Hard-disk-drive recording doesn't scare anyone anymore. Millions of people are now confident using and storing masses of digital data on computers. Take a look around as you travel to work, and you'll also notice that a hard disk lets you carry your music with you on MP3 players.
It's not surprising that the hard-disk-drive (HDD) format carries many hopes for the slumbering camcorder market, a market looking for the next revolution. Marry the ubiquity of hard drive with the excitement of high-definition recording and the right product could ignite consumers' imagination.
Sony is hoping to do this with the HDR-SR, a cam that blends high-def with HDD under the AVCHD banner. AVCHD is a new HD format, introduced by Sony and Panasonic, which can record on a variety of media including DVD, SD card, Memory Stick Pro and hard drive.
The HDR-SR1's price tag and specification sheet underline the intention that this is an enthusiasts' camcorder. From its substantial weight (720g including battery) to the clusters of external buttons, controls and sockets this is not a camcorder for the faint-hearted.
Even the camcorder's stylings don't really pander to 'cool' attractive design; the SR1 is about functionality and imaging potential. The extra weight makes this a solid, stable camcorder, but also one that is easy to shoot with. The external controls, ranging from a manual focus ring, zoom lever and photo record, fall easily to hand, and are large and responsive - as controls on a manual-feature heavy camcorder should be.
One slight concern is the location of the zoom lever so close to the photo record button. Early testing resulted in a few extra snaps taken when a slow zoom was called for! The camcorder features a high- quality Carl Zeiss Vario Tessar f1.8 button and NightShot function lens, definitely a statement of image recording potential.
Sony has been using CMOS sensors, instead of a CCD chip, in its recent camcorder releases, and the SR1 follows this pattern. The cam uses a 1/3in CMOS sensor. Clever design touches are evident in the built-in lens cover that opens when you power up the camcorder, and in the lever (found behind the LCD screen) that opens and closes a cover over the SR1's main sockets - making them easy to access when you need to connect a cable, but protects when shooting in the elements.
The SR1 has a 3.5in touchscreen LCD, along with a 0.5in colour viewfinder for framing and reviewing your footage. The frame of the LCD - which offers incredible clarity - also incorporates an extra record button, zoom controls and a button that takes you directly to the Home menu.
A practical selection of sockets is available on the SR1, though you should note that as this is an AVCHD camcorder there is no FireWire connectivity. Instead the focus falls on the HDMI connection that enables you to hook up the SR1 to an HD ready TV and enjoy the benefits of your HD footage.
The SR1 is full of features, so Sony has designed two types of menu to enable you to navigate and access the functions you want to use. They are Home and Option. The first is intended to be the gateway to all of the functions on the camcorder, and a dedicated button to activate this is on the frame of the LCD. The Option menu enables you to access functions directly, including when you're recording.
You can press the touchscreen during shooting and it will display the features available at that time. A variety of options are available for filling up the SR1's 30GB hard drive, as the camcorder can store HD and SD footage. The best quality setting for HD footage is AVCHD XP, and you'll be able to store up to four hours.
In standard definition (SD), HQ is the highest quality and offers up to seven hours and 20 minutes recording. If you need to squeeze the maximum capacity out of the SR1, then select LP recording in SD mode, and a massive 20 hours and 50 minutes can be captured. There's even a Manage HDD memory mode that enables you to see how much recording space is left on the hard disk.
Enthusiasts will no doubt be excited by the array of manual controls on the SR1, which include focus, exposure and white balance, plus a healthy dose of features aimed at making the most of every shooting situation.
These include over-exposure warning, spot exposure and spot metering, backlight compensation and a microphone recording level, which enables you to set either normal or low-level recording. In Low mode the camcorder records surround sound faithfully, though the setting is not suitable for recording conversation - so could be ideal for loud situations, such as a concert.
Digital photos are recorded as JPEGs. Images can be stored on the hard disk, or on a Memory Stick Duo or Pro Duo (though a card is not supplied with the sales package), and, for ease of sharing, can even be copied from the hard drive to the storage card. There's also flexibility in shooting photos, the SR1 having standard and fine shooting modes, and a three-level photo flash with red- eye reduction.
The SR1 offers remarkable performance. Even viewing the footage shot in standard definition there is great sharpness, along with rich, vivid, lifelike colours. Although there are elements of picture instability it is only evident on complicated scenes such as railings.
The auto systems perform accurately, with the autofocus remaining locked on its subject in all but the most difficult conditions. The camcorder's low-light performance is also to be credited. Moviemakers will benefit from using headphones and an external microphone, but the audio quality from the built-in microphone is detailed enough to use in most shooting situations.
There is warmth and depth to this audio that sets it above the majority of camcorders we've tested. We used the HDMI connection to view high- def footage on an HD-ready TV and were even more impressed with the vivacity and clarity of the images on offer. There is more picture stability on HD images than in standard definition mode, with the amount of jitter significantly reduced.
The benefit of detail-rich video is exemplified by the high-def format and the SR1 provides a remarkable amount of texture to footage. Outstanding in virtually every area, the SR1 is a high watermark for both the HDD and HD formats. The camcorder will appeal to moviemakers with ambition, its range of manual features delivering control to the fingertips of the filmmaker. Ultimately it's all about the video and audio, and here the SR1 is simply superb.