This review is for the Sony Handycam HDR-SR7, however, it is also applicable to the Sony Handycam HDR-SR8 which differs only in price, the capacity of its hard-disk and in a cosmetic detail or two. The Sony Handycam HDR-SR8 is the top dog in the family of three hard drive models replacing the highly regarded SR1. It should be kept in mind that the SR8 is only available through Sony Central and SonyStyle outlets.
In a retrograde step from the SR1 it replaces, the SR7 sports a smaller 2.7-inch flip out, touch-screen LCD -- the old model had a 3.5-inch unit. This is probably because the new model is some 20mm shorter in length and, incidentally, 110g lighter. The SR7's 83 by 138 by 82mm body is also within a few millimetres of the tape-based HC7 we tested earlier this year. And although the glossy jet-black body is not without its charms -- especially the sprinkling of metallic dust in its paint -- we're disappointed to see the disappearance of the ribbed metal barrel. To many it might not matter but, for us, the metal barrel made the HC7 feel like a AU$2,000-plus device.
Otherwise the design is much the same as before. Obviously the tape-drive is no longer present and a few of the input jacks have been relocated, but the main controls -- on/off, record and zoom -- are in the same easily accessed thumb and index finger positions. Sony still has the minimalist approach to buttons, which is both bad and good. Good in that it frees the body from unncessary clutter; bad in that users are forced to flick through touch-screen menus to configure manual settings, like white balance and manual focus. The SR7's menus, like that of all Sony's recently announced high-def cameras, have been updated with slicker graphics -- it's no longer a riot of blocky text and rectangles recalling the time when CGA monitors roamed the earth. The menus still aren't perfect, however, because there's no one button for exiting out of the menu system and, rather inconsistently, some settings drop you out of the menu system after they've been changed, while others do not.
As with the HC7, there's a scroll wheel and button combo near the lens which can be assigned to a manual control, like manual focus. We still found the button too fiddly and awkward to use regularly, and quickly ignored it. The SR7 now has an electronic viewfinder which can be tilted up to about 70 degrees, which is good for those out there who prefer the viewfinder over the LCD.
The SR7 boasts a more capacious 60GB hard-disk compared to its forebear's 30GB. According to Sony's claim, this should be sufficient, depending on recording quality, for between eight and 23 hours of AVCHD format high-def footage. As with previous HD Handycams there's a good selection of outputs, including composite, component and HDMI, and inputs too, like microphone and hotshoe. Composite and component cables are provided with the SR7, so it's a shame -- especially on an item ticketed at over AU$2,000 -- that you have to pay an extra AU$99 for the optional mini-HDMI cable.
A dock, however, is supplied with the SR7 which 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 your masterpieces onto DVD. Although all of this possible without the dock (except one touch recording), it does serve as a nice way of keeping cable clutter to a minimum. If you are one of the enthusiastic few to have shelled out big bikkies for a PS3, you can hook up your SR7 via USB and either view videos directly or transfer them to the PS3's hard-disk.
Other features include an optical image stabilisation, infrared shooting mode, a night light which doubles as a camera flash and smooth slow-mo recording mode -- which records three seconds of low-resolution footage and plays it back over 12 seconds. On the SR7 are two new methods for reviewing footage on the camera. With Face Index, the camera uses its face recognition smarts to produce an index of the people in each video. While with Film Roll Index, each video is previewed with a series of thumbnail snapshots taken at user-specified intervals, for example every three seconds for short clips and every few minutes for epics.
A clutch of software is included with the SR7, allowing you to transfer, burn and play back your high-def footage. This is invaluable because there still aren't many third-party media players which support the AVCHD format. However, video editing suites, like Pinnacle's latest version of Studio, are beginning to embrace the format. When burning DVDs using Sony's software -- whether in standard-def or AVCHD format -- we recommend that you do it on a nice sunny day, with a copy of the weekend newspaper in one hand and a hot cup of coffee in the other, because it's a rather slow process.
Footage we shot on the SR7 -- in passable to good light -- was impressively crisp and had excellent colour response. To be fair we expected this, as the SR7 shares its 10x zoom lens and interpolated 6.2 megapixel sensor with the HC7 we tested earlier this year. Low light performance was noticeably grainy, although still acceptable, and consequently lacked the same jump-out-of-the-screen-look-at-me sharpness. The SR7 was about the right size -- for our hands anyway -- to ensure handheld footage didn't suffer a case of the jitterbug. Casual videographers will be satisfied with the in-built 5.1-channel microphone, although those with a more serious bent should invest in an external unit.
Although the quality in standard definition is good, you really need an HD television to get the best out of the SR7. Viewing our standard busy street screen back-to-back in standard-def and then in high-def, we could fully appreciate the difference. In high definition, we could see details that were pixelated and grainy in SD, like branch and leaf detail on distant trees, as well as the writing on small street signs across the road.
There are a number of quality modes in both high-def and standard-def. With a keen eye and a few viewings, we could just spot the difference between the high-def modes; in higher compression video, there's some detail lost to artifacts and slightly more pixelation around areas of movement. The difference between recording modes in SD, though, was far more distinct with a sharp drop off in quality beyond the highest setting.
The SR7 starts up in about five seconds and has shooting priority -- so, no matter what you're doing on the camera, a press of the record button will start it recording. Photos can be taken either in the camera's photo mode or during video recording, although neither are anything spectacular -- probably equivalent to a decent point-and-shoot still camera.
Compared to the tape and mini-DVD based high-def camcorders Sony launched earlier this year, there are only a few minor detail improvements. But we feel that the addition of a high capacity hard-disk to the existing combination of high-def recording, outstanding picture quality and affordable pricing, makes the SR7 worthy of an Editors' Choice award. We'd be equally tempted by the AU$150 more expensive SR8, which sports a 100GB drive but is otherwise mechanically identical. The one caveat we'd make is that you must have a high-def home theatre set up, namely an HD TV and a AVCHD-capable DVD player or Playstation 3/Bluray player, to fully exploit either camera.