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Canon ZR review: Canon ZR

Canon ZR

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
7 min read
Review summary
The flagship of Canon's 2005 ZR line, the compact ZR400 delivers on the promise of hassle-free moviemaking for home users and hobbyists. Leave it in Easy mode for point-and-shoot simplicity; switch to Program mode for control over focus, exposure, and other settings. Of course, the same is true of Canon's other ZR models; the big news here is a larger image sensor, which captures twice as many pixels as those on the Canon ZR300, ZR200, and ZR100. Unfortunately, while the Canon ZR400 excels at outdoor videography, it has the same Achilles' heel as its siblings: dismal low-light performance. And despite its megapixel photo capture, it's pretty lousy at snapshots, too. Though its design is nearly identical to that of the other ZR models, the Canon ZR400 looks a bit more stylish, thanks to its darker, charcoal-gray body. It's compact enough for comfortable hand-holding and a coat-pocket fit, although with a travel weight of slightly more than a pound, it's a hair on the heavy side.

On top of the camera, the photo button, the zoom toggle, and the cassette/card selector fall under your right fingers; you can reach the main mode dial and the video-record button with your thumb.

Beneath your right fingertips you'll find the usual zoom rocker and a photo button for capturing snapshots. However, the latter doesn't function unless you slide a switch--also right-finger accessible--from cassette mode to memory-card mode. That also diverts you from DV video recording to card-based Motion JPEG capture. Thankfully, the LCD clearly reads "Tape mode" or "Card mode" to help prevent confusion.

You can access a few basic settings via buttons in the LCD well. Flipping the switch on the right from P to Easy puts the camera in a fully automatic mode.

Other convenient right-side elements include a standard mode dial (Play, Off, Camera) and at the opposite end, interface ports (A/V, FireWire, and USB) beneath a rubber cover. Alas, the Canon ZR400's tape compartment loads from the bottom--a not-uncommon design disappointment that's sure to frustrate tripod users. Canon's lithium-ion battery clips onto the rear of the camcorder.

The jog dial lets you navigate menus, focus manually, and adjust playback volume.

The 2.4-inch, 112,000-pixel LCD swings out from the left, revealing five function buttons--a few with rather confusing labels. For instance, the AE Shift/End Search and Card Mix/Rec Pause/Slide Show buttons are sure to send users to the instruction manual, though the LCD Backlight and Digital Effects On/Off buttons are fairly self-explanatory.

These buttons control playback and provide access to focus and low-light-shooting modes. The button on the far right is for direct printing.

