Sony DCR-HC36 MiniDV Handycam

At $400, the Sony DCR-HC36 MiniDV Handycam is one of the most affordable camcorders around. But unfortunately, it produced less than stellar video quality. Although our test video looked acceptable when viewed by itself, it looked inferior when compared with the video produced by competing camcorders, with pale colors and a distinctly fuzzy, grainy look.

These problems show up even in good lighting conditions, and are much more exaggerated in low light. In low-light tests, the grain in the images was extremely distracting and much more obvious than the grain in the video produced by the other camcorders.

The DCR-HC36 handles well and is easy to use. It fits comfortably in the palm of the hand, with the zoom control falling under the index finger when the hand strap is properly adjusted. The Record button is a little high, though; you may have to brace the camcorder with your left hand to reach up and press it. This camcorder is a bit bulkier than the Canon Elura 100 (   ), but it’s pretty light, at 15 ounces.

Most of the DCR-HC36’s controls are located in an on-screen menu, which you can access through the touch screen. Although this does keep camcorder operation as simple as possible, you end up with fingerprints on the screen, and many options are buried deep within menus, requiring a number of screen presses to access. But to be fair, this is a camcorder that’s designed for point-and-shoot users, many of whom will never want to go anywhere near options such as the white-balance setting.

And Sony offers another option that these users will find attractive: the Easy mode (accessed through a button on the camcorder body) puts most settings at Automatic, which is great for inexperienced or nervous shooters.

The 2.5-inch LCD screen is clear and bright, but it doesn’t accommodate wide-screen viewing: if you shoot with the camcorder in 16:9 mode, it adds two black bars--one at the top and one at the bottom; this makes the video more difficult to see. The DCR-HC36’s 20X zoom lens also includes electronic image stabilization, which does a reasonable job of controlling the effects of camera shake. It’s not as effective as the optical image stabilization of Panasonic’s PV-GS300 (   ) and PV-GS500 (   ), though. The battery life of about 100 minutes was acceptable but not outstanding.

The DCR-HC36 can capture still images to a Memory Stick Duo card, but only at a resolution of 640 by 480. And the results are less than appealing: there were grainy images and pale, washed-out colors. The image quality is so poor that it’s not worth bothering with: unless you have a burning need to record low-resolution images to Memory Stick, go with the DCR-HC26 (the next model down in the Sony line, it skips the Memory Stick slot completely) and put the money you’ll save toward buying a decent point-and-shoot still camera. Even a low-end digital camera will take better still images than this camcorder.

performance

Still-Image Quality Poor
Video Quality Good
Battery Life Fair

Scale = Superior, Very Good, Good, Fair, Poor

How We Tested: Each camcorder was tested at its highest-quality audio, video, and still-image settings in daylight and low-light conditions, with digital zoom disabled. A panel of experts evaluated the recorded scenes side-by-side on four identical TV sets to assign video and audio scores. The panel evaluated printed photos to assign still-image scores. Each camera was given a rating of Superior, Very Good, Good, Fair, or Poor. The scores for both video and stills are an average of all scores given; video and still scores were averaged separately.--Tested in conjunction with the PC World Test Center

specifications

LCD Size 2.5
Optical Zoom 20X
Still image resolution 640 x 480
Size (wxhxd) 2.6 x 3.1 x 4.5
Weight (oz.) 15

Macworld’s buying advice

The Sony DCR-HC36 MiniDV Handycam is a budget camcorder that takes adequate video in daylight, but its poor performance in low light will be a problem if you want to shoot videos indoors—at a party, for instance.

[ Richard Baguley is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PC World, Wired , and other publications. ]

Sony DCR-HC36 MiniDV Handycam

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