I've come to expect two things from the Sony Handycam line of HD camcorders: sizzling style and fun, innovative features. On paper, that even extends to the less-expensive end of the lineup, which includes the HDR-CX110, a compact high-definition camcorder sporting an Exmor R CMOS sensor and Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 25x optical zoom lens that shoots 1080/60i video and offers a deep menu of shooting modes and options.
With an MSRP of $500, it costs less than the flagship CX550 and the mid-range CX350, but it's definitely not cheap. Is it worth your money? Keep reading the CX110 HD camcorder review to find out.
BUILD AND DESIGN
With the exception of built-in storage, the CX110 (SD and Memory Stick only) shares the same specs, features and performance with the CX150 (16GB onboard memory) and the XR150 (120GB Hard Disk). For this review, I'll be working with a CX110.
As an aside and quick piece of buying advice, many professional photographers and videographers I've spoken with prefer models with less memory than those with high capacity hard drives. For starters, hard drives add bulk and weight. Also, it's never a good idea to have too much footage saved on one storage device. Hard drives can and often do fail. Any video stored on a failed hard drive will be lost, or at least potentially expensive to recover.
Lacking a hard drive, the CX110 is compact, measuring 2 x 2.25 x 4.5 inches and weighing approximately 9 ounces with its removable battery attached. It fits comfortably in the palm of my hand, with the large lens and two built-in mic inputs on the front end and the battery, start/stop record button and video mode/photo mode indicator lamps on the back.
The palm side sports a thin Velcro secure strap, charge lamp, manual lens cover switch and both the DC-in jack and A/V remote connector hidden underneath a small panel. The flip-out 2.7-inch LCD touch panel resides on the opposite side, and underneath it are play/view button, speaker, factory reset button, disc burn button, i-auto button, and the power button. Underneath a small panel are the USB jack and mini-HDMI out.
On top of the CX110 is the power zoom lever, photo button, and mode button for switching between stills and video. On the bottom is the tripod receptacle and the memory card slot underneath a small flap. The CX110 takes both Memory Stick and SD/SDHC cards up to 32GB.
The CX110 is available in blue, red and black, and has a glossy plastic finish that does little to hide fingerprints and smudges. That said, Sony has a well-earned reputation for producing great looking devices, and the CX110 is no exception. It just looks cool and more than one officemate swung by my cubicle to inquire about the slick HD camcorder on my desk.
Ergonomics and Control
The CX110 is light, compact and easy to operate out of the box. It will comfortably fit in a jacket pocket or small purse and is light enough for prolonged use. I've sent TechnologyGuide Assistant Editor Kevin Bierfeldt into the field to shoot test footage with every camcorder I've reviewed, and he claims the CX110 is his absolute favorite.
It's not perfect though. The manual lens cover takes some getting used to as similar lens covers on other HD camcorders automatically open and close. I forgot to close it more than once after use, throwing the CX110 with an exposed lens into my bag. Thankfully, the lens didn't scratch or get too dirty.
Menus and Modes
The CX110 has five recording modes, HD FX, HD FH, HD HQ, HD LP and STD HQ. HD FX produces the highest quality footage, 1920 x 1080 at 60 interlaced frames per second (1080/60i). HD FH also records 1080/60i but at a slightly lesser bit rate, 17 megabits per second (Mbps) to the HD FX 24 Mbps (a higher bit rate is ideal for active footage).
HD HQ (9 Mbps) and HD LP (5 Mbps) record at 1440 x 1080 at 60 frames per second interlaced a bit less than true HD - and I assume the CX110 interpolates the extra pixels for a full 1080 x 1920 picture during playback. STD HQ records at 720 x 480 pixels at 9 Mbps.
The camera is set to the HD HQ by default, so youll have to bump it up to HD FX or HD FH through the menu if you want to shoot true high-definition video.
Sony did something interesting with the CX110 menu system. At the top level are six common picture and video controls. Pressing "show others" on the menu reveals a host of other menu items in list form, all lumped together, including still modes, playback options and camera settings. Users can customize the menu to include their six most important items for easy access, and can still navigate and use the others buried in the show others list.
I assume Sony figured the average user rarely uses more than six menu items during a shoot. But this customizable menu option just doesn't work. Important controls are buried by default and navigating the long show others list is an exercise in frustration.
The menu items include:
That's an impressive list for what could be considered an entry-level Handycam, and many of the features, like X.V color, spot meter/focus, and tele macro are both useful and fun. I especially enjoyed smooth slow record, which records approximately three seconds of footage at 240 fps. Its great for analyzing a golf swing, or as I used it, for my rec-league basketball team highlight reel:
For stills, the CX110 offers a self timer, file number naming options (series or reset) and four images sizes: 3.1 megapixels, 2.4 megapixels, 1.9 megapixels and 0.3 megapixels. The CX110 also has an comprehensive set of general camera, power and playback settings.
