The great thing about modern camcorders -- flash-memory models in particular -- is you no longer have to lug around something the size of a small Hubble telescope in order to capture those oh-so-precious moments in sharp, high definition. The Sony Handycam HDR-CX115E is surprisingly small and light for a device that boasts 1080i HD recording, a large, touch-sensitive LCD screen and a lengthy optical zoom, all for a relatively affordable £350.
All of a sudden, camcorder designers seem to have realised there are more colours in the spectrum than just silver and black. Our HDR-CX115E review unit came in a jolly metallic purple, for example. An equally cheerful red model and an altogether more sombre granite-black edition are also available. The rest of the design offers few surprises. Sony's device doesn't exactly throw caution to the wind in terms of its shape, retaining the barrel-like body and flip-out LCD of many models that have come before it. What you will notice when you first clap eyes on it in the flesh, is just how small and neat it is. Without the battery, it's about the same size as our computer mouse, and not much heavier. There are smaller devices available, but few that share the HDR-CX115E's approach to picture quality and features.
Unlike some cheaper candybar cams, the HDR-CX115E records video using the same high-quality AVCHD standard as most top-range models. There are several picture settings, the highest of which sets the bit rate to 24Mbps. Don't let the fact that it can't film in 1080p put you off, either. The HDR-CX115E's 50-frame-per-second 1080i output is light years ahead of most progressive 1080 modes found on lower-end models. In our tests, the device delivered some great footage -- sharp, detailed and smooth. In full automatic mode, auto focus and exposure were quick to respond. In good outdoor light, we did notice some slight bleed on bright colours -- reds in particular. We were pretty impressed by the HDR-CX115E's indoor performance. For a camera with a single CMOS image sensor, picture quality withstood reduced lighting conditions admirably, with far less grain and blur compared to many similarly priced models.
Photo quality, meanwhile, isn't exactly up to David Bailey standard. The image sensor can save snaps at up to 3.1 megapixels in 4:3 photo mode, which isn't great to start with. Colours also seem to be oddly unpredictable. It's hard to achieve a non-blurry shot when you're using the zoom, and that's a real shame, because the 25x optical magnification on offer is extremely generous.
To keep both price and weight down, Sony has omitted any internal storage. You can, of course, insert your own SD/SDHC/SDXC or Memory Stick Pro Duo card in the dual-format slot underneath the body. Note that you will need a Class 4 or higher card if you're opting for SD. USB, component and HDMI output are available alongside good old standard-definition AV. There's a component cable included in the box although, sadly, there's still no sign of Sony deigning to supply their consumer camcorders with an HDMI cable as standard.
Other features include programmable face recognition and a direct-copy function that lets you save your footage to a hard drive without the need for a PC. The HDR-CX115E's touchscreen control system is fairly easy to get the hang of, helped by the fact that the screen itself is a decent-sized 2.7-inch panel. There are quite a few manual controls to tinker with, too, should the mood take you.
Taking into account its price and size, we'd say most home-movie makers wouldn't be disappointed with the Sony Handycam HDR-CX115E. Having tested both models, we'd conclude that Panasonic's HDC-SD60 just pips Sony's Handycam at the post in terms of overall picture quality, at a roughly similar price. It's a tough call, though. Both models offer a great balance of features and strong video performance in relation to portability and value. If you're having trouble deciding, we heartily recommend trying them both out for yourself before you buy.
Edited by Emma Bayly