Sony HDR-CX550V at a Glance
Pros: Good quality video, excellent display, good feature set
Cons: Pricey, difficult menu system
The CX550V records 1920 x 1080 video via a 4.5-megapixel, 1/2.8-inch Sony Exmor CMOS sensor. Video is recorded in the AVCHD file format at a maximum bit rate of 24Mbps - the highest bit rate supported by AVCHD. You can also dial back the quality to save memory space - to 17Mbps or 1440 x 1080 video at 9.5Mbps, though it's best to stick to the highest quality setting.
The video off the CX550V is quite sharp, as you'd expect from a high-end Sony Handycam. Colors reproduced well indoors and out and low light performance was excellent. The CX550V doesn't have a video light, but does have an infrared NightShot mode.
The camcorder can shoot 12-megapixel stills (via interpolation) or 8-megapixel stills while simultaneously filming video. It offers face detection and includes Sony's "smile shutter" which automatically snaps a photo when someone smiles.
The still photos of the CX550 were pretty sharp, though occasionally noisy. A built-in flash helps to capture crisper images in low light.
The CX550V offers a 10x optical zoom, wide angle lens (26.3mm). The addition of a wide angle lens is a huge plus - it allows you to capture more of a scene without having to step back. That said, you'd expect more magnification from a $1,000 camcorder than the standard 10x.
The CX550V does have an impressive new auto-focusing system which speeds the time it takes for the camcorder to identify a subject and lock focus. Sony says it's two times faster than its previous system. Complimenting the system is touch-focus, which lets you touch the LCD display to set your focus point.
Nice, If Conventional, Design
The design of the CX550V is sturdy and conventional: it won't turn many heads but it delivers where it counts as far as filming is concerned. It's comfortable to hold, if a little bulky for a flash camcorder. It weighs in at one pound, one ounce with battery, which is pretty hefty for a flash-memory based camcorder but more common at the higher-end of the price spectrum.
All the external controls on the CX550V are accessible. A manual control dial just beneath the lens lets you select various manual modes, such as focus or exposure. On the LCD itself are buttons for NightShot and the unit's "intelligent auto" mode. If there's a quibble, it's that the photo shutter button is rather small, making it a bit harder to hit.
Great Display, So-So Menu
One real selling point on the CX550V is its large and bright 3.5-inch, touch-screen display. It's very roomy and useful for framing your videos. There's also a small electronic viewfinder.
The display itself is very responsive, but the CX550V's menu system can trip you up. The unit has a very generous assortment of features, which means you'll need a menu capable of accessing them fairly quickly and easily. That's not what you'll get on the CX550V. Instead, you'll have to scroll and scroll (or down-arrow) your way through the camcorder's functions until you hit upon what you want. It's pretty cumbersome. The system does have a "My Menu" function, which you can customize so that camcorder functions you regularly use are quickly accessible, but there's enough in the CX550V that will naturally fall beyond its reach.
Solid Feature Set
The CX550V has a nice array of features including manual focus, aperture and shutter control, and multi-channel audio recording. There's an external mic input, but not much control over audio recording.
Sony first introduced GPS in a camcorder last year and has left the functionality basically unchanged in the CX550V.
If you're a frequent traveler, you may find the CX550V's GPS functions useful. If you're not, GPS is less important. Using GPS, the CX550V can display a map of your current location on the LCD display, automatically set the camcorder's time and date, and organize videos using a map (both in the camcorder and on the computer using supplied Sony PMB software).
The automatic date/time functionality worked as advertised and saves you the trouble of constantly updating your camcorder as you roam. The map view is a nice way to graphically plot and organize your video adventures on your computer or camcorder memory.
The current location map function, while novel, isn’t terribly detailed. For my New Jersey neighborhood, the best detail I could bring up was the nearby highway. So if you’re bringing the CX550V on vacation, don’t expect it to lead you through around back roads.
With 64GB of internal flash memory, the CX550V can store up to six hours at its highest resolution. There's a two-in-one slot for either SDHC or Memory Stick cards if you want to add additional memory capacity, but the CX550V does not support relay recording, so you'll have to manually switch storage media if you run out of room.
The CX550V vs. The XR550V
If you like the specifications on the CX550V but desire more recording memory, Sony's HDR-XR550V shares the same technology as the CX550V but uses a 240GB hard drive for increased memory capacity. The XR550V is heavier than the CX550V, at 20 ounces, and slightly bulkier - at 2.9 x 3 x 5.8-inches. It's also pricier than the CX550V, costing $1,249 instead of $1,199. Still, if you prefer a hard drive camcorder, everything we've said about the CX550V's core features and image quality applies to the XR550V.
Bottom Line: A Pricey But Powerful Camcorder
With so many 1080p camcorders hitting the market these days for under $500, manufacturers have to work harder to justify a pricey camcorder. Sony mostly does with the CX550V, with a huge, bright touch-screen display, first rate video quality and a wealth of features to keep the avid video-taker busy. The inclusion of GPS does not, in my view, justify its pricey premium (your mileage may vary) and the menu system is not up to par with the rest of the CX550V's other virtues. But if you're not scared off by the price tag, the CX550V is definitely worth your attention.