When we first saw Sony's PJ series of camcorders with their built-in projectors we flashed back to all the times you would sit waiting for friends to hook up their various devices to the TV in order to share their holiday videos. They eventually just left the necessary cables hanging off the TV, but for a lot of people, that's a suboptimal solution. The small projector in the Sony Handycam HDR-PJ10 is a far more elegant option.
Design and features
Essentially the same camcorder as the Sony Handycam CX130, the HDR-PJ10 gets its usefulness quotient increased quite a bit by a pico projector. In part because the just-OK video quality matters a lot less when you're viewing it via the projector, and if you bought this model it's because you're going to be projecting rather than connecting to a TV.
The LCD is on the small side — as befits the compactness of the camcorder — and like many is hard to see in direct sunlight. It's serviceable as a touchscreen; not wonderfully responsive, but there's so little to navigate that we didn't mind too much.
The most notable feature of the camcorder is, of course, the small projector built into the LCD door. It delivers enough throw and brightness for casual home viewing, and the slider on top of the door makes it easy to focus. While we would have liked the touchscreen to function during projection — you have to set everything up in advance, because you have limited navigation in projection mode — it's straightforward enough to use. You don't notice the relatively low-quality video while viewing this way rather than on a big-screen TV, in part because the resolution of the projector is only 640x360 pixels. (Other specs: up to 10 lumens, 10 to 60 inches of coverage.)
On top of the camcorder are the mode and photo buttons, which feel too close together. The zoom switch wasn't nearly as loose on this model as on the CX130, which leads us to think there's inconsistency across the products. A tiny captive USB cable tucks into the strap and comes in handy when you're on the road.
While not fully automatic, the camcorder comes close. You have a choice of four shooting modes: movie, photo, Smooth Slow Record (three seconds of motion played back at 25 per cent speed) and Golf Shot (two seconds of motion captured as multiple frames). The "manual" settings are white balance, spot meter/focus and exposure compensation. But they're in the menu system and not accessible enough to be very useful. The camcorder is really intended to be used in auto, and it fares pretty well from that perspective. Its other notable feature is the relatively wide-angle lens, which starts around 30mm-equivalent.
Performance and image quality
In sunlight, with the subject filling the frame, the camcorder produces good-looking video that passes for full HD. But in many other circumstances, especially when there's a lot of background detail and motion such as grass or trees waving in the breeze, the low-resolution (in this case, less than the native 2.07 megapixels required for HD) sensor simply isn't up to the task of resolving all that and you'll start to see artefacts from the interpolation and video compression, despite the relatively high bitrates.
As with the CX130, the colours look pleasing and sufficiently saturated, if a bit coolly white-balanced, and while bright highlights get blown out, that's an acceptable trade-off for the price that most people probably won't mind. Moderately low-light video looks decent, albeit a bit soft and noisy, and in very dim living room light, the camcorder trades off colour for visibility and sharpness, producing usable video with a not-unpleasant graininess reminiscent of black-and-white.
While the still photos are serviceable, you probably don't want to count on the camcorder as a camera. Photos are bright and colourful, but have that smeary, processed look of a cheap digital camera because they're scaled up from the native resolution of 1.67 megapixels to 1.9 megapixels.
The camcorder autofocuses quickly and accurately, even in dim light, though like all camcorders it occasionally chooses the wrong subject or jumps into face-detection mode when you don't want it to. Its metering and exposure decisions are mostly correct. You can always turn IA off and use touch focus or touch exposure to force it, though 23 rarely found the need to. If you find yourself working out in the last 90 per cent of the zoom range or tend to hold the camcorder with outstretched arms, you probably want to keep the camcorder set on Active Steady Shot all the time, but overall the standard image stabilisation seems to work pretty well.
Though more expensive than its projector-less siblings, if you're one of those folks who like to share their holiday videos and school graduations with everyone (and if you have the bad habit of leaving all your videos in the camcorder) the built-in projector provides a nifty way to do so, and using it is easier than hooking up to strange TVs. But if you don't think you're going to use it that way, you're better off saving money and opting for the CX130, or spending it on a better camcorder.