First look at Sony's new HD camcorder

Last week Sony Corp. announced its "trump card" in popularizing user-created, high definition video, the HDR-HC3 camcorder. It's worth considering by anyone interested in making the jump to high-definition, but there are some obstacles beyond Sony's control that users will need to overcome in the process.

One of the most obvious differences between the HC3 and its predecessor, the HDR-HC1, is size. The new model is smaller and lighter. Sony reduced its volume by 26 percent and it makes a big difference. The HC3 is shorter and lighter -- it's 139 millimeters long versus 188mm for the HC1 and 500 grams versus 680 grams -- so I could put it in my coat pocket or bag without it weighing me down too much. That's not to say its weight is negligible, but the same wasn't possible with the HC1.

The camera has a 10X optical zoom lens behind which sits one of Sony's new ClearVid CMOS image sensors. The devices have all the pixels tilted at a 45 degree angle so that the distance between the center of each pixel, called the pitch, is reduced. This means the resolution of the resulting images is higher than if the pixels were sitting in rows and columns. The sensor also has a greater number of green pixels for each red and blue pixel and that means better color, Sony claims.

The results looked good on an HDTV set. The camera performed well in daylight although I noticed some noise in video shot in dimly lit rooms, although it did not distract from the images. It was quite impressive to be able to capture video that was better quality than the majority of broadcast TV coming into my house. The HC3 can capture images down to 11 lux, which improves on 15 lux on the HC1, so if anything this low-light performance should be an improvement.

In terms of ergonomics I found it a little difficult to hold the HC3. My wrist ended up tilted slightly towards my body when I held it at chest height, which was a little awkward. It was more difficult when I wanted to point the camera upwards, however Sony tells me the camera was designed to be held at face height. In that position it worked well and was probably more comfortable than a regular camcorder.

Sony has replaced the manual focus ring found on the HC1 with a small thumbwheel on the left hand edge of the lens in the HC3. I also found this quite difficult to use as it moved freely and I didn't really get any sense of feedback from it to show how slow or fast I was turning it. I ended up keeping the camera on auto mode. The wheel can be reassigned from focus to other functions, such as manual shutter speed adjustment.

The camera records onto MiniDV tapes using the HDV format. If you've got a wardrobe full of old cassettes they should work, although the format is less forgiving of glitches on the tape, according to some posts in Internet forums. I used only new tape and had no problems. But there are some problems with HDV and high-definition in general, all of which are the same for any HDV camcorder and not just the HC3.

HDV is a relatively new format and so I had to upgrade a copy of iMovie on my Mac before the computer would even recognize the Firewire-connected camera and import the video. The import was also slow, with the two-year-old iMac typically processing the HDV tape in 1/4 time. Editing also seemed a little slow because of the volume of data involved, so a word of caution to anyone considering making the jump to HD and then editing the footage on a PC: make sure your PC is up to the job. It might require investment in a machine that is more expensive than the camera.

However if you are going to keep everything on tape and use the HC3 as a player then it has good support: there are outputs for HDMI, iLink (Firewire) and HD on an analog connection. The first of these three, HDMI, is new from the previous model.

The HDR-HC3 is the best camcorder at present for average consumers to get into high-definition home video. The price has come down a little since the HC1 went on sale -- it has a recommended retail price of around

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