It’s no secret that high-definition TVs are selling like crazy—especially with sub-$1,000 42-inch plasmas hitting the scene. What’s much less known is the fact you can make your high-definition home videos with many new camcorders being introduced, such as the Canon HV10. Although a bit on the expensive side—especially when you can buy a standard definition MiniDV model for less than $300 US—the quality is far superior. And who doesn’t want high-quality widescreen epics for their 16:9 displays? The HV10 uses the HDV format that records 1080I high-def signals on blank MiniDV tapes, similar to the Sony Handycam HDR-HC3 ($1,399 US)—and much more expensive Sony HDR-FX7 ($3,499 US) and Canon XH A1 ($3,999 US). Video quality is very good. Don’t take our word for it–you really need to see it on new flat panel TV to appreciate it—and some retailers have displays that do just that. Canon was a little late to the HDV game—as they are always laggards when it comes to new video technology. A very conservative company, they’d rather let pioneers take the arrows to determine if there is a market. Once it’s “real,” Canon jumps in. That’s why Canon’s first generation HDV model arrived late in 2006, almost 18 months after Sony’s HDR-HC1, the first really consumer-oriented HDV camcorder. But that’s ancient history. How does the Canon HV10 fare—and should you use it to record your New Year’s revelry?
Features and Design
The Canon HV10 has an upright design compared to the more common horizontal configuration of the Sony HC3. To be honest, I don’t like this style of camcorder, especially since the HV10 is too wide for my hand. I never did feel comfortable, even after adjusting the strap many times. I like camcorders that rest on the heel of your palm. Realize this is my preference—you may like the other style. That’s why we always stress you must do a hands-on with any camera or camcorder—especially with a price over a thousand bucks.
The camcorder is attractive, with dark gray and silver accents. It measures 2.2 x 4.1 x 4.2 (WHD in inches); as you can see, the camcorder is as deep as it is tall, making for an awkward grip IMHO. It weighs 15.5 ounces without battery and card, 17.8 ounces with. The front is dominated by a 10x optical zoom with a built-in lens cover. Also here is a flash for taking stills, an LED light to illuminate dark scenes and do double duty as an AF Assist lamp for stills, the Instant AF sensor, a door covering Firewire and component video outputs as well as A/V in/out.
The top of the HV10 has a stereo mic and nomenclature stating the camcorder has optical image stabilization, Instant AF and a 3.1-megapixel CMOS sensor. This is the first time Canon used a CMOS sensor in a camcorder, although they use them in all their D-SLRs. With this imager you can record 2048 x 1536 pixel shots. There is no hot shoe for optional mics or lights. The right side has wide/tele toggle switch, a dedicated snapshot button and a dial to choose whether you want to record video to tape or save images on the MiniSD memory card. You’ll also find a direct transfer button and a tiny speaker. The left side—which is mostly dark gray—has a cool blue light that illuminates the HDV logo when you power up, letting your tech-wise friends know they’re being recorded in high-def. You’ll find the flip-out 2.7-inch widescreen LCD monitor rated a good 210K pixels and the lithium ion battery below it. When you pop open the LCD, there are a number of controls for playback (FF/REW/Play/Stop). You can also turn on the LED light, adjust the type of flash, the brightness of the LCD and access the digital effects.
The rear has a .27-inch viewfinder (rated 123K pixels) with diopter correction and a master mode dial with center record button. A small switch lets you move from Auto to Scene and “P” options. There are eight scene choices such as Portrait, Snow, Sunset and so on. With “P” there’s Program AE, shutter- and aperture priority modes. There are three buttons that give you access to Function, Focus and Exposure choices. A jog wheel on the right lets you move through the menus. There are two compartments to give you access to the MiniSD card slot, USB out and DC in jacks. You find a Focus Assist key is here as well. Since this is an HDV model, you’ll be recording to MiniDV tape. To access the slot, you slide the open/eject button on the bottom and load the cassette. Noticeably absent is an HDMI out, something found on the Sony HDR-HC3. Since most HDTVs have this input and it requires a single connection rather than three for component, Canon dropped the ball on this one.
The HV10 is supplied with a decent kit to get you started but there are some glaring omissions—such as a blank tape. Along with the camcorder, there’s a rechargeable lithium ion battery with AC adaptor, remote, component, stereo video and USB cables as well as a tri-language Owner’s Manual (90 pages in English). You’ll also find a CD ROM that’s woefully short—it has ZoomBrowser EX 5.6 software and drivers. With them you can manage your stills but forget about the video—you need to purchase separate editing software to even download it to your PC. This is really weak. For the record, more companies are making HDV editing software and recently Ulead announced its Video Studio 10 (around $50) has a free HV10 plug-in. You can get a free trial at www.ulead.com. Remember you’ll also need to purchase a Firewire cable with the proper pins for your computer to port the footage and a couple of blank tapes.
