Two switches control the GPS and low-light shooting modes. GPS support comprises a built-in antenna and in-camera geotagging of videos and photos. Sony licenses Navteq map data to provide embedded maps within the camcorder and links to GPS satellites. Geotagging and map data isn't available for all locations, so check before you buy or travel.
The implementation is fun, but limited. You can use the geo data for a map display of all your videos, which Sony serves up in-camcorder. The data doesn't include street names or even a complete set of landmarks. Once you download your video to a PC, your options are increasingly limited. Unlike with photos, there's no metadata standard for storing the information with the files. As a result, Sony has to store it in a sidecar file with data that can only be parsed by its eternally annoying Picture Motion Browser software.
While the LCD is large enough to support the touchscreen operation, the menu system is poorly designed, as it's been for the last several generations of Sony camcorders. It's split into two sections: the home menu and the options menu. The former is for settings you can't change while shooting, such as choosing high definition or standard definition, quality, 2-channel or 5.1-channel audio, or implementing the SteadyShot image stabilisation. The options menu is for those settings that you might want to change while recording, including spot meter/focus, exposure adjustments, program scene modes, or toggling the flash.
It's a confusing arrangement. It's difficult, for example, to know which menu to pick for enabling the face-detection or smile-shutter feature. We thought it was going to be options, but it's actually home. There's just too much head scratching involved in finding any given setting.
The lens performance and video quality really stand out on this model. Its G-series lens, based on the same optics as Sony's digital SLR lenses, seems to deliver as good -- or even better -- results than the excellent Zeiss T*-coated lenses on previous prosumer models. Video looks sharp, and there's no visible fringing or aberration. Plus, the lens focuses surprisingly closely. We wish it could focus a little faster while panning, but that's not unusual. The autofocus and auto-exposure systems operate pretty quickly, although, as with most AF systems, it frequently gets confused between foreground and background objects -- that's where the touch-screen-based spot focus and spot meter come in handy.
As usual, the SteadyShot stabilisation system works well, and the new 'active' mode, which compensates for lower-frequency motion than shaking hands, like walking, makes a big difference. It's optional because the larger coverage area can result in some resolution degradation around the edges of images, although we couldn't spot any on our test shots.
Even the LCD is better than usual -- it's large and retains visibility in direct sunlight, and, in combination with the manual focus dial, is adequate for performing manual focus. While the EVF feels rather small and coarse, the colour and exposure appear relatively accurate. The only real weakness in the camcorder's performance is battery life, which, in practice, seems to last only about an hour.
Video quality, while imperfect, still ranks highly for a consumer model. Colours are bright, saturated and accurate, and there's a fair amount of dynamic range. As is typical of its class, the XR520VE still shows a tendency to blow out highlights, but with much less clipping of both the highs and lows than usual. The detail in extremely high-bandwidth scenes, such as a busy water fountain, can get a little mushy -- a higher bit rate than its 16Mbps maximum might help in cases like these -- and there's some jitter on rapidly moving subjects like a flag in the wind.
Although the back-illuminated sensor isn't new, this is the first time we've seen it in a product. The technology, which flips the layers so that the photosites are above the electronics, where they can get more light, definitely seems an effective way to improve low-light performance -- a weak aspect of consumer camcorders. The XR520VE really fares well in low light compared with all its competitors, maintaining a surprisingly sharp, saturated picture with only a modest amount of image noise.
The low lux mode seems more intelligent than most low-light modes, only gaining up if necessary. It definitely produces a brighter image than standard mode, with only a modest increase in image noise, no slow-shutter-speed artefacts (it won't drop below 1/30 of a second), and very little desaturation. Compared with the current class leaders, all from Canon, the low-light video is more pleasing. Although there's slightly more noise, the XR520VE produces better mid-tone and shadow reproduction, for better perceived sharpness, and with more saturated colours. None of the camcorders do a great job of maintaining white balance in low light, though.
The audio sounds good as well, and the mic is sensitive, although it could really use a wind filter. Still photos look okay, although, as you'd expect at the touted 12-megapixel resolution, interpolated up from the sensor's native 6 megapixels, photos look over-processed with occasionally ugly edge artefacts. The 6-megapixel shots look better. They should all, however, print decently up to 8 by 10 inches.
Aside from the irritating interface, the Sony Handycam HDR-XR520VE is burdened by a high price. It's a full-featured consumer HD camcorder, but models targeted at home-video creators are going for significantly less, especially since such users are usually willing to forgo the EVF. In its price class, you'd also expect more prosumer-orientated manual controls. Therefore, despite being a generally first-rate camcorder, you'll probably be just as happy with something slightly cheaper.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet