Sony Handycam HDR-XR550VE 240 GB Camcorder - Black
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Sony Handycam HDR-XR550VE 240 GB Camcorder - Black

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  • Media Format: Flash card
  • Resolution: 6,631.0 MP
  • Recording System: NTSC
  • Digital Zoom: 120x
  • Type: Standard
  • Optical Zoom: 10x
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35

Excellent Camera, Great pictures

Pros Great pictures, many features, good low light capability, easy to shoot movies
Cons Screen/ viewfinder wash-out in sunlight, poor software, complex initially setup, flash burn on still pictures
Recommended it? Yes
The Bottom Line:  Great pictures!  I love the hard drive feature (which may not be for everyone).  Especially good if you plan to edit your movies.    Screen/ viewfinder washout a problem in sunlight.
This review was updated on October 10th, 2009

I bought this camera a few days before my son's wedding, and I did extensive movies of the wedding and the reception with this camera.  I also took this camera on a 3 week trip to Hawaii and I have updated this review to reflect that trip.  The camera performed well, and the pictures came out great.  Below are some of my findings.  I bought the camera because it was supposed to be good in low light, had a large hard drive, a good sized touch screen display and a viewfinder, and reasonable battery live.

Ease of Use:
At first, the camera was a bit daunting.  There are many controls, lots of menus, and I though that was going to be a problem.  After a few trial runs with some practice videos, I found the actual picture taking very easy. 

The first step is to go through the menus to set up the video quality you want.  You can do standard version, High Def, and various qualities of high def.  Unfortunately, I did not realize that High Def had 3 different qualities, and set it on the lowest by accident.  The pictures game our fine, but I am sure they would have been even better if I had it on a higher quality.  In addition to picture quality, you set up the screen aspect (4:3 or 16:9), quality of still pictures up to 12 meg, power of the flash for stills, and various other settings.  You can even program what a manual knob controls (focus, white balance, etc)

Once this is behind you, it is point and shoot.  After I set it up, is show my wife, who is not technically savvy, how to use it in about two minutes, and she took about an hour of video at a picnic and they came out great. 

Complexity is still somwhat of a problem after you take the pictures and want to play them back from the camera.  You do need to go through many confusing menus and although I have shown the movies directly from the camera connected via the HDMI to my home theatre system, it is confusing and after I haven't done it for a week or so, I forget and find myself again trying to figure it out.

Battery Life:
Because I was doing the wedding, I bought an extra battery (the Sony NP-FH70).  It allowed me to record the full wedding, almost 2 hours.  The standard battery would somewhat less.  I have used the standard battery.  It lasts for about 90 minutes.  If you buying an extra battery, check out online prices for the Sony OEM batteries.  Sony rips you off on these.

Screen and View Finder:
The camera has a 3.2 inch LCD display or relatively high quality.  It is touch screen, and most of the functions are controlled through menus you access through the touch screen.  The screen in excellent indoors and poor outdoors.  For my son's wedding, I was somwhat disappointed using it in outdoors.  In Hawaii, with the bright sunlight, it was often totally washed out.  Also, using the viewfinder was no help.  I found in bright sun, I really could not see what I was filming through the viewfinder either. There is a color viewfinder which is accessed by lifting it up and pulling it out.  There is a focus adjustment that will allow you to adjust if you prefer not looking through it with eyeglasses.  In really bright sunlight and wearing glasses which do not allow you to get your eye right against the screen, viewing the scene was also virtually impossible to see.  
 I found myself just pointing and hoping I aimed right.  Most times, the pictures came out OK, but no thanks to the viewfinders.  I don't know if any other brand would be better in sunlight.  Sunlight viewable screens are very expensive. 

Recording Time:
The recording time you have on the hard drive will depending on the mode you use to record.  The time is impacted by both video quality and sound quality (5.1 channel takes more than 2 channel stereo sound).  The wedding I recorded was set in HD Standard, which is the lowest HD setting (as is stated, I did not know there were 3 HD settings).  My 2 hour wedding movie took up 8 gig of the 120 gig drive.  I would estimate that if I had used the Fine Quality of the HD, it may have taken up more than double this space.  I also recorded hundreds of stills.  I also added about 2 hours of Hawaii pictures recorded with the higest level of quality.  The camera tells me I have 260 additional minutes to record.  As you can see, most people will not have a problem with disc space unless you are one of those that never want to delete anything on the camera.  According to the manual, you have 14.5 hours of recording time at the best quality and about 50 hours and the lowest quality. 

In addition to the hard drive, you can use the Sony Pro Duo sticks memory to record you stills or movies.  Obviously, you will have much less space on these than the hard drive.  According to the manual, you get about 6 minutes per Gig of memory at best video quality and sound, 20 minutes per Gig at the lowest.

When you are ready to delete, you must again deal with the somewhat complex menuing system.  I tried to delete the wedding pictures, couldn't figure it out (seems it wanted me to delete all pictures which I did not want to do) so I left it for another time when I can fool with it at my leisure.  It is not that these menus are so hard, they are just not intuitive.  I feel a good menuing system should be seemless. You shouldn't have to refer to the manual (expecially since the full manual is not included in print -- you can access it on the CD). 

Features:
Zoom: The camera comes with a Sony Lens G (1.8/5.5-66.0) with a 12x optical zoom, no digital zoom.  The purpose of the pictures I took at the wedding, the lens was totally adequate.  Digital zooms never come out good anyway, so I did not care it did not have one. 

Low Light:  The camera comes with 3 Lux settings Standard, Low Lux and Nightshot (for zero Lux shooting).  I used the Standard and Low Lux.  Sometimes I had it on Low Lux for outdoor shots and the pictures still came out OK.  The Night shot turns on a infra red light, and this changes the completion of the pictures, so you don't want to use this but for special circumstances (taking the pictures of your kid blowing out birthday candles in the dark, for example). 

You always want a camera with better low light capability.  All my pictures came of OK, but some of the shots at the reception could have used more light (although they were quite viewable).  I spent the extra money for this camera over the Sony XR-200 primarily for the better low light capability, and I am glad I did.  Overall I would rate the light capability of this camera good to very good but not excellent.  I imagine I may have been disappointed with the low version of the camera.

Still Photos:
The camera takes stills, and even has a built in flash for stills.  You toggle between movie and stills with a Mode button just above the "start/stop" switch.  Through the menus, you can set the resolution of the stills and can go all the way up to 12 meg.  I set it to 6 meg since this is more than adequate for the size picture I planned to have printed.  The quality of the stills is excellent.  I had to lower the flash setting (through the menus) to low because I was getting too much flash burn on people's faces.  This seems to be a flaw.  Even on the lowest flash setting, it is hard not to get some degree of flash burn when shooting close ups of people (5 to 10 feet away).  I needed to retouch many pictures to lower brightness after the fact, and some pictures were so flash burned the simple windows photo editor could not correct the problem.  It is good to have a powerful flash, but the camera needs lower settings than available.

Stills While taking Movies:
The camera has a really nice option to snap still pictures while taking movies.  I used this a lot.  At the 6 meg resolution, you can snap 3 or 4 pictures in rapid file succession.  The camera then stops taking stills while it saves to disc.

The still taken while taking a movie come out with mixed quality.  Outdoor shots are fine.  The pictures look good.  Indoor shots come out very grainy.  The camera turns the flash off, so the light is always too low for the still.  I am glad I took the pictures because I snapped dozens that no one else has, but you certainly would be advised to have someone taking stills with a regular camera while you are doing the movie.  By the way, if you missed still shots, you can make stills from any movie frame using the software provided.  This is great if you wanted a particular shot and missed the still but have it on the movie.  You can advance frame by frame and same the frame you want as a jpg file.  The only problem is that the quality is the same as if you snapped the shot while taking the movie -- somewhat grainy.

Taking stills while taking movies does not affect the movie in any way.

SteadyShot
This is an image stability feature that really works.  My old movies with a different camera jumped all over the place.   I was impressed with how steady these movies were.

