If you don't mind working with tape, a budget-level MiniDV model such as Canon's ZR800 can be one the best deals in the camcorder market. Sure, it doesn't include still image capture or some of the nice extras--such as an accessory shoe--that can be found on pricier models, but for videographers who are tight on cash, the ZR800 offers solid video quality at a low cost. Plus, since the education market demands a microphone input, Canon always includes one on its least expensive MiniDV model, so while the ZR830 and ZR850 step-up models don't include a mic input, the ZR800 does.
We like the layout of the controls on this year's ZRs. All controls are within reach of your thumb or fingers on the right side, and on the bezel of the 2.7-inch wide screen on the left side. This is much better than designs that put important buttons on the left side of the body, behind the screen, where you can't readily see them. Plus, Canon redesigned the menu system to be more like the one on its digital still cameras. When you press the Function button, a list of options appears on the left side of the LCD, and the choices for each of those options appear in a strip along the bottom of the screen. Last year's ZR500 had three buttons below its LCD screen, but the ZR800 only has two: Function and Digital Effects. Canon now makes you delve into the menus to switch between wide-screen and 4:3 recording modes. While this model has a microphone input, it doesn't have an accessory shoe on top, so if your mic isn't a handheld you'll have to get creative with the gaffer's tape if you want to mount it on the camcorder.
Canon's Easy mode lets you shoot on autopilot and does a nice job making decisions for you. Program mode gives you a choice of eight autoexposure presets, four white balance settings (including evaluative), three image effects, and a handful of digital effects. You have to dig one layer deep--into the setup menu--to choose one of the six shutter speeds, adjust zoom speed, switch between 16:9 and 4:3 recording, or turn on and off the digital zoom, automatic slow shutter, or electronic image stabilization. Our one gripe about the setup menus is that they don't scroll--that is, when you reach the top, you can't wrap to the bottom by pressing up again. Since the option to exit is at the bottom, this becomes even more frustrating. Canon doesn't include still image capture in the ZR800, but given its submegapixel sensor, we didn't miss it much.
Overall, we were pleased with the video we shot with the ZR800. Colors were relatively accurate and details were reasonably sharp. Essentially, the quality of the footage was on par with the ZR830, while the ZR850's higher pixel count yielded video that was slightly sharper. Also, while the ZR850 was able to focus in our extreme low-light test, neither the ZR800 nor ZR830 could lock focus when we turned our lamp light low. Also, as we've come to expect in lower-priced camcorders, the electronic image stabilization was only effective to about 75 percent of the camera's impressive 35x optical zoom range.
Choosing among Canon's new MiniDV lineup can be tough. If you plan on capturing still images, you should opt for the ZR850 since its 1-megapixel sensor makes a noticeable difference. On the other hand, if you definitely won't capture stills, it might make sense to save a few dollars and go for the ZR800 over the ZR830. Of course, that also means you'll have to live without the convenience of the ZR830's remote control, which can be useful when watching your tapes on a TV and using the camcorder as a playback device. And so, much like the social dynamic in so many American living rooms, this decision may hinge on a remote control.