After charging the battery, setting the basic parameters, loading a tape, it was time to shoot some hi-def video.
Image Courtesy of Canon
Performance and Testing
I must admit using tape seems rather quaint in 2006. Does anyone use tape for anything any more—other than camcorders? It’s easy to see why DVD- and HDD-based camcorders are selling so well. There’s nothing better than jumping from scene to scene rather than using the FF/REW buttons—or worrying whether you’ll record over some material. Tape still has an initial cost advantage—especially for a basic MiniDV edition–but really that’s about it. Until just a few months ago, tape was your only option in the high-def camcorder realm but that’s changed since new AVCHD camcorders using HDD and DVD media can record 1080I video (Sony has them, of course). But I digress—let’s get back to the HV10…
With every camera and camcorder, I start in Auto then move to the manual options. Even with the tape system, the HV10 is ready to go in about two seconds. I shot video in the house and outdoors on an early winter’s day. Like every camcorder, you simply press record and off you go. The HV10 has a 10x optical zoom, a decent range. This lens has something unique–Instant AF. Canon claims it increases auto focus speed and accuracy since it uses an external sensor to decrease the time it takes to find focus. Canon also said it reduces focus “hunting,” an annoying problem when camcorders try to grab an edge to focus on. After using the camcorder, I have to say they are justified in their claims as the HV10 locked in on subjects very quickly. This is a real plus.
After shooting for awhile in Auto, it was time to try the relevant Scene modes. You access them by moving a switch at the bottom of the mode dial. This is simple enough but moving through the menus is hardly intuitive. It was time to check out the Owner’s Manual and discover you have to hit the Function key, move the jog wheel to specific parameter, press the set key then move through the options. This is way too many steps and hopefully Canon can simplify this for the next generation. Making adjustments for aperture- and shutter-priority and just about everything else is similar. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not too bad but Canon needs make this more consumer friendly.
After taking a variety of shots, it was time to play them back. As mentioned you need a video editing package to transfer material to your PC. I have many of them but most people aren’t so lucky. If you have a program, check the company site to see if there’s a Canon HDV plug-in like Ulead’s Video Studio 10. For me the true test of a camcorder is not on a PC monitor but on your TV since the vast majority of people never edit their footage. Connecting it to the back of my 1080I HDTV via component inputs and using the remote I settled in for a viewing session—and was impressed.
Image Courtesy of Canon
Gone were the clouds of digital noise that are a part of lower-priced standard def DVD camcorders. Colors in daylight were spot on although they were a bit soft in dimly lit scenes. The LED light helped but not that much for this type of footage. Auto focus was very fast although the wide-tele switch has a spring mechanism that makes a snapping sound if you quickly take your finger off it. This was annoying and you have to train yourself to use it smoothly. This is quibbling when you sit back and watch 1080I video—it’s so much better than SD it really is a perfect match for your HDTV.
Since this is a high-end Canon, it also does a good job capturing stills, even though they’re 3MP, enough for solid 4×6 prints. You simply turn the dial to the card mode, then press the shutter halfway, the camcorder focuses, press again and you’re done—just like a digicam. The LED light acts as an AF Assist lamp, so subjects in dim light or low contrast scenes are sharply focused. If you’re in a photographic state-of-mind you have white balance and metering options, among other things. I made some 8x10s and got away with it. To its credit, this is one of the best if not the best picture-taking camcorders I’ve used.
The Canon HV10 HDV camcorder is a mixed bag with good overall video quality, fast focusing, OIS and solid stills. You’ll really like watching higher-quality home videos on your new widescreen HDTV. I had a problem with its form factor, lack of an HDMI output, annoying zoom switch and obtuse menus. And don’t forget about the total lack of video software support. Ah, but that high-def video is really good. It costs $999 US at a legit online dealer versus $1,199 US for the Sony HDR-HC3 (as of early December 2006). With that I’m glad to see HDV camcorders have dipped below $1,000 US. Does it make sense saving around $200 US to go with the Canon? Check out a sample of homemade HD video at your local retailer. I’d say no since the missing HDMI output is the deal breaker. But if you want to save holiday memories, definitely think high-def.
• Good video quality with low noise
• Quick focusing
• Optical image stabilization
• Takes good 3MP stills
• Poor ergonomics
• No HDMI output
• No editing software or blank tape