No camcorder purchase decision should be made without considering what Sony has to offer. But unfortunately we haven't seen anything new from the company since the HDR-TG3. Now the drought is over, and we have in our hands Sony's current consumer flagship, the HDR-XR520. So if you've been pondering whether to buy Canon's LEGRIA HF S10 or Panasonic's HDC-HS300, don't make up your mind until you see what Sony has on offer in the same class as well.
Sony has clearly thrown everything in its extensive arsenal at the HDR-XR520. For a start, the sensor is a healthy 1/2.9in CMOS. Although this isn't quite as big as Canon is using in its LEGRIA HF S10 or JVC in its Everio GZ-X900, Sony also incorporates its Exmor R technology, which has proven highly effective in its professional models. This places the CMOS wiring behind the photo diodes, theoretically letting more light through, for better performance in poor illumination.
The CMOS has a gross 6.6-megapixel resolution, although only 4.15-megapixels are used in camcorder mode, or 6-megapixels in still image mode. Sony adds some interpolation to provide 12-megapixel images with a 4,000 x 3,000 resolution. However, when shooting video at the same time the maximum still image resolution is 8.3-megapixels.
Video is recorded to an enormous 240GB hard disk in AVCHD format. Unlike Canon and JVC, Sony hasn't switched to H.264 High Profile 4.1, instead remaining with Main Profile 4.0. This means that the top data rate is 16Mbits/sec, not 24Mbits/sec, and there is no sign of a progressive mode either. The maximum video resolution is 1,920 x 1,080 Full HD, although all the lower settings use 1,440 x 1,080. The XR520 can also shoot standard definition with MPEG-2 compression at up to 9Mbits/sec. But with the massive amount of storage, you will probably only ever want to use the top quality setting. Even in this mode, there's space for over 30 hours of footage.
The most unusual feature, however, is the built-in GPS. Geotagging pictures is becoming increasingly popular, but the XR520 also contains reasonably detailed maps of a large proportion of the world. Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand are mapped with major roads, although South America, South-East Asia and India have no features included. Assuming the camcorder's GPS is getting a signal, coordinates will be stored with your footage, so you can see where the video was shot, and browse clips alongside a map showing this. Although we can see useful applications for the GPS features, it's mostly a gimmick in its current form.