Pros: Nearly comprehensive feature set, wide angle zoom, assignable manual control.
Cons: Non-intuitive menu navigation, no Mac support, proprietary hot shoe, no VU meter, sluggish video AF
No other company has more experience in producing consumer video cameras than Sony does. Sony not only builds video cameras but also designs and builds most of the most critical component hardware used within including the image sensor and the lens (now that Sony acquired Minolta). This gives it an advantage in controlling the image path and processing. The resulting imaging testifies to a job well done. Moreover, Sony, as a major producer of consumer electronics, understands how to design products that work well in the hands of those who probably won't read a manual, won't give handling care much thought, won't necessarily use a majority of product features, and won't use the camera in a professional workflow. The Sony HDR XR550V adheres to that design philosophy and if it has any faults, it's because it adheres a bit too much to that philosophy.
As a video producer, I sometimes have the need to shoot footage of quickly breaking situations - occasions where setting up a professional, full-sized video camera would take too long or be too large and imposing would be prohibitive. In those cases and when I need to shoot "B-roll" or video that is peripheral rather than directly supports a project, I will use a high-quality but small consumer cam. Formerly I used a Canon HG-21 (see my review at http://www.epinions.com/review/Canon_iVIS_HG21_Camcorder/content_469265387140), an AVCHD, hi-def camera that records to a 120GB hard drive or onto SD cards. The camera was nearly perfect for my needs that included a high capacity internal storage that only hard drives can deliver and a viewfinder to allow steady, hand-held shots and when sunshine obscures the built-in monitor. The Canon filled my needs well. That is until a smash and grab theft forced me to replace it. My requirements remained the same but the HG-21 was discontinued so I chose the Sony for the same reasons I chose the Canon.
What is the Sony HDR XR550V
The XR550V is a consumer level, high-definition, handycam-class camcorder that shoots AVCHD (MPEG-4, H.264) video and up to 12 megapixel stills recording to a 240GB hard drive or to removable SD form-factor or Memory Stick™ flash memory. The sensor is a single 1/2.88 CMOS. A 10X zoom is equivalent to 30 - 298mm in 35mm terms for video and 26 - 263mm when used to shoot stills. It includes a color electronic viewfinder as well as a 3.5" monitor.
A word or more on hard drive based camcorders and the competition
Unfortunately, in the consumer video cam market, hard-disk based camcorders have been largely displaced by built-in and/or removable flash memory cams. Manufacturers would have you believe this is an advantage because solid state memory is more rugged than a hard drive and the reasoning holds some merit. But I don't fully buy into this. Modern hard drive units are surprisingly robust. While it's true that a hard drive's moving parts make it vulnerable to damage in an impact situation, such an impact would just as likely cause other critical parts in a camera to fail rendering the camera completely unusable. Also despite falling prices, byte for byte, flash-based memory remains more expensive than that based on hard drives. The fact is, for the same price, camera makers are offering less internally base flash memory rather than the significantly larger capacity of the hard drive cameras they replaced. Also, by not including any internal memory at all in some models, makers can offer a camera at a seemingly cheaper cost even as they know consumers will have to buy their own cards. In many cases, Sony approaches and crosses the threshold of "stupid small" in which electronic devices are designed smaller than an optimum size solely for marketing perception rather than for real user benefit. Add that to the fact that camera makers believe, by ridding models with the weight and size of a hard drive, it is somehow sexier to offer tiny handycams rather than more useful, easier to handle and larger ones and expect consumers to pay a premium for doing so. Furthermore, camera forums are filled with "experts" who have all of a few months experience reading (rather that actually using products) each other's guess-based pronouncements and basing decisions on a single factor they find in a camera's list of specifications. In the real world, those who punish cameras, both amateur and professional in the world's harshest environments still use hard drive based camcorders and attached video recorders on tape based video cameras. Yes, I said tape based. Regardless of the advantages of hard drive cams, they are being phased out more because of consumer perceptions rather than because of consumer advantages. Pity. This is a long way of saying the HDR XR550V has few, if any, hard drive based competitors.
Still, one can regard the viewfinder-equipped, flash memory only Canon Vixia HF models such as the G10, S30 and S21 as extremely worthy competition. Also the Panasonic HDC-TM900 looks mighty fetching at the same price. Don't forget that the XR550V does include a slot for SD form cards that have capacities up to 64 GBs. All consumer camera makers have fully embraced the sad trend in consumer camcorders by not including a viewfinder even in their costlier models. While it's true that most consumers do not use nor do they want a viewfinder, the lack of one encourages laughable handling during recording and makes the camera nearly useless in bright daylight conditions when the monitor image is washed out. The amateur camera makers are guaranteeing amateur level video it seems.
