As one of the founding fathers of the AVCHD format (Panasonic is the other), you'd expect Sony to offer something special to the camcorders that carry its name. The Sony HDR-CX11E doesn't disappoint.
The Sony HDR-CX11E's key selling point is the inclusion of Face Detection and Smile Shutter - two features that can already be found in Sony's range of Cyber-shot camcorders.
Face Detection helps optimise colour, contrast and so on, so skin tones in your video footage and photos look natural (the Panasonic HDC-SD100 also includes this). Smile Shutter works with face detection to identify when a person smiles - and then takes a photo automatically. There's no need to press the shutter yourself. Video and still images are all recorded to same Memory Stick Pro Duo card, with a 4GB version included in the Sony HDR-CX11E's price.
Such niceties highlight Sony's focus on consumer-friendly features for its camcorders, the aim being to offer point-and-shoot simplicity with none of the pain and hassle. The down side is that Sony camcorders often lack the kind of features - manual focusing, electronic viewfinders and so on - that enthusiasts love. Happily, the Sony HDR-CX11E offers a decent compromise in the shape of a manual focus knob that sits below the lens.
In the hand, the Sony HDR-CX11E feels light and well balanced, the major controls - including mode selection dial - within easy to reach of fingers and thumb. The zoom control is a little too small for our tastes, but we had no problems using it in practice.
The Sony HDR-CX11E's other controls, however, seems less successful. Some are located inside the LCD cavity, while others are only accessible via software tabs on the 12.7in LCD touchscreen. Selecting a tab can be a bit hit-and-miss, while successfully choosing ones reveals further buttons to press - often with cryptic names - before you get to your menu of choice. Somehow a joystick seems simpler, quicker and easier.
Using touchscreen controls highlights another problem the Sony HDR-CX11E has, which lies with the LCD's brightness. We found it almost impossible to frame shots accurately in bright sunshine - the touchscreen menu system only serving to add to our frustration.
Luckily, the Sony HDR-CX11E fares much better when it comes to picture and sound quality. The presence of a single large CMOS image sensor helps the HDR-CX11E serve up better quality pictures than the Panasonic HD-SD100E. Sony even seems to have scaled back on its traditional tendency to over-saturate images on its camcorders, only red hues seem excessively vibrant.
We were very impressed with the automated features such as face detection and the smile shutter as they ensured we ended up with consistently good results. The video picture quality is first-rate, too. A brighter LCD, an electronic viewfinder and some easier to use touchscreen controls would have boosted the Recommended Sony HDR-CX11E camcorder's score yet higher.