DVD is undeniably superior to the ageing VHS tape format in the world of home movies, but you might be surprised to learn that the same is not necessarily true in the land of the camcorder. Though DVD camcorders offer a far more convenient method of storing footage, the output still lacks the resolution and vibrancy of tape-based MiniDV camcorders.
We won't pull punches on this issue. It's important to realise that while there are many benefits to the new DVD format, you must be prepared to compromise when it comes to editing your footage. DVD camcorders like the DC10 record video to DVD in a linear, permanent fashion. Mainstream editing packages like Final Cut Pro, Premiere and iMovie will not work with the DC10, you have to use Canon's proprietary editing suite. There are ways around this, but image quality is further degraded in the process.
We're not hating on DVD camcorders per se. If you're looking for an easy-to-use camcorder for capturing family gatherings, birthdays and Bar Mitzvahs, DVD models like the DC10 are a perfectly justifiable choice. For many, the fact you can pop a DVD straight out of the DC10 and into a domestic DVD player makes it an irresistible proposition. But, does the DC10 offer enough in the way of convenience and ease of operation to sway the casual videographer away from the traditional MiniDV format?
The DC10 burns movies to DVD in real-time -- these half-size 80mm DVDs slot into a loading bay in the side of the chassis. The need to accommodate these half-size discs has defined the shape of the DC10 -- it looks a lot like the heads of the alien creatures in War of the Worlds. The size and shape of a half-size DVD is a fairly close match for the anthropometrics of the human hand. Presumably, it is for this reason that Canon has mounted the loading bay immediately underneath the hand grip -- it gives you something to grab on to when shooting.
At just 47mm wide, the DC10 shares its chassis width with the DC20. For the most part, the cosmetic differences between the two camcorders are undetectable. You're probably aching to know what the actual difference between these two camcorders is. Well, the DC20 has a higher resolution CCD for stills photography, as well as a night mode that the DC10 lacks.
The DC10 is, like the DC20, a pleasure to hold in the hand. Extended periods of use might make you wish that the grip was wider, but at 410g the unit is far from uncomfortable to use.
The battery pack on the DC10 slots into a recess underneath the fold-out LCD screen. This is a proprietary battery specially designed for the DC10 and DC20. It's a neat place to hide the battery, but does mean that you're restricted to using relatively short-life cells. Longer life batteries require more space. With a rear-mounted battery pack this wouldn't be a problem, but with the DC10's LCD covering its battery, using a larger battery is impossible.
The battery is removed by sliding a small catch on the underside of the DC10's chassis. You will probably charge the battery while it's still in the camera, so unless you're swapping batteries on the move, most users will probably forget it's there.
As with the DC20, the DC10's DVD drive has an electronic hatch -- small motors open the loading hatch so you can insert a disc. The disc clips into place on a plastic spindle like the ones in portable CD players. Overall this is a strong chassis that matches the build quality of the more expensive DC20.
The DC10 shoots in 16:9 (wide-screen) mode using a f/1.8, 10x optical zoom lens, which is coupled with a single 1.33-megapixel CCD. As well as capturing video, the DC10 can work like a digital stills camera. Although photographs are often an afterthought on camcorders, Canon's experience with photography is evident here.
A nine-point AiAF autofocus and automatic exposure bracketing helps to capture good photographs when light levels are tricky to judge. There's also a continuous shooting mode for taking photographs in rapid succession -- during a sports event, for example. Unlike video capture, which is limited to around half an hour, the DC10 can pack an overwhelming 8,000 still images onto a single DVD.
Exposure metering can be set to either spot, for difficult exposures where the central part of the frame defines the exposure of the whole, or matrix, where an exposure is set based on a dynamic range estimated for the whole frame.
Play, fast-forward and rewind controls are on the side of the camcorder. Editing and DVD burning options are browsed using the on-screen menu system. Before you can play a half-size DVD back on a domestic DVD player the DC10 must "finalise" the disc. This involves writing the TOC (table of contents) to the DVD, and takes a few minutes to complete.
It may come as a surprise to those familiar with MiniDV camcorders, but there is no FireWire connection on the DC10. This makes advanced editing more or less impossible. You could rip the encoded footage from your finalised DVDs and then convert the DVD codec into a format you can use with a major editing suite, but to be honest this is very time consuming and yields disappointing results. You'll effectively be editing a heavily compressed format -- hardly the ideal if you're a stickler for quality.
The DC10 was up and running a few minutes after we unpacked it. Recording functions are easy to understand. Flick the slide on the rear of the DC10 into Camera mode and press the record button. The camcorder will begin writing video to disc; a second press will stop it.
Recording times depend on how complex your scenes are. The amount of data needed to describe a single image will increase as the detail of the scene increases -- this is the way DVD compression works. A blank wall with a single subject framed against it will use relatively little space on the DVD, but a crowd scene with lots of colour and movement will use lots of space. This is nothing to worry about when shooting, but does explain the slightly unpredictable running lengths of your recordings.
Consistent with our experiences of other DVD camcorders, the DC10's footage is slightly degraded by the compression methods used by the camcorder to write video to DVD. Whether this is problematic for you will largely depend on your expectations of the format. Anyone who's used to MiniDV may find the results disappointing, but casual users may well feel that the convenience of straight-to-DVD recording more than compensates.
There is still a considerable way to go before DVD camcorders can match even modest MiniDV offerings, and Canon has a slight disadvantage in its late arrival to the scene. But there's not a huge difference between the DC10 and the ostensibly more mature Sony DVD models in the same price range. As a technology, on-the-fly DVD compression just isn't quite there yet.
As with the DC20, the DC10 showed visible compression artefacting under low light conditions. The camcorder struggles with both the shortcomings of a single-CCD system and the compression methods used to write the DVD. These are high demands to place on what is an emerging technology. Given that the odds are stacked against it, the DC10 makes a decent effort at rendering a good picture.
It's difficult to recommend this camcorder over much cheaper, MiniDV models, because the image quality lags so far behind. The appeal of popping a DVD straight out of the camcorder and into a DVD player is as mesmerising as ever, but the format still fails to deliver an equally futuristic picture quality.