Generally speaking, HD camcorders come in three varieties: camcorders with no storage, camcorders with flash memory and camcorders with hard disk drives. Each has an advantage over the other. HDD camcorders usually offer enough storage for days of footage, but they are bulkier and more expensive than their flash or no-memory counterparts.
In the past, I've preferred flash memory to an HDD because HDDs have moving parts that get hot and make noise. Also, drop the camera, break the HDD, and you lose all the footage stored on it. The technology has improved in recent years so heat and noise are almost non-existent, and many cameras have features like Sony's ?HDD Smart Protection" to prevent any data loss should the HDD fail. Still, I like flash camcorders with their compact size and lower price.
It is with that caveat that I tested out the Sony HDR-XR350V Handycam, a midrange high-definition camcorder sporting a whopping 160GB hard disk drive. I figure if any manufacturer can change my mind about HDD camcorders it's Sony since I've lauded them in the past for their slick Handycam and bloggie devices. Let's see how well they do to incorporate a cumbersome HDD. And of course I didn't forget to test the video quality, performance and features too.
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:
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 2.38x2.75x4.5 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:
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:
There are also menu items Sony refers to as the "Shooting Set". These include:
Finally, you can select the following options for photos:
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.
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.
Operation and Extras
The XR350 ships with an AC adaptor, component and standard AV cable, USB cable, remote control, PMB software CD-ROM and external battery. Missing of course is the HDMI cable, which is hardly surprising considering no major camcorder manufacturers include one, but disappointing none-the-less.
I like the PMB software that ships with current Sony camcorders. It's much more polished and useful than other proprietary editing suites and enables users to organize footage, perform simple edits, burn to disc, email and upload to sharing sites.
Just like the CX110, the HD videos are MPEG4 AVC/H.264 and take the form of .m2ts files. They play back just fine with the PMB software, but you'll need the proper codec package to see them via Windows Media Player. PMB is not compatible with Macs, but Apple fans should have no trouble using iMovie instead.
One last feature worth noting is the XR350 GPS. When on, it geotags photos and videos. Then, when playing back the videos or images, you can check out where they were shot on a Google map in the XR350 display or through "Map View" on the PMB software. A thumbnail image appears along with the file time and date. You can also view a map index with each photo or location marked and the file accessible through a touch or click.
The HDR-XR350 is ultimately a tale of two Handycams. There are three major flaws: the small display, clunky menu system and missing audio jack. There is also the large hard drive, which adds significantly to the price and bulk. However, I can't fairly count that against the XR350 as I assume most consumers know what they are buying when they decide on this particular model. Besides, the XR350 hard drive was quiet and stayed cool throughout my testing. I still prefer the smaller and cheaper flash-based models, but now only marginally so.
The XR350 also does a lot right. It shoots great video in both bright and low light and produces notable stills. In addition, it's loaded with features. The Golf Shot form analysis is extremely useful for both real competitors and "athletes" like myself, and smooth slow record makes even the most basic movements look action-movie cool.
If plusses outweigh the minuses in your mind - and in my mind, they do - I would suggest saving $200 by picking up the $800 HDR-CX300, which is essentially the same camcorder with 16GB of flash memory instead of a hard drive. If you heart is set on a hard drive model, then the XR350 is worth a hard look for the video quality and features alone.