The Sony Handycam HDR-HC3 brings down both the size and the cost of HD video to more reasonable levels. It's still not an impulse buy, but the excellent HD/SD video quality, the good mix of automatic and manual features and the passable still-photo capabilities will make you feel like you got your money's worth.
The bigger challenge is working with the video you shoot. Even after you upgrade your video-editing package to work with HD, your options for storing, transferring and playing back HD video are far more limited than those of standard DV. Though you can get a high-end three-chip MiniDV camcorder for this price that will deliver higher-quality standard-definition content, the clarity and detail of the HDR-HC3's high-definition video might make it worthwhile to deal with HD's early-adopter limitations.
With their long lens barrels and boom microphones, first-generation consumer HD camcorders such as Sony's HDR-FX1 and JVC's GR-HD1 looked like something your local TV news cameraperson would carry. The Sony Handycam HDR-HC3, on the other hand, resembles a typical high-end consumer DV camcorder. It's small enough to fit in a jacket pocket, though at 600g with battery and tape, it's a bit on the hefty side for a camcorder so compact. It fits very comfortably in your right hand, with controls well placed for one-handed shooting. Much of the HDR-HC3's weight falls on the left side though, and the imbalance can make extended handheld shooting tiring. The stylish dark-grey brushed-metal and black-plastic case feels very solid, and it should hold up well to typical handling in the field. The lens incorporates an automatic cover to protect it when you're not shooting.
The Sony Handycam HDR-HC3 uses the LCD touch-screen menu setup that's now standard on Sony's consumer camcorders. A programmable quick menu makes it relatively fast and easy to get to your most commonly used settings, but the full menu is so loaded with options that it can take significant time to scroll through the available adjustments to find the one you want. Casual shooters can just press the Easy button to put the camera in fully automatic mode.
Using the touch screen to adjust some common settings can be frustrating, something Sony attempts to address with a small wheel near the HDR-HC3's lens for manual focusing, as well as modifying exposure, AE shift or white balance. While not as fast or precise as a focus ring, it's superior to the touch screen for these operations.
The zoom rocker as well as the photo and record buttons are all comfortably placed for one-handed shooting. Additionally, membrane buttons beside the LCD let you start and stop recording and zoom the lens. These are useful when holding the camera at unusual angles, where reaching the traditional zoom rocker and start button can be tricky.
The tape ejects upward, and the Memory Stick Duo card slot sits behind the LCD screen, making both easy to swap when using a tripod. Though the battery sits at the back of the camera, the release latch is on the bottom, and some bulkier tripod mounts may make changing the battery without removing the tripod difficult.