Like the Optura 500 before it, the Canon Optura 600 hides a wealth of features in a compact design. Fitting easily in a jacket pocket, this MiniDV camcorder delivers excellent video quality and surprisingly good still photos. Though it doesn't compromise features for size, it sacrifices some convenience, with unusual control placements that can make smooth operation difficult. As long as you try it before you buy it, the Canon Optura 600 deserves consideration if you're looking for a compact, full-featured camcorder that also shoots decent stills. The Canon Optura 600 has an extremely compact, vertically oriented shape that makes it easy to slip into a jacket pocket. It weighs just about a pound with battery installed. The stylish dark-gray plastic body feels solid and should hold up well to everyday handling.
The Optura 600's wrist strap is angled to indicate that you're supposed to hold the camera with your hand at about a 45-degree angle to the lens barrel. Theoretically, this puts your forefinger near the top front of the camera, near the zoom rocker and the photo-snap button, and puts your thumb at the back, near the shooting controls. In practice, we found holding the boxy Canon Optura 600 at that angle quite awkward; one-handed operation was extremely difficult. You'll likely end up reaching around with your left hand to adjust the controls on the right side of the camera--an awkward contortion.
Many newer cameras take a minimalist approach to controls, offering just a few buttons and hiding the rest of the functions in the camcorder's menus. Not the Optura 600--it has a whopping 16 buttons, two mode dials, and a card/tape switch. Advanced shooters will find the wealth of quick-access controls for a wide variety of settings and shooting modes very useful, providing the controls' awkward placement doesn't become irksome. Novices using the camera can set the mode dial to Auto and safely ignore most of the buttons.
Most active settings appear as tiny icons on the Canon Optura 600's 2.5-inch LCD screen. You'll need the manual at first to discern some of their meanings, but overall, they're reasonably easy to figure out. The menu system is colorful, logically organized, and easy to navigate.
You'll need to remove the Optura 600 from a tripod to swap MiniDV tapes, as the tape-access door is on the bottom of the camera. The Canon Optura 600 incorporates a 4.2-megapixel CCD; it uses 3.5 megapixels for video (which is then downsampled to DV resolution) and 4 megapixels for still photos. The lens offers 10X optical zoom for both still and moving images. You can shoot video in traditional 4:3 mode or a wide-screen 16:9 letterbox format.
In addition to automatic exposure, the camera supplies a cornucopia of 11 exposure programs, including a handy portrait mode that opens up the aperture to blur the background behind your subject. You can access five of these almost instantly using the mode dial on the right. In addition, you'll find a wide variety of digital effects, ranging from the practical (wipes, fades, and skin-tone softening) to the gimmicky (sepia, mapping video to a ball). Other features include a slow-shutter mode for night shooting and a small video light that's effective for illuminating close subjects.
You can manually set exposure, white balance, and focus. In addition, you can shoot both stills and video in shutter- or aperture-priority modes. You can also alter focus-point and light-metering settings.
Where most camcorders support the bare minimum for still-camera operation, the Canon Optura 600 has most of the settings and the features you'd expect from a midrange digital camera. You can use most of the manual, priority, and exposure modes available in video mode; there's even a stitch mode for panorama shots. The camera provides a flash, complete with red-eye reduction, and it supports direct printing of stills to PictBridge-compatible printers. A self-timer function lets you get in the picture--or the footage, since it also works when shooting video.
The Optura 600 has a built-in stereo microphone with a wind filter and a headphone jack. Though it lacks a hotshoe, you can purchase an external adapter bracket that will allow you to mount a better stereo microphone or video light.
You can transfer video to your computer using either FireWire or, software permitting, USB 2.0; still images are stored on an SD card. The Canon Optura 600 supports video in and out, and you can use the inputs to convert analog tapes to digital format. The Canon Optura 600 is an excellent all-around performer. We encountered no performance-related issues or annoyances in our testing; the camera felt responsive in both fully automatic and semiautomatic modes. It quickly adjusts focus and exposure when you pan to a new subject.
The zoom control worked smoothly, and electronic image stabilization capably tempered hand jitters throughout most of the zoom range; shake became evident during only extreme close-ups.
Audio quality using the built-in stereo microphone was very good. An audio-gain button allows you to boost or decrease audio sensitivity depending on the proximity and the volume of your subject. We didn't detect any motor noise from the camera when recording at the default sensitivity--an improvement over our experience with the earlier Optura 400.
The 2.5-inch LCD offers a sharp image with vibrant, realistic colors, though it's a bit small for precise manual focusing. Despite the somewhat grainy display, the color viewfinder works well for framing shots.
Battery life is typical for a smaller camcorder, offering about 60 minutes of typical use (shooting with the LCD on and occasionally reviewing footage). You can buy an extended battery, but the battery's placement on the left side of the Optura 600, below the LCD, means that the larger model will create an unsightly bulge. The Canon Optura 600 produces good overall video quality, with sharp images and vibrant, if a bit oversaturated, colors. Autoexposure and automatic white balance worked well in a variety of shooting settings, except indoors, where automatic white balance looked overly warm. The camcorder did an especially good job capturing detail in areas such as hair and grass, which many models will blur.
Low-light performance was very good overall. The graininess that consumer camcorders often produce in indoor shots begins to appear only in dimmer-than-normal room lighting. The video light adds flexibility for shooting in very dark situations, though it's primarily helpful if your subject is within about six feet of the lens. Super Night Mode eliminates much of the graininess from low-light situations, but it slows the frame rate significantly, resulting in jerky video and blurred pans.
Still-shot quality is far better than you'd expect from a camcorder, although the colors appear surrealistically vivid. The 4-megapixel images offer reasonable detail, and indoor shots with flash look about as good as you'd expect from a budget digital camera. Images reveal ample detail, without the graininess evident in snaps from earlier Optura models. Overall, the Optura 600's still-camera functionality is strong enough that you can consider leaving the digital camera at home and using the camcorder for both movies and photos.