Sony Handycam HDR-CX12
An HD camcorder that records only to flash memory and is designed for point-and-press video photographers.The Handycam HDR-CX12 is similar in size and styling to the HDR-CX7 model, which it replaces. One of a rapidly-growing class of camcorders that record exclusively to flash memory (in this case Memory Stick Pro Duo), it’s also the first camcorder with Smile Shutter technology. This feature already appears in some digital still cameras that, like the CX12, are designed primarily for point-and-press shooters. Automatic Face Detection technology is also provided with the ability to identify up to eight human faces. . . [more]
The Handycam HDR-CX12 is similar in size and styling to the HDR-CX7 model, which it replaces. One of a rapidly-growing class of camcorders that record exclusively to flash memory (in this case Memory Stick Pro Duo), it’s also the first camcorder with Smile Shutter technology. This feature already appears in some digital still cameras that, like the CX12, are designed primarily for point-and-press shooters. Automatic Face Detection technology is also provided with the ability to identify up to eight human faces.
With the same 5.8 mm diameter ClearVid CMOS sensor and lens as the HDR-SR12 which we have also reviewed, the CX12 supports Full HD video recording at 1920×1080 pixel resolution with a maximum frame rate of 25 frames/second. It can also produce still images at up to 3680 x 2760 pixel size (10.2 megapixels). Its glossy black finish looks elegant and it’s small and light enough to slip into a jacket pocket while being also solidly built.
An angled view of the front of the HDR-CX12 showing the adjustable LCD, lens, flash tube and Cam Control dial.
Whereas the SR12 includes both a hard disk drive and card slot, the CX12 and CX7 record only to flash memory. Physically both models are similar, although the CX12 has a 12x optical zoom, where the CX7 has only 10x. The front of the CX12 is dominated by the Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* lens, which is enclosed in the camera body and protected by split flaps that open and close as power is turned on and off. Threading is provided for a 37mm filter.
The CX12 is easiest to use when held with both hands as the left hand provides support for the camera and accesse the buttons along the edge of the LCD touch screen.
With a focal length range of 4.9-58.8mm and maximum apertures of f/1.8 at the wide setting and f/3.1 at full tele extension, this lens has a 35mm equivalent focal length of 40-480mm in 35mm format for 16:9 movie recording and 37-444mm for still pictures. Wide-angle coverage is unimpressive but the tele end is adequate for shooting sports action. Super Steady Shot optical image stabilisation allows the SR12 to be hand-held at relatively low light levels when shooting with full zoom extension.
Like the CX7 and SR12, the CX12 has a slim electronic flash tube on the left side of the lens barrel. It also provides three mode settings: auto, on and off (the default) and flash output is adjustable (although the adjustment is hidden in a sub-menu and difficult to locate). Unlike the CX7 – but like the SR12 – just below the lens on the right corner is a Cam Control dial, which provides a quick way to fine-tune focus, exposure and white balance. The default setting is for focusing.
The rear panel showing the battery, interface connections and shooting controls.
The right side panel carries only the padded hand-strap, while the rear panel is dominated by the battery chamber and carries most of the controls. To the left of the battery are the HDMI-out and AV-out terminals plus the DC-in jack. Right of the battery is the start/stop Record button, while above the battery is the power/mode dial, which controls the on/off and photo/movie modes.
New to the CX12 is a small Quick On button, located just below and left of the mode dial, which toggles between the CX12’s ‘sleep’ and ‘active’ modes. A dedicated Photo button lies just in front of the mode dial, with the zoom rocker just in front of it. The top panel also carries the Active Interface Shoe (AIS), which is used for attaching lights and microphones and is protected by a lift-up plastic cover. Unfortunately, only Sony accessories can be used with the CX12.
Just in front of the AIS is the built-in microphone grille, which is easily brushed by a little finger when the camera is in use. The left side panel carries the pull-out, articulating LCD. This 2.7-inch widescreen touch-screen panel has a modest 211,000-pixel resolution. The outer edge of this panel carries five buttons: home, zoom in, zoom out, record and start/stop. No viewfinder is provided.
The side panel with the buttons that control backlight, display/battery info and playback, along with an Easy button plus the Night Shot slider and memory card slot.
Under the LCD on the camera body is an array of buttons that control backlight, display/battery info and playback, along with an Easy button that switches the camera into full auto mode and at the same time simplifies the few remaining controls. There’s also a slider switch for the Night Shot mode. The Memory Stick Pro Duo slot lies at the lower edge of this panel, under a flip-down cover. The tripod socket on the base plate is metal-lined for high durability.
