The Canon ZR500's $299 list price suggests a bare-bones MiniDV camcorder, but the opposite is true: It's a surprisingly well-appointed model, one that shares impressive core specs--including a wide-screen LCD, plenty of manual controls, and a 25X optical zoom--with Canon's ZR600 ($349) and its pricier ZR700 ($399). What's the catch? The ZR500 doesn't capture still photos, though we'd hardly call that a catch, unless you're dying for grainy, 0.7-megapixel snapshots. In fact, the ZR500 has one desirable feature its costlier siblings lack: a microphone jack. Unfortunately, there's no accessory shoe on which to mount an external mic, so you'll either have to hold it or get fancy with rubber bands.
In exchange for the microphone jack, you have to give up the wireless remote that comes with the ZR600 and the ZR700. Other than that, the ZR500 is virtually identical to those two models, right down to the 1/6-inch CCD, the simplistic joystick-driven menus, and the palm-friendly design. You can find out more about the camcorder's capabilities, performance, and image quality by reading our review of the ZR700.
One of our favorite new features in the ZR series is the selectable zoom speed: 1X, 2X, 3X, and variable. The last option operates like most zoom controls, tying the speed of the zoom to the amount of pressure on the rocker. The fixed speeds provide a consistent zoom to prevent tell-tale amateur jerkiness. We just wish you didn't have to dig into the menu system each time you want to change the setting.
As with other ZR models, Canon includes eight autoexposure modes, three white-balance options, and six shutter-speed settings, as well as the full auto Easy mode. You also get nine digital image effects, along with a nifty level marker that overlays a horizon line on the LCD to help you shoot even, centered images. That's a lot of manual controls for an entry-level camcorder. Plus, you can add a handful of lens converters and filters.
We generally liked the video from the ZR500, which captured crisp, colorful video under optimal lighting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ZR500 has the same problem as the other ZRs when it comes to low-light video: It produces noisy, washed-out images. But that's to be expected from a camcorder with a smallish image sensor and bargain-basement price.
These complaints aside, most low-budget shooters will enjoy the Canon ZR500. At this price, it's hard to find a small camcorder with so many features. And given its laudable video quality under most conditions, it's a bargain, even at its full list price.