The Sony HDR-XR550V is the hard drive sister model of the HDR-CX550V, with the pair together comprising Sony’s latest flagship range of Handycams. These two camcorders mainly differ in storage availability where the HDR-XR550V is packed with a whopping 240GB of HDD space. There are breakthroughs in terms of a new wider angled 6-blade G lens, a fresh menu system as well as a memory card slot which supports both Sony’s proprietary Memory Stick PRO Duo cards and the more commonplace SD/SDHC memory cards. This lineup of features on offer certainly state Sony’s intent in raising the bar for high-end HD video recording.
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The HDR-XR550V is a beautifully-engineered model which might stand out from other Handycams due to the 240GB worth of HDD onboard the camera. The large hard disk represents a protrusion which may make the camcorder hard to hold if you have smaller hands. Nevertheless, the sturdy and built-to-last body is comfortingly robust enough for an outdoor shoot. Speaking of outdoor shoots, the HDR-XR550V remains extremely portable. Tipping the scales at a little over a pound (570g) with the battery in tow, the camcorder maintains its small profile even with the in-built hard drive, making it conducive enough to carry around in anticipation of shooting opportunities.
New additions to the HDR-XR550V include the improved cam control dial mounted on the front that allows for manual shutter speed control as well as an adjustable .27” color Electronic Viewfinder (EVF), which has a higher resolution than that offered by Sony’s previous flagship models. Even so, in this age of digital LCD displays, the color EVF is being phased out gradually and it makes little impact of note on the XR550V, lacking in size and magnification to do so. It will make up for situations where an excess of glare limits visibility on the LCD screen though. Aside from adjusting shutter speeds, the manual control dial can now be used to toggle between manual functions, that is to choose between focus, exposure, auto exposure shift, white balance shift and iris options. This affords users greater influence over shooting controls, which in a way separates the prosumers from users just beginning to use HD video camcorders.
Making a welcome return is the wide-angled 6 blade G lens, only this time with its angle-capturing capabilities improved to approximately double the shooting area of previous Handycams. Wide angle performance of the HDR-XR550V is also improved despite the more compact body, capturing up to 29.8mm for video and 26.3mm for stills. The 10x optical zoom on offer is also supplemented by a digital zoom maxing out at 120x, showing little distortion, if any, when zoomed. There is a built-in flash above the lens although there is no video light. Additionally, the lens is protected ably by an electronic cover which is automatically tuned-in with the camcorder’s power-saving functions along with the LCD display. As the LCD display is opened or closed, the electronic lens cover is triggered to protect the lens.
The HDR-XR550V’s touchscreen interface is generally user-friendly and nice to work with without responsiveness issues occurring. The 3.5” Xtra Fine LCD screen is large and has a relatively high resolution. Enhanced brightness and contrast displays are made possible by TruBlack technology, rendering visibility under direct sunlight plausible. The visuals are also accentuated by the high-resolution 921,000 pixel display. Buttons for NightShot and the intelligent auto modes are located under the LCD. The NightShot mode uses infrared technology that allows for recording in pitch black darkness, akin to looking through night vision goggles. But as with the goggles, subjects captured in the dark will turn out bright green.
The iAuto mode on the HDR-XR550V is intuitive enough for even beginner users to pick up and start recording. The Intelligent Auto button is push-ready to trigger the camcorder shooting options into the dedicated iAuto mode and is optimized to remove the guesswork from setting camcorder controls manually. Unlike other manufacturer’s Intelligent Auto modes, the HDR-XR550V does not lock you out of making changes to any manual controls. Instead, altering any of the shooting options automatically exits the camcorder out of the iAuto mode. More adroit or experienced users can alter settings to their preferences with the manual control dial.
In line with the other camcorders in the Handycam range, the HDR-XR550V comes equipped with a built-in GPS receiver to tag captured images or video by location. Licensed Navteq Class 4 maps information is embedded into the device for such geo-tagging functions. The GPS tagging appears to be in its early stages of development however, as it does not particularly provide a structured way to use and categorize the information, a shortcoming made all the more apparent when the videos are transferred to your PC.
“I’ve had this camera for three months now and highly recommend it. The HD video quality (I only use the FX 24 Mbps mode) is stunning. I sometimes think the video is even more realistic looking than the actual scene being shot. I have added a Rode Stereo Video Mic and Vortex Warm Cards to good effect.
I would like to have more independent manual control over focusing, exposure, white balance, etc. It is possible to manually adjust these settings but there is only a small multipurpose rotary knob for this purpose. Also, you can’t simultaneously adjust both aperture and shutter speed. A larger lens would be nice, native progressive mode framing, and XLR microphone inputs. In order to get these features, you would have to spend a few thousand dollars more.” – Claudius (USA)
The shooting quality of the HDR-XR550V is impressive and naturally lives up to its flagship status and price. In line with Blu-ray formats in the market, recording is supported up to 24Mbps, the highest bitrate allowed by the AVCHD format. High definition videos are recorded at 1920 x 1080 resolutions primarily to the in-built HDD. Picture quality was sharp and crisp, a result which was equally pleasing when viewing on a HD monitor or TV.
The accuracy of the HDR-XR550V pretty much stands out relative to competitor models in the higher-end prosumer range. The touchscreen allows for a spot focus and spot meter where you can single out a subject that is appears small in the scene for a closer focus. Focusing on the background incorrectly also occurs far less often than camcorders from other manufacturers. The new Optical SteadyShot Active Mode helps reinforce motion capture steadiness through its image stabilizer as well by eliminating camera shake movements caused by unstable handling.
