Sony has a solid reputation for their camcorders and the Handycam HDR-PJ380 is no exception. Sure, there's a long list of features like 16 GB flash memory, a 3” touchscreen, 55x zoom and the built in projector, but simply put, this camcorder is just fun to use.
Video quality is where the PJ380 truly shines, but there's also a few perks in the design, usability and extra features too. There's a few minor qualms, like a rather finicky touchscreen, but overall Sony's 2013 midrange projector model is a great choice among other mainstream HD options.
Body & Design: Sony PJ380
Sony has managed to squeeze a full frame sensor, a projector and 16 GB of flash memory into a camcorder that's lightweight and comfortable to grip. Holding the camcorder in my right hand, I can easily access the zoom and dedicated photo button with my index or middle finger and the start/stop button with my thumb.
The remaining controls, which are used less often, need a second hand. On the left side, there's the basic buttons for power, playback and turning on and focusing the projector. There are also plugs for a projector input and mic. A USB cord is hidden in the camera strap on the right side, plus there are ports for a charger and longer USB cord.
The more advanced controls are accessed through the 3” touchscreen, which is where a few issues pop up. Some of the icons are too small, which makes it easy to try and hit one button and instead select a neighboring option. There's also a delay between touching the screen and when the camcorder recognizes that an option has been selected, sometimes this delay is small, other times I had to keep my finger on the screen for a few seconds.
|Most of the controls on the Sony PJ380 are easy to access.|
When projecting, the touchscreen turns off, which means all the controls are different. Instead of using the screen, the zoom toggles through the options and the photo button becomes the equivalent of “ok.” It takes a little longer to navigate this way, since you have to go through all the options to pick the one you want at times, but it isn't a major issue and it's nice to navigate without turning the projector off.
The menu organization is a bit odd at points, but nowhere near being a big issue. There's an option for shooting mode, but the only thing there is selecting photo or video mode, which most people won't use too often since there is a dedicated photo button. The various scene modes are under “Camera/Mic” instead, along with the options for switching between auto and manual for focus, exposure and white balance.
User Experience & Performance: Sony PJ380
The Sony PJ380 is impressive right from the start, flip open the screen and it powers on almost instantly. If the camcorder has been used recently, the camcorder is ready even faster by skipping the startup screen, which makes it less likely to miss the moment.
The PJ380 is also pretty quick at recording and storing the video with the built in flash memory. While shooting video and photo simultaneously, the recording takes a bit longer (as expected), and you can't take photos in rapid succession while also shooting video. But since Sony has included the ability to pull stills from video directly from the camcorder, it's a non-issue. Calling up photos and video to replay is also rather speedy.
While the Sony PJ380 includes various scene modes, most users won't find themselves switching off the intelligent auto very often, which analyzes the conditions and selects a scene option automatically. But for the user that likes a little more control, there are several settings to choose from like beach, snow, landscape or portrait, plus manual focus, white balance and exposure settings. There's also a low lux option for getting the best results in limited light.
The autofocus on the PJ380 is quite good, but there were a few instances where the subject went in and out of focus. A baby playing peekaboo with a blanket, which hid what the camcorder had been focusing on, made the autofocus readjust several times in one clip. With the touchscreen, however, you can select an object to remain in focus, which is great for instances when the subject will be at varying distances or might disappear out of the frame momentarily.
|Sharing videos in person is fun using the Sony PJ380's built-in projector.|
The included battery lasts around two, two and a half hours of regular shooting. Recharging takes around an hour when plugged into the wall. While the USB cord that's tucked into handle says “charge,” it didn't charge from a MacBook, and the screen recommended plugging it into the wall while uploading to the computer, but recharging is simple enough regardless.
Shooting video on the PJ380 is fun, but sharing it with a group of people is also enjoyable with the projector. Forget crowding around the 3” screen, just point at a blank wall, hit the projector button, select what you want to show and it's ready to go. As expected, the projector works best in a dark room for the most accurate color and the best viewing, but even using inside a well lit room, details are quite clear. The speaker is also powerful enough for quick replays to groups of people.
Video Quality: Sony PJ380
Sony has a reputation for video quality and the PJ380 is no exception. The picture is clear and detailed and sounds are true to life on the replay.
Color is generally accurate, but in a few instances colors were more vibrant or more muted then in actuality. When shooting a river that was brown from muddy spring runoff, the intelligent auto recognized it as a water scene and turned the water and sky into a brilliant blue, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your preferences, and could likely be remedied by switching off intelligent auto. Colors were a little less vibrant in low light, but not to a large degree.
|The Sony PJ380 enhanced the blues in this image of a muddy spring river.|
The PJ380 performs well in dim conditions, while colors may be somewhat muted, the picture is clear without an annoying level of noise. The camcorder also adjusts quickly to light changes, like when shooting indoors then out a bright window.
Video quality isn't quite as good at the end of the 55x extended zoom range, but that's expected. The 30x optical zoom produces a clear picture, but at the very end of the extended zoom, the picture is a little less sharp and the touch to focus isn't as accurate. The zoom, though, will get you close to nearly anything you want to record and still capture decent results.
The image stabilization system does remarkably well; footage is relatively free of awkward bumps and jars. A tripod is recommended for shooting at full zoom, as with almost any camcorder, but the video was surprisingly less shaky than anticipated even at full zoom.
The quality of the stills taken from the PJ380 are also top notch for a dedicated camcorder in this price range and category. There's a photo button at the top that you can use while in video mode, but the pictures are noticeably better when using the dedicated photo mode, particularly when there's little light.
|Images and video on the Sony PJ380 are clear and detailed.|
The PJ380 also picks up sound well. Voices close to the camera were clear, but it also picked up background noise like birds chirping. Large wind gusts are still picked up, but for the most part the average breeze isn't even detected.
Conclusion: Sony PJ380
All things considered, the Sony PJ380 is a fun camcorder to use that captures great footage for the mainstream HD category. The touchscreen and navigation could be tweaked a bit, but the video quality outranks the smaller issues.
Sony has priced this model at about $600 MSRP, which is similar to other cams with similar quality—though Sony is the only one making mainstream cams with projectors. If the projector isn't your thing, you can save a hundred bucks by picking up the Sony CX380, which is the same camcorder without the projector.