Canon's ZR830, the middle of the company's three new MiniDV camcorders, is a whole lot like last year's model, the ZR600. In fact, other than a longer 35x optical zoom lens and some minor menu changes on the ZR830, the two products are virtually the same. Of course, given the ZR600's solid performance, that's a good thing. But, if you plan to shoot any still images with your camcorder, you might want to step up to the ZR850, which includes a 1-megapixel sensor instead of the 680,000-pixel CCD found in this model.
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 ZR600 had three buttons below its LCD screen, but the ZR830 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. The lack of accessory shoe and microphone input is annoying, but also typical of camcorders in this price range.
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.
In Still mode, you can capture JPEG images at a pixel resolution of up to 1024x768. You still have access to the same autoexposure, white balance, and image effect settings, though your shutter speed options are limited to 1/60, 1/100, 1/250, or auto. That's more than you see in some camcorders, as is this Canon's nine-point autofocus system. The stills we captured were better than we see from some submegapixel camcorders, but can't approach what you can get from a decent dedicated still camera.
For a camcorder in this price range, we liked the video we captured with the ZR830. In decent lighting, the ZR830 captured relatively accurate colors and reasonably sharp footage. As you might expect from its higher pixel count, the ZR850 yielded slightly sharper results, but its more noticeable benefit was in low-light shooting. Unlike its slightly pricier sibling, the ZR830 couldn't achieve focus in our tough low-light test. As usual, the camcorder's electronic image stabilization couldn't quite compensate for the long end of its zoom lens. We found that it was effective to about 75 percent of the zoom range.
If you're looking for a tape-based camcorder, you'll likely be pleased with the ZR830, but given the slight increase in price associated with stepping up to the ZR850, it probably makes sense to splurge on this model's big brother. While the benefit to your video footage is modest, you'll notice the increased pixels if you end up shooting any still images.