Editor's note: there are two top-of-the-range 550V Handycam models, the XR550V and CX550V. The XR has a slightly larger body on account of its 250GB hard disk, while the CX has 64GB of built-in flash memory; aside from these differences the two models are identical. This CX550V review is based on our review of the XR550V and has been modified to suit.
Design and features
Though Sony changed some of the controls, the camcorder's design is fundamentally the same as last year's models and, as such, it feels quite sturdy. However, if you've got larger hands, the hard disk protrusion on the XR550V might give you a more comfortable grip.
All of the camcorder's door covers are solidly attached. The camcorder has a sliding door on top for the accessory shoe; another slider near the lens on the right side covering the mic and headphone jacks; two separate covers underneath the record button for the proprietary AV out and DC power in; and one inside the LCD hiding the mini-HDMI and USB connectors.
We don't like the location of the latter connectors, since we hate to leave the LCD open with cables running out of it. Also, its location makes it awkward to hold and move the camera around when you connect it to a TV. However, this seems to be a popular place for manufacturers to stash the connectors.
At the front of the camcorder, you'll find a big-barrelled lens with electronic lens cover and a flash on top — there's no built-in video light — as well as manual dial to the side. The manual control dial has long been a staple on Sony's top-end consumer models, but Sony has expanded its capabilities a bit. Pressing the dial's centre button toggles the operation to the currently selected option; holding the button in lets you select which manual function you'd like it to have.
As for manual functions, the CX550V has options for focus, exposure, iris, shutter speed, auto-exposure shift and white balance shift. We've always liked the dial for its feel, but if you use the manual focus, shutter speed and iris controls a lot, it gets annoying bouncing around the options with only the single control. However, this is how all of the prosumer models operate and is a trade-off for their relatively small sizes.
Toward the front-top of the unit is the five-channel mic; for the gazillionth time, we'd rather see Sony use that space for a stereo mic with good separation. In addition, though it has a mic input, the camcorder doesn't have any recording volume controls except for the reference level with two choices: normal and low.
The electronic viewfinder (EVF) has a higher resolution than its predecessors had, as well as those on several of its competitors, but it is smaller. While EVFs are a disappearing breed, we find them essential no matter how bad they are. So we're disappointed with how small and low magnification the CX550V's is.
The camcorder's large touchscreen has a relatively high resolution and is nice to work with. It's also reasonably viewable in direct sunlight, but we still found it difficult to judge manual focus on it or in the EVF. Part of the problem is that there's neither focus assist — it doesn't magnify the subject on the LCD or in the viewfinder while using manual focus — nor peaking control to amplify the edge displays. Instead, the manual instructs you to zoom in, focus and zoom out.
Under the LCD are buttons that trigger NightShot (infrared) and Intelligent Auto mode (a replacement for Easy mode), playback and direct-to-DVD burning for use in conjunction with Sony's DVDirect dock or through software when connected to a PC. The GPS is switch controllable, and there's a manual power button in addition to the automatic operation when you pull out the EVF or open the LCD.
The camera's zoom switch falls directly under your right ring finger, which pushes the surprisingly small photo button to the very corner, where it's borderline difficult to feel. The zoom has a nice feel and it's easy to maintain a steady rate. We've complained about the location of the mode button — for switching between recording video and shooting still photos — in Sony's previous models, and now it sits just to the left of the EVF, a much better place and one that's easier to get to when you're shooting with the EVF.
When you hit the Menu option on the LCD, the first screen you see is the customisable My Menu that is pretty convenient and straightforward to use. Hitting the Show Others button takes you to the annoying endless scrolling menu, but at least you have arrows to make scrolling functional, unlike Canon's touchscreen implementation.
Like the other "V" models, the XR550V and CX550V support geotagging for video and stills. Keep in mind, though, that there's still no standard way to use the video geotag information and you're stuck using Sony's mediocre Picture Motion Browser software.
Sony licenses Navteq's Class 4 map data with high-level highway data for most of the world to provide embedded maps within the camcorder. Overall, the geotagging implementation is fun, but limited. The Class 4 data doesn't include street names or even a complete set of landmarks. Once you download the video to a PC, your options for video are even more limited.
Keep in mind also that like sat nav devices, the CX550V finds it difficult to accurately achieve GPS lock when surrounded by high-rise buildings or when you're indoors. Out in the suburbs and in the bush, it works just fine.
While we might grumble about the geotagging system, which is still in its infancy, we had no quibbles about the CX550V's performance. Sony's autofocus system really stands out compared with its competitors' systems and Sony seems to have improved it over previous models. While it doesn't snap quite as quickly as Canon and Panasonic's, it's far more accurate at judging what should be the subject of the scene, incorrectly focusing on the background with far less frequency than the other camcorders. Plus, the lens focuses unusually close.
We wish the camcorder could focus a little faster while panning, but that's not unusual, and we think it's the trade-off for accuracy. While it offers a touchscreen-based spot focus and spot meter, it didn't work well with small objects that we really needed it for.
The SteadyShot image stabilisation system works well as usual. The camcorder's only real weakness is its battery life. In practice, its battery seems to last only about an hour; however, that's still better than some of the competition. The deep battery cavity seems designed for the optional higher-capacity NP-FV70 battery.
Though it's still good for its class, when viewed on a computer, its video quality doesn't look quite as sharp as the previous generation did; it uses the same sensor, but it has a shorter, wider-angle G-series lens. But on a TV, the video looks great.
Overall, its video has quite a bit of fringing. At its best, colours are bright, saturated and accurate, and there's a fair bit of dynamic range; as is typical of its class, it still shows a tendency to blow out highlights, but with a lot less clipping of both the highs and lows than usual.
The video detail in extremely high-bandwidth scenes, such as a busy water fountain, can get a little mushy. When shooting in the highest bitrate mode (1920x1080 at 24Mbps), the video looks notably higher contrast than when shot at the lower rates. That makes it doubly annoying that Sony defaults to the 1440x1080-pixel 9Mbps mode; we don't understand the company's decision to do that in an AU$900 model and certainly not in an AU$2000 model.
The camcorder fares well in low light compared with its single-chip competitors, maintaining a reasonably sharp picture with only a modest amount of image noise. However, Panasonic's high-end three-chip (3MOS) models deliver more saturated, less noisy results in the same circumstances.
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 and no slow-shutter-speed artefacts, as the shutter speed won't drop below 1/30 second.
As we zoomed it into the test scene, though, there was a notable change in the white balance and decrease in saturation as it crossed the threshold, where the focal length got long and necessitated a change in either shutter speed or iris. The less-saturated setting "stuck" as we zoomed back out.
Frustratingly, Sony's been overstating its camcorder photo resolution for years. To deliver its advertised 12-megapixel photos the camera uses interpolation to scale up the native 6-megapixel images. At full size the photos are just a post-processed mess. However, they should still print out decently at up to 8x10 inches (20x25cm).
For the price, we have to admit we expected a little better — slightly sharper video, improved low-light performance and a less cumbersome interface top the list — but Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V still fares quite well against its competitors. Unless you absolutely need to store a lot of video on the camcorder or if you have large hands that could benefit from the extra grip the hard drive provides, the cheaper CX550V is also a much better deal than its more expensive hard drive sibling.
Via CNET US