Unfortunately, the user manual supplied with the CX12 is cheaply printed and provides minimal information on the various camera settings. It also lacks an index, making it difficult to locate explanations of camera functions. A more detailed manual – with an index – is provided on the bundled CD, along with Sony’s standard software bundle, which we reported on in our review of the HDR-SR12 .
The CX12 comes with a Handycam Station for chargign the battery and connecting the camera to a computer.
The CX12 comes with a 4GB Memory Stick Pro Duo card, which can accommodate roughly 25 minutes of HD video at the highest quality. Also supplied with the CX12 is a Handycam Station, which is used for charging the battery and transferring video to a computer. A socket in the base of the CX12 accepts the plug on the Handycam Station, which has a DC-in jack. The supplied NP-FH60 battery provides typical recording times of 50 minutes in HD mode or 65 minutes in SD mode per charge.
The starting point for all camera controls is the Home menu, which is accessed by pressing the top button on the edge of the LCD monitor and displays the following menu pages:
Camera: Movie, Photo, Smooth Slow Recording
View Images: Visual Index, Movie Index, Photo Index, Playlist
Others: Delete, Photo Capture, Edit, Playlist Edit, Print, USB Connect, TV Connect Guide
Manage Media: HD/SD Set, Media Info, Media Format, Repair Image Database File
Settings: Movie Settings, Photo Settings, Face Function Set, View Images Set, Sound/Display Set, Output Settings, Clock/Language, General Set.
The Home menu.
Smooth Slow Recording enables you to record short clips (up to three seconds) of a fast-moving subject as a slow-motion video. It’s useful for motion analysis (e.g. golf swings) and wildlife shots. For both stills and video clips, shooting controls are divided among three menu pages with four selectable items per page. These settings are accessed by touching the ‘buttons’ ranged along the lower edge of the screen. The following options are provided for shooting movies:
Camera 1: Spot Meter/Focus, Spot Focus, Spot Meter, Tele Macro
Camera 2: Exposure, AE Shift, Focus, WB Shift
Camera 3: Scene Selection, Colour Slow Shutter, White Balance, Super NightShot
Effects: Fader, Digital Effect, Picture Effect
Settings: Record Mode, Built-In Zoom Mic, Micref (microphone reference) Level, Flash Mode.
In Photo mode, the three Camera menu pages are essentially the same, although page 3 lacks the Super NightShot setting. Only three items are accessible via the Settings page: Image Size, Flash Mode and Self-Timer.
To access more sophisticated settings like red-eye reduction and flash level control you start with the Home menu and then negotiate your way to the Photo Settings on page 5. Both controls are located on this page. (We doubt most users will make the effort.) Ten Scene Selections are provided: Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Candle, Sunrise & Sunset, Fireworks, Landscape, Portrait (self portrait), Spotlight, Beach and Snow. White balance is non-adjustable in the Scene modes.
Page 1 of two Scene menu pages.
Pressing the Easy button on the left side panel (under the LCD) switches most camera settings to automatic and makes the screen font size larger for easier viewing. In this mode, you can only access the most basic recording and playback modes.
If you’re recording lots of short clips with several minutes between them (for example when shooting sports action), you can use the Quick On button to toggle between recording and ‘sleep’ modes. In sleep mode, power consumption is reduced significantly, although you can return to recording standby in about one second by pressing the Quick On button. You can set the time before the camera moves from the sleep mode to off with the Quick On Standby setting.
The other useful control on the left panel is the Night Shot switch, which uses infrared-based focusing to enable the camera to record in low light levels. Setting Colour Slow Shutter to on records low-light images in colour. There’s also a backlight button, which switches exposure metering to a central spot pattern to ensure faces receive adequate exposure. The LCD can also be rotated to face forwards, enabling users to take self portraits with the camera’s self-timer.
When shooting video you can choose from four high definition (HD) levels and three standard definition (SD) settings. HD video is recorded in AVCHD format while MPEG2 is used for SD video. The default setting is HD SP which records in AVCHD format at a resolution of 1440 x 1080 pixels at 7 Megabits/second. The table below shows the resolutions and typical recording times with a 4GB memory card for each recording mode.
1920 x 1080
1440 x 1080
1440 x 1080
1440 x 1080
720 x 576
720 x 576
720 x 576
Digital zoom is only available when recording video and there are two settings: 24x and 150x. These figures refer to total magnification, including the 12x optical zoom. An indicator on the screen shows the transition from optical to digital zooming.
