Canon's attempt at a small, stylish camera ends up capturing the same combination of small size and key features that makes the iPod all the rage, but the Canon Optura S1's boxy shape and pedestrian, plastic case aren't likely to put Canon in competition with Apple for a style award. With decent video quality in bright light, generally usable still photos, and extreme portability, the Optura S1 is worth consideration when size matters most. Weighing less than a pound and measuring just 4.1 inches in its largest dimension, the Canon Optura S1 is one of the smallest MiniDV cameras we've seen yet. In fact, it's even smaller than the hard disk-based JVC Everio models. Though Canon bills the camera as having the "cool you crave," the Optura S1 couldn't look more generic. It's extremely boxy, and its sturdy, plastic case is the same bland silver that you see on most camcorders.
However, the Optura S1 feels very comfortable to hold, with the zoom rocker, the shutter, and the start/stop button well placed for one-handed shooting. A number of other buttons provide quick access to digital effects, exposure modes, and other common functions. A mode dial lets you switch between full automatic exposure, program autoexposure, or scene-based exposure.
Tiny icons on the Canon Optura S1's LCD indicate the current settings. You'll need the manual at first to discern some of their meanings, but overall, they're reasonably easy to figure out. The menu system is colorful, logically organized, and simple to navigate.
The tape ejects toward the top of the camera, allowing you to swap tapes without removing the Optura S1 from a tripod. Note that the tripod socket is plastic rather than the typical metal, making it more susceptible to damage or stripped threads. The Canon Optura S1 doesn't sacrifice features for size. Its 10X optical zoom is on the low end of the feature scale, but the Optura S1 includes just about all the other features you'd expect from a camera in its price range. It uses between 1.2 and 1.5 megapixels of its 2-megapixel sensor for video, depending upon aspect ratio and image-stabilization setting, and a full 2 megapixels for stills.
Though it works well in fully automatic mode, the Optura S1 also includes eight scene modes, program autoexposure, and both shutter- and aperture-priority autoexposure. Particularly useful are Portrait mode, which focuses on the subject while blurring the background, and Sports, which optimizes for fast action. Manual exposure is available, in addition to manual focus and white-balance settings. You'll also find a variety of image effects, including faders, multi-image captures, and a mode that softens skin detail. You can record in both standard and wide-screen 16:9 formats.
Night mode uses a slow shutter speed to reduce graininess at the expense of frame rate. A mini video light helps when shooting in the dark, though it illuminates subjects within only a few feet of the lens.
You can adjust the sensitivity of the built-in stereo microphone, which comes in handy when trying to capture subtle sounds or tone down noisy kids. The microphone features a wind-screen filter, but there's no external microphone or headphone jacks. The Canon Optura S1 supports both video in and out; you can use the inputs to convert analog tapes to digital format.
It's also the first camera or camcorder we've seen to integrate a Mini SD card slot for use with still-photo capture. The Canon Optura S1 supports just about all of the video mode's manual and program exposure settings. There's a flash with red-eye reduction as well as a 10-second timer that works for both still and video shots. The Canon Optura S1 performed well in all of our tests. It was responsive, adjusting focus and exposure quickly when panning to new subjects. The comfortably placed zoom control allows smooth changes to magnification. Electronic image stabilization works well at dampening hand shakes throughout most of the zoom range. Jitter was evident only when zoomed all the way in.
Though the microphone is front-mounted, it records clear audio from all directions. An audio-gain button allows you to boost or lessen audio sensitivity depending on the proximity and volume of your subject.
Despite the Optura S1's small size, it still manages to include a 2.5-inch LCD. This offers a sharp image with vibrant, realistic colors, though it's a bit small to use for getting precise manual focus. The color viewfinder works well for framing shots, but its image lacks enough detail to be used to ensure that the subject is in focus.
The Canon Optura S1's battery lasts a little more than an hour for typical shooting using the LCD. Though you can swap batteries to extend your shooting time, the small battery fits beneath the LCD, so there's no room for Canon to create an extended-capacity battery. The Canon Optura S1's video quality will either satisfy or disappoint, depending on where you shoot. Outdoors or in bright room light, the Optura S1's videos were very good. Colors were vibrant, if a tad oversaturated, and images had the detail level you'd expect from a single-CCD MiniDV camera.
In dimmer light, however, video became extremely grainy. The camera light is too weak to help in most situations, and night mode reduces the grain but causes a jerky frame rate and blurry panning.
The 2-megapixel still photos were better than you'd expect from a camcorder, with enough detail in both indoor and outdoor shots to make them suitable for small prints. However, about every fifth picture we took was blurry. The Canon Optura S1 is very sensitive to camera motion when shooting stills, and it needs to be held very steady.