A virtual twin of the Sony Handycam HDR-UX1, but with shiny black-plastic accents, the HDR-SR1 delivers essentially the same video but without some of the accompanying media headaches. It, too, uses the AVCHD format to record 1080i HD video, but on a 30GB disk rather than DVD. Interestingly, the SR1 will cost you around £60 more than the UX1 -- both are rather pricey -- which probably has more to do with market elasticity than cost of production.
The SR1 is built as sturdily as the UX1, if a hair smaller in two dimensions, and its 726g heft balances nicely in the hand. The hard-disk enclosure projects a bit above the top of the unit for a solid grip. Given the abundance of space on the SR1, nothing feels crammed in and with a couple of small exceptions all the controls fall under the correct fingers for easy one-handed shooting. Those exceptions? The proximity of the photo shutter button to the zoom switch, and the slight awkwardness of operating the on/off switch (for jumping between photo and camcorder modes) with an index finger.
Like all Sony camcorders, the SR1 features a touch-screen-navigated menu system -- we're not overly keen on this, but it works better on the SR1's large LCD than the smaller screens of lesser models.
The HDR-SR1 also boasts the same fun-filled prosumer feature set as the UX1. This includes AV, component and HDMI output jacks (though the HDMI cable is optional), headphone jack and mic input, intelligent accessory shoe and zebra stripes. There's a manual control ring around the lens for adjusting exposure, focus or white balance, a smooth slow-record mode for analysing action -- albeit for a mere 3 seconds -- and there's that perennial Sony perk, 5.1 Dolby surround recording. The hard disk accommodates about four hours of highest-quality HD footage.
Some playback and editing irritations remain. Though the disk mounts as a USB storage device when you attach the camcorder to your PC, you still need to install Sony's Picture and Motion Browser software, with its two appendages -- a Media Check utility that intercepts calls to any camcorder or media that might have M2TS files on it and a Sonic UDF driver -- though the latter matters only for the DVD version. In addition, there's an AVCHD player that you'll need to view your videos.
The software lets you trim clips, but that's about it. If you've a yen to burn a DVD, you can push a button on the camcorder or use the software -- keep in mind that a playable DVD, at least for the near-term, means down-converting to MPEG-2 standard-def. As with the UX1, however, we found it a pleasure to use.
In fact, one of the SR1's significant advantages over the UX1 is its performance. The hard disk makes most operations, including start-up, almost instantaneous, although it does take a few seconds to load the thumbnail index. The zoom operated smoothly throughout the 10x range, though a little faster on the way out than the way in, and as usual, Sony's Steady Shot does an excellent stabilisation job. We found the autofocus quick and accurate, too.
The LCD is easy to view, even in bright sunlight, however in the same light it's hard to see the LEDs which indicate whether you're in video or still mode. As long as you use the eye-level viewfinder and don't spend a lot of time playing back your videos, the battery should last at least 45 minutes -- bring extras on holiday.
Alas, the video quality doesn't live up to the rest of the package. Don't misunderstand -- it's very good, with extremely impressive low-light quality as well as sharp, saturated colours in daylight. There's subtle but frequent jerkiness in moving objects, though, and the 2-megapixel ClearVid CMOS sensor takes pretty unimpressive photos that don't match the those of the Canon HV10.
If you really need video that you can edit, we recommend you stick with HDV models such as the Handycam HDR-HC3 or the Canon HV10 for your hi-def needs. Though there's really no wonderfully convenient way to shoot HD video as yet, the Sony Handycam HDR-SR1's combination of hard disk capacity and easy adaptability -- it only lacks some software to improve the convenience quotient -- and a great design and broad feature set, make it the consumer hi-def model to beat for 2006.
Additional editing by Elizabeth Griffin