Canon puts HD video recording in your pocket, although to make room in said pocket requires removing more than AU$2,000 from it. Still, that makes the Canon HV10 the cheapest, smallest HDV camcorder to date. (For the uninitiated, the HD video (HDV) format records compressed HD video onto standard Mini DV tapes.) The HV10 has more going for it than just this month's novelty value, if you can overlook some quirks.
If you're acquainted with the vertical design of Canon's 2005 Opturas, the HV10 will feel immediately familiar -- lightweight (440 grams), attractive, jacket pocket-friendly, and functional. However, the HV10 paradoxically manages to be both well designed and awkward to use. All the controls are in the right places, easy to reach, and easily understood. But many are also too small, too difficult to operate, or too easy to make mistakes with. To compensate, I found it necessary to steady the camcorder with my left hand while making adjustments with my right, which wasn't always practical.
As with its snapshot cameras, Canon splits the menus into two groups. Shooting options, such as white balance, exposure settings, and still photo quality, you bring up via the Func button, while you access most other setup-related choices via the Menu button. You navigate them on the 2.7-inch wide-screen LCD using a jog dial.
On the inside of the HV10, a 3-megapixel 1/2.7-inch CMOS sensor captures 1,920 horizontal and 1,080 vertical pixels for 1080i HD, or wide-screen SD, video. It down-samples the horizontal resolution to 1,440 when capturing 480i standard-def video. When capturing stills, it uses 2.76 megapixels (1,920x1,440) in 4:3 mode and 2.07 megapixels (1,920x1,080)in 16:9 mode. The HV10 couples the sensor with a 10X Canon HD video lens, a scaled-down version of the 20X lens in the XH series, which shares the optical characteristics of Canon's professional L series of lenses.
In fact, the HV10 has quite a bit in common with its more expensive relatives. Like the XH series, it implements the Super-Range Optical Image Stabilizer, a hybrid optical-electronic system in which the processor provides feedback to the optical stabiliser in order to fine-tune its corrections. Canon also adds Instant AF -- the focusing system calculates the distance to the subject before attempting to lock -- to improve autofocus performance. Unfortunately, Instant AF can do little to improve focusing in low-light situations; the range finder still needs enough contrast to locate the subject.
The HV10 also uses the same Digic DV II HD processor as the other models, which bolsters colour processing and noise reduction, as well as enabling photo features such as continuous shooting and simultaneous recording and 2-megapixel still capture.
Although you can operate the HV10 like a point-and-shoot camcorder, on full automatic or using one of the handful of scene modes, there's a surprising amount of flexibility for fiddlers, too. Aperture- and shutter-priority exposure modes, two levels of Zebra stripes (for judging blown-out exposures), variable and fixed-rated zoom modes, and peaking (which emphasises edges for easier manual focus) should address most of your video needs. Stills capture to Mini SD cards, and in photo mode you can choose from among three metering schemes, as well as continuous-shooting operation.
There are some notable omissions, however. The HV10 lacks an HDMI output connector; though it supports component out for TV playback, HDMI generally delivers a much higher quality picture. Nor does the HV10 ship with any editing software. It worked fine with iMovie HD on the Mac during testing.
The Instant AF lived up to its billing; unless I was too close to the subject or I was moving too fast (in a cab driving through midtown), the focus rarely missed. In a few cases it focused on the wrong subject, such as the bars of a cage rather than the occupant, but focusing manually via the jog dial was quick and easy.
Perhaps I'm just drinking too much coffee these days, but I didn't find the image stabiliser very effective at maximum telephoto. In part, I think it's the design of the camcorder -- with vertical models, my hand tilts forward a bit more than with other types, a position that requires a little more stiffness in my wrist to hold steady.
Furthermore, the petite battery that snuggles so unobtrusively into the side of the camcorder could last longer. As it is, just 30 minutes after a full charge, it's hungry again.
The HV10's video was quite impressive: sharp, saturated, and smooth. I found daylight video a bit overexposed -- like most consumer camcorders, the HV10 tends to blow out highlights -- but I knocked it down a bit with exposure compensation when necessary and was quite happy with the results.
Given the HV10's use of a single, relatively high-resolution CMOS chip, I didn't expect much from low-light shooting, but the camcorder surprised me. Though the video looked somewhat grainy, it remained very saturated, sharp, and detailed, even in very contrasted situations, such as protesters marching beneath intermittently lit fluorescent lights just after sundown. And that's without having to resort to a slow shutter speed or a special night mode.
The automatic white balance in that shoot disappointed me, however; the HV10 seemed to have a problem with mixed lighting, and everyone looked pretty in pink. Usually that's not too much of an issue, but this camcorder doesn't let you adjust white balance while taping -- you have to stop, change it, then restart.
There's so much to like about the Canon HV10 that, on balance, even the not-so-trivial ergonomic problems attain a rosier glow than I'd usually ascribe to them. If you want a compact HD camcorder for your next vacation, you don't have much of a choice beyond the HV10. But it's good enough that you probably won't regret having no other options.