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Sony SR11 HD camcorder review

FINAL UPDATE: I noticed again deinterlacing issues now on the HV20 causing the picture to be softe (aargh…). I fixed the video’s and gallery. Now the Hv20 resolution is equal or better than SR11 in all comparisons.
 
 
Here’s my Sony SR11 review. I focus mainly on comparison to the Canon HV20 camcorder. Usual caveats apply and I recommend checking out other reviews. There are also a lot of SR11/SR12 video’s on vimeo.com now. I had considerable issues testing this properly. In my first batch of tests I had bad SR11 picture quality but I found it was first a codec issue and second a deinterlacing setup issue.  I’ve retested all comparison shots to make sure all issues were fixed.
 
 
Introduction
The Sony SR11 is a HD camcorder that can record to internal HDD (60GB) or to memory stick (optional). Direct competitors would be the Canon HG10 (40GB HDD only) and the Canon HF10 (no HDD but internal 16 GB memory). My review of the HF100 can be found here: http://lucienk.spaces.live.com/blog/cns!A4AE3FB12A26635!712.entry. Key SR11 points: high resolution 640×480 LCD touch-screen screen, dual recording to HDD or memorystick, support of 5.1 channel surround and ability to take 10 megapixel photo stills.
UPDATE: I haven’t tested photos since camcorder photo quality. From what I’ve seen the pictures look pretty decent but still not quite as good as most digital compacts. Also note that the SR11 features focus based on face detection similar what we’ve seen in digital cameras (I haven’t tested this feature either).
 
Note: HDD camcorders should not be operated at very high elevations or low pressure (3km / 9000 feet). Also it’s not suitable for recording in sudden jerky movements (like a roller coaster or rough mountain biking). Pure solid state doesn’t have this problem. It’s possible that the SR11 can be operated under these conditions when switching to memorystick but the manual indicates any mode. I asked Sony this question but they haven’t responded yet.
 
General
The size is about the same as the HV20 and has about the same feel (slighty more slippery plastic:-)). It’s slightly flatter but not by much. The zoom control feel is about the same as the HV20. Small and good if you have small fingers. It does have variable zoom speed similar to HV20. The zoom itself is very quiet and has many steps.
The screen has a nice typical higher resolution than what you normally see at 640×480 (the manual says 1920×480 but remember 3 pixels per color). Unfortunately the screen is touch-screen meaning for many functions you have to use it. For instance playing back video requires you to go through the touch screen menu’s. There are no dedicated buttons or an alternative way to playback (other than remote). Over time you will get fingerprints over it. Fortunately in recording, the main adjustments like focus and exposure control can be performed using a dedicated control dial/button combo in the front. I still wish Sony would have included a simply 4-way navigation button as an alternative way for all functions.
The SR11 comes with a small docking base which can be used to recharge and connect to your PC over USB. I found it rather cumbersome in use. Fortunately you can recharge alternatively directly in the camcorder (in case you’re on the road). Also you can directly connect to the PC using the front USB port.
SR11 like a few other new solid-state camcorders feature a quick standby. It will go in low power consumption mode for a certain amount of time, and if you press the button and it’s ready to record again in about 1 second.
 
 
Recording Format
The SR11 records to AVCHD and features several quality settings. The highest setting features a full 1920×1080 60i interlaced resolution at 16Mbps using the AVCHD high profile encoding. Previous Sony AVCHD camcorders supported only 1440×1080. Note however that the typical consumer HD resolution is around 600×600. Sony updated their Vegas software recently to support this new full 1920×1080 resolution. The SR11 does not support progressive formats like 30p or 24p (like the Canon HV20/HG10/HF10/HF100). One advantage of 30p I found is better low-light performance (and downside is slightly less fluid movement).
You can use either a ‘docking station’ to transfer files from HDD to computer, or you use the front USB input. The memory stick is the easier route. Just remove it and plug it in your ms reader. You have to buy a memory stick since it’s not included (about $100 for max 8GB currently which gives you 1 hour recording at highest setting). Note that you cannot copy video from the memory stick to the HDD (only the other direction).

