Canon's Elura 90 packs a broad array of features into an extremely compact shell. With good video quality, thanks to its megapixel CCD; a 20X optical zoom; loads of special effects; and usable-in-a-pinch still-photo capabilities, the Elura 90 is full featured for a MiniDV camera in its price range. If you're on a budget, consider the step-down Elura 85 and Elura 80. Weighing a little more than a pound, the Canon Elura 90 has a titanium-colored plastic shell and a solid, well-balanced feel. The horizontally oriented body is a bit bulkier than that of Canon's ultrasmall Optura 400 but still significantly smaller than that of the company's ZR-series cameras. The horizontal design feels very natural to hold, and the Elura 90 is one of the more comfortable camcorders we've used.
On the right side of the camera, you'll find a top-loading tape door--you can swap both tapes and the battery (which snaps on the rear) without removing the Elura 90 from a tripod. On the left, above the SD/MMC slot, sits a 2.5-inch LCD. Around front, you'll find a focus-assist lamp, a stereo microphone, a little flash for stills, and an LED for illuminating video.
Canon crams most of the buttons into the area that's exposed when you fold out the LCD--a tight arrangement that will make you appreciate the camera's all-automatic Easy mode setting. Playback, effects, focus, and other nearby buttons are nearly impossible to navigate without looking at the controls. The arrangement isn't as convenient as the one on the less expensive ZR series, which places playback buttons along the top of the camera. More egregious is the placement of the menu button and the jog dial--which, unfortunately, doubles as the manual focus control--directly in front of the LCD, making them difficult to access if you've rotated the LCD.
Despite the abundance of buttons, a few common controls, such as the LED light "switch," are inconveniently buried in the camera's menu system. At least the menu system is well organized and easy to use.
The Elura 90 boasts a relatively generous complement of analog and digital ports: FireWire, USB, and analog audio and video RCA inputs and outputs. Perhaps in a concession to its compact size, an S-Video connector is notably absent. The camera also accommodates an external microphone and headphones. Finally, an accessory shoe is available for attaching an external light or microphone. A 20X optical zoom lens sets the Canon Elura 90 apart from the less expensive models in the line, which top out at 18X. This camcorder also comes with Canon's WA-34 0.7X wide-angle attachment, which gives a wider angle of view for indoor and panoramic shots. If the 20X zoom isn't enough reach for you, you can screw on the optional 1.5X teleconverter accessory to get an impressive 30X optical zoom. Using the Elura 90's menus, you can also enable 80X or 400X digital zooms, but the image quality is extremely compromised at digital-zoom levels.
Wide-screen HDTV owners will appreciate the Elura 90's excellent 16:9 wide-screen mode. Unlike some camcorders, which stretch a standard-definition image to fill a wide-screen display, the Elura 90 uses the full width of its CCD to record the video image. On 16:9 displays, this results in a noticeably sharper full-screen image with no distortion. Keep in mind, however, that though the Elura 90 will record in wide-screen mode, it does not record at HDTV resolution. Resolution remains at 720x480, with only the aspect ratio altered.
You'll find a typical array of automatic exposure modes on the camera, including Sports, Portrait, Spotlight, Low Light, and Sand & Snow. In addition to a slow-shutter mode, the camera features an LED that illuminates nearby objects in dark situations. The Elura 90 offers a number of manual adjustments, including exposure shift, focus, white balance, and shutter speed. The Easy mode does an admirable job of automatically adjusting all the camera's settings, which you'll appreciate, given the cumbersome use of the jog dial to change most of these settings.
The camcorder provides a selection of built-in faders and an assortment of gimmicky digital effects such as Mosaic, Sepia, and Color Masks. There's also a multi-image capture mode that takes 4, 9, or 16 shots and displays them on the screen simultaneously--handy for analyzing a golf swing or a jumping cat.
The Elura 90 shoots still images at 1,280x960 or 640x480, and it can capture Motion JPEG AVI movies at 320x240 or 160x120 pixels. A 32MB MMC card is included for saving either stills or video clips; the camera can also use SD cards. The built-in flash offers a red-eye-reduction mode. In most shooting conditions, the Canon Elura 90's automatic modes perform well. Autoexposure and auto white balance are very quick, and autofocus is snappy in bright situations. In more dimly lit environments, autofocus can take a second or two to lock on to a subject. The digital image stabilizer does an excellent job of smoothing the movements of a shaky shooting hand.
The manual controls work as you'd expect but are difficult to manipulate, particularly when you're shooting. You focus manually by using the jog dial mounted directly in front of the LCD, which isn't in the easiest spot to reach when shooting and doesn't offer the speed or precision you get from a focus ring.
The LCD and the viewfinder both provide clear, bright pictures. The LCD is a bit small to use for manual focusing; a magnification mode would be welcome for making precise focus adjustments. The LCD works well even in bright lighting conditions, and the viewfinder adjusts up and outward to offer additional shooting flexibility.
The Elura 90's built-in microphone performed well, but it's not highly directional and was sensitive enough to pick up the sound of the plastic buttons being pressed as we adjusted settings while shooting. In daylight and brightly lit situations, the Canon Elura 90 records vibrant, sharp video. Colors are accurate, edges are crisp and well defined, and textures are very evident. The lens seems to provide a very slight--but noticeable in a head-to-head assessment--advantage in contrast over the one used on the Elura 80 and the Elura 85.
Low-light images have more accurate and saturated color than we've seen from similar consumer camcorders, but they're also noticeably noisy. In extremely dark situations, you can use the assist lamp, which works in conjunction with the slow-shutter Night Mode to provide reasonably good footage of objects within a few feet of the camera. For more distant objects, you'll want an external light.
Canon enthusiastically promotes the Elura 90's still-photo capabilities, but while stills are decent by camcorder standards, their quality can't match that of shots from most dedicated still cameras. Brightly lit outdoor images are reasonably good, but indoor shots are muddy. You won't want to give up your dedicated still camera.