The ability to record 1080i HD video in HDV format distinguishes the Sony Handycam HDR-HC3 from the rest of the crowd. Although it also supports standard-definition MiniDV video, it can't record in 720p HDV format. Though HD video is much more detailed than DV, the HDV format uses MPEG-2 compression to fit a full hour of video on a MiniDV tape. The HDR-HC3 incorporates Sony's new 2-megapixel ClearVid CMOS sensor, the same chip used by the company's DCR-DVD505 camcorder. Its Carl Zeiss lens has a mere 10x reach. Though digital zoom typically is of such poor quality that the feature is ignored, HD resolution means that you can zoom to about 20x before blur becomes noticeable.
You transfer both HD and SD video using i.LINK (Sony's brand name for an IEEE 1394/FireWire connection). The camcorder can downconvert HD content to standard-definition during transfer, handy when the ultimate destination for your footage is a DVD. Sony doesn't include any software for transferring or editing footage. If you already have video-editing software, keep in mind that only the most recent versions support HDV transfer. Until Blu-ray and HD-DVD burners become available, you're limited with what you can currently do with your HD content. We used Sony Media Software's Vegas+DVD video-editing package to transfer HD content to a PC for playback. Editing HD content is easy, if somewhat slower than working with DV, but you eventually have to downconvert the final footage to DVD resolution (720x480-pixel 480p format) for distribution.
Of course, you can also play content directly from the camera. The HDR-HC3 boasts a wealth of outputs -- HDMI, component video and i.LINK, as well as an optional S-Video cable. A compact infrared remote control is included.
The HDR-HC3's feature set is more typical of Sony's high-end consumer camcorders. There's a fully automatic Easy mode, as well as six Program AE shooting modes. Along with manual exposure and focus, you can also use the touch screen for spot metering or spot focus. You can choose between a variety of white-balance settings, use one-push white balance to adjust for current lighting conditions, or use white-balance shift to manually tweak the hue. A zebra pattern and a histogram help guide brightness adjustments of your scene. The HDR-HC3 includes Sony's Digital Cinema effect, which does a reasonable job of creating the appearance of 24fps film.
Smooth Slow Record should interest racing, air show and sports fans, as well as golfers looking to analyse their swings. It grabs 3 seconds of low-resolution video at four times the normal rate (240fps), resulting in a 12-second slow-motion playback of your subject. The results are extremely fuzzy, however.
The HDR-HC3 offers Sony's trademark NightShot and Super NightShot infrared modes for low-light shooting, as well as a colour slow-shutter mode for when you're willing to sacrifice frame rate to maintain the original colours and avoid the greenish cast found in infrared shots. There's no video light, but there is a flash for shooting stills.
The camcorder includes a built-in stereo microphone but lacks a jack for an external microphone. You can use the proprietary hotshoe to connect a Sony-brand microphone, but you won't be able to attach a video light.
The HDR-HC3 includes a Memory Stick Duo slot for saving still pictures. The camcorder can shoot still photos at as much as 4 megapixels (interpolated) or grab 16:9 stills at 3 megapixels while shooting wide-screen video.
The Sony Handycam HDR-HC3's automatic focus, exposure and white balance are accurate and responsive, adjusting almost instantly to rapid changes in subject. The only difficulty we encountered was its occasional inability to focus when initially zoomed in on a relatively close object, but this was easily corrected by zooming out and back. The SteadyShot image stabilisation feature does a good job of dampening camera shakes throughout the zoom range.
The wheel near the lens works well for adjusting manual focus, though we sometimes had difficulty getting a precise focus using the relatively small 69mm (2.7-inch) widescreen LCD. This model lacks the convenient magnifying Expanded Focus mode found on the HDR-HC1. The touch-screen-controlled spot-focus feature is a better option for shots where you need to change the focus point.