We've been waiting a while for this, but Canon has finally entered the consumer-level high definition camcorder market with its HV10. There's only one real competitor at present, Sony's excellent HDR-HC3, so we were keen to see how Canon's offering would match up. It turns out to be quite an even match, with neither proving to be a comprehensive winner.
- Excellent picture, good still images
- No HDMI out, lack of a useful computer kit, awkward button layout
A great consumer level HD camcorder with only a few letdowns
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It's the promise of increased picture quality that will prove the major attraction for most people interested in high definition camcorders. The HV10, like the HDR-HC3, produces simply exquisite images. Both cameras use HDV tapes, which record video at a resolution of 1080i (1920x1080). This gives crisp, sharp images that are well beyond what you'll get from any standard definition camera. We had no problems with compression artefacts, blurring or noise and there was no noticeable stuttering. Colour representation was also magnificent, with the HV10's 3.1 megapixel CMOS sensor picking up detailed nuances and shading across the whole spectrum. Areas of high contrast were no problem either, with images in bright sunshine looking just as good as those in shade or indoors.
Moving to our low light tests we were also impressed with the HV10's performance. Our standard tests for low light involve filming brightly coloured blocks in a darkened room. Most cameras falter here, but we felt the HV10 did a respectable job, and in this particular test it was superior to the HDR-HC3. The sensor managed to pick up more colour detail than we would usually expect, creating a bright, albeit slightly indistinct image. Canon has also included a light on this model, which, although small, is still fairly powerful. The light is reasonably weak, so while it's okay for close subjects it is useless for anything that's further than two metres away. Unfortunately, we noticed the picture rapidly degraded with high levels of noise when attempting to film distant subjects in low light, which was disappointing but not unexpected.
We were impressed with the HV10's still picture capabilities. Images are captured with a 3.1 megapixel sensor, but still look excellent. Again, colour balance was good, and edges were clean and sharp with only minor traces of colour fringing. It's also possible to capture still images while filming, and to run a continuous shooting mode that captures 2.5 images per second for 60 shots. The flash is also a useful inclusion. The main disappointment with this mode is that Canon has chosen to support mini-SD rather than regular SD cards. This isn't a huge problem, but seeing as this is a high-end model we'd have liked to see support for high capacity SDHC cards. The HV10 still isn't good enough to replace a separate digital camera, but it's certainly better than most video cameras we have seen. As a high end camera it's good to see that Canon has included a range of customisation options suitable for both amateur and 'prosumers' alike. Most of these can be accessed in both video and still image modes. A range of preset options are offered for the novice user, including portrait mode, sports, sunset and fireworks amongst others. For the more serious user, there's manual focus, aperture priority, shutter priority, light metering and white balance adjustments. All these settings can quickly be accessed using the shortcut function menu, and can be scrolled through rapidly. Adjusting other settings, such as recording modes or image stabilisation is achieved through a second menu system. The image stabilisation on the HV10 is another of its great features, as unlike many camcorders this is adjusted optically rather than digitally. Optical image stabilisation has a far greater effect at reducing camera shake, and unlike digital stabilisation, doesn't result in any loss of image quality.
One of the small concerns we have with the HV10 is its design; we just didn't feel comfortable with the control layout. Though the HV10 is light and easy to hold, it's not easy to access most of the controls from the default grip as many of them are strewn haphazardly across the frame. There are some at the front, some at the back, some on the side and some on the inside: over twenty in total. The number of controls isn't usually something we would complain about, but in this case it just isn't intuitive.
Other aspects of the design are fairly good. There's a 10x optical zoom, which seems to be becoming the standard for units with high quality lenses. The 2.7in widescreen LCD folds out from the side and performs well, even in direct sunlight. A viewfinder is also provided for times when it's not possible to use an LCD. The diminutive battery sits unobtrusively on the side of the unit. Battery life was on par with the competition, and we got about an hour out of the camera before needing a charge.
However, there is one other design element that could be a turnoff for some consumers. Unlike Sony's HDR-HC3, there's no HDMI out on the HV10. Instead Canon has made do with component, and although picture quality was excellent on our large LCD screen, we couldn't help feeling it would be better still with HDMI. The other notable absence is a microphone input.
Our final complaint with the HV10 seems to be a recurring issue with Canon units: their boast on the box that the "computer kit" is "included!". While yes, it is included, it doesn't actually do what you'd expect. The main use of a computer kit is to enable us to transfer video to a computer and edit it. If you want to do this you'll actually have to buy a separate cable and software. The computer kit Canon bundles is only for still images. This is exactly the same as with the HDR-HC3, but it's annoying nonetheless.
Overall, we felt the HV10 was a solid camera. It's small, has excellent quality images and offers a wide range of manual options. The main letdowns are fairly minor: the omission of HDMI and a kit for video transfer to pc, and the slightly counterintuitive button layout.
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