Pros: Massive storage capacity; good manual control placement; optical viewfinder.
Cons: Tricky user interface; heavy; short battery life; unremarkable HD video performance.
It may be the most expensive camcorder in this test, but the XR520VE is a monster when it comes to storage capacity, with a 240GB hard drive that’s bigger than the stock storage space found in some computers. While this makes it great for extended trips or projects – since you won’t need to keep downloading your footage – it does have an impact on the camcorder’s weight (half a kilogram) and battery life (about an hour).
In terms of specifications, the XR520VE is almost identical to the slimmer, lighter, cheaper CX520VE. It has the same Exmor R image sensor with an effective video resolution of 6.6 megapixels, but with a relatively low maximum HD image quality of 1,920 x 1,080/16Mbps.
Like the CX520VE, that effectively ensures it doesn’t scale the heights of its Canon and JVC rivals – or even really measure up to the two Panasonics. And, of course, it has a similarly tricky touchscreen user interface to the CX520VE.
In the hand, the XR520VE looks and feels pretty portly, although its bulk makes it easy to hold. Strangely, its zoom toggle button is narrower and trickier to access comfortably than that of the CX520VE, and you’ll find your fingers and thumbs contorting into all kinds of weird shapes to switch shooting modes or snap stills.
One good thing about the extra bulk is that Sony has found room for a control dial by the lens, which lets you take manual control of settings such as focus, white balance and exposure. It’s also one of the only camcorders here that includes an electronic viewfinder. However, the bulkier body hasn’t made more room for a component video output – which could be problematic if you own a TV that doesn’t have HDMI.
The picture quality delivered by the HDR-XR520VE is similar to that of its sibling; detail is good rather than remarkable, but colours and skin tones are rendered accurately. We found the SteadyShot optical image stabiliser to be slightly better than average, though the geo-tag function proved redundant because we couldn’t get a signal lock.
Like other hard-drive models in this test, the HDR-XR520VE is relatively slow to start up. Accessing features in the touchscreen menu system also enforces a short wait while the hard drive does its thing.
This review is one of six in a HD Camcorder Group Test.