Although it's not the least expensive model in Sony's AVCHD camcorder lineup -- the Handycam HDR-CX100 fills that spot -- the hard-drive-based Handycam HDR-XR100 looks, feels and performs as if it should be. Boxy, in a boring two-tone silver and black plastic, the £800 XR100 isn't nearly as attractive as the CX100, and, as you'd expect from a hard-drive model, it's bigger and heavier as well.
There's nothing particularly wrong with the simple but functional physical design -- as with similar models, the protruding 80GB hard drive affords a more secure grip -- but it feels rather cheap for its class.
The controls are relatively sparse. To the front of the drive sits a covered recess with mini-HDMI, proprietary AV (for component and composite video), and USB connectors. There are no microphone or headphone jacks, flash, video light, or accessory shoe. Next to the lens is the manual lens cover. On the top front sits the 5.1-channel microphone, an unnecessary gimmick that Sony could have eschewed to lower the price. Atop the rear of the hard drive sit the zoom switch and photo button. The switch is rather wobbly and hard to control, making it difficult to get a consistent-speed zoom. On the back of the camcorder, the record button falls comfortably under your thumb, but the camera/camcorder mode switch above it is flat and hard to feel.
Within the LCD recess sit the speaker, covered Memory Stick Duo Pro slot, and power, easy operation, one-touch DVD burning, play and display options buttons. You control the camcorder predominantly via the touchscreen interface. Unfortunately, the 69mm (2.7-inch) LCD display isn't really big or responsive enough for easy navigation. The screen is slightly better than that on the CX100, though -- it's easier to view in direct sunlight and doesn't seem to accumulate fingerprints.
Unfortunately, the camcorder uses the older, frustrating menu system, rather than the newer one introduced this spring. The menus are structured in such a way that it's almost impossible to remember where to find some of the settings. For example, while you select movie settings in one spot in the home menu, and standard- or high-definition elsewhere in the home menu, you select movie quality in the options menu.
Like the CX100, with the exception of the face-detection, smile-shutter and scene modes, the camcorder has no bells or whistles to speak of. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it could use a wind filter.
The XR100 records in the AVCHD format at a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution, with 60 interlaced frames per second. At its highest quality, the 16Mbps mode, you can record just over 7 minutes of video per gigabyte of storage. That's about 9 hours and 40 minutes on the hard drive. If you drop to the 9Mbps mode, that increases to about 15 minutes per gigabyte.
It seems like the autofocus system has more trouble than usual distinguishing the subject from the background, which slows it down slightly. And the LCD simply isn't very sharp -- it's nearly impossible to tell if something's in focus or not. Furthermore, the battery doesn't last very long -- it's rated for less than an hour under typical usage, which is in line with our experience. On the other hand, the XR100 starts up surprisingly quickly for a hard-disk-based unit.
Despite using the same sensor and lens as the CX100, the video quality is less impressive. Overall, it's slightly soft, even when not scaled-up on a large TV, and, as you'd expect, it's even softer in dim light. It's less soft with close-ups. Outdoor shots look rather low-contrast, with blown-out highlights, although most colours are relatively accurate, with the exception of some blues, which is not uncommon. Video shot in living-room-level light is acceptable if somewhat desaturated.
On the upside, the XR100 doesn't have the CX100's lens flare problems, but it does frequently display fringing on high-contrast edges. The 4-megapixel interpolated stills look somewhat over-processed, as you'd expect, and the native-resolution shots have edge artefacts like fringing and halos.
If you're looking to spend £800 on an HD camcorder, there are plenty of decent alternatives you might want to consider before shelling out for the merely satisfactory Sony Handycam HDR-XR100.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet