Canon FS review:

Canon FS

Ultimately, however, it all ends up downsampled to a standard-definition video resolution of 720x480, or 345,600 pixels. So one would think the real question is, "How does it look?" And the answer to that is: "It looks better than digital zoom." But the real question should be, "Who the heck can use it?" Aside from the fact that I couldn't find anything interesting to shoot that far away during testing--even at a mere 37x--you run into serious control problems with these extra-long zooms. First, they're usually on cheap camcorders without optical image stabilization, so the telephoto video tends to be a jittery mess. And second, when you're zoomed out very far, if the subject moves out of the frame, it can be close to impossible to find them and get them back in frame without zooming out. So really, these ultramegatelephoto zoom lenses serve one purpose: to shoot distant, nonmoving subjects from a tripod mount. Hello, stalkers and stakeouts!

As for the rest, the FS models perform very well, from the fast, accurate autofocus and speedy autoexposure adjustment, to the solid LCD, which is a bit coarse but remains viewable even in direct sunlight. The latter is essential because of the lack of an electronic viewfinder, which is typical for the FS series' class. Like most flash-based models, the battery should also outlast the time required to fill up a 16GB card. Start-up and shutdown are relatively quick, and Canon includes an instant-start standby mode that toggles when you open or close the LCD.

Sample images from the Canon FS series

Because the camcorder is higher-end looking than its price tag implies, the typical budget video it produces is that much more disappointing. Except when zoomed in, the video looks pretty soft, and like many of its peers, seriously blows out highlights. Most colors tend to look washed out, and orange hues shift. Low-light video is even softer, and relatively noisy. (For examples and more information about video quality, click through the slide show.) The audio is OK, though the wind filter is pretty ineffective. Canon bumps the saturation up tremendously for still photos, but they're low resolution--about 800,000 pixels--and are suitable only for scaled-down Web use. On the compatibility upside, most software recognizes the MPEG-2 MOD files, and I had no problem connecting the camcorder to a current Mac.

Unfortunately--or fortunately, depending upon your perspective--flash card prices are volatile enough that it's hard to make a recommendation as to which model to buy. Just remember to factor in the cost of a Class 4 or better SD card, though you probably should double-check that it supports a minimum transfer rate of 10MB/sec or better, since that's not a given, and figure out which total is cheapest. There's really no advantage to having the memory built in, except for the convenience of not having to make sure a card is fast enough. (In fact, I tend to prefer it not built-in, because then I don't have to worry about making sure the camcorder is recording to the right place.)

Any one of the Canon FS series models--FS11, FS10, or FS100--is a stylish, flexible camcorder that produces serviceable video for its price. The flash-based camcorder market is composed of an odd group of competitors, including the much cheaper straight-to-Web mini models, with the occasional ultracheap HD unit like the Aiptek Go-HD or DXG DXG-567V; alas, a real recommendation from among the group will have to wait until we can review the latter devices.

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