We had an easier time mastering the rest of the Canon ZR400's controls, which include large, clearly marked Focus and Night Mode buttons just above the LCD compartment. The combination of a Menu button and a jog/select dial makes for easy navigation of the camera's onscreen menus. You can also use the dial for manual focus; it's better than the button controls found on some camcorders but nowhere near as precise as a focus ring would be. A nearby switch toggles between Easy and Program modes. While using the latter, you can quickly and easily access the six available Program AE modes--including Sports, Portrait, and Low Light--by pressing the jog dial. That's a welcome convenience, as most camcorders force you to delve at least a few layers into the onscreen menus to find those settings. With a CCD that captures twice as many pixels--690,000 for video, 1 million for photos--as the ZR300 below it, the Canon ZR400 promises less visual noise and better low-light performance than its lower-priced sibling. (See the Image Quality section for our test results in this area.) That's the primary difference between the two models, so if you plan on doing a lot of indoor shooting, the ZR400 might be worth the extra cash.
On the other hand, you do take a step down in optical zoom power: 14X on the Canon ZR400 vs. 22X on the ZR300. Fortunately, you still get Canon's 0.6X Wide Angle Attachment, which screws onto the lens for wide-angle shooting. As for wide-screen shooting, the ZR400 offers true 16:9 recording, meaning it uses the full width of the sensor--no skewing or interpolating. This is an improvement over camcorders that simply impose letterboxing bars over the top and bottom of the screen.
Other features include electronic image stabilization, an LCD backlight, various autoexposure modes, and a white LED assist lamp for low-light shooting. Unfortunately, you can't manually operate the assist lamp--it won't come on unless you engage the camcorder's Night+ or SuperNight mode, both of which produce somewhat disappointing results (more on that in the Image Quality section). We're also disappointed by the lack of a fill mode to compensate for backlit subjects.
The three night modes--Night, Night+, and SuperNight--aren't particularly intuitive. You'll have to remember which one adjusts shutter speed, which one automatically controls the assist lamp, and so on. And it's too bad you can't use the dedicated Night Mode button to toggle between them; instead, you have to delve into the menus to choose which one the button should activate.
On the plus side, the camcorder's novice-friendly Easy mode automatically controls focus, exposure, and other settings. Flipping a switch to Program mode gains you access to manually adjustable focus, exposure, shutter-speed (1/60 to 1/2,000 second), and white-balance settings along with the usual smattering of transitions and digital effects.
Although the Canon ZR400 can capture Motion JPEG minimovies to a memory card, the maximum resolution of 320x240 limits their usefulness. Similarly, the camcorder's support for PictBridge and EXIF Print 2.2 seems rather pointless given the 1-megapixel photo resolution--but it's there if you want to send photos directly to a printer.
The Canon ZR400 comes with a corded lens cap, a 16MB SD card, USB and A/V cables, a wireless remote, and manuals for the camera and Canon's bundled software. Epson provides only photo-specific software: Canon's familiar ZoomBrowser EX, PhotoRecord, and PhotoStitch for Windows and ImageBrowser and PhotoStitch for Macintosh. You get nothing for video capture or editing--a minor letdown, given the ZR400's analog-to-digital converter, which enables the camcorder to record video from, say, a VCR. You'll have to supply the software to download that video to your PC for editing or DVD burning.
A bigger letdown is the lack of a microphone input. Although you can dub audio from external sources, such as a CD player, the Canon ZR400's A/V port works only when plugged into RCA sources using the included cable. Even if the camcorder had a microphone input, you'd have nowhere to mount the hardware--there's no accessory shoe, either.
Canon also declined to include a battery charger. You have to plug the AC adapter directly into the camera, making it a hassle to charge spare batteries. We were impressed with the overall performance of the Canon ZR400, which should handle the needs of family moviemakers more than adequately. Its LCD looks sharp and bright except under direct sunlight, where even the backlight offers little help. We found the zoom controls relatively quick and responsive, though the ZR400 was often slow to focus--especially in low-light areas.
On the other hand, this camera was surprisingly speedy at autoadjusting image exposure when we moved from a dimly lit indoor environment to a sunny outdoor one, or vice versa. Canon's electronic image stabilizer (EIS) did a decent job with high-zoom recording--much better than we could manage trying to hold the camera steady ourselves. You can, of course, disable the EIS if you want.
The Canon ZR400's stereo microphone, mounted just below the lens, did an excellent job recording sound both in front of and behind the camera. It also managed to avoid picking up noise from the zoom and tape mechanisms. Any noise we heard was usually ambient, not from the camcorder's motors. Where the Canon ZR400 is concerned, light makes might. The camera performs extremely well in outdoor environments, where it captures sharp, vibrant images with warm, welcoming colors. We did notice a bit of overexposure when filming a plastic yellow slide on a sunny day; sections of it looked white instead of yellow. Otherwise, however, we didn't encounter any major flaws in our outdoor shots.
The real problem, as with other models in the ZR series (and frankly, many other Canon camcorders), is that the ZR400 just can't shoot in low-light situations without introducing noise into the images. The amount varies; a well-lit room exhibits relatively little noise, but if you're shooting in a more romantically lit setting (just a lamp or two), you might as well put a soup strainer in front of the lens. The irony is that the Canon ZR400 does a beautiful job making poorly lit areas look bright, but the images have so much noise that they're fairly unwatchable. Similarly, any time you engage Low Light or Night mode, the video becomes extremely blurry and jerky. Unless you mount the camcorder on a tripod, you won't be happy with the results. Indeed, we wish we could say that the ZR400's larger CCD yielded better results than we've seen from other models in the ZR line, but we didn't see much evidence of that.
As for still photos, you probably won't want to bother. Our 1-megapixel sample shots looked like most other low-end camcorder photos we've seen: noisy, washed out, and overexposed. The same is true of the 320x240-pixel Motion JPEG movies, which consistently looked jerky and sounded terrible. Don't buy the Canon ZR400 camcorder with still photos or minimovies in mind.

Canon ZR

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 7Image quality 7