Shooting in dimly-lit environments is another area where the HDR-XR550V excels due to the increased sensitivity as afforded by the back-illuminated Exmor R CMOS Sensors. The back-illuminated design ensures more light reaches the photosensitive areas of the device without being obstructed by the sensor’s connecting wires itself, thus greatly contributing to performance in low-light environments. This is in no small part down to the outstanding autofocus system that correctly ascertains the intended subject-in-focus. The HDR-XR550V uses a higher gamma setting and more gain even before it invokes the Low Lux mode designated for such low-light shooting. Indeed, video images were reasonably bright and accurate in color capture, with the BIONZ Image Processor keeping scenes recorded in colors as close to their true nature as is possible.
Here’s a short clip showcasing the low-light performance of the HDR-XR550V:
A minor peeve with the Sony Handycams however, is the decision to confine users to a single default frame rate mode (1080/60i) as compared to other models offering multiple frame rates (720p, 1080/60p etc.). This calculated approach is understandable as mid-range computers are yet to adequately support the higher progressive rate (problems with lag and file sizes) and further improvements to maximize user options could be seen in upgrades to future models. Throwing in a wind filter or wind noise canceller would also be welcome in future models to minimize noise interference.
Successes with Sony’s Cyber-shot digital cameras have also been transplanted to the Handycam range in the form of useful features like the Face Detection and Smile Shutter technologies. Face Detection allocates more pixels to the detected faces (up to 8) in the AVCHD encoding process, ensuring optimal face naturalization. The Smile Shutter is particularly innovative when taking still pictures. By scanning the facial expressions of one intended subject, the shutter will be automatically triggered when the person smiles. Not essential requirements of a high-end camcorder by any means, but nevertheless a handy feature to have.
A Golf Shot capture mode is another feature that looks to provide golfers with frame-by-frame analysis of their performance. When the mode is enabled, which can be done before a swing, a continuous stream of high-speed images is captured until the record button is pushed at the end of the swing and the entire sequence is captured at 200 frames per second. Results can be displayed as a slow-motion video or a composite picture with each of the 200 frames shown as thumbnails.
These features add considerably to the HDR-XR550V’s adeptness at doubling up as a digital camera. In fact, the camera interpolates images in scaling up the images to a 12-megapixel resolution. 8.3-megapixel still images can be taken on-demand while recording, with the ‘photo’ shutter button strategically placed at the top of the camcorder for ease of reach with your index finger. Another strategic change of button placement is that of the mode button for switching between recording and still image capturing mode. Now sitting just to the left of the EVF, it is considerably more reachable to switch modes readily.
Audio capture is enhanced with the built-in mic that can record 5.1 channel surround sounds. Recording levels are limited between ‘Normal’ or ‘Low’ level options though. There is also an external headphone jack along with a mic that only accepts Sony-proprietary microphones.
Connecting the HDR-XR550V to other devices is made possible by the output jacks in the LCD recess. The Sony Composite AV output, high-speed USB ports or the HDMI output can all be used to hook up the camcorder to computers or screens for playback purposes. Files from the HDR-XR550V are easily transferable to PCs with the provided Picture Motion Browser software. Mac support is unavailable with the PMB software, however, with compatibility limited to Windows operating systems.
External storage now also provides wider support for SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards, as opposed to limiting users to the proprietary Memory Stick PRO Duo cards. The primary HDD storage of 240GB should prove substantial enough, however. Battery life is weak and said to last around an hour’s worth of shooting, thus it is recommended for replacements or higher-capacity batteries to be used in tandem with the one provided.
Overall, the HDR-XR550V’s performance can be said to be worthy of its price range and status as Sony’s flagship model, capable of capturing impressive video quality. The camcorder is easy to operate while remaining a more than able tool for professional users. However, the price remains hefty at a Recommended Retail Price of $1399. The sole difference from its sister model, the HDR-CX550V essentially lies in the 240GB HDD it offers while the HDR-CX550V is equipped with only 64GB of internal memory. Hence, unless you prefer to record to a single location in the form of the HDD, the CX550V may prove a better deal with the memory card slots able to compensate for any storage requirements.
More user reviews:
• “After waiting for nearly 2 months for the prices to come down, we finally took the plunge. We decided to replace our HDR-XR520v which we had purchased last year, because although an excellent camera, the lens was just not wide enough. We tried using wide angle converters, however no matter which one we used, the image quality was noticeably affected. So far we just love the XR-550v, the lens is soooo much better.” – G.Mitch(NY,USA)
• “The HDR-XR550V takes absolutely stunning HD video and stills. I owned the HDR-XR500V which I absolutely loved. In addition to all the great features on the HDR-XR500V, the HDR-XR550V includes an electronic viewfinder and also provides manual shutter speed control. It also offers a non-native 60p output option and in-camera standard definition downconversion. The latter is an especially welcome addition, giving users the ability to record and archive their footage in the highest quality, then export and edit with the smaller, more manageable MPEG-2 files.
Perhaps the most exciting new feature on the HDR-XR550V is the new memory card slot: a single slot that is compatible with both Memory Stick PRO Duo cards and traditional SD/SDHC cards. This new slot will be featured on Sony’s entire Handycam lineup this year, giving users unprecedented flexibility in sticking with Sony’s proprietary memory format or opting for the more universal SD/SDHC cards.
I personally love the GPS tagging feature, although I wish it would offer more detailed maps. The HDR-XR550V has increased hard drive capacity to 240GB, which gives me plenty of recording time.” – M.Stran (MA,USA)
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