Gadgets with a built-in projector are not only viewed as gimmicky but they can be quite pricey when you consider the rest of the specs. Smartphones like the Galaxy Beam evoke this argument – why buy a gadget with a tiny built-in projector when you can buy a much more powerful smartphone without the projector for the same price? The Sony HDR-PJ50 was viewed as a niche product too as it was the first Sony camcorder to have a built-in projector. But at least this feature made more sense as you can create your own personal movie theater anywhere where your recorded videos are the feature presentation. But at $1,350, you can forget about mainstream adoption. However, things are different now and there are more Sony projector camcorders than ever. You can get a cheap projector camcorder (HDR-PJ230) for as low as $399 although you have to deal with some compromises. Fortunately, the Sony HDR-PJ380 presents itself as a slightly higher-end model that costs $200 more and while it features the same low-end projector, it is better equipped on the video recording end.
It looks like Sony made the HDR-PJ380 for the mainstream because it comes in 3 colors. The black design makes this camcorder look like the other models while the white and red models stand out a bit more. The Sony HDR-PJ380 weighs less than 8 ounces so it feels very light just like any good entry-level camcorder should be. The right of the camcorder features a pretty comfortable hand strap that you can adjust to your liking. Explore the hand strap a bit more and you’ll discover this cool USB cable that you can use to conveniently connect to any computer to transfer videos or connect to a traditional smartphone charger for charging.
A 3-inch LCD touchscreen with a 230k-dot resolution is pretty poor by today’s standards but when you compare it to the cheaper HDR-PJ230, you will realize how much worse a 2.7-inch screen non-touch screen is. Because the interface is touch-based, the panel doesn’t need any more controls on the side. The resistive touchscreen might take a couple of taps to register but at least it is a bit easier for new users to navigate. The Clear Photo Plus LCD panel also makes it possible to view videos outdoors on a sunny day.
The Sony HDR-PJ380 serves as a reminder that good entry-level camcorders are designed for automatic operation. You turn on the camcorder, activate the Intelligent Auto, pick the quality and go straight to recording. The Intelligent Auto function is a bit more intelligent than the entry-level model as it has 180 different scene combinations for the camcorder to consider when optimizing the footage. The Sony HDR-PJ380 has the same Exmor R CMOS sensor as the low-end Sony projector camcorder model but it still does a good job in improving low light performance. It can record Full HD 1080p videos at 60p and can capture 8.9-megapixel photos although the image quality isn’t as great as a standard point-and-shoot camera.
When picking the format, you can opt for the more compatible MP4 format so you can better edit videos in Mac computers or you can go for the higher quality AVCHD format resulting to larger file sizes. The entry-level Sony model features these options too but the 26.8mm wide angle Sony G Lens of the HDR-PJ380 is a bit better. Visuals are noticeably sharper so you get more detail and you don’t get barrel distortion on the wide angle. You also get better optical zoom capabilities with the Sony HDR-PJ380 which is nice because the 32x extended zoom of the HDR-PJ230 was already impressive. With the HDR-PJ380, the optical zoom extends to 30x and you have a huge extended zoom of 55x. At high zoom levels, autofocus performance is still pretty exceptional.
In terms of stability, the Sony HDR-PJ380 performs best if you don’t zoom in so much. Because of the Optical SteadyShot image stabilization, the footage ends up pretty stable if you hold it naturally. When recording scenes with people, you may use the touchscreen to your advantage by touching a subject’s face to lock the focus in. The camcorder will remember the face even after the subject temporarily leaves the scene and later comes back. There are even some neat priority settings to consider including Child Priority and Adult Priority.
There is 16 GB of flash memory available onboard the HDR-PJ380 so you can record about an hour and a half of maximum quality video footage before you need to either add an SD card or Memory Stick PRO Duo or delete content. You won’t have to worry so much about battery life though because it can last close to 3 hours when recording consecutive 1080p or 60p video. Picking a lower quality format means longer battery life.
Some camcorders including Sony’s own Sony HDR-CX380 may offer similar recording capabilities at a lower price but you cannot forget that projector built into the back of the LCD screen. Surprisingly, this is a projector that mighty useful when you want to project videos on a large wall. You just have to turn off all the lights so the camcorder can make good use of its 13 lumen light output. The resolution output is on the low end at 640×360 but watching videos this way is much better than watching them on the small 3.0-inch display. Plus, the Sony HDR-PJ380 has its own micro HDMI input which means that you can connect the camcorder to a TV and have the camcorder project the image. Pretty cool.
Sony’s $399 HDR-PJ230 still deserves a spot in Sony’s camcorder projector lineup but spending on $599 on the Sony HDR-PJ380 gives you far more benefits. You get double the storage capacity, a larger LCD screen that is touch-enabled, superior lens, expanded zoom range and two other colors to pick from. However, you need to cough up a bit more dough if you want a brighter projector, built-in Wi-Fi and more manual controls.