In the continuum that runs from low-resolution, cheapo camcorders like the Creative Vado to high-quality, solid-state "prosumer" HD models like Canon's own Vixia HF10, Canon's line of SD-based camcorders--FS11, FS10, and FS100--falls exactly where you'd expect. At budget prices under $600, they're small, stylish, and provide a reasonably expansive feature set; unfortunately, the real "budget" aspect of these models is the video quality.
The individual models in the FS series differ only by memory and color, with list prices that increment by $100 (but with lower actual street price gaps). The top-end model, the FS11, comes in dark gray and includes 16GB built-in memory; its lesser sibling, the FS10, wears silver and includes 8GB. The cheapest child, the FS100, has no built-in memory but comes in silver, blue, and red. Capacities run about 13.8 minutes per gigabyte of storage for best-quality mode, 39 min/GB for lowest quality; we don't recommend shooting below best-quality, however.
Weighing only 10.7 ounces and fitting comfortably into the palm of a hand--one my size, at least--the FS is, for the most part, quite well designed. As is becoming typical for SD-based models, you choose among video and still, record, and playback modes plus toggling recording on and off via a big thumbwheel at the back of the camcorder. You operate the zoom switch, photo shutter, and on/off switch with your forefinger. The battery and SD card slot lie under a sliding panel on the bottom of the unit. Some of the nicer touches include a built-in electronic lens cover--at this price, they're usually manual--and an LED video light.
Behind the LCD, there's an Easy button for a completely automatic mode and a button to display battery info, which displays the estimated time remaining. There's also a standard mini-USB port, 3.5mm microphone jack, and an AV out connector for hooking up to a TV via the bundled composite cable. As is becoming typical for Canon, you use a joystick on the LCD to bring up a few quick-access controls, including triggering the video light, exposure compensation, shutter speed, and manual focus. It doesn't magnify the focus area while in manual focus, but despite the smallish 2.7-inch LCD, it's pretty usable.
You also use the joystick to navigate the menus, which you pull up via a membrane button on the bevel of the LCD (other membrane buttons include playback controls, recording start/stop, and backlight compensation). Unusual in a budget model, the camcorder offers shutter-priority mode in addition to program exposure and a variety of scene modes. Beyond that, the shooting functions are scarce: white balance, digital and image effects, and a choice of 9Mbps, 6Mbps, and 3Mbps bit rates. Some of the other options, available deeper within the menus, include variable or one of three constant zoom speeds, 16:9 wide-screen recording mode, and a wind screen filter.
I do have a few minor quibbles with the design and operation. First, the zoom switch feels a bit loose, and I had trouble controlling the pace of the zoom with it. The on/off switch lies flush with the body of the camcorder, and thus requires some concerted effort to press. Finally, I don't like the placement of the USB port underneath the LCD or the SD card slot on the bottom of the unit; those just feel like awkward locations.
With the FS series, Canon debuts its Advanced Zoom technology, which transforms the camera's 37x optical zoom into 48x. It does so by moving lens elements to change the area of the sensor focused on by the lens. As a result, the effective video resolution changes while you zoom. For example, with AZ turned off, 16:9 video sensor resolution is about 550,000 pixels. With it on, at minimum zoom, it's approximately 710,000 pixels (full effective sensor resolution), and at 48x, it's 410,000 pixels. So while it's technically not digital zoom, it's still not maintaining the resolution across the entire zoom range (though it's in fact better than status quo at the wide angle). And for that reason, though I know Canon will probably beg to differ, I'm going to refer to it as a hybrid zoom.