The CX550 has other tricks up its sleeve though, including 64 GB of flash memory and an improved AVCHD bitrate of Mbps, both of which should improve the quality of the video it produces.
The biggest improvement on the CX550 is its superb new LCD screen, which now measures 3.5'' with a record-breaking resolution of 921 600 pixels. Like the Canon HF S21 before it, the CX550's display makes it incredibly comfortable to use, and you'll soon forget about the viewfinder. Extra space also makes using the touchscreen menus easier. These are rich as ever, with various options for adjusting the quality of your recording, white balancing, volume levels or simply playing your video following logically one after the other. The CX550 also allows you to choose the settings you use the most often and display them first, with everything else tucked away under 'Display Others'.
The LCD screen has a great resolution for its sizeAnother welcome feature (but not new this time) is the very fine control you have over the 10x zoom. It's very responsive, and it's very easy to vary how quickly it moves across the whole focal length, at speeds varying from very slow to very fast. Sony has also included a manual wheel at the front to control focus and the lens, but to be honest, the automatic features work so fast that we hardly even touched it.
Having a mic input is always welcome on a camcorder, and as any blogger who has tried to do video interviews will tell you, the market isn't exactly inundated with products that have this feature. The CX550 also has a built-in 5.1 microphone, which will capture 360° of sound perfectly, as long as you have the Home Cinema speakers at home to enjoy the experience.
The CX550 films at a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels using an interlaced scan (1080i). For AVCHD, its bitrate has been increased to 24 Mbps, from 17 Mbps on last year's models, allowing Sony to catch up with Canon and JVC. We compared the results with those of the Panasonic TM700, another camcorder we're testing at the moment, which also films in 1080i, but at 17 Mbps. Surprisingly, our test results revealed that video produced by the latter was a little sharper. We noticed the same thing when we took it out: the CX550 isn't as good as the TM700, whether you're shooting at wide-angle or zooming in. But there's even worse news to come: the CX550 produces video that's less sharp than the Sony HDR-XR500, which came out last year and also films at ... 17 Mbps! Proof if you needed it that upping the bitrate doesn't automatically improve quality.
Sensitivity is the only area where the CX550 maintains the upper hand. Its Exmor sensor performs much better at lower light levels, producing decent video that looks a lot less dark than some of its competitors.
Left: some distortion is visible on our test card at wide angle, but the problem goes away when you're filming realistic screens (right).
So what about that 29.8 mm wide angle lens? Here at least the CX550 lived up to our expectations, offering a genuinely wider field of view that easily beats the TM700's 35 mm. Impressively, the wide angle only adds a minimal amount of distortion. The only way to pick it up is by filming an object with lots of right angles like a table or a window looking straight on. We noticed some distortion in the lab using test cards, but there was no problem whatsoever with clips we shot outside. Here's an example on video.
The 'active' image stabilisation system is a feature we're glad to have back: it first arrived in 2009 and allows you to walk and film and the same time almost without any movement. The camcorder seems to float as you move forwards. This is the test video we shot at the time.
Using the touchscreen, you can access a GPS on the CX550. Although a lot of people had condemned this feature as an unnecessary gadget, it has turned out to be quite useful. When it works, the GPS allows you to geotag your clips. Next time you get back from a fortnight in South America with three hours of footage, it will handily tell you exactly where you were in every clip.
If you want to edit your video afterwards, remember that this camcorder uses the AVCHD format, which is particularly demanding in terms of resources. If your computer is more than a year old, you'll find playback is jerky and editing clips hard. There is good news from manufacturers, though, who have promised that the latest CPUs will in future allow you to edit this format almost as easily as you could DV.