We assessed the DCR-HC21’s color and video quality at optimal, bright light conditions of 3000 lux in a controlled testing environment. The results were similar to last year’s DCR-HC20, which makes sense as the two camcorders share imager specifications.
At 3000 lux, the DCR-HC21 shows some noise, or grain, which is unfortunate, though overall the image is pretty bright—brighter than comparable Panasonic camcorders. This might be due to some automatic gain default setting on the DCR-HC21. Another notable characteristic on the DCR-HC21 is its slightly nuclear colors. I saw this on a number of Sonys last year and this year, and I am kinda perplexed as to why this occurs. It is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, colors at bright light levels appear more vibrant than comparable Panasonic camcorders, though Panasonic’s colors seemed more balanced. This Sony camcorder displays really eye-popping blues, and the skin tones are nice.
**Video Resolution ***(7.8)*
We provide you with an approximation of the true video resolution of each camcorder we review for the same reason we provide you with these reviews in the first place: to cut through the PR and the hype to the truth. There so many factors that go into getting good video from your camcorder that it is often hard to know whether any one factor or specification is the reason for bad or good video performance. Generally, big CCD sizes, high effective pixel counts, even higher gross pixel counts, and multiple CCDs are good indicators of performance, but not always. Often camcorder manufacturers will hype CCD size or CCD count—or digital zooms of all things—as sure signs of good video performance, but, as we’ve seen in previous years, camcorders with identical CCD sizes, gross pixel counts, and effective pixel counts have performed differently.
In the case of the DCR-HC21, we took footage in the camcorder’s regular 4:3 mode of a standard resolution chart, exported stills from this video, and, using Imatest Imaging Software, analyzed each still to approximate the camcorder’s "true" resolution. In 4:3 mode, the Sony DCR-HC21 gave us approximately 249.0 lines of vertical resolution at its best, with approximately 312.6 lines of horizontal resolution, yielding a real resolution of 77,837.4. As the camcorder’s widescreen mode merely letterboxes the image, reducing the horizontal lines of resolution, we did not test it, assuming it's performance would be inferior to the standard mode.
**Low Light Performance ***(3.0)*
Low light performance on the Sony DCR-HC21 was a disappointment - and that's putting it nicely. While the camcorder displayed relatively vibrant and bright images at 3000 lux and 60 lux, all images are plagued with noise, including some nasty blue noise. I’ve seen similar noise in other Sony camcorders, both this year and last year.
While at 60 lux and 15 lux the noise seen on the DCR-HC21 is similar in scope to that of comparable Panasonic and JVC camcorders, color information at 15 lux on the DCR-HC21 drops out almost completely. It is pretty shocking that such a bright image at 3000 lux could drop out so much at 15 lux, especially compared to comparable camcorders that aren’t as bright in optimal light, but so it goes. For its low light performance, I cannot recommend this camcorder, thought if you plan to shoot at the beach all the time, it could work out.
**Wide Angle ***(8.5)*
To test the wide angle of the DCR-HC21, we use a laser pointer to measure the field of horizontal vision available at the camcorder’s widest zoom. Using this method we found that the DCR-HC21 had a widest zoom angular measure of 42.5 degrees. We then multiply this number by 0.2 to get the wide angle score of 8.5.
The Sony DCR-HC21 uses standard DV compression to MiniDV tape; MiniDV compression is certainly the standard of video quality against which all other compression formats are judged.
The Sony DCR-HC21 has the ability to record video to 6.35mm MiniDV tape in both SP and LP modes. Sixty minutes can be recorded in SP mode with 90 minutes available in LP mode. Still images can be captured to this same tape, taking up seven seconds of tape each at intervals of up to ten seconds.
Video footage recorded to MiniDV tape can be edited very easily using any of the many editing software suites, most notably Avid and Final Cut Pro, though many manufactures include rudimentary editing software with their products. The DCR-HC21 ships with Sony’s Picture Package software, which enables rudimentary editing, copying, and burning to various CD formats. If you have a Sony VAIO computer, "Click to DVD" software can be used to create DVDs.
