Sony Handycam DCR-SR85 Camcorder Review
With a 60GB internal hard drive, the DCR-SR85 (MSRP $549.99) has the largest storage capacity of Sony\'s entry level standard definition camcorders. Replacing last year\'s DCR-SR42, Sony added a larger hard drive, a slightly revamped design, and a 100% increase in effective pixel count. The step-down model, the Sony DCR-SR65, is nearly identical to its big sister in every way—except for the smaller, 40GB hard drive under the hood and the $100 cheaper price tag. With the DCR-SR85, Sony delivers a camcorder with decent video performance and a good amount of settings and connectivity options. The NightShot mode and Sony-proprietary accessory shoe, along with the huge 60GB hard drive, are the main features that will earn the DCR-SR85 numerous fans.
Video Performance* (3.00)
*The Sony DCR-SR85 is equipped with a 1/6-inch Advanced HAD CCD sensor. It has a gross pixel count of 1,070,000 and an effective count of 680,000 pixels. This is a significant increase over last year's DCR-SR42, which had half as many effective pixels (340,000 pixels). Because Sony increased the pixel count without increasing the CCD sensor size, it presumably forced the pixels to shrink in size—something that appears to have given the DCR-SR85 worse low light sensitivity than the Sony SR42. Of course, the SR85 does offer better resolution, more clarity, and a far sharper image.
Sony DCR-SR85 at 3000 lux in auto mode
Sony DCR-SR42 at 3000 lux in auto mode
Our video performance testing begins by shooting a DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde chart under a bright, even 3000 lux of light. We then grab still frames from this footage and compare them to other camcorders we've previously tested. Right off the bat, we immediately noticed the increase in sharpness the SR85 has over last year's SR42. Text is bolder and easier to read and the image has deeper colors. The darkness of the DCR-SR85's image is also prominent—a direct result of the increased pixel count. In bright light, this increase in darkness doesn't seem to hurt the image. The chart shows stronger contrasts between black and white, colors with more pop, and a more vivid picture.
In the blown-up images above you can see the increase in detail coming from the Sony DCR-SR85. The improvement over the DCR-SR42 isn't as significant as we'd hoped, but you can notice more detail at the tail ends of the horizontal stripes in the images above. Also numbers and text are a bit bolder on the SR85. The Canon FS11, however, produces a far better image than the Sony SR85. Canon's image has smooth horizontal curves at the top and bottom of the blow-up, and the text on the right side of the frame is easier to read (although it's by no means crystal clear).
The color reproduction on the Sony DCR-SR85 looked far different from what we saw on the Canon FS11 and FS100. Don't let your eyes fool you, the two images above are shots of the exact same colors, but taken by two different camcorders. As you'll see in our low light performance section, the Sony DCR-SR85 scored uncharacteristically low in color accuracy—usually something Sony dominates in. The noticeable fuzziness in the blues and purples captured by the SR85 also makes the image less pleasing. The Canon appears to have smooth, even colors, without the blocky distortions visible on the SR85.
Shooting outside of the lab the DCR-SR85 performed adequately. Changes in exposure went smoothly and the camcorder captured crisp images with ease. Picture quality appeared to be nearly on par with the Canon FS100 in sided-by-side shooting. It was only when we looked at areas of fine detail that we noticed a strong difference between the two camcorders.
Overall, the video performance of the DCR-SR85 is a disappointment. It has decent image quality, but the improvement over last year's DCR-SR42 isn't nearly as good as we'd hoped to see from Sony. In our tests the Canon FS11 and FS100 captured better detail and a cleaner image in bright light. We'll have more reviews coming soon that should give Sony and Canon some stiff competition: the JVC GZ-MG330 and Panasonic SDR-H60 are both plugging through our labs as we speak.
Video Resolution* (5.25)
*To test video resolution, we shoot a DSC Labs video resolution chart under a bright, even light. We then watch the footage on an external monitor to analyze the results. The Sony DCR-SR85 produced an approximate horizontal resolution of 350 line widths per picture height (lw/ph) and a vertical resolution of 300 lw/ph. These are a touch above average scores for a camcorder in this price range and the numbers are nearly identical to the video resolutions we measured on the Canon FS11 and FS100 (both with 350 lw/ph horizontal and 275 lw/ph vertical). The SR85 far outperformed the older Sony SR42 in video resolution, which we would expect from the higher effective pixel count on the SR85.
Low Light Performance* (2.92)
*We test low light performance in three separate stages: comparative analysis, color accuracy/noise/saturation evaluation, and light sensitivity testing. Beginning the process with the DCR-SR85, we shot a DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde chart under moderately low light (60 lux) and very low light (15 lux). We then pulled frames from this footage and compared them with other camcorders that have journeyed through our labs.