The built-in zoom microphone ‘zooms’ the audio along with the video, enabling users to record the voice of one person in a crowd more clearly than the background noise. Audio tracks are recorded in Dolby Digital 5.1-channel surround sound and you can use Sony’s ECM-HW1 Bluetooth microphone for recording sound wirelessly at distances up to about 30 metres.
Still Image Capture
In the default setting, a still picture is recorded automatically on the memory card whenever the camera detects a person smiling during movie recording. An orange frame is superimposed on the targeted face. Face detection also engages automatically and a white frame appears around each face detected in both video and photo modes.
You can also record a still picture while shooting video by pressing the Photo button and capture still image frames from video recordings by touching Home>Others and selecting Photo Capture. (The image size for these frame grabs is fixed at 2.1M with HD recordings, 0.2M for widescreen SD video or VGA [0.3M] for 4:3 video in SD mode.) This function is blocked if you have selected the Smooth Slow recording, Fader, Digital Effect or Picture Effect modes.
Photo capture from a video recording.
Selecting Photo mode on the touch screen gives you more options and is the only way to access the highest and lowest resolution settings.All still images are recorded as JPEGs, regardless of how they are captured and users have no control over compression levels. Five still image sizes are supported, with typical file sizes shown in the table below.
Typical file size
3680 x 2760
3680 x 2070
2848 x 2136
1600 x 1200
640 x 480
On these figures, JPEG compression is similar to the lowest compression (‘best’) setting on majority of 10-megapixel digicams we’ve reviewed, which suggests there should be few visible artefacts and an adequate amount of continuous-tone detail in still shots.
Although superficially the SD12 may appear to be the ideal dual-purpose video-plus-stills camera, some features are less than ideal for still photography. For starters, the image sensor in both models is significantly smaller than the average digicam. When you record still images with a 4:3 aspect ratio, we estimate the imaging area is approximately 4.5 x 3.4 mm, compared with 5.76 x 4.29 mm for the typical digicam (which, in our opinion, is still too small for a 10-megapixel camera).
The top still resolution is 3680 x 2760 pixels can only be achieved through interpolation, since the sensor only uses 5.08 million photosites for image capture – with a 4:3 aspect ratio. If you swap to 16:9 aspect ratio, the image is cropped, leaving you with a 3680 x 2070-pixel 7.6-megapixel image. (We suspect this setting will be the most popular with users, particularly if they own widescreen TV sets.)
The most frustrating aspect of shooting stills with the SR12 is using the menu system, which requires a lot of toggling to locate and modify the few adjustable camera settings. You have to touch the OK icon to lock in any changes. Unfortunately, many adjustments a stills photographer relies upon are either non-adjustable or only adjustable with low precision.
Of the two focus settings (auto and manual) the manual mode has only two options: Portrait and Landscape. The only manual adjustment provided for exposure is via a bar with + and – buttons at each end. Lens aperture and shutter speed adjustments are simply not provided and there’s no way to set a precise focal length for the lens. Spot AF and metering functions are provided but both rely on the photographer touching a spot on the screen – and you have no idea what exposure parameters have been set.
Tapping the button on the lower left corner of the touch screen switches the CX12 into playback mode and displays thumbnails for all the clips recorded. By default, all clips recorded on a single day are grouped together and a new page is created for different days. Tapping on a thumbnail starts playback of the selected clip.
The View Images page in the Playback menu.
The Index view showing thumbnails of video clips.
Buttons on the touch-screen control play, fast forward, rewind and stop operations but take up valuable real estate on the screen. The Playback menu contains three pages with the following items:
1. Add, Add by Date
2. Delete, Delete by Date, Delete All
Delete options in Playback mode.
Three search methods are provided for finding wanted clips: Film Roll Index, Face Index and Date Index. Enabling Film Roll Index creates an index display of the beginning of scenes at specified display intervals (3, 6, or 12 seconds and 1 or 5 minutes), allowing you to see what was recorded in a long take. Face Index displays faces detected during movie recordings in index format. You can play back a clip by touching a face thumbnail. You can also search for all clips recorded on a specified date. Slideshow playback of still images is also supported.
Not surprisingly, test video clips and still images recorded with the CX12 were similar to those from the SR12, although exposures were averaged to include both shadows and highlights rather than being shadow-biased. This resulted in slight highlight clipping in bright conditions.
Video clips recorded with the test camera were sharp with natural-looking colours and low noise levels. The full 1920 x 1080 pixel AVCHD mode looked particularly smooth and the 1440 x 1080 pixel HD HQ could only be distinguished from it when frame grabs were enlarged by 100%. Audio quality was excellent with both settings, although the built-in microphone provide quite prone to wind noise at the default setting.