The Front ***(8.5)***
The features on the front of the DCR-HC21 are sparse. Like camcorders of last year’s HC series, this year’s DCR-HC21 features an ovular front, with the lens barrel’s culmination forming a rounded top edge and the lower portion angling in to give a more compact feel to the camcorder as a whole. Directly above this lower narrowing are the camcorder’s infrared sensor and stereo microphone. Also, a slender lens cover open/close switch runs along the left side of the front. Seen on last year’s models as well, this switch is used to manually slide up a plastic, built-in lens cover. I find this feature to be one of the coolest thing about these Sonys and a welcome retention from last year, as it rids the user of annoying lens covers that flap around on a little string and just get in the way.
**The Right Side ***(7.5)*
The right side of the DCR-HC21 is made up of the tape-mechanism panel that folds out to allow the tape to changed. The DCR-HC21, like all HCs this year, is bottom-loading, which is often an unfortunate sacrifice in having a compact camcorder. (Panasonic does offer some top-loading compact MiniDV camcorders.) The DCR-HC21's cushy suede strap runs along the tape-mechanism panel from the lower part of the camcorder’s front to the middle of the rear edge of the right side. Above the strap’s termination point at the middle of the rear edge is the DCR-HC21’s mode dial, which switches between play/edit and camera modes. Toggling this dial causes nearby LEDs to light, displaying which mode has been selected. The DCR-HC21’s photo button rests on a little plateau above these LEDs. The most notable feature of the right side of the DCR-HC21, aside from the camcorder’s strap, is the narrow ovular port cover running horizontally in the right-center of the side. This cover reveals the camcorder’s USB, DV (FireWire), A/V output, and LANC ports. On all other HCs this year, these ports have been moved to an external docking station, which makes connectivity a bit more convenient, if a bit less portable. Above this port cover is the camcorder’s NightShot Plus off/on switch.
**The Left Side ***(6.0)*
The left side of the DCR-HC21 features the camcorder’s LCD screen, which folds out ninety degrees and includes secondary zoom and recording controls along its margin. The cavity of the folded-out LCD does not include any buttons, which is usually a good thing, as users would not have to unnecessarily open the LCD screen to access certain buttons; however, here buttons are omitted because virtually all controls on the DCR-HC21 are accessed through the camcorder’s touch screen menu system. This means the user has to open up both the LCD screen and tap the hell out of it just to adjust focus a bit. Bummer. To make things even more complicated, the DCR-HC21 doesn’t feature the same 3D menu system found on the DCR-HC32 and the DCR-HC42. This is one of the main differences between these camcorders, and definitely make the DCR-HC21 harder to navigate than its more advanced brothers. Above the LCD screen on the DCR-HC21 are buttons for Back Light, Display/Battery info, and Easy Mode.
**The Back ***(7.0)*
The back of the DCR-HC21 is dominated by the camcorder’s battery pack slot and electronic viewfinder. While the battery pack doesn’t jut out too far to obstruct a user from using the viewfinder, the viewfinder itself only retracts directly backwards rather than rotating up towards the viewer’s head. There is a dioptric adjuster on the right side of the viewfinder, allowing the user to customize the focus. The camcorder’s primary record button is located immediately to the left of the camcorder’s mode dial, at the middle of the right edge of the camcorder’s back. The tape-mechanism’s opener switch is located beneath the record button. The camcorder’s DC input is located below the battery.
**The Top ***(7.0)*
The top of the DCR-HC21 contains the camcorder’s cold accessory shoe, which is of standard size—Sony’s intelligent shoes this year are smaller than standard and, thus, only accommodate Sony products. The accessory shoe rests towards the back of the camcorder, with the DCR-HC21’s zoom toggle to the right. The zoom toggles on Sonys HCs this year are the best feeling toggles I’ve felt so far. They are easy to control and switch directions with, are elevated perfectly, and are very smooth. The only downside is that they are in line with the user’s middle finger—the camcorder’s photo buttons are accessed with the user’s index finger. Personally, I prefer to use my index finger to control the zoom, which is possible with the DCR-HC21, just not intended. It is certainly easier to use your index finger on these HCs than, say, on Panasonic’s GS series.
