When you're recording a special occasion, keeping things simple is the safest way to go. Just point, press a button and let the camcorder do the rest. That's the approach championed by the Sony DCR-SR42 Handycam camcorder (available for around £300 online), which reduces arcane recording features to a minimum and saves files to a hard drive so there's no need to buy Mini DVD discs or MiniDV tapes. At its highest quality setting, the Sony DCR-SR42 Handycam camcorder's 30GB hard drive can record up to seven hours of video.

Nicely designed, easy to use and lightweight, the 13 has everything you need for quick and simple videography, including a sharp, colourful 2.5in wide-format (16:9) LCD screen and a powerful 40X optical zoom lens with electronic image stabilisation. Set the Sony DCR-SR42 to fully automatic Easy mode, and nearly all of the menu options will be turned off. This is convenient because you can give the camcorder to an inexperienced shooter without much risk that the person will accidentally put the camera into manual focus or switch to an improper exposure mode.

(Oddly enough, in Easy mode, the hard disk formatting selection remains on and the Scene mode option is turned off, rather than vice versa.) With Easy mode turned off, the Sony DCR-SR42's menus are nicely labelled and well organized. The camcorder's 40X optical zoom makes image stabilisation vital.

Inevitably, simplicity entails some compromises. The Sony DCR-SR42 lacks a headphone jack, a microphone jack, a built-in low-light assist lamp and an eye-level viewfinder - a helpful feature when you're shooting in bright light, and the DCR-SR42's LCD panel becomes hard to use.

In formal lab tests the Sony DCR-SR42 earned middling scores of Good and Poor, respectively, for video and still images - well below those achieved by the Sony DCR-DVD408.

Informal videos taken outdoors produced pleasing (although not especially vivid) colours, and details that weren't especially crisp. On the other hand, the Sony DCR-SR42's automatic exposure control worked well as scenes changed from shadows to bright areas to a mixture of both.

Don't even think of buying the Sony DCR-SR42 as a substitute for a digital still camera. Even some cameraphones do a better job. A series of 640-by-480-pixel photos came out small and disappointingly pixelated. (More-expensive versions of the DCR-SR line support greater hard-drive capacity and higher-resolution still imaging.)

Sony ships a small docking station with the Sony DCR-SR42 that has connections for transferring movies to a PC. You'll need to use the dock to move files to a PC. That brings up one drawback of a hard drive-based camcorder: If you plan to take more than 7 hours of video (or 21 hours at the camera's lowest quality setting) while traveling, you'll need to take a notebook PC or an external DVD burner with you.

The barebones software accompanying this camcorder works only on Windows-based systems (XP and 2000, not Vista). Also, Mini DVD discs won't slide properly into a Mac's slot-loading disc drive.

Sony DCR-SR42 Handycam: Specs

  • 30GB hard drive
  • 1/6in Advanced HAD CCD Imager, 680K pixels gross
  • 40X optical/2,000X digital zoom
  • Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens
  • 2.5in touch panel SwivelScreen LCD display
  • Super SteadyShot picture stabilisation system
  • DVDirect compatibility
  • USB Cable
  • Battery & Battery Charger
  • Manual & Software
  • 30GB hard drive
  • 1/6in Advanced HAD CCD Imager, 680K pixels gross
  • 40X optical/2,000X digital zoom
  • Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens
  • 2.5in touch panel SwivelScreen LCD display
  • Super SteadyShot picture stabilisation system
  • DVDirect compatibility
  • USB Cable
  • Battery & Battery Charger
  • Manual & Software

OUR VERDICT

Though the Sony DCR-SR42 may seem pricey, its powerful telephoto lens and simple operation make it attractive for informal videography.

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