definition?
Let's deal with the elephant in the room first. The DCR-SR58E can't do HD. There, we said it. And with that, many people will have already dismissed Sony's shiny Handycam with a cursory mouse-click. Fair enough, too. If you absolutely have to have a high-definition camcorder, look away now. Recording at 576i (standard PAL SD resolution) in either widescreen or 4:3, this Handycam is simply not able to produce the kind of pictures that will show off the capabilities of your HD Ready television, pixel for pixel.
But here's the thing -- not everybody needs, or even wants, HD. There are many people for whom highness of definition just isn't an issue. Perhaps they don't have an HD TV yet. Or maybe they're recording video to burn straight to DVDs (which are also standard definition) or share over the Web. In these cases, it makes sense to avoid paying for an HD camcorder if you can't or don't need to edit, upload or playback any of those extra pixels.
Normally, we'd suggest buying an HD model anyway in order to future-proof your investment. After all, you can pick up a basic HD model for roughly the same price as the DCR-SR58E, and most will output to standard-definition TVs without any problem. But, in the case of the DCR-SR58E, the little Handycam comes with a few stand-out features that most low-end HD models would find hard to compete with.
HDD but not HD
Like most HD cams, the DCR-SR58E has ejected miniDV tape in favour of memory-based recording. The Handycam comes with a whopping 80GB built-in hard drive. Not only that, but it also has a spare slot that can take either a Memory Stick Pro Duo or an SD/SDHC/SDXC card, potentially adding another 32GB. Because standard-definition MPEG-2 files eat up less storage space than full-blown HD, you can save a mind-boggling amount of footage across the two storage options -- up to an impressive 85 hours' worth, all told.
Unfortunately, the style train appears to have bypassed the DCR-SR58E. The silver casing and stunted, hard-edged design don't exactly lend a contemporary feel. That said, the device is small enough to slip inside a handbag or generous pocket, though the built-in hard drive makes it slightly heavier than you might expect.
The DCR-SR58E is, however, easy to use. It operates in the same way you would expect a camcorder to. Flip open the decent-sized (2.7-inch) LCD screen, switch to either photo or video mode and press start. There are a handful of useful options in the menus -- face detection, electronic image stabiliser, a spot meter and a few other manual controls. The unit provides a fairly easy-to-navigate touchscreen interface via which these controls can be accessed. In truth, the DCR-SR58E is most likely to be used in straightforward point-and-shoot mode.
Looking further afield
Sony sees fit to include a near CIA-standard 60x optical zoom lens on the DCR-SR58E. While it's fun to pretend you're a paparazzo, the lack of effective image stabilisation (only a weak electronic stabiliser is available) makes for some extremely shaky recording at full magnification, unless you employ the talents of a sturdy tripod.
USB and AV output are the DCR-SR58E's only connections to the big, wide world. The unit works like an external hard disk when you plug it into a PC, allowing you to drag and drop files onto your computer. It's also possible to dub video straight to an external drive without the need for a computer, and Sony's bundled PC software makes it easy to burn discs or share your clips on YouTube, Facebook and the like. It's a shame the camera doesn't feature an AV input -- this would have been a great way to digitise older analogue recordings.
When it comes down to it, still photography is pretty much a dead loss. Photo resolution is sub-megapixel (0.3) and, these days, you'd get better quality snaps from the average mobile phone handset. Video performance is significantly better. Detail is somewhat limited by the camera's technical limitations but, for casual use, the DCR-SR58E can record perfectly acceptable standard-definition pictures and sound. Outside in daylight, the camera handles colours well and auto functions are quick to adjust to their surroundings. Motion is a bit blurry, but this could be easily attributed to standard-definition's low (25 frames per second) frame rate. Results from interior filming can be a little less convincing. Low light saps colours and adds grain, and there's not a huge amount you can do to compensate.
Clearly, the Sony Handycame DCR-SR58E's most significant feature is its defiantly standard-definition-only recording capability, and this is likely to be the main factor governing any purchase. Indeed, the DCR-SR58E is one of the best SD camcorders we've tested in a while. Video picture and sound are both strong and it's extremely easy to use. Features, such as its copious storage and similarly generous optical zoom, help to make this Handycam even more attractive. Poor photo quality is disappointing, however, and prospective buyers would do well to weigh up their options before diving in.
Edited by Emma Bayly