In use / In the field
The XR550V feels familiar and is equally comfortable to handle as did my HG-21. Whereas flash-based camcorders are smaller and lighter, the slightly greater heft of the XR550V is reassuring and, no doubt, helps to stabilize the camera during recording. An advantage of the hard drive design is that its placement in the camera body forms a grip around which the fingers of the right hand can grasp for a secure and steady hold. Cleverly, the camera is powered on when the viewfinder eyepiece is extended or when the monitor is opened. That eyepiece, unfortunately, doesn't tilt nor does it have an eye cup or other means of blocking stray light. It isn't cushioned either. The camera is quickly ready to record. Recording is activated and stopped conventionally with a trigger button activated with the right thumb. A rocker switch on the top of the camera controls the zoom. The switch is sensitive to the degree to which it is moved. Slow or quick zooms depend on the amount the rocker is moved. The feeling is positive. So much so that I don't feel like I have to pre-set the zoom speed like I did on my over-fickle control on my old Canon whose zoom rate was impossible to control evenly with the rocker switch. A nice touch is the single, manual control knob can be set to control one of a number of settings such as focus, iris, white balance and audio gain.
It's too bad the camera monitor has to be opened to attach an HDMI cable. This unnecessarily exposes the vulnerable hinge to damage even if shooting through the viewfinder. It also upsets the balance of the camera that has some consequence if you shoot with a glidecam and monitor recording on a separate screen - hardly an everyday occurrence but common enough for me.
The camera is supplied with a NP-FV50 battery rated at 980 mAh, much too anemic for a high-end camera and hardly matched to the 240 GB HDD capacity. Instead, Sony and the rest of consumer video camera industry should step up and provide its top-of-the-line products with top-of-the-line power supplies. The small amount of savings that result in supplying the dinky batteries hardly justifies the irritation for buyers who are forced to buy the larger, higher-margin, OEM batteries. I suggest the user get at least the NP-FV70 if not the FV100 or a decent third-party battery. If you are buying this camera at a brick and mortar, negotiate for the higher capacity battery.
Build quality is a step up from the Canon HG-21. Latches, slide covers and hinges are stronger but by no means indestructible or sealed against splash and dust. The feeling when using the single manual control knob in front is professional. A brushed silver metal ring surrounds the end of the lens barrel providing dent protection.
The GPS function, while seemingly cool, has its ups and downs. Storing location information in metadata, the user can determine near exact locations where the video was recorded. However, at times the GPS took over a minute to acquire enough satellite signal information so I was shooting and finishing in a certain location before the GPS was able to locate and store that information in memory. Furthermore, the included map that includes the entire continent, showed little more detail than highways and main roads making the GPS display mostly useless other than showing one in relation with those features and not much else. Like its photo function, I would rather Sony leave off this feature and replace it with more video-related function like a VU meter or focus aid.
The XR550 captures still images on its 12 megapixel sensor and processes them as .jpg files. To shoot stills the user pushes the shutter release button directly behind the zoom control. One can shoot during video recording but there is a delay of a few seconds before another still can be taken. Presumably, during that time, image processing for both video and still capture is being performed simultaneously which explains the delay. For me, I much prefer to shoot video exclusively with this camera and would rather Sony leave out still photo capability entirely and, instead, devote the design effort, hardware and controls to video. For example instead of the flash gun, a continuous video light; instead of the still picture circuitry, optimizing the sensor for less noise in low-light situations; instead of the photo shutter button, a user-assignable function button. By the way, for those skeptical of small, low-powered, on board continuous video lighting, I'm not asking for 800 lumens, rather, enough power to add "catch light" in subject's eyes that give life to faces.
Unfortunately, as with Sony's professional video editing software, the included video editing software is for Windows computers only therefore I did not test it and don't care to on my Windows machines. Instead, I tested the video on a Mac using Final Cut Pro X. AVCHD is notorious for its issues while converting to an editable format during ingestion into most modern, non-linear editing applications. But more powerful computers and editing apps have accommodated this popular format so it's not the headache it used to be. Still, if you are using a typical computer with limited RAM, slow graphics card, and sluggish CPU, best to consider an upgrade before thinking about doing regular edits.
