One of the biggest first decisions to make right now when buying a camcorder is whether to get one that records to MiniDV, to mini DVDs, or to a hard drive. MiniDV, and mini DVDs offer great value for the money and convenience with home DVD players, respectively, but you can't deny the convenience of never having to buy or carry around tapes ever again. Plus, when you use the dock that comes with Sony's Handycam DCR-SR80, it's really simple to get your footage onto your computer.
The DCR-SR80's somewhat boxy design is far from sexy, but its gunmetal-ish colour is more attractive than the silver plastic of the DCR-SR40. To Sony's credit, there's not a lot you can do, design-wise, with a big 12X optical zoom lens, a hard drive, and a 2.5-inch LCD. Measuring 71 x 69 x 117 mm, it's neither large nor small, but at 360 grams without the included NP-FP50 680mAh rechargeable InfoLithium battery installed, it's fairly lightweight and comfortable to shoot with for extended periods of time.
Some users outright hate Sony's touchscreen interface, while others love it. If you've never used one of Sony's touchscreen camcorders, you should definitely try one out before buying. Even fans of the system may find the SR80's 2.7-inch widescreen LCD a bit cramped, and as with any touchscreen, fingerprints build up fast. Three buttons to the left of the screen let you zoom the lens in or out and start or stop recording. Plus, since the LCD-mounted zoom buttons have a fixed zoom speed, they're a nice counterpoint to the zoom rocker, which provides a variable speed option.
A hotshoe on top of the camcorder, which Sony calls the Active Interface shoe, lets you attach and control accessories, such as a video light, flash, or a microphone to supplement the built-in mic. Since the SR80 has no built-in video light, low-light shooters will likely find the hotshoe helpful.
Feature highlights include spot focus, manual focus, manual exposure, spot metering, and six preprogrammed autoexposure modes. Of course, since you have to cover up a portion of the screen to execute most of these functions, some of them become less useful than we would've liked, depending on the scene you're shooting. A separate multicontroller of some sort would probably go a long way toward alleviating some users' discontent with Sony's touchscreen controls. Of course, the biggest feature of the DCR-SR80 is its 60GB hard drive, which can hold as much as 880 minutes of video at the camera's highest quality setting. That jumps to a whopping 2,510 minutes when you step down to the lowest quality setting. The drive also accommodates as many as 9,999 still images.
We were pleased with the DCR-SR80's performance. The autofocus was very fast and tracked well when zooming and panning. Of course, AF slowed noticeably in lower light, but that's to be expected in this price range. Start-up was also very fast, and we experienced very little delay between pressing the record button and the start of video capture, as well as minimal shutter lag -- for a camcorder -- when shooting still images. Autoexposure reacted quickly to shifts in scenery, zooming, and lighting.
Sony's SteadyShot image stabilisation worked well through most of the 12X optical zoom range -- it just wasn't quite enough to keep the far end of the zoom from becoming jittery. If you plan on zooming all the way out, you should bring along a tripod to quash the shake.
Sony rates the DCR-SR80's battery life at between 100 and 105 minutes continuous recording time, though you should expect only slightly more than half of that during normal use. An extra battery is a very good idea if you plan to bring this camcorder on vacation or expect to do any lengthy recording. Sony even offers a high-capacity battery -- the NP-FP90, which offers a capacity of 2460mAh instead of the included NP-FP50's 680mAh. Since these are InfoLithium rechargeable batteries, the DCR-SR80 displays estimated remaining battery life in minutes, rather than the less-informative broken bar chart approach used by some manufacturers.
Image quality from the DCR-SR80 was impressive. We saw an impressive amount of detail for a MPEG-2 camcorder of its class. Images had relatively few compression artifacts compared to those of other hard drive camcorders, such as JVC's Everio line. Colours from the SR80 were well saturated though slightly cool when shooting outdoors and a touch warm indoors, but still not as bad as some camcorders we've seen.
Still photos won't match the 3-megapixel images captured by the Handycam DCR-SR100, but should make decent 4x6 inch prints, especially considering that they're only 1-megapixel images. Colours are a bit bland, and the images are a slightly blurry, so you'll want a dedicated digital still camera if you're capturing important photos. But for a quick snapshot, the DCR-SR80 could do the trick.
If you're the type of videographer that puts the camcorder in Easy mode and concentrates on pointing the lens in the right direction and zooming when appropriate, the Sony Handycam DCR-SR80 should be great for you. If you want slightly higher image quality and 3-megapixel still images, it makes sense to step up to the DCR-SR100. However, if still images don't matter, and you don't mind sacrificing some sharpness, you can save a little money by stepping down to the DCR-SR40.