Sony HDR-XR520 high-definition video camera

A Sony handycam with a 240GB HDD, GPS and Full HD recording

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Sony HDR-XR520
  • Sony HDR-XR520
  • Sony HDR-XR520
  • Sony HDR-XR520
  • Expert Rating

    4.00 / 5

Pros

  • Good video quality, excellent stills mode, 240GB hard drive

Cons

  • Video quality slightly below Canon HF S10, depressingly unaffordable

Bottom Line

The Sony HDR-XR520 is a rock-solid HDD video camera that improves on its predecessors in nearly every way. On the other hand, it's unlikely that many consumers will be able to afford it at its current price point.

Would you buy this?

The Sony HDR-XR520 is the latest high-end camcorder to flaunt the Full HD logo at video connoisseurs. It sits at the very top of Sony’s consumer-level handycam range and comes packed with all the premium features that this entails. Some of the highlights include 1920x1080 video recording (otherwise known as Full HD), a redesigned 6.6-megapixel CMOS sensor, a 240GB hard drive, a 12-megapixel stills mode and built-in GPS functionality. Do all these bells-and-whistles justify the $2699 asking price? Maybe. Whether you'll actually be able to afford it is another matter, though.

The Sony HDR-XR520 handycam shares many of the same modes and features as its cheaper HD sibling, the Sony HDR-XR200. However, it also benefits from some marked improvements, including a redesigned 1/2.9in CMOS sensor with D-SLR-derived Exmor R technology. This makes a huge difference to image quality, particularly in poorly lit environments. It also comes with a manual control dial — a must for serious videographers. But the biggest change is arguably to the inbuilt hard drive, which has doubled in size.

The HDR-XR520 is the latest in a long line of hard disk–based camcorders from Sony. Previous models include the HDR-SR11, HDR-SR12E, HDR-TG1 and DCR-SR85. Alongside JVC, the company is one of the main champions of the HDD format, which remains a very popular choice with consumers.

The main advantage of an inbuilt hard drive is the amount of storage it offers. While most flash memory camcorders come with a capacity of 32GB or less, the Sony HDR-XR520 provides a gargantuan 240GB of inbuilt memory. This equates to 96 hours of HD video at the lowest quality setting — that’s four full days of recording time. (For serial videographers a Memory Stick slot is also included, though we can’t imagine anyone needing the additional space.)

Surprisingly, Sony has stuck to a 16Mbps AVCHD bitrate for this camcorder, as opposed to the 24Mbps bitrate found on some of its rivals. On paper, this means that the HDR-XR520 produces inferior looking video, but we’ve found the difference to be marginal. In any event, we certainly have no qualms about the Sony HDR-XR520’s video performance. While it falls slightly short of the Canon HF S10, there really wasn’t much in it. Both camcorders produced exceptionally detailed video and excelled in dim lighting. In fact, the HDR-XR520 arguably trumps Canon’s model in the noise-reduction stakes, but we still prefer the HF S10’s image quality overall. We also found colours to be slightly muted for our tastes, though this was quickly remedied with the x.v Colour mode.

In addition to taking great video, the Sony HDR-XR520 also comes with an impressive 12-megapixel stills mode. This is achieved via interpolation (which is another word for cheating) but the results speak for themselves. Our test shots remained crisp and vibrant in all but the dimmest environments, while the inclusion of manual controls gives you plenty of photographic freedom. If you’re looking for a camcorder that can double as a compact camera, this is definitely one of the better options on the market.

Sony has introduced some fresh new features to the HDR-XR520, including a GPS receiver. This is something that no other manufacturer offers at the moment, resulting in a camcorder that stands out from the crowd. While there are no navigation options on board, the integrated mapping system allows you to view your current location on the LCD, which is handy if you’re lost in a bustling city. It will also organise your video clips based on the locations where they were shot. To be honest, we’re not 100 per cent sold on the merits of the GPS. It’s kind of like having a drink holder in a luxury car (i.e. it’s useful, but hardly an essential feature.)

Sony has made a name for itself when it comes to crafting fashionable camcorders, and the HDR-XR520 does nothing to besmirch its reputation. Like previous HD models, it sticks to a basic black design that is both stylish and professional. It’s also a bit of a monster. Weighing in at 590g and measuring 71x75x137mm, it’s easily one of the biggest and heaviest camcorders we’ve ever tested. (Mind you, this is the price you pay for a 240GB hard drive.) Thankfully, the HDR-XR520 handled very well during testing. We were particularly impressed by its optical image stabiliser, which helped to keep our footage centred and silky-smooth.

Our only real reservation about the Sony HDR-XR520 is its $2699 price tag. Like the Canon HF S10, it will unfortunately be out of reach for many consumers. Personally, we feel that consumer-level camcorders should peak out at the $2000 mark, but that's a debate for another day. If you've got the clams to afford it, the Sony HDR-XR520 remains an impressive piece of hardware.

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