Sony HDR-SR12 Camcorder Review
The Sony HDR-SR12 ($1,399 MSRP) is the company’s third-generation AVCHD camcorder recording to hard disk drive (HDD). The SR12 features a new CMOS sensor and DSP touted by Sony to be the best yet, along with a huge 120GB capacity. It is joined by the HDR-SR11 ($1,199 MSRP), an identical camcorder with a smaller 60GB HDD. In previous iterations, all AVCHD camcorders have failed to live up to performance expectations, but 2008 seems to be the year it’s turning around.
Video Performance* (10.25)*
The Sony HDR-SR12 features the company’s latest chip, a 1/3.15-inch ClearVID CMOS sensor. There’s been a lot of chatter about the new technologies inside the SR12, namely the Exmor technology on the chip and the Bionz technology in the processing. Exmor is found on both the Alpha line of DSLR still cameras and the Sony PMW-EX1 XDCAM EX camcorder. In essence, it performs A/D conversion and noise reduction on each column of pixels on the sensor. The Bionz processing chip then runs more noise reduction processes, purportedly producing a squeaky clean image. Its benefit to low light performance will be discussed in part later in this section, and in detail in the Low Light Performance section later down the page.
The CMOS chip on board has a gross pixel count of 5,660,000 and an effective pixel count of 3,180,000. This is significantly denser than the SR12’s predecessor, the HDR-SR7, which had a gross pixel count of 3,200,000 and an effective pixel count of 2,280,000.
First, we took the HDR-SR12 in the lab for standardized testing. We shot a DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde color chart at an even 3000 lux. Under these more or less ideal conditions, the Sony SR12 looks quite good. The color performance was even and vivid, without too much oversaturating. By comparison, the HDR-HC9, the HDV cousin, auto exposes more brightly under identical conditions, and boosts the saturation a little higher. Looking at the resolution trumpets on the chart up close, the HC9 seems to produce more in-camera sharpening that helps define the edges. However, the full 1920 x 1080 output, versus the 1440 x 1080 output of HDV, makes for smoother curves with the SR12. Overall, the image seems to have less compression artifacting than the HC9, as well. When blowing up the frame grabs, we saw blocky chunks of pixels across the image in the HC9, while in the SR12 it was typically localized to areas of high contrast and detail.
Sony HDR-SR12 100% close-up (above):
In the lab testing, the Sony HDR-SR12 and Canon HF10 produce very similar color palettes. However, the Canon HF10 is clearly sharper. Take a look at the 100 percent close-ups from the charts above. The Sony HDR-SR12 does have a strong advantage over the Panasonic HDC-SD9, which is both softer and oversaturated.
Out of the lab, we found a great deal to like about the Sony HDR-SR12. In outdoor shooting, the image appears very sharp, at least as sharp as the Canon HF10 at a casual glance. Most consumers probably won’t see a difference in this regard. Up close, the artifacting is more obvious in the Sony, and the Canon does a better job with fine detail. (This mirrored our finding in the lab test comparisons.) The auto responses to white balance are excellent as well, as long as there is a single, dominant light source (this is not so good in mixed indoor lighting). Swinging the camcorder around the way a home shooter would produces a fair amount of motion blur, but not as much as in previous generations.
The hydrant shot below can be used as a loose comparison for outdoor shooting, but it's important to note that the Sony SR12 image was not shot on the same day as the Canon HF10. The color balance and performance may therefore may not be directly comparable.
|*Sony HDR-SR12 (above); Canon HF10 (below). Click to view full res images These were not shot on the same day, so color balance may not be comparable.|
Indoors, we examined the HDR-SR12 in our previous review of the JVC GZ-HD6. Shooting in moderate indoor light (60-120 lux), the SR12 is an excellent performer. Colors are bold and the auto focus works quite well. In areas of fine detail and contrast, such as a shaggy dog against a light backdrop, the compression artifacting and limits of the resolution became apparent, especially when seen in motion. Overall, however, we were pleased with what we saw.
In very low lighting, such as shooting into a nearly 0 lux corner, the SR12 manages to capture more data than the Canon HF10 or JVC GZ-HD6. True, it comes at the expense of some noise that the HF10 avoids, but manually lowering the exposure could have made the SR12 match the HF10. You could not, however, raise the exposure any more on the HF10.
|Sony HDR-SR12 - Click to view full res image|
|Canon HF10 - Click to view full res image|
|JVC GZ-HD6 - Click to view full res image|
Overall, we think most shooters will find this directly comparable with the Canon HF10, which is the best AVCHD camcorder we’ve reviewed to date (and we’ve reviewed most of them). Sony has made huge strides with this new Exmor CMOS and Bionz processor in reducing noise. Canon still has the leading edge on sharpness, and we thought Canon was able to keep a tighter leash on compression artifacting. These differences should only be the concern of quality control freaks, however. Sony has done a fine job with the HDR-SR12.
Video Resolution* (18.75)*
We tested the video resolution of the Sony HDR-SR12 by shooting a DSC Labs Video Resolution chart at an even 3000 lux, then examined the recorded footage on an HD monitor. Footage is recorded in the highest quality – in this case, 16 Mbps.