Picture & Manual Control
Automatic Control (9.5)
The Sony DCR-HC21 includes automatic control options for focus, white balance, and exposure. There are also Program AE preset windows of performance which adjust shutter and iris automatically within particular limits for environments of Spotlight, Portrait, Sports, Beach & Ski, Sunsetmoon, and Landscape. There is also an Auto Shutter function, found on all MiniDV Sonys this year, which supposedly adjusts the shutter speed automatically when in bright light environments. Frankly, I can’t tell the difference. But the feature’s default setting is on, so it doesn't hurt to use it. Finally, there is an Easy mode on the Sony DCR-HC21. Accessed through the button directly above the LCD screen, this mode basically makes every adjustment automatic and reduces the camcorder’s menu system to two options: menu and display guide. The menu system will then feature only clock, beeping noises, and language options, while the display guide function allows the user to press certain options on the screen and have the options explained. This is definitely advantageous use of the touch screen menu system. The back light function is not available in Easy mode.
Sony’s touch screen menu system also allows the cool Spot metering and Spot Focusing functions found on last year’s and this year’s camcorders. While these functions cannot be seen as manual controls of the focus or exposure, they allow the user to guide the camcorder’s automatic adjustments a bit. Basically, in either function, a white box is outlined on the LCD screen, and the user presses within the box to indicate where in the image the camera should readjust its focus or exposure.
All in all though, automatic controls on the DCR-HC21 are very good. Sony already gets points from us for the quality of its automatic controls in general, and receives more for the DCR-HC21's quick and accurate adjustments to exposure and focus and smooth, subtle adjustments to white balance. Very nice. This camcorder is definitely designed to use in automatic mode.
Overall Manual Control (3.0)
Manual control isn’t the DCR-HC21's strong suit for two reasons. One: it doesn’t offer much of it, failing to provide independent adjustment over shutter speed, iris control, or gain control. And two: all manual control is accessed by the camcorder’s touch screen menu, a time-consuming and cumbersome process. Luckily, automatic controls are great. There is one upside to the DCR-HC21’s manual controls: the camcorder’s fabulous zoom toggle.
Zoom Control (8.0)
The zoom toggle on the Sony DCR-HC21 is pretty good for a camcorder this small. Usually zoom toggles aren’t elevated enough to control without being jerky, or they lack the ability to start and stop zooms smoothly. The DCR-HC21 does not suffer from either problem. The T-shaped toggle works great, and makes variable-speed zooms easy to execute. My only beef with it is that it is not placed beneath my index finger. While it is possible to operate the toggle with this finger, the zoom on the camcorder feels designed for the middle finger. Zoom may be the most used function on a consumer camcorder, and it is important to have a good one. The DCR-HC21 has a 20x optical zoom with options for 40x and 800x digital zooms.
The DCR-HC21 has a decent optical zoom of 20x.
Manual focus on the DCR-HC21 is controlled through the camcorder’s touch screen menu system. Though the DCR-HC21 does include the entertaining Spot Focusing function, the actual manual focus option is kind of a joke. While not too much worse than any button or menu system based focusing method, it adds the frustration of tapping the LCD screen, thus shaking the image; and it emits a horrible beeping rattle as the user moves through the focal spectrum. Worse yet, there are no numerical focal length markers or meter to see how far you’ve moved within the spectrum.
Exposure (Aperture) (4.0)
Exposure as an entity is a ratio of exposure to shutter speed. This ratio is undefined by Sony; on the DCR-HC21, a +/-meter is used to move through 24 steps of exposure, from light to dark (F='1.8-3.1).' Manual exposure on the DCR-HC21 is would be much easier if it included independent control over iris readings or shutter speed rates. Like focus, exposure is available through the touch screen menu system.
Shutter Speed (0.0)
There are no true shutter speed adjustments available on the DCR-HC21. Instead, an auto shutter function and preset Program AE settings are available. When will Sony learn that people like shutter speed adjustment?
White Balance (7.5)
Along with the DCR-HC21’s automatic white balance option, options of Outdoor, Indoor, and One Push (manual) are available. Selecting One Push allows the user to press and hold a button to adjust white balance to whatever is on-screen. These are standard options and they work well. Unfortunately, all options are only available within the touch screen menu system.
