With its broad, useful feature set; zippy shooting performance; attractive design; and good video quality, the Canon DC40 cements a place among the best of the DVD camcorders. Of course, it suffers from many of the same flaws as its competitors--such as sluggish disc activity--but if your heart is set on recording direct to DVD, it's definitely worth checking out. However, if your idea of a good time is hitting the Easy button and pointing the camera, you'd best consider the Sony DCR-DVD405 or the DCR-DVD505 as well. There's not a lot you can do to make a DVD camcorder attractive. There's only so many ways to combine the basic geometries of a tubular optical system, a 3-inch circular DVD disc, and a rectangular LCD screen--and for obvious reasons, you've got to rule out the combinations that require thumbs on the back of your hand or eyes in your neck. Canon does its darnedest to make you forget that its DC40 is composed of the same old elements.
For starters, its brushed-plastic chassis, in two-tone metallic champagne and brown, provides a nicely upscale look and feel. Despite the plastic, the DC40 also feels quite solidly made, in part due to its 1-pound, 3-ounce heft. A rubberized strip atop the drive gives your fingers a comfortable edge to grip, and in that position, your right forefinger rests naturally on the zoom switch and within reach of the photo shutter button, while your thumb falls on the record button.
If you've been considering a camcorder with an Easy button, the DC40 isn't for you; it has quite a few external controls for a consumer model. The on/off/play slider, next to the record button, takes a bit of a reach for your right thumb. Given how infrequently you need that control during shooting, its placement works. You have to shift your hand a bit to operate the camera/camcorder switch. The menu and function buttons, which you will need to access more frequently, require either a bit of a right-hand contortion or left-handed activation; since the navigation joystick sits on the left side of the camcorder, it means shifting your left hand back and forth repeatedly. It's not a bad design, but it could use fine-tuning.
The joystick provides quick access to exposure settings--exposure compensation, shutter speed, or aperture, depending upon which mode you're in--as well as manual focus. Though it quickly gets you in the neighborhood when manually focusing, it's very hard to manipulate for fine-tuning.
Canon put playback controls, plus on/off buttons for the flash and video light, on the outside of the camcorder and the battery on the inside under the LCD. That's where they all belong but all too frequently aren't.
Because of the smallish 2.7-inch LCD, the DC40's menu icons can be a bit tough to distinguish. Unfortunately, the viewfinder is also tiny and inflexible, so it's not much of an alternative. You should try it yourself before purchase if you're a senior or you wear glasses. Like Sony, Canon's approach to the high-end DVD camcorder involves tons o' features. But while Sony goes the home-theater route, tossing in extras such as 5.1 surround recording, Canon emphasizes manual controls and photo options. I find the latter approach much more compelling.
Though the Canon DC40 offers a modest 10X zoom lens, it provides a wide f/1.8-to-f/3.0 aperture and can accept 37mm add-on lenses. Video shot in 16:9 aspect ratio runs just less 3 megapixels, while 4:3 uses about 3.5 megapixels; stills take a full 4-megapixel shot. Like all of its competitors, the camcorder can fit 20 minutes of the highest-quality video on a single-sided DVD. Canon's camcorder offerings support 3-inch DVD-R and DVD-RW discs and include Roxio MyDVD in the box.
For the most part, unless an option makes no sense in a particular situation, it works for both videos and stills: aperture- and shutter-priority exposure modes, a large handful of scene and white-balance presets, and a smattering of digital image and video effects. The DC40 also offers a lot of nice touches, including a variable zoom rate plus three constant zoom-rate choices, a display overlay of a horizon line (for those of us who can't keep it level), a built-in neutral density filter, and a wind filter. The two low-light modes, Night and Super Night, simply drop the shutter speed and add the video light, respectively.
There are a few controls that I wish were available for both videos and stills, however. For instance, photo-only options such as selectable metering modes--you have a choice of evaluative, spot, and center-weighted--would come in handy for videos. And video-only options, most notably 16:9 operation and image stabilization, would be great for stills. Since the DC40 uses electronic image stabilization, you do sacrifice a bit of your 16:9 frame when it's active. But at least the camcorder delivers a true wide-screen view, rather than letterboxed 4:3. The Canon DC40 performs pretty well for its class, but remember that DVD camcorders are still in the remedial courses when it comes to recording lag. With a pre-initialized blank disc, start-up is virtually instantaneous; shutdown takes a few seconds. Initializing is another story. The camcorder requires about 15 seconds just to ascertain that a DVD-RW needs initialization and another 35 seconds to format for DVD-VR (rewritable) or 20 seconds for DVD-R. A partly filled DVD-R requires almost half a minute before the camcorder is ready to record. Once you're ready to go, you'll always have a couple of seconds of lag between pressing record/stop and the action occurring.
Aside from its media-related performance, however, the DC40 operates smoothly and quickly. It adjusts focus rapidly when zooming and panning, for both high- and low-contrast subjects, and swiftly adapts to changes in subject exposure. The zoom switch is quite responsive; in variable-zoom mode, the lens can go from wide to tele in a snap. The constant-rate zoom presets run at slow, slower, and unbearably slow, but I guess that's where you need them the most. The electronic image stabilization keeps the video steady through minor shakes.
Canon positioned the DC40's microphone in the front of the camcorder, below the lens. As such, it doesn't pick up the thock sound of the zoom switch being released or the profane utterances of the frustrated videographer. That said, the audio quality is just OK; I miss the level controls that were available on the soon-to-be-defunct Optura models.
The 2.7-inch LCD is a bit small and quite coarse but remains usable in bright sunlight and moderately dim environments. When played back in a relatively new DVD player, the Canon DC40's best-quality video looks extremely good: sharp and saturated, with accurate white balance and exposure. As long as you haven't panned or zoomed too fast, there are few motion artifacts. However, when I played my video on a several-year-old, basic DVD player, it randomly skipped frames; though it's likely the fault of the player and its inability to fluently read DVD-R, you should keep my experience in mind when you send discs to Grandma.
Low-light video quality came as a pleasant surprise. Yes, it's grainy, but not offensively so, and it retains enough color to look realistic. The video light provides strong illumination as far as about 6 feet away, but if you point it at a person, they'll be seeing spots for days.
Still photos display the same characteristics that make the video appealing--good white balance, exposure, and saturation--but without the image stabilization, you have to manually set the shutter speed a bit high in order to get sharp pictures. In Auto mode on a bright day, I couldn't snap one sharp enough to print.