The XR520 sports a viewfinder as well a 3.2in LCD. The viewfinder pulls out and angles so you can choose the most comfortable position for your eye. The LCD is much more detailed than most camcorder displays, too, with 921,600 pixels. The port covers are robust and well designed. Sony's premium camcorders are always solidly constructed, and feel able to withstand years of use. The rubbery door over the headphone and microphone minijacks is particularly reassuring, and unlikely to break off from frequent opening.
Sony hasn't followed Panasonic's lead with its last few top models and brought back a lens ring to aid manual focusing, but it has included the next best thing in the shape of a small knob next to the lens similar to that on Canon's LEGRIA HF S10. Simply press the button on the end of the knob to enable manual focusing, then twiddle the knob to adjust. This method will be too slow for changing focus live during shooting, however - also known as rack focusing.
Most of the remaining settings are controlled with the touchscreen LCD. The only discrete buttons of any significance are for turning off the GPS and enabling Low Lux and Nightshot modes. But Sony's touchscreen is used to good effect. You can touch a point on the screen to use as a reference for focus, exposure, or both put together. A tele macro mode is available, plus both autoexposure and white balance shift modes, which help compensate for biased conditions.
However, only manual exposure control is available, not direct access to aperture, and there is no setting available for adjusting shutter speed. So if you want a fast shutter your only option will be the Sports scene mode. Overall, the XR520 is behind both Canon's and Panasonic's flagship models for manual control. The accessory shoe is also Sony's proprietary Ai version, rather than standard sized. This is hidden behind a sliding cover, which is uncharacteristically flimsy compared to the rest of the XR520's sturdy build.
There is also a fast and reasonably effective face detection system, which ensures your human subjects are the point of reference for automatic exposure. The Optical SteadyShot now has an Active Mode, which Sony claims is ten times more steady. This will be handy for the holiday videomaker who doesn't have space to pack a tripod.