The Sony HDR-SR12 produced a horizontal resolution of 625 line widths. The vertical resolution measured 600 line widths. These results were quite good, overall. Compared to its HDV cousin, the HDR-HC9, the SR12 has a lower horizontal score but a slightly higher vertical score. The total score is close to that of the Canon HF10, better than the Panasonic HDC-SD9, and better than the JVC GZ-HD6.
Low Light Performance* (4.82)*
Low light performance is tested in multiple stages. First, we shoot a DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde color chart at an even 60 and 15 lux, then compare the results against competing camcorders.
At 60 lux, the images show Sony was able to make good on its claims. Our predictions given in the First Impressions Review proved incorrect, proving that commonly held beliefs like "smaller sensor means worse low light" are not necessarily true. The chart was as bright as the HDR-HC9 with a fraction of the noise. The SR12 also proves to be much brighter than the Canon HF10 when both camcorders are shooting in 1080/60i. Canon still holds a core advantage of shooting in three frame rates (60i/24P/30P), but for the segment that intends only to shoot in 60i, pay close attention to the Sony SR12 and whatever else Sony announces that uses this chipset (a follow-up to the flash memory HDR-CX7 is likely forthcoming). The image is not completely noise-free, but it looks damn good.
Sony HDR-SR12 100% close-up (above):
The Panasonic HDC-SD9 is plenty bright at 60 lux, but also heavily saturated and very blurry. The JVC GZ-HD6 tells a similar story, though it is less blurry than the Panasonic. Both fail to produce the natural look of the Sony HDR-SR12’s image.
At 15 lux, the Sony HDR-SR12 struggles to retain even a little color information. It’s not uncommon for most camcorders to fail at this very low light level, though heavy in-camera gain can usually salvage more color than this. The Sony HDR-HC9, for example, does better in this test, if only by a little. The Canon HF10 (at 1080/60i) does better than all the other camcorders in this particular test, delivering relatively strong colors with no more noise than the Sony SR12.
The second stage of the test checks for color accuracy, noise, and saturation. We shoot an X-Rite Color Checker chart at an even 60 lux, then export frame grabs to Imatest imaging software. At best, the Sony HDR-SR12 is able to produce a color error of 11.4. This score is statistically very similar to the Canon HF10, which scored an 11.9. The Sony HDR-HC9 scored an 11.0, the Panasonic HDC-SD9 an 11.0, and the JVC GZ-HD6 a 9.3, making JVC the winner in this test.
The noise, according to Imatest, measured 1.0125 percent, better than the Canon HF10’s score of 1.13 percent. The Sony HDR-HC9 produced a much worse score of 3.01 percent, which connotes a huge improvement in noise reduction over the previous CMOS chips. The Panasonic HDC-SD9 scored a 0.645, while the JVC GZ-HD6 produced 1.0925 percent. It’s important to note that while the Panasonic produces the lowest noise score, the Sony HDR-SR12 undoubtedly looks the best at 60 lux. Finally, the saturation at this light level was 73.52. All the other camcorders are in the same saturation range except the JVC GZ-HD6, which has a higher saturation level of 85.54 percent.
The third stage of the low light test measures sensitivity. We shoot the DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde chart and slowly lower the light until the camcorder can produce a peak exposure of 50 IRE (according to a waveform monitor). For all Sony camcorders, the Auto Slow Shutter and Color Slow Shutter features are disabled for this and all low light tests. The Sony HDR-SR12 is able to produce 50 IRE at a light level of 14 lux. This is 3 lux better than the HDR-HC9, despite having a smaller, more densely-packed CMOS sensor. The score is not as good as the Canon HF10 shooting at 1080/60i, which could produce the same exposure at 10 lux. Ultimately, the HF10 is able to reach as low as 4 lux when shooting 24P.
In summary, the Sony HDR-SR12 is a dynamite low light performer for most kinds of indoor and outdoor shooting. When it gets as low as 15 lux, the Canon HF10 showed an advantage in our lab tests, but an even draw or advantage to the Sony SR12 in anecdotal shooting.
The HDR-SR12 is equipped with SteadyShot Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), a process that functions by separating the lens element from the body of the camcorder to reduce shake. OIS is superior to Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS) because no pixels are sacrificed along the borders of the recorded frame.
We tested the HDR-SR12 at two speeds using our custom-built shake emulator. Speed One is the equivalent of typical stationary handheld shake, while Speed Two simulates a frequency similar to a light jog down the sidewalk or bumpy car ride. The HDR-SR12 exhibited an 80-percent shake reduction at Speed One and Two, a slight improvement from the HDR-UX7. This is most likely due to the HDR-SR12’s heavy weight and wide body.
Wide Angle* (9.6)*
We tested the HDR-SR12’s maximum field of view using a vertical laser at both left and right angles. We recorded with the Zoom pulled back fully with OIS disabled. Video was then interpreted on an external monitor to attain a true wide angle reading. Like most high-end Sonys, the HDR-SR12’s maximum wide angle measurement is 48 degrees.
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