Depending on how you look at it, following up on what we regard as the best consumer high-def camcorder yet is either a task of Herculean proportions or a lay down misère. Thankfully for Sony's engineers it was more of the latter than the former. Replacing last year's highly regarded SR7 and SR8 twins are the — wait for it — Handycam HDR-SR11 and SR12. Hard-disk capacity is the only technical difference between the two; the SR11 has 60GB, while the SR12 boasts 120GB.
Thanks to the grey and black colour scheme, not to mention the ribbed metal lens barrel, the SR11/SR12 twins are one classy pair. However, only the keenest would be able to pick out the differences that mark out these units from their predecessors. As the dimensions, shape and weight have only changed a little, the top of the line Sony range can be held steadily in the hand — either with the LCD out or looking through the tiltable viewfinder — for long periods of time; for those who are interested, the SR11/SR12 measures 83mm wide, 138mm deep and 76mm high, and weighs 560g.
There are a host of detailed improvements including covers for external inputs and outputs, as well as the hotshoe, power and headphone jack, which slide from open to closed and back again with well defined precision. The standard battery pack now no longer protrudes out of the back of the camera like an ugly grey boil. Additionally, the zoom toggle and photo shoot button, sitting at the rear on the top side of the camera, are now angled ever so slightly up towards the user.
More noticeable, and appreciated, is the rejigged manual control switch. Sited as before on the bottom left of the lens barrel, it has been transformed from a difficult to use scroll wheel into a delightful-to-touch metallic dial with a button in the centre. Initially set to control manual focus, it can be configured for easy manual control of exposure, auto exposure shift or white balance shift.
The flipout LCD touchscreen has grown from 2.7 to 3.2 inches. In tandem with the increased pixel count — now 1920x480 — the new screen had little angels popping up on our shoulder singing "Joy to the World". As before, all settings are accessed via menus on the LCD screen. This allows for a cleaner external design with fewer buttons; however, you do have to stab at the screen a few times to tinker with settings from exposure to X.V. Colour. Also, those of us who prefer shooting with the electronic viewfinder are forced to flip the LCD out whenever a tweak is desired. Thankfully you can start and stop recording in all menu screens, except when in playback mode.
As before, the menu system is split into two halves, with camera/video settings — such as focus, macro, exposure, AE shift, white balance, zoom microphone and recording quality setting — residing under one menu, while other less accessed settings — like zebra, guidelines, red-eye reduction, SD or HD recording, face detection, etc. — are under the Home menu. Once you've learnt the system settings aren't too hard to find, but if you're new and searching for settings in a hurry you'd better have the Advanced Hair number handy from all the hair pulling you'll be doing.
Other notable new features, apart from the increased hard-disk capacity, include the 12x zoom lens (up from 10x), face detection and the ability to record video straight onto removable media — naturally, being a Sony device, that means Memory Stick Pro Duo. Movies and images can also be copied from the hard disk to Memory Stick from within the camera.
Making their return are Face Index and Film Roll Index. Face Index, which is more easily accessed from within the playback menu, uses the camera's face detection to generate a clickable index of people within each clip. While with Film Roll Index, each clip is previewed by a series of thumbnail snapshots taken at user-specified intervals, for example every three seconds for short clips and every few minutes for epics. Slow motion recording, which reduces playback speed by a third, is again present. However the resolution is still poor and Sony has yet to find a way of letting us record more than four seconds of footage.
As with most Sony camcorders there's an "easy mode" button that increases on-screen button size and takes away most manual settings; it's great if you're lending the camera to technophobes, but nigh on useless day-to-day. Rounding out the spec sheet are optical image stabilisation, hot shoe, headphone and microphone jacks, shooting priority, infrared night shooting and a night light cum camera flash.
The supplied dock allows you to charge the camera, transfer photos and videos, review your footage on a TV screen and, via the "one touch record" button, burn the next 2001: A Space Odyssey onto DVD. All of this (except the one-touch record function) is also possible without the dock, it does however prove to be a nice way of reducing cable clutter.
Software bundled with the SR11/SR12 includes a 30-day trial of Sony's Vegas editing suite and Picture Motion Browser, a handy tool for transferring, archiving and viewing footage on your PC. Unfortunately, Picture Motion Browser refused to install on our home PC, despite repeated attempts, as it was an "unrecognised device". However, it worked just fine at the CNET.com.au office; both machines were running Windows XP SP2. Vegas is sufficient for those looking to quickly edit away their detritus, but those aiming to be the next Scorsese will probably steer themselves into the arms of Apple or Pinnacle.
Sony has upgraded the CMOS sensor from 3.2 megapixels to 5.6 megapixels. The prominent 10.2-megapixel branding on the camera refers to the interpolated resolution of the camera's still images — naughty, Sony, naughty. Marketing indiscretion aside, at maximum video quality (16Mbps 1920x1080i) pictures were superb. In good light, footage we shot was detailed and crisp with only the slightest hint of artefacting; colour response was good too. Low light response is slightly better than in last year's models, with less apparent graininess; focus, though, is still frequently lost when subjects move around.
According to Sony, the SR12's 120GB hard-disk is good for 880 minutes of hi-def footage. Sharpness decreases and artefacts become more noticeable as you step down through the quality settings; at the lowest level (5Mbps 1440x1080), 2,880 minutes of footage can be crammed onto the SR12. Unless you're prepping to be a contestant on the Amazing Race, though, there's no real need to. There's also the option of recording in standard-def, but that's best left alone unless you're scratching around with your last precious gigabyte.
In all likelihood you'll run out of juice well before you run short of bytes. With the standard battery only good for about 90 minutes of recording time, we think that most SR11/SR12 buyers will have to invest in extra batteries. For a pound of flesh, Sony does offer long-lasting batteries, as well as an external battery charger. Once you add in a mini-HDMI cable, you could be looking at an additional AU$300 to AU$400 of spending.
It's definitely a case of gentle evolution but with the SR11/SR12 offering slightly more for slightly less, that's no bad thing. If you've already got an SR7/SR8 in the kitbag you needn't worry about obsolescence, but for those wanting to make the jump into high-def video recording, either the SR11 or SR12 is the camera to get. The usual caveats apply though: you must have a high-def television, plenty of processing power and storage on your computer, and, last but not least, plenty of time to edit your footage.