With a floating lens that bobs around like a one-eyed owl, a massive 55x zoom, awesome macro close-up skills and the fullest of Full HD shooting, the cryptically named CX410VE makes light work of justifying itself against lesser video-capable gadgets. Cool, but can it stand up to stiff competition from Canon and Panasonic?
Long, steady zoom
Just because a gadget shoots HD video, that doesn't mean it does it well. Phones have tiny lenses, are prone to frame-tearing, have poor definition and no usable zoom to speak of. DSLRs can do a good job in a studio but in the real world they often struggle with poor stabilisation, jerky zooms, substandard sound recording and less than super-smooth frame rates. It's high-end compacts that put up the best fight, but even those are limited by short battery life and the 30-minute cap on continuous footage that blights anything that's not technically a camcorder.
So hurrah for the camcorder! Especially this one, which effortlessly records silky smooth, razor-sharp footage at a TV-style 50fps or the more web-centric 25fps. Sony claims that you can even film with it, hand-held, as you run (perhaps giving chase to a rogue plumber before confronting him about ripping off old ladies). We checked, and it's true. This is one unflapplable customer.
The Sony's motorised zoom takes it from a wide angle to 55x magnification, gradually or swiftly depending on how far you nudge the zoom rocker. You can push it up to 350x if you turn on the digital zoom but the picture breaks up soon after the digital side kicks in. In the battle of the superzooms it beats the Canon R48 but falls short of the Panasonic V720's range. Nevertheless, 55x gets you a very long way, and the image stabilisation is up there with the best, thanks in part to that spooky floating lens that moves to counter your hand wobbles. At the other end of the scale the Sony will focus down to 1cm for macro work.
Slow motion and stills
This isn't a camcorder loaded with gimmicks but you do get a few fun things to play around with. The super-smooth slow motion mode is a blast, capturing a couple of seconds of action and rendering the results in cheek-flapping slow-mo at a slightly reduced but usable resolution, so long as you don't mind it being interlaced rather than progressive video.
There's also a mode for analysing your golf shot which outputs a collage of animation frames on a still image, plus GPS tracking with a map to display your location. Of course no-one is going to buy a camcorder for use as a stills camera these days, but the Sony's ability to capture an 8.9MP photo from a dedicated shutter button will be useful now and then, and the quality of the images is fine for quick snaps.
The Sony would make a decent semi-pro camera or a second camera for a pro setup. There's 5.1 surround sound recording, the choice of interlaced or progressive shooting to suit TV or web content, lots of control over focusing and exposure, and also an audio input so you can feed it a soundtrack from an external mic or a mixing desk.
On top of that (quite literally) there's a multi-interface shoe which can take a number of accessories including higher quality microphones and video lights. You can add a Wi-Fi module too but the expense is unlikely to pay off as transferring and displaying footage in the usual ways is never a problem.
Tucked into the hand strap you'll find a little USB tail which allows you to charge up the camera and offload footage to a computer when you don't have a card reader available. In the box there's a thoughtful array of cables, including a USB extender and a microHDMI to regular HDMI cable – brilliant news as those things are rare as hen's teeth when you need one.
This is a great camcorder with very little to criticise. In terms of image quality it's generally excellent, although it's slightly bettered by the Canon R48 and can blow out highlights at times. Otherwise it's a top performer where it matters most; well specced and featured without being overcomplicated with superfluous features. If video matters to you, the Sony's neat mix of user-friendly controls, a battery that lasts up to three hours and the ability to step up to more serious shooting should put it at the top of your wish list.
Review by Tony Horgan.
A brilliant camcorder for enthusiastic amateurs and low-budget semi-pros