Many companies turn out SD-card-based camcorders simply because flash-based technologies allow for much smaller models than those based on tapes, hard disks and Mini DVDs. While Canon continues to offer compact AVCHD models -- the Legria HF20 and the HF200 -- the company's branching out with slightly more 'pro' prosumer offerings in the form of the Legria HF S10 and HF S100.
These two models, which record 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution 60i video, feature a larger and faster f1.8 10x high-definition lens and a relatively large, high-resolution 1/1.26-inch 8-megapixel CMOS sensor, along with higher-end capabilities, such as SMPTE colour bars, the ability to manually boost gain up to 18dB, fixed 70 and 100 IRE zebra stripes, and a user-assignable button/control dial combination. They differ only in internal memory and price: the S100 has no memory and costs about £1,050, while the S10 has 32GB and costs around £1,200.
Although it weighs slightly over 450g, the S10 feels light considering its 71 by 69 by 137mm dimensions. Still, it's no featherweight and, while it fits into a loose jacket pocket, it's not very compact. With only a few exceptions, the camcorder has a good, functional design, with intelligently laid-out controls and a streamlined user interface. The relatively large size also makes it comfortable to hold and operate.
Looking at the camcorder head-on, one of the first things you notice is the odd built-in lens cover that uses a closing-eye-type design, rather than the aperture-blade type we usually see. It wouldn't be notable except that, when closed, the two plastic pieces tend to rattle against each other. Since the camcorder is off, it's not a problem -- just a minor irritation.
Instead of putting the video light in the typical location on the side of the lens, Canon has put it on the pop-up flash. The stereo mics sit on either side of the lens barrel. While they may be more susceptible to wind noise in that location -- although we didn't have any problems -- it allows for larger mics with better separation than is the case with the typical positioning above or below the lens.
If that's not adequate, you can attach a mic via the mini accessory shoe on top of the camcorder. There's a 3.5mm mic input on the grip side of the unit, and the other connectors -- USB, component and mini HDMI -- sit in a covered compartment underneath the strap. The strap does get in the way slightly when you're hooking stuff up.
To one side of the lens, Canon has placed a new custom dial, which looks, feels and operates like the control dial on Sony's prosumer models. You press the button to enable it, then use the dial to adjust whatever setting you've programmed it for. The choices are: exposure, focus, assist functions (70/100 IRE Zebra and peaking), mic level and automatic gain control limit (0 to 18dB). We like this feature in Sony's camcorders and we like it here too. It's a comfortable interface for adjusting options like exposure and focus, although we're not fond of it for cycling through the Zebra and peaking options.
As usual, the zoom switch and photo button lie on top of the camcorder beneath your forefinger, with the mode dial right behind, where an eye-level viewfinder should be. One of the biggest drawbacks of this model, geared towards enthusiasts, is the lack of an electronic viewfinder. The power connector and 3.5mm headphone jack flank the mode button. One of the two record buttons lies under your thumb on the back. To the left of the zoom switch is the small, recessed power button, which is rather difficult to manipulate.
Most of the shooting controls live on the LCD bezel. The function button pulls up both frequently used settings and the full menu system another level down. In addition to the usual -- white balance, image effects, digital effects, video quality and still photo size, program and a handful of scene modes -- the S10 offers real shutter- and aperture-priority shooting modes with a shutter speed range of 1/8 to 1/250 seconds, and aperture options ranging from f1.8 to f8, giving you more control over depth of field than you generally see in a prosumer model.
The S10 also offers Canon's Cine mode for adjusting colour and gamma to go with its 24F progressive modes, although it and 30F get recorded as 60i. In still mode, you can select metering and drive modes as well. Other high-end features accessible via the menus include three fixed or variable zoom speeds, x.v.Color mode, colour bars and a test tone.
The menu system itself has been updated, giving a smoother feel and the ability to choose font size. Since the 69mm (2.7-inch) display is the typical low-resolution model, the small fonts look pixellated and will be hard for some to read. It does stand up pretty well in direct sunlight, however.
Navigating down on the joystick while shooting triggers a fly-up menu to pop up the video light (which works in still photo mode), digital effects, 3-second pre-record, backlight and exposure compensation, manual focus, mic level, face detection and a digital teleconverter. The options are slightly different in still mode: you gain flash and lose the mic and teleconverter. It's especially pleasing that you still have quick access to functions that you don't assign to the custom dial.
The S10 also incorporates this year's features, which include Video Snapshot, producing 4-second clips used to create a 'highlights reel' effect (the camcorder ships with a music CD). We like the idea, but the implementation can be annoying. You enter Video Snapshot mode by pressing a hard-to-feel button on the left side of the camcorder in the LCD recess. A blue outline appears on the display. When you press record, a highlight travels around the blue outline counting down your 4 seconds. It stays in Video Snapshot mode until you switch to playback or press the button again. While we like the way the display feedback works, we'd have preferred a separate record button, or a choice on the mode dial, rather than having the isolated button.
Performance and quality are top-notch at both the S10's maximum 24Mbps bit rate and 17Mbps. Recording capacities are about 5.5 minutes per gigabyte and 7.8 minutes per gigabyte, respectively. Canon recommends a Class 4 or better SDHC card.
The camcorder focuses quickly and accurately, even in low light. While battery life is pretty average for its class, it recharges fairly quickly. Canon claims it takes 10 minutes per half hour of battery life.
The optical stabiliser, as usual, works well out to the end of the zoom range. The video looks great: sharp, with saturated colours, and excellent exposures with relatively few blown-out highlights. The DigicDV III processing does a solid job of maximising the dynamic range. Living-room light-level recordings look quite good as well. There's some noise and softness, but that's to be expected. Audio is crisp and clear.
The camcorder's not perfect, however. Outdoor shots show some purple fringing on high-contrast edges, and there's some colour shift in reds and blues. Still photos have a slightly overprocessed look as many camcorder stills do, and the flash does odd things to the saturation, but, overall, they're not bad.
If you're a video hobbyist or a pro looking for something cheap and portable to complement your workhorse equipment, the Canon Legria HF S10 delivers a much better shooting experience than many HD camcorders, as long as you can live without the electronic viewfinder. The HF S100 is probably the better deal though, since the price of a 32GB card should be less than the price differential between the two models.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet