By Cliff Edwards
I've always found camcorders to be funny technology. They're relatively expensive, yet you typically only use them for special occasions—the birth of a child, recitals, weddings, and the like. You're pleased as punch to watch the video, but anyone not intimately involved with the subject is bored to tears. Even the owner eventually loses interest, and the camcorder goes into the closet or sits on a shelf gathering dust.
Canon's first foray into high-definition camcorders, the new HV10, could change those slacker habits for a lot of people. The HV10 shines both in looks and ease of use, for everyone from the novice to the expert, and the pictures are so clear that even the most mundane scenes suddenly seem interesting.
Designed in shades of black and gray, the HV10 is packed with plenty of features, including the ability to shoot in 1080 interlaced high-def mode, a video format that provides ultra high-definition images. The device also boasts instant auto focus and image stabilization and the ability to take digital still pictures. It's a good-looking camera, save for its viewfinder, made of a decidedly ugly gray molded plastic and too flush to the body of the unit to have much value to anyone but masochistic souls who shun the 2.7-inch swivel fold-out LCD screen.
Weighing less than a pound, and measuring a svelte 2.24 inches by 4.1 inches by 4.2 inches, the camcorder fits comfortably in your right hand. Controls—and there are plenty of them—are within easy reach, though the numerous features and options can appear daunting. Appearances aside, Canon had the consumer in mind when it designed the HV10. Auto focus and image stabilization, two of the surest ways to capture decent images, are built into the auto mode. One drawback is that the instant auto focus does a miserable job in low-light situations.
After getting the HV10 out of the box and charged up and having inserted the digital video tape and mini SD card for memory, I found the camcorder a snap to figure out. A tiny menu button brings up controls, and you use an equally tiny scroll wheel below that to adjust date and time as well as the system setup.
Fold out the LCD screen, turn the jog-dial on the back of the unit to "camera," and the image appears. You press record and are good to go. The on-screen display lets you know exactly what settings you're using, and tells you how much tape you've recorded as well as how much time is left on the tape. I wandered around the office and house, grabbing sound with the built-in mike and great pictures that stayed easily in focus even as I fiddled with the zoom feature.
Speaking of that, the 10-times zoom lived up to its promise. I spied on people walking down the street and grabbed close-ups of car license plates from my fifth-floor office window with nary a lag in the time it took to focus on each object.
More accomplished shooters can manually tinker with settings like focus, exposure, shutter speed, and shooting modes, such as night scenes, fireworks, and portraits. Anyone with big hands might get a little frustrated here. In the interest of space, Canon uses very tiny buttons for its advanced functions.
Though clearly meant to satisfy consumers looking for high-definition content to show on their big-screen flat-panel sets, the camcorder shoots in standard definition, too. And you can take digital still or continuous-shot JPEG pictures in normal, fine, and super-fine formats by toggling a button on the side. Canon promises up to 3.1-megapixel still shooting, though effectively you get slightly less than that at most settings.
My biggest gripe with the Canon is the lack of video-editing software. Many cameras now come with software that allows you to do simple edits, but the Canon has only a limited-time offer to mail away for a version of Pinnacle Studio Plus. I would expect that the Canon works seamlessly with Apple's (AAPL) iMovie HD, which comes installed on all new Macs, but you'll have to spend a few bucks on a separate firewire adapter.
On balance, though, the HV10 is a great camera and a worthy competitor to the comparable Sony HD model. At $1,100, it's a very good all-around camcorder for anyone who wants a lightweight, easy-to-use device for catching high-def images.