Sony HDR-XR520V AVCHD Camcorder Review:

Smile! You’re on GPS!

Looking for the ultimate HD camcorder? With full HD 1920×1080 resolution, an improved CMOS sensor and loads of other features, Sony’s new HDR-XR520V just may be the solution you’ve been waiting for.

First Glance

Pulling the sleek black camcorder out of the box, we quickly noticed that Sony has not compromised the compact size found in previous HD camcorder models; in fact, this one is even a little smaller. Aesthetically, the camera looks cool. Sony has done a great job in covering most of the buttons, inputs and switches.

From the front, we see the 12x optical lens barrel with the still camera flash embedded just to the left. To the right of the lens is the manual control dial used to manually adjust focus, exposure, AE shift or WB shift. The manual dial works wonderfully and is quite easy to use.

Flipping open the 3.2-inch LCD automatically powers the camera on, as well as revealing a number of buttons and switches. On top is the GPS on-off switch. Below that is a preview button used to quickly preview your footage. To the right is an exposure switch that changes from STD (standard mode), which won’t allow the shutter to drop beneath 1/60. Low Lux mode will drop the shutter to 1/30 to allow a brighter image in lower light. According to Sony, the minimum amount of light needed is 3 lux. The third exposure setting is Nightshot mode, which utilizes the infrared sensor mounted on the front of the camera. The bottom row of buttons includes a power on/off button, display button, the famous “easy” button and a burn-to-disc button. Next to the buttons and switches is the PRO Duo memory stick slot.

A home button sits on the LCD, which takes you to the settings menu. Underneath the home button are the wide and telephoto zoom buttons, followed by a start/stop button. A very nice feature to have when you’re holding the camera at low or high angles.

The back of the camera is just what we’d expect: battery, viewfinder, start/stop button and mode button. Along with the DC power input. Nothing too exciting or fancy.

The right side of the camera houses the 1/8-inch microphone input and headphone jack, along with the A/V in/outs including composite, USB and HDMI.

On top we see the built-in 5.1 surround sound microphone. Next is the accessory shoe, which is hidden by a sliding cover. Towards the back is the zoom toggle and still photo button.

Cool Features

A couple of new features that deserve some attention here are the face detection and smile shutter technology. While shooting, the face detection technology seeks out the face(s) of the subject and displays a white box, letting you know that it’s doing its job by keeping the targeted part of the image in focus and properly exposed. The camera can detect up to eight faces at any given time. When the subject displays a smile, the smile shutter kicks in and automatically takes an 8MP still image and stores it to the camera’s hard drive.

Another really cool new feature is the GPS Geo-tagging option. With this turned on, the camera automatically tags your footage, using Navteq maps, so that, at any given time, you can know exactly where you were when you shot the footage. Very useful for those world travelers who forget that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris. It’s also cool to pull up the map and see pinpoints of your traveling progress.

Four different quality settings give you the option of FH (the highest-quality setting at 16Mbps 1920×1080), HQ (at 9Mbps), SP (at 7Mbps) and LP (at 5Mbps). With a massive 240GB internal hard drive giving you nearly 30 hours of record time (almost 100 hours at the lowest HD setting), there’s little need to use any of the lower-quality settings. You can also store media externally via the PRO Duo Memory Stick.

Taking It for a Spin

I have to admit that I really enjoyed testing out this camera. As I mentioned earlier, the camera is powered either by opening the LCD or extracting the viewfinder. Sony boasts a quick 2-second power-up, which is a great feature when you’re trying to quickly capture a fleeting moment, like the cat playing nicely with the family hamster or your child taking its first steps.

The HDR-XR520V operations and menu navigations are easy to use and quite intuitive, and the touch screen LCD works perfectly. The camera fits nicely in your hand and is comfortable to hold.

The first test took place indoors under mixed fluorescent and incandescent lighting, and it adjusted remarkably well. The image came through clear and balanced. The camera’s white balance was set to auto, but it can be manually set using the touch screen menu. There are four white-balance settings: auto, indoor, outdoor or “one-push,” which is the manual setting. Using the manual dial, the camera allows the user to shift the white balance +/-. Turning in the positive direction adds warmth to the image, while turning it the opposite direction cools the image.

