A preliminary assessment of the Canon Legria HF M31's vital statistics versus its price point left us somewhat sceptical about the camcorder's potential. Sure, it has a decent amount of on-board flash memory (32GB), as well as the option to add more via an SD card. Yes, the top quality setting promises high-definition, 1080i video recording at an extremely high bit rate of 24Mbps. But, with a total megapixel count lower than that of many camera phones, and a solitary image sensor where many other camcorders in its price range now offer three, this AVCHD camcorder looked like it might turn out to be somewhat overpriced and underpowered.
But, while the M31 certainly has more than its fair share of problems, it turns out that capturing impressive images -- both moving and still -- is not among them. It's available now for around £650.
The great outdoors
Take the small and neat M31 out for a picnic, a trip
to the zoo or a day at the beach -- or anywhere else in bright, even outdoor
light, for that matter -- and you should find it performs extremely well indeed.
Other than the fact we found ourselves frequently having
to manually set the white balance due to the automatic setting's tendency to default to
overly cold hues, the M31 performed very well in all our outdoor tests, producing
sharp, realistic video even at lower quality and bit-rate settings. Its excellent
optical image stabiliser is able to counteract a great deal of handheld wobbles.
With the zoom extended to its full 15x magnification, a special 'Powered IS' feature provides further image stability: simply hold down the button on the fold-out
screen and your image somehow magically locks into place, resisting even the shakiest
We were pleasantly surprised by the M31's still picture
quality too. The image sensor is only capable of capturing photos at a maximum
resolution of 3.3 megapixels, and we were genuinely expecting all our test snaps
to come out in a big, squashy, pixellated mess, but the results were far from unsatisfactory.
Viewed on screen at their native size or printed out, our M31 photos looked just
as good as those from cameras that claim twice the resolution or more.
Things took a sudden turn for the worse when we brought the M31 indoors, however. Even in fairly well-lit interiors, it was clear the camcorder was beginning to struggle. Grain and other artefacts are quickly introduced into both photo and video images as soon as light levels drop. Artificial techniques, such as upping the gain, are used to try and boost light sensitivity, but the results don't look great. Unfortunately, low-light performance isn't the M31's only Achilles heel.
A touch disappointing
Many mainstream manufacturers are equipping their camcorders with touchscreen control systems and some are even beginning to implement relatively useable ones too -- the recent Sony Handycam HDR-CX550VE provides a good example of a well-employed touchscreen system. Canon has been a little late to the game in this regard and, sadly, we have to say we didn't get on with the M31's touch-control scheme at all.
There are some interesting touch-based features, including 'Touch and Track', which keeps the subject you tap on screen in focus at all times. Canon has also attempted to integrate some iPhone-like swipes and gestures. But, overall, the 69mm screen is just too small for the type of precise navigation that Canon is aiming for, while some of the menu arrangements just seem completely counter-intuitive. It took us a combination of seven whole hard and soft button presses to delete a single photo, for example. The fact the LCD panel's glossy surface becomes almost impossible to view in bright sunlight after only a few swipes worth of naturally occurring fingerprint grease doesn't help matters.
Similarly, there seems to be a major flaw in the fundamental way Canon divides up its basic and advanced shooting modes. A hardware button on the unit switches between manual and 'Dual Shot' modes. Dual Shot is the M31's basic point-and-shoot operating mode. Turn this on and you can -- theoretically, at least -- relieve yourself of all responsibility regarding focus, exposure, and so on.
The camcorder will also intelligently switch between photo and video mode depending on whether you press the 'Photo' shutter button or 'Start/Stop' video-record button. Overall, it works rather well.
Unfortunately, opting for the simplified approach of Dual Shot means you are denied access to virtually all of the device's main functions and settings. For us, that seems a somewhat unfair and unnecessary restriction.
First impressions can indeed be deceptive. Despite its single, comparatively low-res sensor, image quality is actually not one of the Canon Legria HF M31's main flaws -- at least it isn't if you're filming in bright, natural light. But, if you're anywhere near as frustrated as we were by its controls or as disappointed by its handling of interior situations, you may well come away feeling a teeny bit ripped off.
Edited by Emma Bayly