camcorders

Sony HDR-CX160 Review

The Handycam HDR-CX160 boasts new features, but it takes a trip to the lab to really test a camcorder's metal.

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Introduction

The Handycam HDR-CX160 is a small, entry-level HD camcorder from Sony that retails for $499. Building on the core features of last year's HDR-CX150, Sony packed the CX160 with more zoom, a higher-quality record mode, and a larger screen, too.

The CX160 is a worthy successor, thanks to its moderate hardware improvements, but our tests showed no significant steps forward in terms of performance.

Design & Usability

Stabilization results were reliable, battery life results were excellent, and handling flaws were few.

It's hard to find a budget camcorder that doesn't have serious handling flaws, but the HDR-CX160 did a fine job avoiding common design mishaps. The camcorder is well-equipped and durable, and it even has a fairly stylish design. The hand strap could have been a bit more comfortable, I'll admit that, but most of this discomfort came from the fact that the strap doubles as a housing for the CX160's built-in USB arm. Maybe next year Sony can find a better place to put the USB cable, so it doesn't impact the comfort of the hand strap.

Users who only want to use auto mode should be able to find this option immediately, but Sony makes it surprisingly hard to find.

Using the touchscreen on the HDR-CX160 wasn’t all that bad either, especially considering the increase in screen size over last year’s CX150. The extra space garnered from the 3-inch screen made menus easier to navigate, controls easier to adjust—heck, it helped with just about everything. The speed of the CX160’s processor was also decent. This camcorder won't be slogging away with slow controls and entry-level response times (I'm thinking specifically of the JVC GZ-HM450 and the Samsung HMX-H300 here). This Sony is easy to use, thanks to its simple auto modes and intuitive controls, but the dedicated button for auto mode should be more prominent on a camcorder like this. First-time users who only want to use the CX160 in auto mode should be able to find this option immediately, but Sony makes it surprisingly hard to find.

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Features

The CX160 gets carried away with gimmicky features like Sony's signature "golf shot."

First of all, manual controls on the HDR-CX160 are limited, since Sony instead put its energy into making the CX160's automatic features more reliable. The auto exposure system was particularly nice, working quickly and smoothly even when switching from light to dark scenes. Autofocus didn’t work quite as well as we've seen on other Sony camcorders, though, and that may have something to do with the CX160’s long 30x zoom lens. For example, the focus worked quickly when using a minor amount of zoom, but constant changes in zoom length, particularly in the far end of the spectrum, proved difficult for the autofocus system.

Still image functions may sound cool, but the camcorder's photos won't look much better than what your average cellphone camera is capable of.

The most prominent new feature on the CX160 is one that many users will struggle to understand. It's the camcorder's 1080/60p record mode, which, for the layman, is essentially a higher-quality mode than anything found on the previous HDR-CX150. The camcorder also has a few miscellaneous features, including a limited slow motion function (smooth slow record), a setting for analyzing your golf swing (golf shot), a low light mode (called low lux), a 3.5mm external mic jack, and 16GB of internal memory. Additionally, the Sony CX160 can capture 3-megapixel still images and it will even snap a photo automatically when it detects individuals smiling within the frame. These still image functions may sound cool, but the camcorder's photos won't look much better than what your average cellphone camera is capable of.

Performance

Other than awesome battery life, the CX160 offers little improvement over its predecessor.

Sony made more than enough updates to the HDR-CX160, but there's one important aspect where the camcorder failed to improve over its predecessor: video performance. The CX160 consistently performed in-line with its predecessor, but it rarely showed any signs of improvement. Sony's new 1080/60p record mode should have—in theory—produced a more detailed image, yet testing revealed no marked improvement over last year's model. But while sharpness barely budged, at least the new record mode captured smoother motion.

The CX160 consistently performed in-line with its predecessor, but it rarely showed any signs of improvement.

This doesn't mean the HDR-CX160 is a lowly performer. It still put up average numbers for an entry-level model, and its battery life results were killer. The CX160 was able to record almost twice as long as the Canon HF R21 on a single charge. If only the camcorder's video performance results were this fantastic.

Conclusion

The updated features on the HDR-CX160 are great, but because Sony didn't make enough effort to improve performance, we recommend comparison shopping.

The HDR-CX160's new hardware components are its most impressive additions. How can you not love the camcorder's larger LCD, longer zoom lens, expanded connectivity (external mic jack and built-in USB!), and slicker menu system? The 1080/60p mode is great in theory, but it's likely that most beginners will be afraid to fiddle with this hard-to-understand feature.

The HDR-CX160 fails to outperform last year's HDR-CX150—and that is the ultimate weakness.

Overall, despite its hardware updates and its extra features, the HDR-CX160 fails to outperform last year's HDR-CX150—and that is the ultimate weakness. Worse still, without its annual increase in video performance, the CX160 also falls behind the Canon HF R21. The two camcorders were very close in our testing, but the Canon's video simply looked better than the Sony's. Since the CX160 ($499 MSRP) is on the upper end of the price range for an entry-level model, we'd also recommend looking at cheap mid-range HD alternatives like the Panasonic HDC-TM90. The slight extra cost of a camcorder like the TM90 goes a long way, and it delivers much better performance in our video tests as result.

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