The supplied software is limited and has few features: mainly playback with few options and basic conversions. The basic conversions don’t include WMVHD which would have been compatible with all windows computers (only non-HD WMV is included). I ran into issues playing back these clips in anything other than Sony software. The first problem you will encounter is that the free standard ffdshow AVCHD codec will cause appearance of occasional broken frames. To fix this I found that the CoreAVC codec works but you have to pay a small fee for it. The second problem I found is proper deinterlacing (which is easy to run into since default interlacing method is different). Make sure deinterlacing is of type ‘blend’ (default for CoreAVC). Many people might run into these issues and they may not notice this at first. If you’re not computer savvy your safest option is to buy Sony Vegas to avoid these issues (editions ranging from $100-$450). Latest Pinnacle version I’ve heard would work as well and would be slightly faster in rendering/editing but I don’t have this software to comment on that.

 
The Sony AVCHD decoder was excellent and I haven’t seen much artifacts. I did see some stepping in some instances but that could be caused by sharpening. But I think it’s finally very close to the HV20 25Mbps MPEG2. So we can only hope more software will support this so you’re not stuck with only certain editor choices. Also note that rendering AVCHD in general, let alone editing requires a powerful new computer.
 
So to summarize which sofware will not work directly with the SR11 clips at this point: movie maker, tmpgenc Xpress (got it working partially but I couldn’t select the 2nd 5.1 audio stream), VS10/11 and pretty much any software older than 1 year. Software that should work: latest Sony Vegas 8 (platinum and pro on latest build only), Pinnacle Systems, VS11.5. I tried the latter but still ran into some issues at playback. But it could be a configuration issue on my machine.
 
 
Audio quality and features
The HDD is very silent and I haven’t heard any HDD noises recorded (I only tested up to 30 seconds after that you could run into some short clicks when HDD buffer is full but I didn’t test this). Also the zoom is very quiet so it’s not picked up. Sony did a good job here. Not so good is that there’s no manual recording volume adjustment and I found the recording levels a tad low. There’s a low setting but only suitable for loud recordings since it will be even lower in recording volume (I’ve heard a few users report that the sound is still distorted in very loud concerts).
 
The SR11 also supports 5.1 channel recording. I did a 360 degree test with a fixed source. I found the channel seperation to be poor and all channels are very close. But that’s better probably than having no seperation at all. See here the waveforms doing a 360 turn from a fixed sound source:
 
Click here for bigger picture. Note: 270 degrees at 16sec, 180 degrees at 23 sec, 90 degrees at 28sec
 
 
Video quality and features
As mentioned I ran into problems evaluating the SR11 picture quality to the HV20. I hit 2 different codec problems mentioned above but both were solved with the CoreAVC codec or using Sony Vegas.
 
I ran first couple of indoor shots. In general the HV20 has more noise but slightly more detail in low contrast areas. To most the SR11 looks slightly more pleasing with less noise but this appears to be rather due to noise removal (evidence seems the low contrast detail loss and some smudging when you look at my comparison near the fireplace picture). It is possible to get a similar picture with HV20 using a software post processing noise filter. However for the average person it’s ideal not having to do this extra step if they want less noise. So all in all most would be pleased with it.
One bad problem I found for indoor was focusing. With dim light I saw the focus hunting at times. I haven’t experienced this with HV20 much and if it did happen, it corrected itself much faster.
 
For the outdoor shots I had mixed results. First tests showed slightly less detail in the SR11 video. But depending on the light conditions the SR11 looked very close except for little bit more saturation and more cooler bluish/yellowish cast compared to the HV20 (but still warmer/yellower than the HF100). See framegrab comparison here (HV20 always left): outdoor framegrab comparison. I would have preferred an adjustable (lower) saturation, sharpening and contrast since I noticed this caused at times some detail loss.
 
Also I noticed in some video’s from other users shot in daylight (and in the Japanese review) artifacts that point to noise removal. I noticed ‘blotches’ and smearing in some areas. Not everyone may notice this especially in moving video but I definitely picked up on it. The HV20 doesn’t have these artifacts in bright scenes but obviously it has slightly more noise (but in moving video not really visible).
 