The improved OIS (optical image stabilization) is quite apparent. I was starting to feel quite good about my handholding technique when I realized that Sony had made an improvement from the previous models. The camera operated at times as if on a dolly. I tried following my kids around the house, and the OIS did its job quite well, even while the camera was moderately zoomed in.

Taking the camera into low light and changing the exposure switch to low lux works quite well. Here is where the new Exmor R rear-backlit CMOS sensor really shines. While the gain is increased to allow exposure in lower light, there is much less noise and grain than in previous models, making the HDR-XR520V quite useful in low light. However, the frame rate being reduced to 1/30 does make the image a little blurry. The minimum amount of light needed is 3 lux, not quite as good as Sony’s famous VX or PD models but, hey, we can’t complain.

Moving outdoors and switching back to standard exposure, the automatic exposure and white balance kick in quickly and – voil – the beautiful outdoors. The image comes through clearly, but it is a little hard to see on the LCD in the bright light. Switching to the color viewfinder solves the problem. Again the OIS performs extremely well, even while running. Not much else to say here.

The final test was our favorite and one we spent way too much time on. We switched the camera to the Smooth Slow Record. This is a feature found on previous models as well, but we feel like it hasn’t gotten enough attention. The SSR option allows the user to record a 3-second burst at 240fps and play back at 30fps. The result is a perfectly smooth slow motion without frame jitter. This is an option we thought should have been included in consumer cameras a long ago, but maybe it’s just us.

The sensor requires more light than the standard frame rate, the image doesn’t come through nearly as clear. and you get only three seconds. So the feature is not perfected, but it is still really cool. We tried the usual slow-motion tests, pouring red wine into a glass, dropping food coloring into water and blowing up a plastic doll with a firecracker (come on, you would too!), and the results came through nicely.

Check the test out on YouTube.

Connectivity and Playback

The HDR-XR520V has the typical output options: composite A/V, USB and Mini-HDMI. When we connected the camera to our computer via USB, our Windows XP system quickly recognized the internal hard drive and treated it as such without the need of drivers or software. The provided software includes an image and footage browser, which works fine but is not much use as an editor. The latest version of Sony Vegas recognizes the video clips right away without needing an update or plug-in.

Allowing the user to view the camera as a hard drive gives you the option of also storing other content such as edited videos or music. Which brings up another really cool new feature. Sony has added the Highlight Playback option, which takes little pieces of your stored video clips and edits them together to music, allowing quick playback without having to sit through two hours of your child’s birthday party. The camera uses options like the smile recognition and face recognition to choose which clips to use, so theoretically you edit out the boring clips. We didn’t get enough footage to properly test this feature, but the idea is cool enough in itself. Like shuffle on the iPod.

Final Thoughts

Sony’s HDR-XR520V has everything you could want in a consumer camcorder – and even a little more. It’s compact, versatile and easy to use, but it does come with a price tag. The adage stands true: you get what you pay for. And the HDR-XR520V is no exception.


Sensor: 1/2.88″ Exmor R CMOS sensor

Format: MPEG-4 AVCHD/H.264

Lens: 12x optical HD video zoom lens

Focal Length: 5.5-66mm

f-Stop: 1.8-3.4

Zoom: 12x optical/200x digital

Filter Size: 37mm

Storage: 240GB internal hard drive

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1

Image Stabilization: Yes

Line In: No

LCD 3.2″ Viewfinder: Yes (color)

Manual Controls: White balance, focus, AE shift, WB shift

Built-In Speaker: Yes

Built-In Mic: Yes

Accessory Shoe: Yes – S Mini advanced shoe

Built-In Light/Flash: Yes/no

Stills: Yes

Media: PRO Duo Memory Stick

Still Resolution: 12Mp

Mic Input: Yes

Output: Mini-HDMI, A/V, Hi-speed 2.0 USB

Headphone: Yes

Dimensions: (WxHxD) 2.9″ x 3″ x 5.5″

Weight: 1 lb. 4 oz. (w/ battery)


  • Improved low light
  • Massive storage
  • Smooth slow motion
  • Image stabilization


  • Battery life
  • Limited footage for smooth slow motion


With loads of features, ease of use and quality to back it all up, the Sony HDR-XR520V is a powerful consumer-grade camcorder.

Brent Holland is a wedding/event video producer and owner of a video production company.

Sony Electronics, Inc.

16530 Via Esprillo

San Diego, CA 92127

Price: $1499

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