Sony DCR-SR85 at 60 lux in auto mode
Sony DCR-SR42 at 60 lux in auto mode
Much like we saw in our bright light testing, the DCR-SR85 has a darker image than the DCR-SR42 at 60 lux. The SR85 has a bolder, sharper picture, but it is clearly a notch darker than last year's model. It's not that the image looked too dark at 60 lux—it actually looked quite good. Colors were deep and vivid and the blacks and whites looked very strong. If you want a very bright image, however, the SR85 will give you some problems.
At 60 lux, the Sony SR85 really showed off its sharpness when we looked closely. In the images above, you can clearly see the improvements Sony made over last year's SR42. The text on the SR42 looks blurred and distorted in comparison to the bold, sharp lettering of the SR85. The SDR-H60, Panasonic's standard definition camcorder with a 60GB internal hard drive, also produced fuzzy print in the blow-up. Only the Canon FS100 (and the FS11) came close to matching the Sony as far as sharpness is concerned.
Sony DCR-SR85 at 15 lux in auto mode
Sony DCR-SR42 at 15 lux in auto mode
Panasonic SDC-H60 at 15 lux in auto mode
At 15 lux, which is very low light, the Sony DCR-SR85 produced a very dark image. Even with this dark image, however, the colors are strong and the sharpness is still impressive. In comparison, the SR42 has a much brighter image, but its colors are faded and the picture is loaded with distracting, fuzzy noise. The DCR-SR85 may not be able to pick up as much detail in low light as the SR42, but its image is much more pleasing to look at. The Panasonic SDC-H60 produced an image quite similar to the Sony DCR-SR85 at 15 lux. Both aren't bright pictures, but have good levels of contrast and robust colors (especially when recording at such low light levels). The big difference is in sharpness, as the Sony provides a much clearer picture than the Panasonic here, just as it did at 60 lux.
For the second stage of our low light testing we use Imatest imaging software to determine color accuracy, saturation levels and average noise. We first shoot an X-Rite Color Checker chart at an even 60 lux, then we pull frames from this footage and run them through the software. According to Imatest, the DCR-SR85 produced a color error of 15.9. This is slightly worse than the 13.6 score earned by the DCR-SR42 last year. The difference in scores probably has to do with the darker image produced by the SR85. This isn't a horrible score, however, as most camcorders in this price range don't fair all that well with color accuracy. The Canon FS11 performed a bit better, posting an 11.8 in color error, and the Samsung SC-MX20 did a little worse, with a color error of 16.6.
The DCR-SR85 averaged 1.45% noise according to Imatest, which is a decent noise score. It's an improvement over the SR42 (1.8625% noise) and nearly identical to the numbers put up by the Canon FS11 (1.4325% noise). The SR85 also produced a saturation level of 61%.
For our last low light test we measure sensitivity. We hook the DCR-SR85 to a waveform monitor, which measures light in IREs. Watching the monitor, we slowly lower the lights until the camcorder reads an exposure of 50 IRE. The DCR-SR85 required 18 lux of light to reach 50 IRE, which is an unusually bad score for Sony. The Canon FS11, Samsung SC-MX20, and Sony DCR-SR42 all needed only 13 lux of light to obtain a peak of 50 IRE. It seems the boost in pixel count really did a number on limiting the SR85's low light sensitivity—something that is visually noticeable when comparing the 15 lux images of the SR85 and SR42. The sensitivity score doesn't measure how good the image looks at low light, it just measures how well the camcorder picks up an image when the lights go dim.
Overall, the Sony DCR-SR85 showed us some promising images in low light. It had a clearer image than much of the competition, and colors always looked solid. The camcorder does have a problem with low light sensitivity and it doesn't produce as bright an image as some of the other products in its price range. You have to take into consideration how often you'll be filming in low light settings, and how important a bright image is to you. Keep in mind, the Sony DCR-SR85 does come with a NightShot system, which can capture footage at light levels as low as 0 lux (as long as you don't mind the bright green coloration produced by the infrared sensor). We don't include special night modes in our testing or our low light scoring, however, because the image is completely distorted.
*We test image stabilization systems by attaching camcorders to a specialized device in our lab. Our device produces an agitating motion at two different speeds—speed one is roughly equivalent to the wobbliness of an unsteady hand, while speed two mimics the rocky motion you'd experience if attempting to film from a moving vehicle. At speed one, the Sony DCR-SR85 reduced 83.3% of the shake and at speed two it reduced 71.4%. Both of these are fantastic scores, as Sony generally does well with image stabilization. The DCR-SR85 is equipped with an electronic image stabilization system (EIS), which digitally smooths out unwanted motion. Using EIS can result in some loss of image quality and it should be turned off when the camcorder is on a tripod.
In comparison, the Canon FS11 reduced a similar amount of shake at speed one, but had an awful performance at speed two, providing only 11.11% reduction at the faster speed.
Wide Angle* (9.60)
*We tested the wide angle capabilities of the DCR-SR85 using a vertical laser. We set the camcorder on a stationary tripod and pull its zoom all the way out, hence displaying the widest view possible. Analyzing the footage on an external monitor, we measured the SR85's wide angle at 48 degrees. This is an average score for a consumer camcorder.