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Sony has been leading the pack in the rapidly growing high-definition camcorder market, particularly in Europe. The company was the first to bring HDV to the UK, the first to bring HDV down to the £1,000 price point, and the first to launch products using the MPEG-4-based AVCHD format. So the HDR-SR8E joins a burgeoning Sony range with no less than four different product categories. Sony is clearly hedging its bets by continuing to support HDV while also offering models using optical disc, MemoryStick and hard disk. The SR8E opts for the latter and is the new flagship in this area.
Like its SR7E sibling, the SR8E uses Sony's latest 1/2.9in CMOS, rather than the 1/3in unit of the original SR1E, the HDR-HC3E and the more recent SR5E. This increases raw pixel count from 2.1 Mpixels to 3.2 Mpixels, which might seem like a good thing in a high definition camcorder. But 2.1 Mpixels is already adequate to capture the full resolution of 1,440 x 1,080 video, at least in theory. So the main recipient of the extra pixels is the still image ability, with the maximum size for digital photos increasing to 2,848 x 1,602 from 2,304 x 1,296 in 16:9 mode, and to 2,848 x 2,136 from 2,304 x 1,728 in 4:3 mode. The latter is how Sony manages to claim 6.1 Mpixel stills for the SR8E. This may not quite compete with the latest 7 Mpixel digital cameras, but it's close enough that you may well use the SR8E for photos as well as video on a regular basis.
However, the SR8E has all this in common with the SR7E. What the latter doesn't offer is the SR8E's massive 100GB hard disk - it opts for 60GB instead. So the SR8E has room for 13.5 hours of video even in the top HD XP mode, which operates at 15Mbits/sec, where the SR7E only offers around 8 hours. If you're satisfied with 7Mbits/sec, you can squeeze 30 hours of video onto the SR8E's hard disk, although we found the reduction in quality was noticeable.
The SR8E has a fair level of high-end features. The built-in lens cover opens automatically when the camera is turned on. The accessory shoe is of course Sony's propriety version, so third-party accessories won't fit. This is a shame, as minijacks are built in for microphone and headphones. But the accessory shoe also supports Sony's 5.1 surround microphone, the ECM-HQP1, assuming you can find one for sale. If you can't, the built-in microphone has three channels - left, right and rear - which it uses to mix the surround signal it records to Dolby Digital 5.1.