BUILD AND DESIGN
Priced $1,000 at launch, The HDR-XR350 is the most expensive of Sony’s three mid-range HD camcorder offerings. The other two models have internal flash memory and they are the $900 HDR-CX350V (32GB) and the $800 HDR-CX300 (16GB). Outside of the internal storage, all three share the same specs. The CX350V and CX300 look exactly alike, while the XR350 has a large hard drive on its palm side.
Sony equipped the XR350 with a wide-angle G series lens (27.4mm photo vocal length, 29.8mm video focal length), and it sits on the front of the device just above a zoom microphone and the recording light. On the left side of the lens sits the flash. The back of the XR350 houses the large battery pack, mode button, movie/photo lamp, charge/flash lamp and start/stop button.
The large and flat hard drive is the distinguishing palm-side feature, but there is also a Velcro grip belt and a covered notch hiding the DC-in jack and AV remote connector.
Opposite the palm side is the 2.7-inch LCD touchscreen display that opens 90 degrees and rotates 180.
Underneath the display are the following buttons:
- View Images
- Disc Burn
- Intelligent Auto
- Factory reset
- GPS (switch)
There is also an HDMI jack, USB jack and on-board speaker.
On top, the XR350 has a photo button, power zoom lever and an Active Interface Shoe (AIS), which is Sony’s proprietary hot accessory shoe. On bottom sits the tripod receptacle and the Memory Stick/SD/SDHC slot.
With all those buttons and inputs, the XR350 measures 2.38×2.75×4.5 inches and weighs 15 ounces with the battery attached, meaning that while not huge by any standards, it is larger and heavier than most other camcorders in its class owing to the hard drive.
Ergonomics and Controls
Everything is neatly spaced on the XR350, and if you’ve handled a camcorder before, you won’t have trouble seeing yourself around the controls and buttons. I like the quick access to the Intelligent Auto feature that determines the optimum recording modes based on shooting conditions. It keeps the XR350 accessible to beginners.
Both the photo and recording start/stop button are large enough to find without looking and easy to reach and press, and the power zoom lever is perfect for the 12x optical zoom, offering just the right amount of resistance for slow and controlled zooms.
The hard drive presents both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, I found it nice to have a large area to press my palm against when holding the camera. It gave me a firm gripping point that ultimately made the camera feel more secure – a truly novel feeling as most other camcorders are small enough to palm completely. Unfortunately, the large hard drive might present problems for smaller hands and could make reaching the zoom lever or top buttons with an index or middle finger difficult.
I praised Sony in my CX110 review for producing “great looking devices,” and I stand by that in regards to the XR350. Even with the added hard drive bulk, Sony has managed to make another attractive and well-constructed HD camcorder.
Menus and Modes
Unfortunately, snazzy design is not the only thing the XR350 has in common with CX110. They both feature the same customizable menu system I criticized in my previous review. I said it “just doesn’t work” then, and a second time around hasn’t changed my mind.
Users can modify the menu, placing the six most commonly used or important items at a top level for quick and easy access, while the remaining items are lumped into a list buried in a “show others” option.
In theory, it should work, as most users probably don’t need access to more than six menu items regularly. But on a deep-menu camcorder like the XR350, which has even more options than the CX110, it needlessly buries fun features and important controls.
To make matters worse, all “show others” menu items are grouped together. This includes video and stills options as well as playback and camera settings, meaning access to any menu item in the lower reaches requires tedious scrolling.
The Handycam HDC-XR350 has four high-definition recording modes, all capturing AVCHD, and one standard-definition mode, which records MPEG-2. They include:
- HD FX (1920 x 1080/60i, 24Mbps, 16:9)
- HD FH (1920 x 1080/60i, 17Mbps, 16:9)
- HD HQ (1440 x 1080/60i, 9Mbps, 16:9)
- HD LP (1440 x 1080/60i, 5Mbps, 16:9)
- STD (720 x 480 9Mbps, 16:9/4:3)
The XR350 menu items are broken up into various categories when accessed from the “show others” list, the first being the manual settings to adjust per scene condition. They include:
- Scene selection: Auto, twilight, twilight portrait (for use with a flash), sunrise and sunset, fireworks, landscape, portrait, spotlight, beach, snow
- Fader: applies a white or black fade in/out
- White balance: Auto, outdoor, indoor, one push (manual)
- Spot MTR/FCS: Adjusts brightness and focus simultaneously for selected area
- Spot meter: Adjust exposure on specific subject
- Spot focus: Set and adjust a center focal point outside of the display center
- Exposure: Manual/auto
- Focus: Manual/auto
- Tele Macro: Blurs the background so subject stands out more
- Golf Shot: Breaks 2 seconds of footage up into 22 separate images
- Smooth Slow Record: As covered in my CX110 review, records 3 seconds of footage and plays it back over 12 seconds for smooth slow motion
There are also menu items Sony refers to as the “Shooting Set”. These include:
- HD/SD set
- Recording Mode: HD FX, HD FH, HD HQ, HD LP, STD
- Steadyshot: Optical image stabilization
- Low Lux: Adds saturation for brighter colors
- Face detection
- Priority setting: Set face detection to prioritize child or adult faces
- Smile detection
- Smile sensitivity
- Audio record settings: Zoom mic (mic becomes more sensitive as camera zooms in), mic level
- Digital zoom: Up to 160x
- Auto back light: Adjusts camcorder for backlit subjects
- X.V. color: Captures wider range of colors
- Wide select: Shoots standard definition movies in 16:9 widescreen instead of 4:3
Finally, you can select the following options for photos:
- Image size: 7.1, 5.3, 1.9 and .3 (VGA) megapixels
- Flash: On, off, auto
- Flash level
- Red eye reduction
- File number: Series of reset file naming conventions
That covers a bit more than half of all menu items. There are also options for playback, GPS, clip and photo editing, output, media management, connections and other general device settings. I’m hard pressed to find a menu item Sony neglected to include in its mid-range device.
The XR350 has the same 2.7-inch display as the CX110, with both containing 230,000 pixels. The higher-end Handycam 550 models have massive 3.5-inch displays, and I think Sony should have included the same on the XR350.
As a touchscreen, it’s responsive, but way too small considering the deep XR350 menu. The unit is already oversized thanks to the hard drive, so where’s the harm in upping the display size as well? At the very least, Sony could have added an extra third of an inch to bump the LCD up to three inches.
To its credit, Sony did include various brightness and color controls, which help mitigate sun glare.