How much do you want hi-def? That's the question you'll have to answer when surveying the camcorder landscape at £1,200, where the Sony Handycam HDR-HC1 makes its debut. On one hand, the HC1's 2.8-megapixel CMOS sensor delivers visibly sharper 1080i HD video (via the HDV format) and standard MiniDV in a surprisingly compact, generally well-designed body.
On the other hand, at that price level, it competes with three-chip models from Panasonic, such as the AG-DVC30, which produce much better colour accuracy and dynamic range and deliver easier-to-edit video. And you always have the option of going with a cheaper model that simply records widescreen in standard DV.
If your shooting style includes intensive adjustments and copious use of the eye-level viewfinder, the Sony Handycam HDR-HC1 is not the camcorder for you. Though it provides an excellent viewfinder and a good set of options to tweak, the design of the HC1 assumes you'll be using the LCD for recording.
As with most of its consumer camcorders, Sony incorporates a touch-screen menu system in the HDR-HC1, which can be quite annoying if you're shooting with the viewfinder. For instance, to adjust the white balance, you have to lower the camcorder from your eye, flip open the LCD (with the concomitant surge in battery drain), choose your option, close the LCD, and bring the viewfinder back to your eye to reframe the shot.
Even more irritating, to use the camcorder's white-balance fine-tuning control, you have to operate an onscreen slider by touching fairly small plus and minus icons -- which effectively eradicates the 'fine' from fine-tuning. Of course, for spot focus and spot metering, the touch screen is invaluable. Sony still needs to find the right balance of touch-screen and physical controls for models such as this one.
The HC1 may not be the most efficiently designed camcorder for shooting, but it's both extremely solid and compact -- it weighs about 700g -- making it comfortable to hold for extended periods. A textured piece of plastic makes it clear where your right hand should grip the top, and your remaining fingers fall naturally in place over the rest of the shooting controls. The especially comfortable viewfinder tilts up and has both an enlarged eyecup and a very bright screen.
The Sony Handycam HDR-HC1's real draw is its ability to record 1080i hi-def video on standard MiniDV cassettes. It uses the recently implemented HDV format, which employs MPEG-2 compression rather than DV. Not much software currently supports HDV for digitising, and the packages that do tend to be expensive products such as Adobe Premiere Pro 1.5 and Apple Final Cut Pro 5.0. So the HC1 also provides HD-to-DV down-conversion for editing or playback on a standard-def (SD) TV. Like its big brother, the HDR-FX1, it incorporates Sony's Cinematic mode for simulating the appearance of 24fps film. It can also record standard DV. The camcorder supports component-video output and supplies the necessary cables, but if you have a FireWire port on your TV, you'll get the best playback quality that way.
For the HC1's sensor, Sony uses a 1/3-inch, 3-megapixel CMOS chip with an RGB filter array. That provides an effective 2 megapixels for HD shooting and stills, 1.5 megapixels for SD video, and 2.8 megapixels for 4:3 photos. Its Zeiss T* 10x zoom lens won't win any spec wars, but it's perfectly sufficient for most shots, and Sony boosts the zoom effectiveness with its Super SteadyShot electronic stabilisation.