Generally, video quality is pleasing. Most of my evaluation on image quality is made after I've imported footage into my Final Cut Pro editing application and viewed on a 27" iMac desktop. I've also reviewed some footage on a 44" Sony Bravia flat screen. Colors are accurate with the usual duller reds and oranges that is typical of all cameras in the class. Sharpness isn't up to that on the Canon Vixia HG-21 which the Sony replaced but the Sony doesn't show the harsh edge features the Canon exhibited. I would prefer something in-between the Canon and Sony for sharpening but I'm not dissatisfied. Low-light performance isn't up to that on my former camera. Shooting in dim light starts showing the Sony's weakness. Where the Canon was exceptional in maintaining color accuracy in low light, the reds turned slightly brown and cooler colors like blue and green lost hue and went grayish. To be fair, my low light tests were made in many extreme conditions. I would never shoot professionally, regardless of camera, in such conditions. In daylight and in my typical lighting setup (I tend to use fluorescent sources in light boxes), performance was satisfying. Still photo quality was fine but I would only use such for location scouting or in some emergency.
The camera can be set for stereo or 5.1 (surround) recording implying a fairly sophisticated audio setup. For a built-in sound recording system, the XR550 does a fine job. The sound recording is nicely done if all factors are controlled. Unfortunately, as with any built-in mic video camera - and that includes those on professional video cameras - the sound suffers from the mic's proximity to the camera. Focus and zoom, even iris changes, are faithfully recorded along with any intended sound. Also handling noise comes through clearly. Add to that the placement of the microphone is at the top of the body near the tips of the right hand that add rustily noise. Here, Sony can take a lesson from Canon who places the mic on the bottom of the body away from fingertips. I never use my professional camera's built-in mic and I don't intend to use the one in this camera either. Rather, Sony has wisely included a 3.5mm input jack for audio input that can be from a wired or wireless source. To add a note, the AVCHD format provides a generous amount of bandwidth for audio so sound that is recorded can be used professionally.
Reasons to like this camcorder
There's no doubt that Sony has stuffed this camera with its most comprehensive feature set possible without stepping into the realm of "professional." Consumers don't care about nor want manual focusing aids such as peaking nor do they care to learn about exposure control using zebras which are features of Sony's similarly sized (and hundreds of dollars more pricey), prosumer CX-700 line. The XR550 stops just short of including those. However, a generous 1/2.88 sensor, a slow motion, albeit limited, mode, and a dial to which manual focus, white balance, and iris can be assigned are high-end features not regularly found on consumer cameras. And while I'd prefer an even wider range of view, the 30mm (in 35mm SLR terms) focal length on the short end allows working in close quarters and still being able to take it all in. Supplementary wide-angle lenses can be fit on the common 37mm filter ring.
What I didn't like
As mentioned, navigating the menu requires a new mindset. Where most other camera menu navigation are based on a function hierarchy (e.g., recording, playback, setup, etc.) the XR550 is based on user type. Unfortunately, Sony chooses to have all menu items in one long list that requires scrolling using a fairly touchy and sometimes unresponsive touchscreen. I'm no fan of touch screens on cameras for this reason. I'm also disappointed that Sony, like other camera makers, ignore the Macintosh platform. Oddly, creative professionals are those most likely to be using a Mac rather than a PC. To be fair, though, professionals are more likely to be managing their media and editing on software they already own regardless of platform. As with all makers of enthusiast-level video cameras, Sony fits its proprietary hot shoe on the XR550. This limits users to a small set of pricey but not-quite-professional accessories such as lights and microphones. Fortunately, adaptors are available that fit on the hot shoe that take standard accessories although without electronic connection (i.e., cold shoe). Most disappointing is the lack of a VU meter for visually monitoring audio levels during recording. A meter is important even for amateurs to show that audio is, indeed, being recorded and for ensuring decent sound in playback. Certainly the in-camera, audio auto gain helps prevent clipping of too-loud sounds as well as boosting the gain where important sound may fall off but even the best auto sound recording systems have limitations.
During recording and especially in low-light situations the XR550 auto-focusing behavior is sluggish. Compared to modern Canon Vixia camcorders where subject identification and subsequent focusing is nearly a snap, the Sony seems to deliberate longer on what to focus and then rack the focus slower than what I'm used to on Vixia cameras. This may not be the best camera for close-up action sport indoors but, then, it still focuses faster and better than I could in manual mode. The built-in GPS function includes a receiver and a map that is short on detail. With the GPS enabled, the camera will record location as metadata but the map will show your location only in relation to highways and major streets, parks, and bodies of water. Don't depend on it for geocaching or pinpointing a specific spot.
As with all my gear, I become more comfortable with it over time. The Sony is a competent bit of gear with nice ups and irksome downs. In its line of video cams, Sony had to try to provide simplicity - after all it's a consumer-level cam - but attract those willing to pay more for features that may or may not provide the value the buyer wanted. Most buyers would be equally satisfied with Sony's lower level of HD cams or, if you're truly an enthusiast, go for the CX700 series of cams. I believe Sony did a fine job overall but didn't fully understand where and how to split hairs in this level of cams.