Hard drives are progressively disappearing from camcorders to make way for flash memory, and the Sony HDR-CX520 is a perfect example of the trend. It has a 12 Megapixel CMOS sensor and 64 GB of internal memory.
There's no doubt that switching to flash memory reduces the physical size of a camcorder. The CX520, with its attractive dark grey body, is smaller and lighter than its hard drive-based predecessors like the HDR-XR500. You don't need to waste time reading the manual either, as it works as soon as you take it out of the box: the camcorder even switches itself on automatically when you open out the screen. All that's left is pressing the red button to start recording onto the internal memory and zooming, if you wish. Speaking of which, the 12x zoom takes centre stage with a well-placed control that gives you plenty of room for manoeuvre. That's because the zoom control adapts gradually to how hard you're pressing it, without any of the jerky movements or sudden leaps found on other camcorders. In short, if you only need the basics, the CX520 is a simple, solid camcorder.
That isn't true when you venture into the touchscreen interface though. The impressive number of menus and sub-menus that you have to work your way through to adjust even the most basic settings is baffling. For example, you have to go all the way through the menu to be able to change the video bitrate to 16 Mbps. Of course, you can create your shortcuts on the home screen, but that takes time. At this rate, it'll soon be as hard to use a camcorder as it is to set up a Windows PC (which is saying something). The touchscreen does have some real advantages though. It's very responsive and the 230 400 pixel, three inch display is so good that you don't miss the viewfinder.
There is one small problem with using the camcorder though. The manual focus (which I use a lot) is controlled by a wheel at the back of the camera--but it turns freely which is frustrating. We wonder why manufacturers have abandoned traditional lens-based focusing. Is it more expensive? Some camcorders have even gone as far as relegating manual focus to arrow buttons.
Let's finish this section by looking at the battery, an NP-FH60, which, as the name suggest, allows for sixty minutes of filming. It takes 2 hours 15 minutes to charge the camcorder, which is something you need to factor is as you can't film and recharge the battery at the same time. The 64 GB of memory give you enough space to record 7 hours 45 minutes of video in HD quality (16 Mbps), which is more than enough to get you through your holidays.
What we were particularly looking forward to with the CX520 was testing its image stabilisation system, which Sony claims is a 'world first'. The manufacturer has developed an 'active' mode for the CX520, which works in all three dimensions to correct for complex movements like walking. And it works!
Just take a look at this video and you can see how the walking motion is completely cancelled out. It feels like you're filming with a Steadicam, a professional mobile mount.
The optical stabilisation system actually has three distinct modes: off (no stabilization), standard and active. It's this last one that's impressive, deadening movement so that the frame resembles an object in a jar that you're shaking, only moving slowly out of position when you shake it violently.
Sensitivity is the CX520's strong point and it makes the most of a 1/2.9'' CMOS sensor. The technology considerably reduces electronic noise at low light levels, allowing you to film indoors and still produce a clear result. For the darkest of scenes, the Low Lux mode increases sensibility even more, but is not the same as the NightShot mode which uses an infrared filter instead.
The CX520 produces sharp, accurate Full HD video at 1920 x 1080 pixels with a maximum bitrate of 16 Mbps. It's not quite the perfection of 24 Mbps AVCHCD, but is good enough to produce excellent quality HD video. You can of course reduce the bitrate, and consequently the quality, if you want to film for longer. There's one big problem: the wide-angle lens starts at just 43 mm (24 x 36 mm equivalent), which rather wastes the width of the 16:9 Full HD aspect ratio. Sony would do better to include a real wide-angle lens on its video cameras instead of stuffing them with gadgets like GPS receivers. The stakes are even higher now that a lot of stills cameras shoot excellent HD video using their 28 mm wide-angle lenses.
12 Megapixel Photos
Not happy with just filming in Full HD, the CX520 can also take 12 Megapixel still photos (4000 x 3000). This resolution is only available in the dedicated photo mode, and if you do take photos in video mode, they will only be 8 Megapixels. That's because the stills camera and camcorder use the sensor in different ways.
What's more, the two modes produce different colours, but have the same very average level of detail. The CX520 isn't really a great all-in-one, but rather a spare camera for the days when you forget your regular digital camera. You can save still photos directly onto a Memory Stick Duo Pro because the CX520 includes a reader.
Audio & Connectivity
The CX520 includes a microphone that offers either stereo or 5.1 surround sound recording. In the latter mode, the mic records four separate channels which are then converted to a 5.1 sound signal and saved in the Dolby Digital AC3 format at 48 kHz. Because the Dolby technology is included in the camcorder, you can record 5.1 surround sound directly. It's not a new feature for Sony, but it's worth trying if you have speakers at home that can make the most of it. There isn't an input for an external microphone though, or a headphone output.
The other outputs are limited to the usual suspects: composite and component video over the same proprietary Sony connector, mini HDMI and USB.
Let's finish by looking at the GPS mode that Sony has installed that I would love to see actually work one day. After turning it on and waiting ten minutes, the CX520 still hadn't managed to find me. The theory is that the camcorder can record where you were when you filmed something so you can geotag your videos.