It's been a longish wait, but Canon has finally released its first hard-disk based camcorder, the AVCHD-compatible HG10. Based on the innards and lens of the HV20, the HG10 nevertheless uses an almost completely different design, one that takes a few chances -- not necessarily successful ones.
The HG10 is significantly smaller than the HV20, though at 505g, it's not a whole lot lighter. And though it weighs a tad less than its main competitor, the Sony Handycam HDR-SR7, it's also a bit taller; the silver-and-dark gray body doesn't look quite as snazzy as the SR7's mostly-black chassis, though. The taller body does, however, make it easier and more comfortable to grip.
To squeeze the body, Canon moved and reshaped a lot of the controls. In some cases, as with the large, extremely smooth and comfortable zoom rocker switch and the extendable eye-level viewfinder, the changes work for the better. Some things, such as the non-tethered accessory-shoe cover -- you might as well toss it now, it's bound to get lost eventually -- should have been changed but weren't. And others simply disappointed us. Take, for instance, the new four-way-plus-Set switch with the concentric scroll wheel. On one hand, it's far better than a touch screen. But it's very hard to use the directional switch without moving the scroll wheel, which ultimately makes navigation and manual focus difficult. To make matters worse, Canon has dropped the manual focus dial from the lens barrel.
Furthermore, the joystick on the HV20 is also better located. It sits on the body of the camcorder rather than the LCD bezel. With the HG10, you're forced to shoot using the LCD far more than necessary; that's not just annoying and harder to hold steady, but you end up wasting a lot of battery power.
For the money, though, the HG10 delivers a pretty well-rounded set of features. The 3-megapixel CMOS chip shoots native 1,920 x 1,080 HD video, which then gets down converted and interlaced to 1,440 x 1,080 AVCHD. It can also shoot 1,440 x 1,080 at 24p, although support for this flavour of the format is even more limited than that of vanilla AVCHD. Its 40GB hard drive stores between 5.5 hours of video at 15Mbps to as much as 15 hours of video at 5Mbps. As usual, however, we don't recommend dropping below the highest quality level, unless you're absolutely certain you will never want to edit the footage. You can snap 3-megapixel stills in photo mode or take 1,920 x 1,080 grabs while shooting in movie mode. But we find it utterly ridiculous that stills can't be captured to the hard drive, only to a mini-SD card.
The Set button on the LCD bezel calls up shooting controls for backlight, exposure compensation, focus, and quick review; in camera mode you also get flash controls. In video mode, a membrane Function button accesses the choice of program, shutter-priority, aperture-priority, Cine mode (for a film look, to go with 24fps shooting), and slow-shutter Night mode; a handful of white-balance options; various image effects presets, plus customisable colour depth (for a posterised look), sharpness, contrast and brightness; a few digital effects; video quality; and still grab size. For still photos, you can also select from evaluative, centre-weighted average, and spot-metering modes; continuous-shooting and bracketing; and photo size.
We'd prefer it if a couple of the features, specifically Focus Priority (the choice between Canon's AiAF and centre focus), AF mode (Instant AF and normal), and zoom speed (variable plus three constant options) were closer to the surface. They're a little too frequently used to be buried in the menus, and unless you know they exist -- and how they're named -- you may miss them entirely. And, as with the HV20, you can't change the white balance while shooting, which is a pain in scenes with multiple light sources.
A 2.7-inch LCD is about the smallest you can get away with on an HD camcorder, but it remains viewable in direct sunlight and from multiple angles. The eye-level viewfinder is almost too small, and its hard plastic eyecup isn't very comfortable to use.
The 10x zoom lens integrates Canon's SuperRange Optical Image Stabiliser, which tweaks the stability by providing continuous feedback to the system. We find it works very well; better than most out at the end of the zoom range. Canon's Instant AF uses a rangefinder approach -- it bounces a signal off the subject to provide the AF system with a rough location, so that the lens hunts for a focus lock over a smaller area. You can turn IAF off when it's less useful, generally in low-motion scenes such as talking heads or school plays, in order to save battery power. The IAF makes low-light focus lock a hair faster. Although it still pulses slightly, we think the low-light performance in general -- focus and video quality -- is a bit better with this model than we've seen on previous Canon consumer camcorders. It also has one of the most comfortable zoom switches we've worked with in its class.
Audio doesn't fare quite as well. When the windscreen filter is set to Auto, the built-in stereo microphone records sounds from behind it very well, but voices coming from in front sound muffled and conversations to the side barely register at all. It records better from the front when the windscreen is off, but the camcorder still seems to have a rather limited range -- about a metre or so -- and no zoom mic capability. Nor are there are any input volume controls. There's a mic input and an accessory shoe for a better -- albeit extra cost -- audio experience.
There's little to complain about on the image quality front, however. The HG10 renders well-exposed, saturated, and sharp video and photos. There's some visual noise and softness in dimly lit scenes and blown out highlights in bright ones, but no more than usual for this class.
We dinged the Canon HG10 for its frustrating ergonomics and audio performance problems; before you buy, you should try it to see if you feel the same way about the control layout, especially in light of the Sony SR7's underwhelming touch-screen alternative. If the audio issues pose a serious problem for you, then there's either an external mic or a touch screen in your future.