Playback:
The big advantage of a camera with a hard drive is the ability to easily playback your movies.  There is no tape to rewind, and you don't have to relocate your place after you view a scene.  Scenes are presented on a playback menu, you touch the scene you want to play back and watch it on the camera's viewfinder or on a TV set you plug the camera into.  This is great, but if you are use to throwing in a tape into the camera, recording to the tape with no additional effort, this camera may not be for you.  At the very least, you will need to transfer the movie you took to a PC and burn a DVD.  How much more you do is up to you.  Of course, you could use Sony Pro Duo memory sticks instead of the hard drive and keep all you video on these, but that gets expensive.  One advantage of the camera is that there is no tapes to buy.

Connections:

The camera comes with a connection a USB cable to connect the camera to you computer and one to connect it to a HD TV using the Red, Green Blue connections.  It also has a mini HDMI port, but unfortunately, no cable is provided.  Really cheap on Sony's part for a camera priced over $1,000.  You can pick a mini HDMI up real cheap at "monoprice.com".  You don't need to spend the $20 - $30 you will spend elsewhere.  I got mine for about 5 bucks.

GPS:
The camera comes with a built in GPS system.  It is supposed to track where you are and enable you to search by location.  I find that the GPS doesn't always find the satellites.  I tried to use the software to sort by location, but couldn't figure out how to do it or if it worked.  Again, I'll save this for when I have more time.  Remember, you are not buying the camera for it's GPS capability and this is the first version of the first camera with this feature.  There is certainly room for a version #2.  One last comment on this.  Don't expect this camera GPS to guide you through the streets of a big city.  It is not designed for that.  When it Hawaii, it correctly game us our general location but does not act like you automobile GPS with guidance.  Remember, it is just trying to tag a location to your pictures. 

Facial Recognition:
When you take pictures, you will see little square boxes appear around objects the camera recognizes as faces.  The computer software with the camera can do a facial analysis and if you wish, pull up all the pictures or movies with a particular face.  This feature is interesting but I'm not sure how useful.  Along with faces of people you know, you will also get to choose from all the inadvertant people you shot in your pictures or movies.  In addition, you will see statues and other objects that look like faces.  After a while, there are lots of faces to choose from -- way too many in fact.  But, the feature it there if you need it. 


Software:
I read several really bad review regarding the software that comes with the camera.  You will need the software to download the movies you make from the camera to your computer.  The software installed OK on my Vista PCs.  The downloading was easy, and it organized both the stills and the movies on a date calendar.  The software also has face recognition, and if you let it, will analyze all you movies and stills and make a list of all the faces it finds.  You can later search for those faces in stills and movies.  This is a somewhat interesting feature that I don't know if I will ever use.

The real part of any software is turning you movies into edited productions and burning them to a DVD.  At first, I was very pleased and questioned the negative reviews I read.  However, after a few hours of trying to edit my movies, I must agree with the negative reviews.  The software is really poor.  For example. the camera will create a new Chapter each time you press the Start/Stop button.  I must have done this 200 times throughout the course of the wedding.  The software allows you to take and Chapter it created and split it into new Chapter.  This is good for editing out junk.  You would want to consolidate Chapters into organized segments.  In my case for the wedding, I wanted Chapters such as the "Arrival at Church", Ceremony", Post Ceremony", Cocktail Hour, etc and not the hundreds of Chapters the camera created.  I could not find a way to do this.  This is a real shortcoming I could not live with.

Other things you will need:
So, you want HD movies.  If you want to play them in HD quality, you will need a Blu-ray DVD burner on your computer.  Since I did not have one, it set be back about $250 for an internal LG Blue-ray burner I got online.

The Blu-ray player came with Power-DVD software.  I really liked it and it got good reviews.  It does not edit sound, but since my movies did not require the addition of new sound tracks, it did not matter.  I found, however, the version with the DVD Burner did not include all features, and I ended up buying the full version for a hundred bucks. 

Depending on your computer, you may need upgrades.

1.    Your PC:
If you have an old PC, with small hard drives, low end processor, standard video, and you plan to begin to become a movie editor, it may be time for a PC upgrade.  If you just plan to you're your unedited standard or non Blu-ray movies to a DVD, you are probably OK.
2.    Hard Drives:
If you will be storing lots of movies, eventually you will need a bigger hard drive.  I upgraded to a 1T hard drive, even though I had lots of space on my 250G drive.  I wanted to start out with plenty of space for several years.  I also added a second hard 1T hard drive for back-up purposes.  You can use the DVDs you burn as the back-up, but these are stored in a image format and I want a copy of the original movie.  If you are upgrading your C: drive, you will need disc copying software which sells for about 50 bucks.  I used "Acronis True Image Home 2009" which has an excellent Disc Cloning feature for transferring all settings and software from you old hard drive to your new, larger one.  If you have never upgraded a hard drive, you may want to have your local store do it for you and pay them.  It's not for the faint of heart, and you don't what to lose you data.