There are no manual gain controls on the DCR-HC21.
Other Manual Control (0.0)
The Sony DCR-HC21 doesn’t offer any additional manual controls other than the aforementioned.
**Still Features ***(1.5)*
The DCR-HC21 doesn’t have many Still photo features because it can only capture stills to tape at a resolution of 640 x 480. The only feature available, aside from the digital effects available during video and still capture, is a self timer which captures a still after about ten seconds. Normally, when held halfway down, the photo button captures whatever is within the camcorder’s frame, and then if pressed down fully, captures this same image for seven seconds to tape with real time audio.
**Still Resolution ***(0.8)*
The Sony DCR-HC21 captures stills to tape at a resolution of 640 x 480. It does not capture stills to card at any resolution as there is no card to capture to. The seven-second still images that are recorded to tape upon pressing the photo button, therefore, would yield the same typical resolution results as standard video capture would. For this reason, I will refer the reader to the Video Resolution paragraph for an understanding of the resolution of the DCR-HC21’s still images. The video resolution was scored at 0.078 MP.
**Still Performance ***(2.0)*
As stated above, the Sony DCR-HC21 only captures still to tape at a resolution of 640 x 480. It does not offer a card or the option to record still images to one. The seven second interval used to record still images to tape can be said to perform similar to standard video capture color-wise. Noise and grain, however, would not be moving. For this reason, I refer the reader to the Video Performance paragraph above for an example of such a still image.
Handling and Use**Ease of Use ***(9.0)* Sony camcorders have become the Kodaks of the camcorder world. They market these models to camcorder users who are not familiar with concepts like shutter speed, aperture, and maybe even manual focus. The camcorders have rounded edges, both literally and figuratively - they're designed so you can do no harm with these models. Features like the ease of use button, the spot metering and spot focus, and the general lack of manual options on the DCR-HC21 make it very easy and uncomplicated to use; however, the downside is that you are very limited in what you can do with the camcorder beyond point and shoot. **Handling ***(7.0)***** The DCR-HC21 handles pretty well. It is certainly a portable camcorder, and with all of the important ports located on the camcorder itself (as opposed to a docking station) it is a good travel camcorder. The strap is also very easy to adjust, though it may irritate the outside of the index knuckle. One other complaint has more to do with personal preference; I had to control the camcorder’s zoom with my index. The DCR-HC21’s designed for middle finger zoom control and index finger photo control. Although it’s possible to use one’s index finger for the zoom control, it feels unnatural. **Portability ***(8.0)* The DCR-HC21 is very portable. A good travel camcorder, it has all the necessary ports located directly on the camcorder, as well as a built-in lens cover. The camcorder can also be used with a battery or with a power cord; other camcorders use battery power only.
The DCR-HC21 features a 2.5 inch (6.2 cm)LCD screen, with a 123, 200 pixel count (560 x 220). It also includes a black and white viewfinder, which may be a nice change in some instances, though it is measured as an example of a ‘lack of technological advancement’ by many. Sony’s LCD screens have often be lauded as being the best in the industry as they don’t solarize when viewed from an angle like so many others before them. This is true with the DCR-HC21’s screen as well.
**Battery**** Life (10.5)**
The DCR-HC21 includes a NP-FP30 InfoLithium Battery. To charge the battery, the user must use the camcorder as a charging device, plugging both the camcorder and battery into an external power supply. When properly charging, a yellow/orange indicator bulb lights next to the upper right corner of the LCD screen. When recording with the LCD screen open and without using the zoom toggle, the DCR-HC21 recorded for approximately 1 hour, 45 minutes, and 10 seconds. This is slightly more than was specified in the written material that accompanied the camcorder. Nice.
The DCR-HC21 can record both 12 bit and 16 bit audio to tape. It can also support audio dubbing of 12 bit audio to merge with the original audio and video recorded at an earlier time. Unfortunately, the DCR-HC21 doesn’t have a microphone port, so you’ll have to rely on the built-in microphone and its own automatic levels too, as the DCR-HC21 doesn’t offer manual adjustment over audio levels. The camcorder doesn't have a headphone jack either, so really the only way you will be able to use an external microphone with the DCR-HC21 is through the accessory shoe. Add to the fact that Sony's introduced a new form of the shoe that is not compatible with any third party accessories, and the audio situation on the DCR-HC21 is horrible.
