After years in the doldrums camcorders are looking dynamic again thanks to stellar high-def images, competitive prices and the unstinting rise of YouTube. Sony is taking advantage of this with the HDR-XR520, a Full HD (1920x1080) shooter that crams in a 3.2in touchscreen LCD, 240GB hard disk drive, 12x optical zoom – and just happens to be the world's first with built-in GPS.
The XR520 is the flagship in the '09 Handycam range but both the XR500 and XR250 also feature the headline-grabbing GPS receiver.
Among the benefits of this technology is the ability to find your location, and to display it via a map on the camcorder's LCD.
What this leads to is a feature the cam calls Map Index. Using it you can find one of your movies, or a photo, on a map from its recording location.
What's simple, but really quite clever, is another GPS function that automatically adjusts the cam's clock and the time difference when you visit another country. A final treat allows you to use the supplied software to view the maps online. It might be tech we're already aware of, but GPS on camcorders – so often used on holidays – really does add an exciting new element.
Masses of movie storage
The XR520 is full of treats as good as built-in GPS. So, while 240GB storage sounds impressive, put in context it's even better as it represents up to 101 hours of recording potential.
This isn't the end of the story either: the XR520 is a hybrid model and can capture movies and stills to Memory Stick PRO Duo, therefore providing even more storage.
It's a hybrid cam in another sense as well, as it uses a mix of traditional controls and a touchscreen LCD to make function selections. The touchscreen has impressive clarity when framing and reviewing, and its 3.2in dimensions provide a useful widescreen-style ratio.
The bottom line for many potential consumers is price, and yes, the XR520 is a long way from the pocket camcorders offering HD footage for under £300.
However, its list of features is lengthy and serious moviemakers would be unwise to dismiss any model with optical image stabilization, Dolby Digital 5.1ch sound, manual modes and enthusiast must-haves such as mic input and headphone output
Low, and behold!
The harsh facts are the XR520 isn't lightweight or particularly small, and neither is it always easy to use. But who'd want a £1,300 point and shoot camcorder? That would reduce the satisfaction to be taken from using an HD cam that's complex, sophisticated, and, ultimately, a supreme shooter.
Image quality is exceptional; fine detail is captured indoors and out, and Sony's inclusion of an Exmor R CMOS sensor, for improved low-light shooting, is a spot-on addition. Nitty-gritty testing reveals an autofocus that can falter (but is quick to rectify itself) and red subjects sometimes look a shade orange – but these remain small glitches.
Save for its PC-only software and the fact Mac users will have to download additional codecs to edit footage, the XR520 is a camcorder that gets ringing endorsements all the way. If you're interested in substance over style and have ambitious filming plans, this cam is a must-see.