Sony HDR-CX700V Camcorder Review
The HDR-CX700V has a tight design, and its compact design is relatively surprising when you consider how many features and controls are stuffed inside. Overall, the camcorder is suitable as a high-end model, but we found a number of handling problems when we started nitpicking. The most obvious gripe is that Sony reduced the size of the LCD on the CX700V by 1/2 an inch (compared to last year's flagship models). We loved the 3.5-inch screen that Sony included on its top camcorders, and it is sad that Sony decided to take it away. The smaller screen makes the touchscreen interface more difficult to use and it gives you less space to frame your shot.
The improvements Sony made to the menu system do make the touchscreen easier to use, however. There's no more funky swiping and scrolling features for the menu system, and the new menu arrangement is easier to digest and understand. Sony also provides plenty of info boxes and tips when you select menu options, which is great for beginners. If you want to avoid the touchscreen, the CX700V has a small control dial on the front of the camcorder that can be used to adjust various manual controls. We didn't come away overly impressed with the dial, however, as its loose rotation made it very difficult to use for making precise adjustments. The dial's front button was also unresponsive at times, and we found the dial to be particularly flaky when we used it while video recording was taking place.
The body of the HDR-CX700V has a contoured design with numerous slopes, slight valleys, and a number of grooves. It is not a boxy camcorder, but, instead, looks streamlined and shapely. Unfortunately, its shape isn't all that comfortable to grip on the right side. The slight bumps on the right don't fit into the palm of your hand with perfection, so it leaves you with a so-so grip. At the top of the camcorder, you must be careful to not let your pinky wander towards the built-in mic near the front of the CX700V. We wish Sony had made things a bit roomier for your fingers up there, and maybe more space for your palm to rest.
The hand strap is also at fault for making the CX700V uncomfortable to grip. Sony added a built-in USB cable to the new camcorder, and this cable tucks into the side of the hand strap via a small plastic groove. By adding this, Sony made the hand strap too rigid and had to take out a significant amount of padding and flexibility. Yes, the hand strap is still adjustable, but it feels like a hard plastic ridge is up against the back of your palm. Previous Sony camcorders, like the HDR-CX550V, offered larger hand straps with a lot more padding. Although we do like the presence of the built-in USB cable, we'd prefer to have the old hand straps back instead. Or maybe Sony can figure out a way to incorporate both in the future.
Depending on where you look, Sony lists a bunch of different dimension specs for the HDR-CX700V. When we measured the camcorder, it came in at 62mm wide, 72.5mm tall, and 139mm long. This is not including the provided lens hood, however, which will add around 35mm to the camcorder's length. Overall, this makes the HDR-CX700V just a tad more compact than last year's HDR-CX550V. Frankly, we expected more of a compact design on the new camcorder, particularly when you consider the LCD shrunk by 1/2 an inch.
As for weight, the CX700V comes in at 490g, which is 10g heavier than its predecessor. This increase in weight doesn't really bother us (who cares about 10 grams?), but you must realize that the HDR-CX700V is not the kind of camcorder you can just toss in your bag and forget about. It's got some weight to it, although it is nothing compared to the tape-based camcorders from just a few years ago. Also, the camcorder's 96GB of internal flash memory will allow you to record for a long time without having to worry about bringing along an extra memory card on your travels.
The HDR-CX700V did an excellent job in our battery test. The camcorder recorded for 133 straight minutes with its provided, fully-charged battery pack. We consider any battery life of around 2 hours to be good, so this 2+ hour performance is definitely better than average for a flagship model. It's also nearly a half hour longer than the HDR-CX550V lasted in this test, and it is more battery life than the flagship models from Canon or Panasonic offered.
Keep in mind, actual recording with lots of starting and stopping, as well as using various controls, will result in a shorter battery life. The 133-minute showing we got from the HDR-CX700V was with the camcorder just sitting on a table recording in auto mode (with GPS and image stabilization turned off). More on how we test battery life.
As with most high-end camcorders, the CX700V has an open battery compartment that can accommodate larger battery packs. So, if the 133-minute performance isn't good enough for you, you can always go and purchase a larger battery from Sony to use as a backup.
LCD & Viewfinder
Here's something we haven't seen before: the HDR-CX700V has a smaller LCD than its predecessor, the HDC-CX550V. Yes, Sony reduced the size of the screen by 1/2 an inch, but, in Sony's defense, the CX700V is quite a bit thinner than the CX550V. Still, we don't personally mind having a bit more bulk if it means the LCD is half an inch larger, but that's just us. Maybe there are users out there who don't care if the LCD is only 3 inches in size. After all, it was only a few years ago that the standard LCD was a measly 2.7-inches (and this is still the norm for low-end and mid-range models).
At least Sony did something smart by retaining the 921,000-pixel resolution of the LCD. This means the LCD still delivers clarity and detail, which are necessities when you're trying to make precise adjustments to things like focus or exposure. The LCD has two brightness options (normal and bright), and it uses a touchscreen interface. It is when you use this touchscreen system that you really start to miss the larger screen space on the LCD. A smaller screen means there's more clutter and touch-buttons take up more space.
The HDR-CX700V is Sony's flagship model for 2011, and that means it comes with a tiny viewfinder. Viewfinders, which were a staple of the camcorder industry many years ago, have been phased out on all but the top camcorders from each manufacturers. In all honesty, the viewfinder on the back of the CX700V barely deserves to be called viewfinder at all. It has a terrible hard-plastic eyepiece, it offers a meager 0.2-inch screen inside, and it does not pivot or tilt. It does extend about a 1/2 inch out from the camcorder, and it has a respectable resolution of 201,600 pixels, but that's about all the praise we're willing to give it. Oh, it also has a diopter adjustment dial on its right side.
We don't want to give you the impression that the HDR-CX700V's viewfinder is that much worse than what the competition offers. The viewfinder on the Panasonic TM900 is slightly better, only because its eyepiece offers a tiny bit more cover. Same goes with the Canon HF G10's viewfinder. Frankly, we haven't seen a consumer camcorder with a "good" viewfinder in many years. You'll have to upgrade to a pro model if you want that kind of luxury!
We are surprised to say it, but the HDR-CX700V did significantly worse in our stabilization test than its predecessor from Sony. We aren't exactly sure why this is the case, but our theory is the new design of the camcorder altered the effectiveness of the optical image stabilization system. Here's something else, though, the shape of the CX700V enables the camcorder to remain quite steady even without image stabilization turned on. Since our test measures how much improvement there is with the stabilization system engaged, the fact that the CX700V didn't shake all that much in the first place may have negatively impacted the results. To counter this, we did give the HDR-CX700V extra points in other sections that deal with balance and design, as the camcorder clearly does a good job at keeping steady on its own. More on how we test stabilization.
Anyway, let's get to the numbers. The HDR-CX700V has two stabilization modes: SteadyShot optical image stabilization (OIS) and active image stabilization (active mode). In our low shake test the two IS modes performed nearly the same, with both reducing the shake by around 23% (24% with regular OIS and 22.23% in active mode). In our high shake test active mode did a bit better at reducing the shake than the regular OIS did—a 34.52% reduction with OIS and a 49.17% reduction with active mode. Active mode seems to use both optical stabilization and a digital stabilization system in order to produce a better stabilization system in "active" environments (if you are running while holding the camcorder, for example). All of these results are worse than the numbers put up by the HDR-CX550V in this test last year.