SD video was close to expectations and significantly better than standard video on VGA camcorders and digicams. The difference between HD and SD clips is obvious when clips are viewed on larger screens (or at higher magnification) and the SD SP setting looked smoother than the LP mode, despite little difference in actual resolution. Audio quality remained above average in SD mode.
Focusing was mostly fast and accurate, although fast-moving subjects crossing in front of the camera were often unsharp due to autofocus lag. The image stabiliser proved remarkably effective at all light levels – and was even effective in gusty wind and with the Nightshot modes. Noise was evident in video clips shot in low light levels, although the clips themselves looked acceptable for the conditions.
The auto white balance control responded reasonably quickly to changes in lighting, but failed to eliminate the colour casts from either incandescent or fluorescent lights. The pre-set indoor mode produced a strong cyan cast under fluorescent lights and a slight magenta cast with incandescent lighting. Manual measurement with the One Touch mode produced neutral colours under both types of lighting and came close to neutral with mixed lighting.
Imatest showed still image performance to be slightly better overall resolution than the SR12. Colour accuracy was not quite as high and saturation levels were slightly lower. Interestingly, the CX12 showed a similar pattern of colour shifts in skin hues as well as shifts in yellow, green and blue hues.
Lateral chromatic aberration was low or negligible but we found traces of coloured fringing near the corners of shots taken in bright conditions. The example shown below also reveals traces of processing artefacts.
Coloured fringing and processing artefacts in a crop from the image below when it was enlarged to 100%.
The original high-resolution still image.
Still pictures recorded in the Photo mode and pictures snapped by pressing the Photo button while shooting video were generally sharper and more usable than frames grabbed from video clips in the camera. The test camera took approximately five seconds to power-up ready for shooting. For still images we measured an average capture lag of 1.3 seconds, which reduced to 0.2 seconds with pre-focusing. It took 2.7 seconds on average to process each high-resolution JPEG image.
Although you pay a premium for the convenience of solid-state recording, Sony’s HDR-CX12 Handycam is a good choice for point-and-press video shooters who also like to take the occasional still shot. If you’re happy to use the Easy mode, the CX12 could be for you.
However, more serious photographers who like to take control over camera settings will find the CX12’s menus frustrating to use. Too much toggling is required to reach some critical adjustments. The touch screen can also be tiresome to use due to the variable sensitivity of the on-screen ‘buttons’.
Auto white balance with incandescent lighting.
Auto white balance with fluorescent lighting.
A close-up stills shot.
A still picture captured while recording a video clip.
A still frame grabbed from a HD video clip in playback mode.
Backlit subjects tended to be recorded as silhouettes in both still photo and video modes.
Image sensor: 1/3.13-inch type (5.8 mm diameter) ClearVid CMOS sensor with Exmor technology and 5.56 million photosites
Sensor Resolution: 3.81MP for HD/DV 16:9 video; 10.2MP for stills; 7.6MP for Dual Record mode
Lens: Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 4.9-58.8mm f/1.8-3.1 zoom lens (40-480mm in 35mm format in 16:9 movie mode)
Zoom ratio: 12x optical, 24x and 150x digital
Video System: AVCHD (MPEG2 in SD mode)
Recording Modes: Video: HD FH 16Mbps (1920×1080), HD HQ 9Mbps (1440 x 1080), HD SP 7Mbps (1440 x 1080), HD LP 5Mbps (1440 x 1080), SP HQ 9Mbps (720 x 576), SP SP 6Mbps (720 x 576), SP LP 3Mbps (720 x 576)
Sound recording: 5.1 channel Surround Sound
Still Image Sizes/ file format: 3680 x 2760 (10.2M), 3680 x 2070 (7.6M widescreen), 2848 x 2136 (6.1M), 1600 x 1200 (1.9M), 640 x 480 (0.3M)/JPEG
Shutter speed range: 1/2 to 1/425 second (Scene Selection)
Image Stabilisation: Optical Super Steady Shot system
Focus system/range: Auto with manual and spot focus via touch screen
Minimum illumination: 2 lux (auto mode)
White balance: Auto, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent (x2)
Flash: Built-in Flash (with Red-Eye Reduction)
Storage Media: Memory Stick 4GB + 8GB Supplied)
LCD monitor: 2.7-inch 16:9 Widescreen Clear Photo LCD Plus with 211,000 pixels
Power supply: NPFH60 Info-lithium-ion battery pack; 8.4V DC-in
Dimensions (wxhxd): 69 x 67 x 129 mm (without battery)
Weight: 370 grams (without battery)
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