With its sub-AU$2,000 street price, HD video support, hard-disk-based recording, and Sony provenance, the Handycam HDR-SR5 certainly seems like a bargain. Mostly, however, the SR5 simply confirms our belief that decent HD video will still run you more than AU$2,000.
If you discount the small touch-screen LCD and lack of an eye-level viewfinder, the SR5 has a perfectly serviceable design. With its shiny silver-and-matte-black duotone body, it lacks the sophistication of the SR7 and SR8 models, but that's pretty typical for the camcorder B-list. At about 530g, it weighs down a jacket pocket but is pretty comfortable to hold during extended shooting. As you'd expect for the money, it feels solidly built, with nice touches such as a sliding jack cover, an electronic lens cover, and a sturdy tethered hotshoe protector.
The rest of the controls on the body sit in the places you'd expect to find them: zoom switch, photo shutter, and power/mode switch fall under your index finger, while the stop/start record button lies under your thumb. A tiny button for turning on the flash for still photography sits between the power and record controls. On the left side of the gripping ridge formed by the hard disk enclosure is the NightShot switch. Underneath the LCD you'll find the buttons for Easy mode (completely automatic operation), cycling through the display options, and launching thumbnail views, plus the slot for the Memory Stick Pro Duo that's required for shooting still photos.
Also typical -- at least for Sony -- you operate almost all of the camcorder's functions via the touch-screen menu system. As we've said before, and will repeat ad nauseam, the 2.7-inch LCD is too small for comfortable touch-screen operation. You have to press the tiny navigation icons with the very tips of your fingers, something that gets even more difficult in colder climes. Thankfully, there are larger, easier to press icons for adjusting exposure compensation, white balance, focus, and choosing scene modes. (For more comments on the design, see our photo gallery.)
Along with its duo of siblings -- the tape-based HDR-HC5 and the DVD-based HDR-UX5 -- the SR5 uses Sony's 1/3-inch, 2.1-megapixel ClearVid CMOS sensor, recording video at 1.4-megapixel (HD) or 1.1-megapixel (SD) resolution before upsampling and encoding to 1080i HD (1,440 x 1,080) or SD (720 x 480), respectively. The SR5's 40GB hard-disk will hold almost 5.5 hours of best-quality video. It also shoots photos at native 1.4-megapixel (16:9) or 2.0-megapixel (4:3) resolutions, despite the grandiose 4-megapixel claim on the body, which refers to a maximum interpolated resolution. It sports a 10x zoom Zeiss T*-coated lens and 5.1 Dolby surround-sound recording.
Unlike the higher-end SR7, there's relatively little in the way of manual controls -- just those mentioned previously. Like it's upscale siblings, though, the SR5 has Face Index which will provide thumbnails of every recognisable face in a clip and allow you to jump directly to that bit of the video during playback. Other post-shoot-friendly features include a mini-HDMI connector -- though the optional cables are still quite pricey -- and a bundled dock with one-button disc burn.
By most performance measures, the SR5 fares okay. From a cold start, it takes about 8.5 seconds for the hard disk to spin up and be ready to shoot, and recording generally starts instantaneously when you press the button. The SteadyShot image stabilisation works well throughout the zoom range and doesn't seem to mess with panning, and the autoexposure adjusts accurately and quickly to changes in scene illumination. However, the autofocus seems quite sluggish compared to that of other Sony models we've used (as well as to competitors'), frequently taking several seconds to lock on to a new subject, even in good light.
And speaking of light, the automatic white balance renders overly cool colours under a variety of light sources; that, combined with a propensity for seriously blown-out highlights, results in some very washed-out looking video. (You can see a couple of image samples here.) Nor is the video sufficiently sharp, thanks to the relatively low-resolution sensor. To produce decent HD video you need a sensor with an effective video resolution of at least 1.6 megapixels (1,440 x 1,080), making the sensor the last place you want to cut back for an HD camcorder. Yet it's the first place most manufacturers chop for consumer models. There's a visible difference between the video from the SR5 and the slightly more expensive Canon HG10, with its native 1,920 x 1,080 resolution -- as well as the significantly more expensive SR7. We also wish Sony would punt the 5.1-surround microphone instead, and replace it with a really good directional mic.
The Sony Handycam HDR-SR5 isn't a bad camcorder, but if you're going to spend the money for an HD model -- as well as endure the hassle of dealing with AVCHD video -- you might as well go for one with superior video. You'll have to spend a few hundred more to get the much better SR7, but if you're looking at spending AU$2,000 or more for a camcorder you might as well go the whole hog.