3. Video Cards
The standard video card in your PC will probably be fine for standard definition movies, but may not play Blu-ray.  I needed to upgrade.  I bought the Nvidia.Geforce 9500 for about $75.  You could get a card for about $50 that will work.  You don't need a card costing several hundred just to play Blu-ray - that is for the gaming buffs.

4.     Software:
As stated, the software provided by Sony may seem good at first.  If all you plan to do is to take the raw footage you shot and burn it to a disc, it will be fine.  The problems will start if you want to edit you film, create chapters, merge scenes, and make a real edited movie.  You no doubt will be running for an upgrade.

My only suggestion here is to do your research.  All amateur video software has its problems  I have the latest version of Roxio, and found it does not do Blu-ray.  The software I got with the Blu-ray DVD burner and upgraded to a full version does Blu-ray, allows reasonable editing of your film, merging of scenes into chapters, creating menus, are more.  It does not do sound.  This means if you are interested in overlaying a sound track of music or narrative you are out of luck.  A while back, I spend over $100 for the Pinniacle software, and it was a disaster.  After you edited the film, the sound was about 5 seconds delayed from the video making your film worthless.  Check out not just magazine reviews but real user reviews.

The Final Output of my Wedding movie:
Using this camera and the Power DVD software mentioned above (and not the Sony software), my movie of the wedding came out great.  I divided it up into logical chapters, edited out junk, created a start menu with a nice background (selected from the backgrounds that came with the software), and added music to the opening menu (again selecting from the music provided).  The menu worked properly on my DVD player.

Since my movie was almost 2 hours long, I burned it both the a Blu-Ray and a DVD R Double Density format.  Most people do not have Blu-Ray and Blu-ray disc are very expensive.  The most common DVD format is the 4.7 gig DVD-R.  I used the DVD R double density to get it on one DVD.  Virtually all DVD players will play the DVD-R, but not all will play the DVD R double density.  So far, the people I gave them to had no problems.  I burned about 10 DVD.

I had somewhat less success with the Blu-Ray.  The movie burned OK, but the menu selection did not work properly on my high end Denon Blu-ray player.  Since I accidentally recorded at the lowest HD setting as I mentioned above, I found very little difference between my Blu-ray quality DVD and the Standard Definition/ High Quality version I burned onto the DVD R Double Density.  Therefore, I did not bother trying to fix the Blu-ray.  I strongly suggest if you are going to make a Blu-ray disc, you spend the money to buy one Blu-ray rewritable disc to practice on. I ruined 4 Blu-ray discs already and the blanks are very expensive.

Final Thoughts:
You can make taking movies as easy or difficult as you want.  If you just plan to take the video, move it to your PC  hard drive and burn it to a standard DVD unedited, you can use the Sony software and this is relatively fast and easy (it will take a few hours for your computer to burn the first DVD).  For my wedding movie, I edited our all the junk, merged scenes, created chapters, created a menu, tried different formats and more.  To me about 60 hours to do a 2 hour film.  You will find any video software is slow, even if your PC is fast.  Once you have edited your movie and created everything you want, making the first DVD can take the computer several hours.  You don't need to sit there, the computer will do the work.  Making duplicate DVDs are much faster, but you will not do this until you made one and you test it to find if  it works the way you want.

If you are the type that does not want to fool with transferring to a PC at all, this camera (or any camera with a hard disc) is not for you.  Get a camera that burns to a DVD directly or to tape.  You will save a lot of money on the camera and you will not need a PC or any transferrring.

This camera takes great videos.  Once the video is taken, it is all the software and your desire to make a masterpiece.  The primary reason I gave a "4" rating to this camera is the software.  There are no real problems with the camera.  However, if you need to spend another $100 or more on another software package, I can't give it a 5.  Good luck and good movie taking.

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