Having spearheaded the high-definition video revolution with HDV, Sony is again pushing the technological frontier with its support for AVCHD, the format that uses a very efficient MPEG4 compression system to cram huge amounts of high-quality pictures and sounds into very small spaces.
With the number of tapeless, not to mention solid-state, camcorders increasing with each new day, is Sony's HDR-SR8, along with its sibling models the SR5 and SR7, set to hammer yet another nail in the coffin of tape-based formats like DV and even HDV?
On first impressions, the camcorder looks no different to a tape-based model thanks to its most notable feature - the whopping great 100GB HDD (hard-disk drive) - being hidden away inside the body. It's other media for recording both video and stills is the Memory Stick PRODuo.
Yet, despite its size and half-kilo weight, the SR8 isn't overloaded with buttons and dials, given that most connections are provided on the separate docking and charger station.
Making menu selections and playing back movies and stills requires that you poke the LCD screen with your forefinger rather than fiddle with manual controls. It's nice that the frame of the LCD screen offers secondary REC Start/Stop, zooming and menu 'Home' buttons, especially if you elect to monitor things via the 16:9 LCD screen rather than the somewhat inadequate colour viewfinder.
Inside the LCD screen recess can be found the Memory Stick slot and a couple of other buttons providing users with a one-stop Easy operation over-ride, as well as a master Play button for instant reviewing of movie clips and stills.
On the left of the lens barrel (as you hold it) is a wide 'Cam Ctrl' thumbwheel which can be used to make changes to focus, aperture, shutter speed, and so on. Where focus is particularly concerned, it's not perfect but it's better than having to attempt it with a tiny device at the rear.
As for sound, the upper body is occupied largely by an upward-facing 5.1ch microphone designed to provide surround sound pickup. The adjacent hot accessory shoe is designed for use in connecting a video light or, if you rather, an optional external microphone.
A nice touch is the addition of what Sony calls a 'jack cover' - a sliding knob which opens a door revealing the Composite digital and A/V output connectors near the rear of the body. Up front, a couple of flaps provide access to the headphone output and external mic input sockets. The usual Power On/Off and Mode dial, together with Photo Shoot button and tiny Zoom toggle switch, are at the back as you'd expect.
Sony's generous 1/2.9in CMOS sensor is designed to pack a lot of detail into images that are destined for a new generation of HD television screens when using one of the two supplied digital connections - HDMI and Component.
With each model, in a series that includes the SR5 and SR7, comes the Sony Handycam Station - a docking base which also carries additional connections (such as the Component output and USB 2.0 socket) not found on the camcorder itself.
At 10:1, the optical zoom is very reasonable, especially when used in combination with the cam's OIS (optical image stabilisation). It's also good to see Sony not going over the top with digital zoom, given that this is only 20x.
The ability to record either high definition in the AVCHD (MPEG4-AVC/H.264) format or DVD-quality MPEG2 standard-definition in either 16:3 widescreen or traditional 4:3 is a definite bonus, especially for those users whose PCs can't yet cope with HD inputs.
Sony's touch-screen control system has its detractors but, in truth, the only disadvantage is that the LCD screen gets mucky very quicky. Although it's a bit more difficult to make changes while actually recording, it's useful to point at a thumbnail image in order to play it, or to tell the system which setting to adjust. Graphics are clear, and a 'home' button gets you back to the menu page quickly.
Manual control is a bit more difficult, however, and it's a bit of fumble trying to adjust the focus wheel with the LCD fully opened - you just can't see the Manual activation button when viewing the screen. Shoot in Easy mode and you'll get great colour, contrast ratio and lifelike images. The auto circuits are quick and responsive, too. It's a compromise, of course, and it would be nice to have a manual focus ring.
What's useful is the ability to shoot 6.1 megapixel stills to the Memory Stick. In selecting this mode, the cam switches to a slightly wider 4:3 ratio, and when shooting video (in either mode) it's possible to shoot stills simultaneously, albeit at the reduced resolution of 4.3MP.
Thanks to digital processing, the Smooth Slow Rec function puts roughly the first 10 seconds of a clip into a buffer and then produces a respectable slow motion playback right before your eyes.
The 5.1ch surround sound recording quality from the built-in is quite impressive - even in stereo. Separation and presence is good when monitoring on headphones and when playing back on a good audio system.
Where the audio disappoints, however, is when recording outdoors. The slightest whisper of wind impacts on the mic, with the result that an otherwise good soundtrack contains bangs and bumps. To be fair to Sony, this is a common problem with many competing products.
The downside of using CMOS image sensors rather than CCDs in camcorders is that they're more prone to picture noise, and all the more evident when applying heavy MPEG4 and MPEG2 compression, both of which are on offer here.
While the SR8's low-light performance isn't quite as good as Panasonic's 3CCD SDR-H250 and SDR-H20 models - both of which are comparable 'hybrid' HDD/Memory Card cams - it's certainly good enough for general home video applications. In normal outdoor lighting conditions the pictures are absolutely stunning - whether using the AVCHD high-definition or MPEG2 standard-definition recording modes.
The HDR-SR8 is further proof that HDD and solid-state video recording technology is here to stay. Image quality and indoor sound quality is very good indeed, although many users are going to have problems handling the AVCHD clips in their computers for some time to come due to the heavy demands it places on systems.
The bundled software is designed to smooth the transition somewhat, and the increased performance available on new PCs will eradicate those issues.
All in all, the HDR-SR8 is a lovely camcorder that's a pleasure to use - even if some of the manual functionality is a tad inaccessible. Picture quality in good light is stunning, but at just under a grand is it a worthy substitute for a tape-based HDV camcorder? Not quite.