With new entry-level Canon HD camcorders, watch your specs
Canon cuts corners in order to offer modestly priced HD camcorders.
While I applaud many of Canon's 2010 camcorder strategy decisions, the company still offers up some groan-worthy product choices, like the new entry-level HF R series of "high-definition" camcorders. Why the quotation marks? Because the announcement's given me flashbacks to the early days of HD when everyone was taking old, relatively low-resolution sensors and upconverting from 1,440x1,080-pixel resolution, either in software or hardware, to real HD 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution. For its modestly priced (though not dirt cheap) HF R series, Canon captures AVCHD video at 1,664x936 pixels and upconverts to 1,920x1,080 pixels. I can see the logic of using 1,664x936 pixels instead of the older 1,440x1,080-pixel standard--the source video has the same 16:9 aspect ratio as the upscaled, unlike the 4:3 aspect of the older system--but my experience has been that for decent video, the HD source has to be at least 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution before you start compressing it. I might have been more supportive had the company instead just made this an even cheaper 720p model with a 10X lens.
Three models compose the Vixia HF R series; they differ primarily by built-in memory and some capabilities enabled by that memory. The cheapest, the HFR100, will cost $499 and have no memory, just an SDHC/SDXC-compatible card slot. For another $50, the $549 HF R10 adds a built-in 8GB; at $699, the HF R11 bumps up to 32GB. All the camcorders incorporate a 20X lens, but only electronic image stabilization--the same Dynamic IS (designed for better performance while walking) used by the standard-def FS series. They'll all have mic inputs with manual control, an essential feature for the education market that Canon's trying to upsell from standard def, 2.7-inch wide LCDs, and use Canon's solid Instant AF autofocus system.
The models with internal memory will also be capable of downconverting and saving video to standard-def MPEG-2 files, which you'll be able to wirelessly upload if you have the requisite Eye-Fi card. They'll also support relay recording, the automatic overflow of video from one medium to another if you run out of space.
Although I don't normally recommend opting for any model with built-in memory--it usually seems an unnecessary expense--the Eye-Fi compatibility and relay recording make the middle model look like the best deal. However, given the resolution issues, the Vixia HF R series strikes me as more of high-end standard-def models than low-end HD models. While people really do want cheaper HD, and there are some claims that many people can't really tell the difference between HD and SD, the whole thing simply doesn't feel right to me. Needless to say, I don't have terribly high hopes for this series. But we'll see; they're slated to ship around the Ides of March.