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.
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.
The LCD is reasonably sharp, but at 211,200 pixels, it doesn't even display standard-definition content at full resolution, much less HD. It's very bright, though, with accurate colour representation, and is visible even in direct sunlight.
The built-in stereo microphone offers clean sound. It's sensitive enough to pick up subtle sounds, yet it didn't pick up motor noise from the camera.
Battery life is average, offering between an hour and 90 minutes of recording time, depending on how often you start, stop and review footage. Sony's InfoLithium technology is very accurate at reporting remaining battery life.
The Sony Handycam HDR-HC3's high-definition video quality is excellent. The detail in our shots was a dramatic improvement from the best DV cameras we've tested. Though the HDV format uses MPEG-2 compression to fit footage on MiniDV tapes, we didn't notice any of the compression artefacts, sparkles and other issues that we've seen on DVD and hard disk camcorders that use the same compression. Shown as footage on a 21-inch computer screen, it looked flawless. When watching video on a 56-inch DLP HDTV, the only issue we could detect was an occasional blurring at the edge of high-contrast areas when panning. With a direct connection to a Sony KDS-R60XBR1, the HDMI output yielded a significantly better picture than the i.LINK and component options.
Colour balance was solid overall. Video appeared a bit oversaturated but not distractingly so. Indoor footage in typical room light shows a very subtle grain. Only in very dim conditions does graininess start to become an issue, but even then, it's far less noticeable than on standard-definition cameras.
Poor dynamic range is probably the HDR-HC3's biggest quality flaw. For example, in bright sunlight, it blew out large areas of the face of a very light-skinned child. Manually exposing for the face resulted in a lack of detail in shadows.
In DV mode, the HDR-HC3's video quality remains good, with reasonably good detail, accurate colour and sharp images in outdoor shots. Indoor shots in dimmer light were grainier than the HD footage shot in the same conditions. After shooting in HD, we downconverted the footage to DV format before transferring it to the computer via i.LINK, and the results were poor. Though the image had good detail, we saw very noticeable stair-step jaggies on the edges of many objects. Our best standard-def footage quality came from using Vegas+DVD to transfer the movie in HD format, then render the final video at DVD resolution, but that's a slow process even on a fast dual-core computer.
Photo quality was surprisingly good, particularly considering that the HDR-HC3 must interpolate a 4-megapixel image from a 2-megapixel CMOS sensor. Images lack some detail compared to those from dedicated still cameras, but overall, they're sharp enough for acceptable 100x150mm (4x6-inch) prints, and they boast decent colour. Indoor shots with flash looked good as well, but frames we grabbed inside while shooting video were grainy and muddy, since the flash can't fire while the camcorder is recording.
Edited by Lori Grunin
Additional editing by Kate Macefield