We'd all like James Cameron's bank balance, but that doesn't necessarily mean we want to go about wielding the latest in high-end HD or 3D movie cameras. Assuming you are more concerned with filming family holidays and suchlike, rather than some over-simplified morality play about a bunch of lanky CGI Smurfs, something like the Canon Legria HF R18 should be all you need. It doesn't have all the latest bells and whistles, but it's easy to use. At £380, it might not be dirt cheap, but you certainly don't need James Cameron's bank balance to buy one.
Talking tech for a moment, the Legria HF R18 combines one of Canon's own HD video lenses with a single 1/5.5-type CMOS and the company's DIGIC DV III processor. HD resolutions of up to 1080i can be recorded to either the camera's 32GB internal memory or a removable SD/SDHC memory card. A 20x optical zoom is provided though, sadly, the Powered OIS image stabiliser found on many other Canon camcorders is not present here. An electronic equivalent is on hand, but it's not as effective at keeping things on an even keel as the optical variety.
The shiny black and silver design looks pretty suave and, while it’'s not exactly pocket-sized, the compact HF R18 is sculpted to fit snugly into your palm and is deceptively light. Its battery pack is secreted away inside the body, streamlining the design further and making it even more comfortable to point and shoot with.
Almost anyone can use the HF R18 and get reasonable results. Simple operation is simplified further by Canon's 'smart auto' feature, which selects the most appropriate scene mode (from 31 available), based on things like brightness, distance from subject, type of subject and so on. For example, it can tell if you're filming something close up and automatically switch to macro mode.
Further family-friendliness comes in the form of face-detection, video snapshots (short bursts of 2-8 seconds of video) and a fast autofocus. There's no touchscreen control but menus and settings are all easy to navigate using the mini-joystick. Connections include HDMI (though there's no cable provided), component, USB and standard-definition AV. The Legria can also 'downmix' HD recordings to standard-definition in camera, should you need lower-res versions of your movies.
If there was a stand-out feature here it would probably be the 32GB of ready-made storage space tucked away among the HF R18's innards. There are two main reasons for buying a camcorder with a large amount of internal storage space: convenience and value. Sometimes -- particularly with hard-disk-based models like Sony's Handycam HDR-XR155E -- it can work out cheaper to pay for storage up front, rather than shelling out for separate memory cards.
Unfortunately, the HF R18's built-in flash memory is there for convenience' sake only. In this instance, you won't be saving any money. In fact, at Amazon's current prices, it would work out roughly £120 cheaper to buy the flash-free Legria HF R106 along with two 16GB SDHC cards instead of the all-in-one HF R18, which is a little disappointing.
Still, it is very handy to have 32GB of storage at your disposal, particularly when you're away on holiday and aren't able to dump your recordings to a PC or DVD. You can fit about 4 hours' worth of footage on the internal memory if you're filming at the top-quality (FXP) setting, and there's always the option to add more storage space via the SD slot, should you need it.
More disappointing, perhaps, is the HF R18's performance -- with both video and photo. On the still side of things, the comparatively low-resolution snaps produced by the Legria don't stand up to much scrutiny. Detail is low and colours can look strangely unrealistic.
Movie mode is better. At full quality, it's possible to capture some really good-looking shots, especially if you're filming outdoors in well sunlit conditions. A more detailed examination, however, can reveal some minor issues, such as artefacts present in shadow and mid-tones as well as some bleed on strong colours. Our indoor tests unearthed further flaws. Under artificial light, the picture can degenerate quickly, which is a shame, since we've seen several mid-range camcorders recently that have proved themselves very capable in low light.
It's likely that many of these issues stem from the Legria's relatively small, low-resolution CMOS sensor, which has only 1.56 effective megapixels to play with. It seems the HF R18 just isn't as technically capable as many of its peers and, while we might have overlooked this in a cheaper model, we think that a £400 HD camcorder should perform better in this day and age.
Most families looking to make their own home movies will need a camcorder that's as convenient and cost-effective as it is competent at producing decent pictures. As such, we're happy to accept a slight quality hit compared to higher-end models, especially since the Canon Legria HF R18 is so easy to use and provides its own storage. The trouble is, at £380 online -- and even more on the high street -- the HF R18 just doesn't represent very good value.
Edited by Emma Bayly