**VCR Mode ***(6.0)*
There is only one playback mode available on the DCR-HC21. Aptly called the Play/Edit mode, this feature allows for playback of MiniDV tape using the camcorder’s touch screen menu. Small ‘virtual’ buttons appear along the bottom of the LCD screen, including buttons for Stop, Rewind, Play/Pause, and Fast Forward. The menu system features an end search function, data display available, recording from a VCR options, audio dubbing controls—to record 12 bit audio to merge with 12 bit original sound and video. Various speed playback is available for playback at two times fast, slow motion, and frame by frame. Burning to DVD and Video CD options are available, though you might need a Sony computer to make it not a complete hassle.
The Sony DCR-HC21 features many ports built right into the camcorder, which is nice for portability. It doesn’t, however, include the external docking stations that the DCR-HC32 and the DCR-HC42 ship with. This may make the connecting/editing/computer-communicating process a bit tedious. Additionally, the DCR-HC21 (or the DCR-HC32 and the DCR-HC42) lacks a microphone jack, and its included accessory shoe cold.
**Widescreen/16:9 Mode ***(5.0)*
Like the DCR-HC32, the DCR-HC21 features a letterboxed 16:9/Widescreen mode. On the beefed-up DCR-HC42, Sony includes its enhanced Widescreen mode, with a 16:9 LCD to boot.
Wide Select Mode
Standard Aspect Mode
**Scan Rates/24P (0.0)**
On the DCR-HC21, video is captured at the 60 interlaced fields per second each with 525 lines of resolution only. There are no artificial or true methods of approximating a film-like effect or capturing video at an apparent 24P Scan Rate.
**Other Features ***(4.5)*
Display Guide Utilizing the DCR-HC21’s touch screen menu, the Display Guide function allows the user to press on unknown areas of the LCD screen in order to learn the meaning of certain icons and other display elements.
*Fader *Accessible in the menu system, this feature allows the user to fade to and from a color picture to either white, black, mosaic, or monotone (black and white).
*NightShot Plus *Sony’s night mode is operated by a switch right of center on top of the camcorder. When used with the N.S. Light, this feature emits an infrared light to illuminate objects. When the N.S. Light is turned off, moonlit images or arc-light lit subjects can be filmed with better color representation.
*SteadyShot *The DCR-HC21 features an electronic image stabilization function. When recording a TV or a computer screen when using this function, black lines may appear across these screens.
*BackLight *This function brightens the LCD screen to help the user monitor the capture. A sun-with-rays icon appears on the lower left of the LCD screen when this feature is selected.
Available for a price comparable to that of the DCR-HC21, Panasonic’s PV-GS31 is available. The PV-GS31 offers Panasonic’s new navigational and menu system as well as an enormous amount of manual control and better handling ability than the DCR-HC21. While, like the DCR-HC21, the PV-GS31 camcorder lacks a mic port or S-Video port, it does include SD card capability and a 26x optical zoom, making it more appealing. But overall, the PV-GS31 and the DCR-HC21 are worlds apart. The PV-GS35 is for manual control lovers, and the DCR-HC21 is for those who want an simple camcorder to shoot decent video without having to touch a thing. That's nice, but the DCR-HC21’s more advanced brothers, the DCR-HC32 and the DCR-HC42, offer a more complete package--one that seems a bit overpriced compared to the PV-GS31 and its ilk.**
The Canon ZR200 is similar in CCD and price to the DCR-HC21, and the ZR200 sports a similar 20x optical zoom. The main differences between the two camcorders are the available ports, manual control options, still capabilities, and widescreen modes. The ZR200's capabilities are far superior to the DCR-HC21’s letterboxed widescreen mode; it offers the same high resolution 16:9 mode found on last year’s Optura 400 and 500. It also includes manual shutter speed control and selectable focal points for still capture, which can happen onto a SD card at a resolution of 1024 x 768. But unlike the DCR-HC21, the ZR200 does not have an accessory shoe, cold or hot. Then again, the camcorder lacks the necessary port for a microphone, so you probably weren’t going to hook up a microphone anyway. It will be interesting to see how these two camcorders perform in the low light tent. Last year’s ZRs performed pretty poorly, and with no major improvements to the imager, the new models may do the same. High resolution 16:9 mode may be the deciding factor.
