Canon may not have been first out of the gate with a flash-based camcorder--or second, or third--but one of its debut models, the high-definition Vixia HF100, gets it right the first time. A sleek, matte-gray compact model with a well-rounded feature set, great video, and excellent performance, the HF100 definitely deserves a spot on your short list of potential home-movie camcorders.
Unlike its brother, the HF10, the HF100 lacks built-in memory, including just a slot for SDHC removable flash. Aside from that and the color, the two models are identical. This review is based on our evaluation of the HF10. The petite HF100 weighs 15.1 ounces with SD card and battery and measures 2.9 by 2.5 by 5.1 inches--small and light enough to fit into a large jacket pocket, which is about as good as it gets on the horizontal designs. That's a hair smaller than its main competitor, the Sony Handycam HDR-CX7 and significantly more compact than its cousins, the hard-disk-based Vixia HG10 or tape-based Vixia HV30. The plastic body feels quite solid, too.
Fortunately, the HF100 doesn't seem to suffer from the usability issues that usually accompany shrinkage. The controls remain large and easy to operate, though Canon has relocated many of them. The Function button and joystick, which call up and navigate frequently needed shooting settings, now live on the LCD bezel. I'm not a big fan of designs that do this, mostly because I find it more difficult to simultaneously operate the controls and hold the camera steady when they're on the LCD than when they lie under my right thumb. In addition, manually focusing with the joystick on the camcorder's smallish 2.7-inch LCD can be a pain, regardless of the zoom-view focus assist. (For more on the design, click through to this slide show.)
It records AVCHD video at a maximum of 17 megabits per second (2 hours and 5 minutes of video), and can hold up to 6 hours and 5 minutes of video at the lowest bit rate of 5Mbps. That higher bit rate goes to support the full 1,920x1,080 capture, the norm for most of this year's new models, compared with 1,440x1,080 for older AVCHD camcorders that required only a 12Mbps maximum bit rate. You can record best-quality movies to the card as long as it's a Class 4 SDHC or better (Class 6 is currently fastest): the Class 4 16GB Kingston card I tested with worked fine.
Its optically stabilized f1.8-3.0 12X zoom lens has a longer reach than the typical 10x lens available in this class, but the rest of its features are pretty common in Canon's prosumer models. For video, these include aperture- and shutter-priority exposure modes, three fixed/one variable zoom speed options, a video light, Instant AF, and a wind-screen filter. You can also record in progressive 30 or 24 frames-per-second (fps) modes as well as 60i. For still photos, metering, flash, and burst and exposure bracketing options become available as well. The camcorder also supplies a complete set of ports and connectors: component or mini-HDMI out for direct-to-TV playback, mini headphone and mic jacks, and USB for downloading to computer. (You can find a complete list of the features in the product manual available via this PDF download.)
The new lens performs surprisingly well. Not only does the SuperRange optical image stabilization system work satisfactorily all the way out to the end, but the lens focuses quickly and holds the lock in both dim and bright conditions. Images look sharp, too. On the downside, high-contrast edges show more fringing than usual. The stereo microphone sits beneath the lens and generally delivers good audio quality. However, in recent models Canon changed the wind filter option from a forced-on to automatic, and ever since I've found it far less effective.
As is usual with compact designs, Canon provides a new 890mAh battery with the HF100, the BP-809, which is rated for about 55 minutes of typical recording time. The company offers an optional double-capacity battery, the BP-819. The larger battery likely ruins the svelte lines of the camcorder design, however.
Though the HF100 incorporates a smaller, 1/3.2-inch 3.3-megapixel CMOS sensor than the HV30 and the CX7, the video still looks quite good: properly exposed, nicely saturated, and sharp. As expected, in low light the video displays more noise and a somewhat compressed tonal range, but retains a significant amount of detail and fares above average compared with the rest of its class.
An excellent choice for flash-based HD recording, the HF100 gives the CX7 a close run for the money, and it is a clear champion if you don't like the Sony's touch-screen interface. But then the real question becomes which model is the better deal--the Vixia HF10 or the HF100. The cost difference between the two exactly reflects the current price of the HF10's internal 16GB of flash memory, which makes it tempting to recommend buying the cheaper model and springing for an additional card when the prices inevitably fall (or paying the same for a larger card, when they inevitably ship) later in the year. On the other hand, the HF10's black body is a bit more attractive than the HF100's gray. Decisions, decisions.