With its squat, bulky design and 1.3-pound travel weight, the Canon Optura 60 doesn't really qualify for pocket duty, though it could easily ride along in a purse or a bag. On a positive note, the camera's size and heft lend it a more professional feel than that of similarly priced lightweights, such as the Sony DCR-HC90. When you hold it in your hand, you feel ably equipped to shoot a documentary or a corporate video.
The camcorder's controls are relatively easy to understand and use, but you may have to consult the manual if you're not well versed in digital camera operation. The zoom lever, the power and tape/card buttons, and other controls reside on the right, where camcorder veterans expect them. For some other functions, however, Canon follows its PowerShot design, incorporating a familiar-looking mode dial. This is a far more efficient way to switch between automatic, manual, priority, and scene-preset modes than delving through menus, as some models require. Similarly, a Function button near the front of the camcorder pulls up frequently used options such as white balance, color saturation, sharpness, and Canon's Soft Skin mode.
Unfortunately, the Menu button is behind the LCD, which makes using the menus with the viewfinder--for when you need to save battery life--a little too awkward. Furthermore, when the LCD is open, it obscures your view of and access to the Optura's Function button and jog dial, which are used together to navigate onscreen menus. We greatly prefer having these controls near the back of the camera, as on Canon's ZR series.
The Optura comes with a tilting, telescoping viewfinder--handy when using an optional extended battery, which adds depth to the rear of the camcorder--and Canon's Advanced Accessory Shoe, which can power extras such as video lights and shotgun microphones. Speaking of lights, the Optura 60 includes a built-in white LED for illuminating dim subjects.
Stocked with a 1/3-inch CCD, the Canon Optura 60 delivers 1.2 megapixels for video and 2.2 megapixels for photos (both effective resolution). Another advantage is full-width 16:9 recording, which is useful for videographers who plan to show their movies on wide-screen TVs--no black bars and no loss of clarity from artificially enlarging the image.
The Optura's Canon-made lens has two optical aces up its sleeve: a 14X zoom and optical image stabilization (OIS). Although camcorders such as the Sony DCR-HC90 have shown that electronic image stabilization can achieve great results, there's no question that the best image fidelity comes from OIS. For razor-sharp close-up work, the lens features a manual focus ring. In any shooting mode except Auto, you simply press the Focus button to switch to manual. You can also attach one of the 34mm telephoto or wide-angle converters Canon sells separately, though we were a bit disappointed that one wasn't included in the box. The less expensive ZR300 comes with a wide-angle converter and, for that matter, a 22X optical zoom.
Moviemakers seeking creative control over their audio and images will find it in the Optura 60. In addition to an external-microphone input, the camcorder provides no fewer than eight white-balance presets, including auto and manual. It also includes a handful of spiffy digital effects, faders, and image enhancements, all of which can be preselected via onscreen menus but withheld from use until you press the D. Effects button. As you might expect from a camera with dedicated aperture- and shutter-priority modes, the Optura supports manual shutter adjustments from 1/8 second to 1/2,000 second and apertures between f/1.8 and f/8.0. It's blissfully simple to make changes. Just press the jog dial and move it up or down until you hit the desired setting. The six preprogrammed scene modes include Foliage, Snow, and Fireworks.
Needless to say, the Optura tries hard to emulate one of Canon's PowerShot cameras, right down to the onscreen icons that indicate various settings. All the mode-dial settings, from aperture priority to scene mode, can be applied to still photos, so there's little to relearn if you're already PowerShot savvy. There's also little to give up by leaving your PowerShot at home. The Optura features three-shot autoexposure bracketing; three metering modes; a continuous-shooting mode (three shots at maximum resolution, five when you drop down a step); and a built-in flash. What's more, the Optura's OIS works when you're shooting stills, too.
For quickly turning snapshots into prints, the Optura can connect to any PictBridge-compatible printer. It also doubles as an SD/MMC card reader when you connect it to your PC--one push of the Print/Share button automatically transfers photos to your hard drive.
Canon supplies a corded lens cap, a 16MB MMC card, USB and A/V cables, a wireless remote, and manuals for both the camera and Canon's bundled software. The manual is excellent; it quickly directs you to the proper page for every feature and clearly explains it when you get there. As for the software, it's entirely for photos: Canon's usual ZoomBrowser EX, PhotoRecord, and PhotoStitch for Windows and ImageBrowser and PhotoStitch for Macintosh. Although there's no video-capture or video-editing software included, you can transfer video to your PC via USB 2.0--application permitting--and FireWire.
The Canon Optura 60 is something of a slow starter, taking nearly 10 seconds at power-up before it's ready to start shooting. That's a minor quibble; a bigger one is with the automatic exposure adjustment, which lags a noticeable second or two before adjusting from bright- to low-light settings. (This is a problem only if you move quickly from one environment to the other; the camera is sufficiently responsive with gradual transitions.) We also found the zoom a bit slow, though the upside to that is that the autofocus locks on to distant subjects with almost no delay. Indeed, we found the autofocus quite speedy and accurate overall--it rarely got hung up seeking a subject. On the photo side, we liked seeing one or more of the Optura's nine-point focus areas in the LCD. As with Canon's cameras, this system helps tremendously in capturing properly focused images.
The LCD itself is a small but impressive display. The 2.5-inch screen looks bright and colorful even under direct sunlight, and better still if you engage the backlight. Of course, its 4:3 aspect ratio means you'll have to contend with letterboxing when shooting in wide (16:9) mode. The camcorder's stereo microphone, mounted just below the lens, did an excellent job recording sound both in front of and behind the camera, but it also managed to pick up the whine of the tape transport. Nor did its electronic windscreen filter significantly reduce wind noise on a moderately breezy day.
We also found the Optura's auto-off feature a bit annoying. When it engages (after five minutes of inactivity, a setting you can't modify), the camera beeps intermittently for about 30 seconds, then beeps even louder before finally turning off. Canon claims the Optura's included battery should give you about 80 minutes of continuous recording time while using the LCD--though that number is cut nearly in half for typical operation (zooming, starting and stopping, and so on). Our informal tests support these ratings, so you should definitely pack an extra battery or two--or one of Canon's extended-life cells, which promise up to three hours of continuous shooting.
As we've seen with other Canon camcorders, the Optura 60 renders crisp, beautiful color in outdoor and well-lit indoor environments. However, despite the inclusion of a large CCD, the Optura just can't hack it when the lights are low. If you're shooting in, say, a dimly lit room, expect a fair bit of color noise in your video. If you're trying to capture some nighttime footage, avoid Super Night mode, which produces horribly blurry, jerky results unless you use a tripod and film a stationary subject. We experimented with several different modes and settings, and the results were largely the same: lots of noise or lots of blur--sometimes both.
Unfortunately, the Optura has a slight problem in brightly lit settings as well. In Auto mode, it blows out highlights. When shooting the horizon on a clear day, for instance, the light-blue sky appeared almost white. Yellows in particular appeared overexposed. Picky shooters will want to take advantage of the manual exposure controls for these situations. In all circumstances, we also noticed a fair bit of edge crawl.
As for photos, the Optura can easily suffice as a vacation snapshooter, though its 2.2-megapixel resolution will serve you best if you stick to 4x6-inch prints. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we noticed many of the same traits in our snapshots that we did in our video: nice color, clean edges, slight overexposure, and noise in low-light shots (though the flash helps with portraits). There was also a hint of purple fringing around the edges of shadows.