There’s no question we’re overwhelmed by gadgets. To simplify our lives a bit, manufacturers are creating devices that do double or triple duty like the Treo 650 cell phone/PDA. Other examples are camcorders that tout their digital still attributes, so they not only take videos but photographs as well. In this case, the theory being you can carry one less gadget, put your digital camera on eBay and just use a single device. We can honestly say that up until recently this has been a fool’s errand, as the photo quality of most camcorders is pathetic. $99 Vivitars and Concords found in Wal-Mart do better jobs than “photo-taking camcorders.” Fortunately things are changing as manufacturers enhance imaging devices, lens quality, add a load of photographic circuitry and other goodies. The new Canon Optura 600 is a good case in point. It records excellent MiniDV videos plus it takes 4 megapixel stills, far better than most of the competition. In fact, of the 85-plus camcorders out there, only two JVCs (GR-X5US, GZ-MC500) and the Samsung SC-D6550 take better ones (5MP vs. 4MP). Now should you unload your old digital camera on eBay and use the proceeds for the Optura 600? Click on…
Features and Design
The compact 1.1-pound Optura 600 has a vertical form factor that takes a bit of getting used to. Unlike more horizontal models such as the Sony DCR-DVD203 you’re really forced to shoot one-handed. It didn’t take too long to get into the swing of things but we strongly urge any prospective purchaser to handle this camcorder–or any other–before the credit card goes on the counter.
The camcorder has a sophisticated-looking charcoal gray body with silver accents. The front is dominated by the 10x Canon video lens with a 200x digital zoom boost, a flash with red-eye reduction and built-in LED light that also doubles as an AF Assist lamp for stills. The camcorder menu lets you disable the digital zoom if you’d like. We suggest you do so since the results at 200x are very pixilated. Some videographers use this as a special effect and it’s worth playing with but stick to the basic optical zoom for best quality. The camcorder does not have a built-in lens cover (a big oversight in my view) so you have to connect the supplied lens cap with a string to the wrist strap. This is very clunky. Also on the front are a remote control sensor and a small compartment hiding the AV out and DC in connections. On the top you’ll find a stereo mic and the Print/Share button for direct printing of stills. There is no hot shoe for accessories, another oversight.
The right side has many of the main controls including the menu, light and audio level keys as well as the main mode dial similar to those found on digital still cameras. There’s the tried-and-true auto for point-and-shoot operation as well as useful settings (portrait, landscape, high-speed shutter and so on) as well as six scene modes like foliage, snow and fireworks. For those who’d like to be a bit more adventurous, the Optura 600 has Program AE for manual adjustments (focus, exposure) as well as Aperture- and Shutter-Priority. Shutter speeds range between 1/8-1/2000th of a second and apertures are f/1.8-f/8.0. You’ll also find the Photo key for taking snapshots, a wide-tele zoom key and a switch to choose between recording on tape or SD card. It also has a headphone input.
The left side is dominated by a 2.5-inch flip-out LCD screen (rated a solid 123K pixels) and the battery compartment. Unlike many other camcorders, the battery fits flush to the body and is not an awkward appendage as so many others. Good work, guys. Flip open the LCD and there are seven keys primarily geared to play back but there’s a handy LCD brightness button to deal with bright or dark situations. There’s a mic input and a built-in speaker as well.
The rear of the Optura 600 has a fixed position .33-inch electronic viewfinder with diopter control. Below that is the main function dial (camera, video and playback). It’s a bit confusing since there’s a Lock button used for DV Messenger software that appears to be aiming point for the settings such as OFF. The real point is right below that, something that should be changed with the next generation. There are also multifunction keys for Focus/Data Code, EXP/End Search and Function. A handy Set key lets you scroll through menus and make adjustments. You’ll also find the SD card and USB/DV output compartments.
The bottom has a tripod mount and open/eject button for the tape compartment. Bottom loading camcorders can be a pain if you use your tripod a lot but if not it’s no big deal.
The camcorder kit is decent. It’s supplied with a tiny 16MB SD card, battery/charger, AV and USB cables, lens cap, a remote and software on CD ROM. As with a digital camera, a larger high-speed card is recommended since you can take a whole six high-res images on the supplied card. Although there’s no Quick Start Guide (a real no-no for any sophisticated piece of tech gear in 2005), there are two manuals for the camcorder and the digital video software. They’re the typical Japanese style with small illustrations. In this day and age is it too much to ask for a bit of color in these manuals? Sheesh. You’ll have to buy a tape as well as a Firewire/DV cable for fastest transfers. DV tapes cost around $7 each and the cable will set you back $10 or so. It’s four-pin out of the camcorder so make sure you get the right one. Firewire inputs can be either 4 or 6 pins. (My Dell Dimension 9100 has a six.) There’s nothing worse than settling in to your computer for an editing session or attempting to connect to a DVD recorder for a copy and realize you have to go out to the store for the proper cable.