I also noticed differences in white balance approach. The SR11 prefers a different (yellow) temperature setting than the more reddish HV20. Both can have its downsides at times. Blue sky on HV20 can look little bit purplish at times, the SR11 can render grass and the overall picture a bit too green/yellow. There’s a manual control on both cameras to change WB but most don’t need to bother. Overall it’s rather a matter of preference which color balance you would prefer. See below an example:
 
To see some framegrab comparisons go to the gallery (left is always HV20): HV20 SR11 framegrab comparison
 
Manual control
The SR11 has following manual controls: you can choose scene setting and override exposure (dynamic or fixed), white balance (dynamic or program). The control knob/wheel in the front allows you to change most of these settings during recording. Unfortunately Sony dropped the digital effect ‘slow shutter’ so you cannot control the shutter time anymore. The Canon offers aperty and shutter priority modes and also allows you to change contrast, color and sharpness. This allows you to get a more unprocessed picture when you want to do more post processing. With the SR11 it’s what you see is what you get (but you could do some PP). I found the SR11 slightly oversaturated at times for my taste. But most will have absolutely no problems with the overall SR11 picture.
 
Conclusion
Overall the SR11 is pretty close to the HV20 in terms of video quality and the first camcorder where I think the AVCHD is finally as good as the HDV compression. It’s not quite as sharp as the HV20 but overall comes fairly close. The AVCHD may creates some challenges but this should improve over time. For now I’d recommend Sony Vegas 8.0 or Pinnacle to be safe until more software supports it. Videostudio 11.5+ should work as well but I had mixed results. You may also wait a bit longer to see if your favorite editor will get support for it (so this should be all temporary).
 
The HF10/HF100 has been reviewed by camcorderinfo.com (HF10 review) and I also would check that one out. It’s smaller and cheaper without HDD but no viewfinder. I found the HF100 to show a slightly ‘cleaner’ and sharper picture (with more detail). Second the HF10/HF100 also supports 30p and 24p progressive recording which also as a side-effect gives you 1-1.5 stop increased light sensitivity. Other advantages are more manual control like aperture and shutter priority modes. The HF100 is $200 cheaper compared to the HF10 and only difference is color (silver) and no 16GB internal memory. However you can buy 16GB nowadays for about $60. Note that the HF10/HF100 is not perfect by any means. Two biggest cons are Auto W/B that can be too bluish at times in bright sunlight, and some purple fringing at times in very high contrast areas that I didn’t see this to this extent on the SR11 or HV20. Both can be mitigated but obviously requires more user interaction. See HF100 for more details. Also note that the new CX12 from Sony will be coming which has no HDD and records solely on memorystick. Downside though with memorystick is relative high price compared to SDHC cards.
 
Summary:
 
  • +AVCHD compression very good and very few artifacts
  • +Pleasing indoor picture with relatively low noise for a consumer HD camcorder (with some detail loss in low contrast)
  • +Great outdoor quality and very close to HV20 in terms of resolution
  • +Audio is good (tad low perhaps) and the camera is fairly quiet
  • +Dedicated Control dial in front for common recording adjustments like focus and exposure control
  • +In case you shoot a lot of landscape than you appreciate the minimum focal length starts at 40mm instead of 43mm (compared to Canon HV20). I still highly recommend a wide-angle lens. Also the SR11 lens has 12x zoom compared to HV20 10x zoom
  • – Some smearing/blotches in daylight in some video’s which appear to point to noise removal artifacts (rather than compression)
  • – Touch screen operation for several basic common operations like playback
  • – Occasional slow focusing issues especially indoor and low-light (as seen before on Sony camcorders)
  • – Limited SR11 AVCHD 1080i high profile support at this moment. Sony recently updated their software to support this. Note this is not specific to Sony but to AVCHD in general
  • – No Av or Tv manual control modes. This will rule out certain professional/cineast applications where one needs to control aperture or shutter
  • – No progressive modes like 24p and 30p on Canon’s (I personally found 24p always too jerky for any movement so I can do without).
  • +/- favors yellowish for auto white balance outdoors (same may prefer this though). Note you can setup a dynamic color shift as well
  • – Proprietary Memory stick: only 8GB officially supported and twice as expensive as SDHC cards
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