One of four models in Canon's affordable ZR MiniDV camcorder series, the ZR200 offers home and vacation videographers the tools they need to capture decent-quality video. Its amenities include a 20X optical zoom, photo capture, and an Easy mode that caters to novices by automating just about everything. However, most of these features can also be found on Canon's ZR100, which costs about $100 less. We think that's the smarter buy, though both models perform equally in terms of video quality. They're great when shooting outdoors or under bright lights but dismal when the lights are low.
Unless you're specifically interested in its wireless remote and Webcam capabilities, the Canon ZR200 offers no real advantages over the less expensive ZR100. The latter lacks still-image-capture capabilities, but they're of such little value at this resolution that it's hardly a deal breaker.
Physically identical to other models in Canon's ZR line, the ZR200 weighs slightly more than a pound and fits comfortably in the hand. Its controls consist of the usual right-hand accoutrements (for example, a zoom rocker and a mode dial) and a smattering of buttons on the left side. Most of these perform double duty, depending on whether you're in record or playback mode, but they're clearly labeled and largely intuitive. Only one or two buttons--AE Shift/End Search, for example--necessitate opening the instruction manual.
To make moviemaking as expedient as possible, the ZR200's controls include dedicated Focus, Night Mode, and Widescreen buttons. Pressing Focus instantly enables manual focus control; you make the adjustments with the camera's jog dial. That dial also navigates you through the ZR200's simple onscreen menu system. A nearby switch toggles between Easy and Program modes; the former automatically manages all image settings, while the latter enables access to the camcorder's meager manual settings, such as selectable shutter speeds (1/60 to 1/2,000 second) and white-balance presets.
Unsurprisingly, Canon's lithium-ion battery clips onto the rear of the camcorder, while tapes load from the bottom--always an annoyance for tripod users. On the plus side, the viewfinder (color!) can extend backward in case you clip on one of Canon's bulky extended-life batteries. And speaking of options, the ZR200 supports Canon's add-on lenses and filters--another nice perk.
Indeed, save for its 340,000-pixel (effective) image sensor, the ZR200's feature set reads like that of a pricier camcorder. For starters, it's capable of true 16:9 recording, meaning it uses the full width of the sensor--no skewing or interpolating. It also features a 20X optical zoom, an analog-to-digital converter, a handful of autoexposure scene modes, and the usual hodgepodge of digital effects.
The only real letdown is Night mode, which effectively illuminates dim environments but requires both a tripod and a stationary subject to be useful. Otherwise, you get jerky, unwatchable video. And even with a tripod, low-light video exhibits excessive noise. To put it simply, leave the lights on--and add more if possible. We wish the ZR200 had an accessory shoe for adding a portable light source.
Like the ZR100 below it and the ZR300 above, the ZR200 leverages its optics with Canon's Digic DV processing to capture crisp, colorful video--under optimal lighting, that is. We found the zoom controls quick and responsive, though the autofocus wasn't particularly quick to lock on to a subject in changing scenes. Even so, it will be the rare home moviemaker who finds fault with the ZR200's video quality, especially if most shooting happens outdoors.
As for still photos, our general feeling is don't bother. Although the ZR200 managed to reproduce colors accurately, our sample photos appeared grainy and slightly washed out, with brightly lit areas overexposed. None of this is too surprising, given the camera's 0.7-megapixel resolution, which is suitable for Web photos and not much else. The same goes for the 320x240-pixel, 15fps Motion JPEG movies, which consistently looked jerky and sounded terrible.
Canon promises slightly less than an hour of typical recording time from the included battery, though you can shoot continuously, using the viewfinder only, for an impressive 135 minutes. Those are decent numbers for a camcorder in this category, though spare batteries are obviously essential for the vacation-bound.