Despite my criticism of the hard drive, LCD size and menu system, I did not want to send the XR350 back to Sony when my loan agreement was up (no, us reviewers don't get to keep the gadgets). This camcorder has so many unique features; it was tough - but fun - manufacturing shooting situations to test them all out.
The biggest challenge was coming up with a way to test out Golf Shot, being that I don't play the game. But I do play basketball, and Golf Shot was perfect for checking out my jump shot, and I suspect it can also be used for analyzing tennis swing and throwing a football or baseball.
Timing Golf Shot is difficult. It records from half a second before you actually hit record and up to 1.5 seconds after. I had to shoot a handful of jumpers before getting it just right and capturing the full motion.
Golfers are in luck, they can simple set the camera up on a tripod and drive ball after ball. The XR350 will detect the sound of the club striking the ball and adjust accordingly. Unfortunately, it can't do the same for the sound of my jumpers clanking off the rim, which happens much more than I'd like to admit.
The resulting footage looks something like this:
The image quality isn't great, and there is some distortion. But overall it's effective and useful. I was able to determine I release the basketball too early, which probably accounts for all the bricks I toss up.
I covered some of the other modes, like Smooth Slow Record in my CX110 review, where you can see the output. It's exactly the same on the XR350. I loved it before and my mind hasn't changed. It's another great feature in a packed device.
Most HD camcorders these days have a form of intelligent auto that when activated, determines the ideal settings to record at optimum quality. It's the perfect feature for beginners and it gets more accurate with each new generation of camcorders. I typically rely on it when testing camcorders and then monitor how accurately it gauges the shooting situation.
The Handycam XR350 intelligent auto combines three settings - face detection, scene detection and camera-shake - and can change in real time. Toggling it on and off is as simple as hitting the button tucked under the display, but I kept it on most of the time as it did a fine job of accurately determining the scene, sometimes switching between modes before settling down, but always producing seemingly accurate colors and exposure levels.
For those looking to tweak the picture, the XR350 does offer manual exposure, focus and white balance controls, but they are all managed through the touchscreen. As such, they are better suited for setting up shots on a tripod and not for on-the-fly adjustments. Still, the auto exposure and auto focus keep up and casual users won't run into many issues relying on them.
With the GPS and hard drive eating up power, the XR350 recorded little more than an hour of total footage on and off between charges. Sony claims the large hard drive can hold approximately 15 hours of the highest quality footage, which is probably more than you'll record on the next family vacation.
The HDR-XR350 has a 1/4-inch "Exmor R" CMOS sensor and BIONZ image processor that produce a very attractive picture, particularly in bright light. Colors pop with just a hint of saturation, and camera quickly corrects any blown out highlights. Like the CX110, the XR350 resists skewing very well.
A cool blue tone starts to creep in as light decreases, but the XR350 excels as it dims to low-light levels. Image grain is minimal and the colors look about as good as a camcorder can render with minimal light. I was hard pressed to find any digital artifacts other than some fuzziness around the edges. Taken as a whole, low light performance is very impressive on the XR350.
Also impressive is the XR350's stills output. It shoots jpegs with a maximum resolution of 7.1 megapixels. The image quality compares with many low to mid-range point and shoots. Many of the manual settings also apply to stills, including Spot Focus and Spot Meter. Tele Macro can also be used to get as close as ten inches from a subject while retaining focus.
In perhaps the greatest sin of audio exclusion, there is no external mic input on the XR350. Users can still attach an external mic through the proprietary Active Interface Shoe, either with a Sony AIS microphone or an adapter that includes the standard input, but both present needless expense and hassle.
For those sticking with the stereo onboard mic, it does a decent enough job of picking up voices and sounds, but suffers greatly in noisy, windy or echoing environments. The addition of the zoom microphone and audio level settings are a nice touch, but do little to make up for the lack of a standard input.
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