The Holy Grail for camcorder owners is one device that takes great high-def video and outstanding stills, all in a compact package. Like Indiana Jones, the Knights Templar and Don Quixote, we’ve been on this seemingly fruitless quest for years. A few come close, but none ever took the ultimate prize. At this year’s CES, our hopes were raised once again when Canon announced the Vixia HF S10, a flash memory-based camcorder that records AVCHD video at 24 Mb/s (the best compression rate available) to 32GB of built-in memory, or Class 4 SDHC cards. It even has an 8.59MP CMOS sensor, so it takes – you guessed it – 8MP photos at native, not interpolated, resolution. When Canon offered the Vixia HF S10 to test, we hoped for an early Christmas present. Let’s see if it’s a keeper – and if our search has ended.
Features and Design
Forget cute and cuddly with this one. It’s a hefty bruiser, dressed in black. The Vixia broadcasts an extremely high-tech vibe; no one will mistake it for a Flip. The 10x lens really jumps out—having a silver highlight ring around it will do that. It’s much wider than the typical camcorder lens, with a 58mm filter diameter (typical is 37mm or 43mm). Canon’s $2,800 standard-def 3-chip GL2 – beloved by film students everywhere – uses a similar-sized filter, as does the new SD card-only HF S100. We’re bringing this up to show that this is a serious effort, not just a basic point-and-shoot home video maker. The $1,299 price tag is pretty serious too. The 10x lens translates to 43.5-435mm, which is a good range, but we’d like it to start at a wider point, just as we prefer wide-angle digicams like the Panasonic ZS1.
Stare at the zoom, and you’ll see a venetian-blind lens cover that slides back when you power up. Below the lens is the instant AF sensor. Initially we did a little groan, not seeing a light, flash or both. However, both are hiding in a pop-up compartment on the top of the unit. There’s also a slide-back door covering the hot shoe, the zoom toggle switch, a dedicated photo button and a nearby power switch.
On the right side is a comfortable adjustable strap, and a compartment for component, USB and mini HDMI outs. You’ll also find a mic input for accessory microphones, and half of the built-in stereo mic. Unlike higher-end Sonys and Panasonics, the HF S10 is purely Dolby Digital 2-channel stereo, not 5.1 surround sound. We like the ambience of surround, but this may be a nonissue for you.
Like any camcorder, you’ll do most of your work on the left side, using the 2.7-inch widescreen LCD to frame your shots and working the controls on the bezel. The monitor is rated 211K pixels, and works well in most conditions, even direct sunshine. However, the options to make adjustments to the screen are buried way too deep in the menu system. Fortunately, if you hit the display button on the body, you’ll get a brightness boost, which helps shooting with the sun at your back. The nicely laid out controls found here include a four-way controller with center set button, a function key, start/stop record, wide/tele zoom adjustment and playback. The sensor for the remote is on the bezel too. On the body are Video Snap and display/battery info keys. With Video Snap, you take short clips that are combined with music soundtracks (supplied or your own). It’s not one of the most in-demand features we’ve heard of, but whatever. You’ll also find the speaker and a compartment for an SDHC card. At the very front is the left-hand portion of the stereo mic, and a custom dial, which you assign a function such as adjusting manual focus, exposure, mic level and others. We set it to focus.
On the back is the mode dial with just three options—video, photos and Dual Shot. The latter is basically an easy, no-brainer mode for movies and snapshots. When you pick video and photos, you have many options at your disposal. You’ll also find the battery, which fits in a nice recessed spot along with compartment for DC-in and A/V out, or headphones, along with the record button. What you do not find is an electronic viewfinder. Some observers find this to be a huge drawback, but working with it under a wide variety of conditions, that’s not our take. Yes, it would be nice, but it’s not a deal breaker.
What’s In The Box
The carton contains the camcorder, battery, AC adaptor, remote, USB, A/V and component video cables. There’s also a Bible-sized owners manual, but don’t freak— “only” 190 pages are English. Whew! One CD-ROM has Pixela ImageMixer 3 SE for saving and transferring videos, while the second has Video Tools for managing and editing movies. There’s also a digital video solution disk with ZoomBrowser EX 6.2 for handling stills, along with a music data disk with tunes for background music used with the Video Snap feature.
Performance and Use
The first inkling of spring beckoned us to Brooklyn’s Coney Island, a fabled, yet rundown seaside resort. That said, there’s plenty of color (faded and freshly painted), and motion (i.e. roller coasters) to see how well the Vixia HF S10 could reproduce reality. The camcorder was set to best MXP quality, 1920 x 1080 60i; the 32GB memory could handle close to three hours of footage. We popped a 6GB SDHC Class 4 card in, just in case. Stills were shot at 3264 x 2456 pixels, a true 8 megapixels.
We started off in dual shot mode, then quickly opted for the more advanced options in video and photo. In video, there are choices for program AE, aperture/shutter priority, cine and eight typical scene modes. Cine even lets you record at 24fps progressive scan. We prefer the vivid colors of standard video, but you may like the more subtle feel of cine. Aperture and shutter priority are available for stills, as are a very speedy burst mode of around three frames per second (with the flash off).
Once we took a long walk on the boardwalk, and up and down the downtrodden side streets, it was time to check out the videos on a 50-inch HDTV and make a batch of prints. Before the results, let’s report the HF S10 is a pleasure to use, focuses very quickly, and has an excellent menu system, other than access to the LCD adjustment being so deep.
The Vixia HF S10 records at 24 Mb/s, the maximum rate for the AVCHD format, and it really shows on the big screen. Simply stated—the video is breathtaking. You’ll love it. Colors were as accurate as can be, and the camcorder’s exposure system handled mixed shade and sunlight with ease. There was barely a hint of noise anywhere, other than indoor scenes with very dim light. The built-in light did a good job handling close-up subjects. The optical image stabilization did a fine job smoothing out shakes from handheld clips. As far as we’re concerned, this is the video quality standard bearer for consumer camcorders, circa 2009. Sound was good as well, but it definitely could use better noise reduction for windy days. The stiff breezes at Coney sounded like the backend of jet engine.
Photographs were the best we’ve ever gotten from a camcorder. After all, this is a Canon, and if they couldn’t generate solid prints from an 8MP CMOS sensor, something is seriously wrong in the world. However, these aren’t D-SLR level images, and they don’t have the super crispness and pop those cameras deliver. Still, they are the finest we’ve ever printed from a camcorder.
The HF S10 is an excellent camcorder, even though it’s not tiny, cute, or $500. It’s substantial, and expensive, but the quality is outstanding. Given the results we’re especially looking forward to testing the new AVCHD Sony HDR-XV500, with its 120GB hard drive, 6.3MP CMOS sensor, built-in GPS, 3.2-inch LCD and electronic viewfinder to see if it’s a solid competitor. Stay tuned. Parsifal has nothing on us. Our search for the Holy Grail continues.
- Beautiful video
- Excellent stills
- Quality optical image stabilization
- Easy to operate
- LCD should really be better
- Wind noise reduction needs enhancement
- 2 channel stereo not 5.1 surround