Sony Handycam HDR-SR12 High-Definition Camcorder
At a Glance
The Sony Handycam HDR-SR12's big differentiator is its built-in 120GB hard drive, which holds more than 14 hours of video at its highest quality setting. Both the image quality and the storage capacity are impressive, but unless you need to record hours of video without a break, these selling points may not justify the camera's $1300 price (as of September 25, 2008).
Images coming through the camera's 0.33-inch CMOS sensor are recorded as 1920 by 1080 AVCHD files. You have a choice of four data-rate/image-quality settings, spanning 5 mbps to 16 mbps. In our subjective PC World Test Center tests, we recorded and evaluated 16-mbps AVCHD. The HDR-SR12 also records standard-definition video in MPEG-2 format. Still images are saved as JPEG files.
Our jury testers awarded a rating of Very Good to video that the HDR-SR12 captured under standard lighting, noting that it showed just a bit of color shifting. On the other hand, low-light performance was rated as only Fair, marred by noticeable inaccuracies in color, sharpness, and motion. In my hands-on use outside the Test Center, the Sony camcorder captured natural-looking skin tones, and footage had good dynamic range with minimal crushed blacks and blown-out whites--even when color and contrast were changing. The built-in microphone captured good 5.1 surround and two-channel stereo audio during testing out in the field.
Of the five tapeless camcorders we tested for our recent "Camcorders: High-Def, No Tape" roundup, the HDR-SR12 produced the best overall results. Still, anyone seeking a filmlike look should bear in mind that the HDR-SR12 records only 60i (60 interlaced fields per second) video. The camera doesn't provide 30p (30 progressive frames per second) or 24p options, which are handy for video destined for the Web (via YouTube, Vimeo, or the like) and for video with a look closer to film, respectively. Video recorded with the HDR-SR12 looks quite good, but it's unmistakably video.
The HDR-SR12 is a simple unit to operate, and its optical image stabilizer, 12X optical zoom, and autofocus all work very well. The Easy operation mode produces very acceptable images. Eleven scene modes cover shooting conditions ranging from Snow to Landscape to Auto (as in automatic) to Fireworks.
Sony includes a 3.2-inch flip-out LCD screen, a viewfinder, microphone and headphone jacks, and a built-in lens cover. Outputs include analog standard-definition and high-def video, HDMI, and USB, and a Memory Stick slot for recording still images and video.
The standard battery supported nearly 90 minutes of recording time per charge. The camera weighs about 1.5 pounds with battery--enough heft to improve hand-held stability, but not enough to tire out your arm.
This camcorder benefits from helpful controls, too: The touch-screen LCD makes navigating the controls easy and permits simple file browsing and searching--a huge convenience in view of the hours of video the hard drive can hold. The HDR-SR12's camera control dial, which is about twice the size of a pencil eraser and sits just below the lens, offers quick access to manual focus, aperture, and white balance settings. Sony's menus aren't as well-organized as those on other camcorders I've seen, but that's a short-term issue that you can overcome by using the camera for a while.
Alas, the HDR-SR12 costs hundreds of dollars more than competing cameras that offer less (but certainly adequate) storage space. Sony also markets the HDR-SR11, which has the same features and the same imaging engine as the HDR-SR12, but has a 60GB hard drive and therefore costs $200 less than the HDR-SR12.
Video is transferred to a computer via USB or a Memory Stick reader. For Windows users, Sony bundles Picture Motion Browser, a basic video-editing application. Mac users must use iMovie '08, the latest version of Apple's consumer video editor.
Though the Sony HDR-SR12 is a very good HD camcorder--earning second place on our comparison chart--it costs far more than HD camcorders that deliver similar quality and features. The key question for potential buyers is whether massive storage capacity and great-quality video hold justify the higher price.