After charging the battery, it was time to turn on the power, load a tape and SD card and start shooting.
Image Courtesy of Canon America
The camcorder starts up very quickly (around three seconds) and you’re ready to go. Once you adjust the wrist strap your index finger naturally falls on the wide/tele switch and your thumb rests on the back near the main function controls and record button. When you flip open the LCD screen, your thumb has a fairly handy place to rest but it’s not going to win awards in the Ergonomics Hall of Fame. The camcorder is 4 inches deep so I felt some definite hand strain. As mentioned earlier, you must do a hands-on test with this or any other camcorder or camera since my strain may be nothing to you. Official dimensions are 2 x 4 x 4 (WHD, in inches).
I used the camcorder inside and out, taking short videos interspersed with highest resolution stills (2304 x 1736 pixels) with the least amount of compression. A lot of the recording was done in Auto, since that’s how most people use their camcorders.
The supplied battery is rated 850 mAh and is good for around 110 minutes with the LCD on, doing a lot of zooming and taking flash shots. This is an excellent number, far better than DVD-based competitors. It lasted close to that spec but if you’re traveling a good idea would be a second battery (BP-315 rated 1520 mAh for around $80).
Videos were played back directly to front A/V inputs of a Toshiba 4:3 digital TV as well as a PC via Firewire. In both instances, quality was very good without the pixelization seen with many DVD camcorders. Also contrast had some oomph and colors were very accurate. Other than a relatively steep learning curve, there was nothing on the MiniDV side of the equation that would be an issue for the vast majority of home video makers.
It was in the photographic realm the Optura 600 really shined compared to its competitors. The fact Canon is one of the top camera makers on the planet might have something to do with it. As longtime denizens of the site probably know, I like Canon cameras such the Digital Rebel XT and SD500 Digital ELPH. This camcorder uses a variation of the processor found in Canon digicams called DIGIC DV. This helps speeds capture and supplies the tweaks needed for accurate photos. It also has nine point Auto Intelligent Auto Focus (AiAF) as well as center weighted average and spot metering. The camcorder also offers Auto Exposure Bracketing and 3- and 5-fps burst modes albeit at lesser resolutions. You have four to choose from with three compression settings for each. AE Bracketing takes three shots of a single image including and under- and overexposed image. You choose which one you’d like to keep. There’s even manual focus if you’d like to try it along with a flash with red-eye reduction and an AF Assist lamp. If all this sounds like the features you’d find on a decent digital camera, you’re right. Simply put: these were the best stills I’ve ever gotten from a camcorder. 4×6 prints were no problem and even some 8.5x11s held up pretty well.
As of this date, this is the best iteration of combination camcorder/digital still camera I have tested. The quality of the MiniDV videos is very accurate, with nice contrast and lifelike colors. And the stills are the best yet but it must be pointed out, I have not tried the trio of 5MP camcorders available (we’ll test them as soon as possible). The only negative is the fact the videos are tape-based not disc so you lose all of the benefits of DVD camcorders (thumb nails for each scene, jumping from point to point, simply popping it into your DVD player for playback and so on). You also have to worry about recording over scenes but a modicum of caution eliminates that potential disaster. Another big plus of tape are the number of affordable editing programs available. I used Microsoft’s Movie Maker 2, a free download. When you add it all up (and subtract the minuses), this is a very good two-in-one device. Although pricey (around $1,000) it’s definitely an Editor’s Choice. Yet if convenience isn’t your goal, you can always go cheap and purchase a good-enough MiniDV camcorder like the Canon ZR200 for 350 bucks, a 4MP Canon digicam like the A520 for $200 and be far ahead of the game. But forget about any cool factor whatsoever and trying your luck on eBay.
- MiniDV quality is much better than DVD camcorders
- Best-yet digital still quality
- Extensive scene modes and manual adjustments
- Excellent battery life
- Tape format is slower to use than DVD
- Fairly steep learning curve
- No built-in lens cover
- No accessory hot shoe
- Deep body may cause hand strain