At 2.7-inches, the CX110 LCD display is tiny when compared with others in the Handycam lineup, which sport screens topping 3.5-inches. I prefer a larger screen even it means a bulkier device, and the CX110 could benefit from an extra 0.3 inches of real estate.
That said, the touchscreen is extremely responsive, even when cycling through recorded clips, which often causes lag in competing devices. I batted a thousand accessing the larger top menu items, never once accidentally selecting an unintended option. However, I occasionally had trouble pinpointing an exact item in smaller show others menu.
Sony included plenty of display options to lessen glare from the bright sun, help with framing and keep the screen clear of information icons. Unfortunately, these options are all buried in the show others menu. Also, they do little to help you see through the fingerprints and smudges that build up from prolonged use.
Shooting with any Sony product is usually a treat. Their devices are very well built and always offer a handful of unique features and design choices to keep things interesting. The CX110 is no exception, and while nothing is radically different from other cameras in its class, the Handycam is very sleek and stylish.
I was extremely impressed with the CX110's 25x optical zoom. The zoom toggle worked nicely for both quick and prolonged zooms, and the optical image stabilization kept my footage steady. The auto focus also did a fine job of keeping things clear; the same applies for the auto exposure, which quickly compensated for any lighting condition changes.
There are manual focus and exposure settings buried in the CX110 menu, but they must be controlled through the touchscreen, making them both tough to access and impractical. I suppose if you were using a tripod and staging a scene, the manual controls could work to fine tune the picture, but for day-to-day shooting, it's best to stick with the auto controls.
The CX110 has four white balance controls: Auto, Indoor, Outdoor and One Push (manual). For the most part, the CX110 worked well to identify the scene with Auto, but setting the manual white balance only required a couple of taps on the touchscreen in the odd instance it did not. Sony claims the CX110 can shoot at the highest resolution for 125 minutes with the supplied battery. I actually stretched it out to 135 minutes shooting moderately active footage. Time will vary depending on a host of factors and extra batteries are available for purchase from Sony. The company also claims the highest resolution footage requires about one gigabyte per five minutes of shooting, which I found to be about right.
I'm impressed with the video quality, considering the CX110's small size. The colors are vibrant and balanced, no one hue stands out brighter than the others. However, zooming in on the highest resolution footage reveals some blurry edges and digital artifacts.
Switch down to the HD HQ or HD LP mode and there is a distinct difference in video quality. The edges are much softer and digital artifacts are more pronounced. Unless you are cramped for storage space, I would avoid those settings and stick with the higher resolutions.
The CX110 holds up well in low light when compared to other camcorders in its class. The footage actually appears soft rather than grainy, probably the result of the Sony Bionz image processor that the company claims improves camera response time and screens out noise to help ensure that the signal from each pixel is as pure as possible in marketing materials.
The CX110 has the same 1/4-inch Exmor R CMOS Sensor found in many Sony products, which does a good job resisting the rolling-shutter effect that plagues so many other CMOS devices. I still noticed a hint of skewing in my CX110 test footage, but it was not severe.
The maximum stills resolution is 3.1 megapixels, which is less than the output offered by many smartphones. The photos had the same strengths and weaknesses I noticed in the video. The colors looked great, but the images were soft on the edges, almost blurry. I did like the tele macro option for shooting small objects up close (just over a foot of space is required for focus). When enabled, it blurs out the background while keeping the small object in focus.
The CX110 records Dolby Digtal 2-channel sound (stereo) from its built-in zoom microphone. It also offers a small set of controls including zoom mic (microphone sensitivity increases when zooming) and the reference level (either records sound faithfully or adjusts levels to filter out ambient noises).
The on-board mic definitely impressed. Conversations picked up nicely, sounding crystal clear on playback, but the microphone was very sensitive to wind noise. A wind noise canceller would have been nice addition because a stiff breeze overwhelmed the reference level setting. A dedicated external mic jack, which the CX110 lacks, would have been even better.
Operation and Extras
The CX110 Handycam comes packed with an AC adapter, AV cable, Component cable, USB cable, removable battery, battery pack and Sonys PMB software CD ROM. Missing is the mini-HDMI cable, which Sony is happy to sell on its website for $50. Stay away if you're in the market. You can find a mini-HDMI cable on Amazon for less than $5.
The PMB software is the same that came packaged with the Sony bloggie. I liked it then and I still think its the best of the bad bunch of packaged camcorder software. It's not Mac compatible, so Apple fans will have to use iMovie to extract their clips.
The HD videos are MPEG4 AVC/H.264 and take the form of .m2ts files. This is standard in higher-end camcorders, but the .m2ts file type can present playback problems on popular media players without the proper codec.
There is a lot to like about the Sony Handycam CX110. It's designed well, looks great and is plain fun to use. Throw in some fun features like smooth slow record and great color reproduction and it's easy to see past its shortcomings.
Still, its not perfect. The manual lens cover and missing HDMI cable dont sit well with me. Also a little image sharpening would go a long way to making the CX110 the class of the entry-level HD camcorder market.