One step up from the DCR-HC21, the DCR-HC32 maintains the DCR-HC21’s 20x optical zoom. The main changes on this model are the upgrades of a 3D touch screen menu system, which is much easier to operate, and the relocation of the camcorder’s ports (aside from LANC jack and A/V out) to an external Handycam docking station. While this addition may make connecting the camcorder to external devices easy, it may also make it less easy to travel with. The DCR-HC32 also adds a MemoryStick Duo media slot, enabling photos to be captured at a resolution of 640 x 480.
For thirty dollars more, JVC’s GR-D250 is available. It includes a similar imager to all the above camcorders, and records stills to tape like the DCR-HC21. It offers manual exposure and shutter speed, but unfortunately this camcorder features no USB port or S-Video port. Worse yet, the 3D noise reduction technology found on last year’s JVCs in this price range is not included on the GR-D250, making it unlikely that we'll see anything like the brilliant low light performances seen on last year’s models. Either way, stay tuned and we’ll find out for you.
Who It's For
The DCR-HC21 is definitely for point-and-shooters. It features an easy mode as well as fantastic automatic functions, making it a breeze to operate for those and looking to let the camcorder do all the work.
Budget Consumers (8.0)
While the DCR-HC21 is Sony’s cheapest MiniDV camcorder this year, it is more expensive than comparable lower-end MiniDV camcorders from other manufacturers. For instance, Panasonic’s PV-GS31 and Canon’s ZR200 are similarly priced and middle range in the lower-end MiniDV bracket. Another drawback: the DCR-HC21 doesn’t offer non-tape still photo media, like a Memory card or SD card. Just something to think about.
Still Photo / Video Camera Hybrid (1.5)
The DCR-HC21 cannot be recommended as a hybrid camcorder as it only offers still capture onto tape--there is no card. Stills can only be captured at 640 x 480 are recorded to approximately seven seconds of MiniDV tape.
Gadget Freaks (4.0)
I suppose the touch screen menu system might count as a gadget, but the DCR-HC21’s menu is less advanced than the 3D menu systems found on the DCR-HC32 and DCR-HC42.
Manual Control Freaks (2.0)
The DCR-HC21 cannot be recommended to the manual control freak as it includes probably the lowest amount of manual controls on any MiniDV camcorder this year. There is no independent iris or shutter speed controls on the DCR-HC21, nor audio level controls.
Pros / Serious Hobbyists (1.0)
The DCR-HC21 cannot be recommended for the pro or serious hobbyist. It lacks the requisite manual control interface and the microphone jack needed by such a person.
**The Sony DCR-HC21 is a camcorder for the point-and-shooter - but if you have even the slightest suspicion that you might want something more, stay away. With its horrible low light performance and lack of manual control found on comparable camcorders, the DCR-HC21 is all around a very bad camcorder. Also, the camcorder’s menu system is discouragingly hard to use. On the bright side (no pun intended) the camcorder does perform well in bright light, has great automatic controls, and offers one of the best low-end zoom toggles this year—-which is really the only manual control the point-and-shooter needs. It also has an easy mode to help out the mechanically disinterested. And the placement of the camcorder’s ports on the camcorder, as opposed to a docking station, makes the camcorder a bit easier to travel with than the more advanced DCR-HC32 and DCR-HC42. But what's really sad about the DCR-HC21 is that just two years ago, the DCR-HC21's predecessor, the DCR-TRV19, was considered an amazing camcorder. In an effort to dumb down their products for a broader audience, Sony has wound up ruining some of them. It's very difficult for us to recommend the DCR-HC21 for anyone accept the surest point-and-shoot users.
Meet the tester
Matt Culler is a valued contributor to the Reviewed.com family of sites.
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