Sony HDR-HC3E review

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With satellite and cable TV now offering HD services, and digital terrestrial HD on trial, the content is finally arriving to supply all those HD-ready TV sets. But the ability to record your own HD video has been around for a while thanks to Sony pushing down the price of its HDV camcorders with each successive generation. After the semi-professional HDR-FX1E came the HDR-HC1, just six months later and for half the price. Now it’s the turn of the HDR-HC3E, bringing with it a price low enough for more than just enthusiasts to consider it.

Sony HDR-HC3E review

The HC3E is a completely new model compared to the HC1. It still uses a CMOS sensor rather than a CCD, but the specification is otherwise very different. It’s around 5cm shorter and weighs 180g less: much more compact and more the kind of camcorder you’d carry with you on holiday. The electronics are different too and at first it seems like a downgrade. The CMOS is just 2.1 megapixels, compared to the HC1’s 2.97 megapixels. But, at 1/3in, it’s still large for a sub-£1,000 camcorder. Despite the lower-resolution CMOS, Sony is claiming a higher 4-megapixel still-image resolution for the HC3E, or 2,304 x 1,728. But this uses interpolation, and we found the results a little less vivid than the HC1’s or Panasonic’s NV-GS400B. On the plus side, you can take 2-megapixel stills at the same time as recording video without any visual glitches using the Dual Rec function; the photos are saved to the Memory Stick Duo slot, and we didn’t see any noticeable glitches in video recording as a result.

However, where the HC3E really is cut down compared to the HC1 is its lack of manual control. Instead of a manual focus ring, there’s a less convenient jog wheel, which in this case doesn’t double as an alternative zoom control.

There’s no separate dial for exposure either, which has been relegated to the menu system. There’s no control over shutter speed at all, other than that included in some of the five Program Auto-Exposure modes. You do get spot focus and metering, though, which allow you to touch a point on the LCD as the reference. The HC3E also has no microphone or headphone jacks.

There’s an accessory shoe, but this is Sony’s proprietary Active Interface version, so only Sony add-ons can be used. All of the analog AV connections are output-only too, including component, S-Video and composite. However, the FireWire connection is bidirectional.

The HC3E does have some unique tricks on offer. The most important, and totally new, is the HDMI connection – the consumer digital link found on all of the latest HDTVs. It’s basically DVI with added audio and remote-control cabling, so will enable you to watch your HDV movies in all their glory on your HD-ready set or projector. We hooked the HC3E to a DiBoss 40in HDTV and Optoma HD72i HD projector via HDMI, and the output was detected flawlessly. The LCD screen is higher resolution than the HC1’s, with 212,000 pixels rather than 123,000, although it has the same 2.7in diagonal.

Another unique capability is Smooth Slow Record. Enter this mode, and the camcorder buffers three seconds of video shot at four times the usual speed. It then records this as 12 seconds of video in slow motion. The results are far better than artificial slow-mo created during editing. However, this doesn’t appear to record video in full HDV resolution. It still looked good, but appeared more like widescreen standard definition when we examined the footage more closely.

In terms of image quality, Sony uses 1080i HDV, so captures footage at 1,440 x 1,080. This isn’t quite as high a resolution as the top 1,920 x 1,080 HD specification, but it’s still nearly four times that of standard PAL TV’s 720 x 576. The HC1 is a tough act to follow and the HC3E is aimed more at consumers; however, we found video quality not only on a par with the HC1, but actually better in some areas. Under well-illuminated outdoor conditions, the HC3E was just as good as the HC1, save for slightly more saturated colours. Indoors, we found this greater saturation actually led to better colour fidelity in lower lighting. The HC3E kept its colour in worse illumination than the HC1, which is already as good as most three-chip prosumer DV camcorders – that’s truly excellent video quality.

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