As the top model in Canon's MiniDV line this year, you shouldn't expect earth-shattering improvements from the MD160 over last year's models. After all, manufacturers seem to be putting more resources into DVD and hard drive-based models. The overall design keeps what we referred to last year as the "palm-friendly design", and again bumps the optical zoom up slightly, this time from 25x to 35x.
As we've come to expect from Canon, the MD160 delivers admirable colour reproduction in good lighting, but it can't keep up with the competition when it comes to low light.
One noteworthy improvement over last year's MV960 is this model's sensor, which has been bumped up to a 1-megapixel CCD, instead of 680K pixels. This makes for slightly better still images, though they're still nowhere near what you'd get from a dedicated still camera. One noteworthy omission compared with the MV960 is the MD160's lack of an analogue-to-digital converter. If you're looking for a way to convert analogue video to digital, you'll have to look elsewhere.
We like the layout of the controls on this year's MD models. All controls are within reach of your thumb or fingers either on the right side or on the bezel of the 69mm (2.7-inch) widescreen display on the left side. This is much better than designs that put important buttons on the left side of the body behind the screen, where you can't readily see them. Plus, Canon has redesigned the menu system, so that it's more like the one on its digital still cameras. When you press the function button, a list of options appears on the left side of the LCD, and the choices for each of those options appear in a strip along the bottom of the screen.
Last year's MV960 had four buttons below its LCD screen, but the MD160 only has two, Function and Digital Effects. Canon now makes you delve into the menus to switch between widescreen and 4:3 recording modes, or to turn the camera's rather low power video light on or off. The lack of an accessory shoe or microphone input is annoying, but that's also typical of camcorders in this price range.
Canon's easy mode lets you shoot on autopilot and does a nice job making decisions for you. Program mode gives you a choice of eight autoexposure presets, four white balance settings (including evaluative), three image effects and a handful of digital effects. You have to dig one layer deep into the setup menu to choose one of the six shutter speeds, adjust zoom speed, switch between 16:9 and 4:3 recording, or turn on or off the digital zoom, the automatic slow shutter or the electronic image stabilisation.
Our one gripe about the setup menus is that they don't scroll, and as such, when you reach the top, you can't wrap to the bottom by pressing up again. Since the option to exit is at the bottom, this becomes even more frustrating.
In still mode you can capture JPEG images at a resolution of up to 1,152x864 pixels. You still have access to the same autoexposure, white balance and image effect modes, though your shutter speed options are limited to 1/60, 1/100, 1/250 or auto. That's more than you see in some camcorders, as is this Canon's nine-point autofocus system.
The stills we captured on the MD160 were better than we see from many camcorders, with fairly accurate colours, but they don't approach what you can get from a decent dedicated still camera.
Video was much better. With ample lighting, colours were very accurate and vibrant, and footage was sharp with responsive and quick focus. Once the lighting dims a touch, that starts to change. In normal mode, we saw a fair amount of noise when shooting indoors with low ambient light. Night mode didn't help much. Even with a tripod, the MD160 had a very difficult time achieving focus. It's worth noting, however, that while very slow, the MD160 was able to focus eventually in night mode.
As has become almost standard in less-expensive camcorders, the electronic image stabilisation can't handle this camcorder's maximum zoom. We found that it was only effective to about 75 per cent of the zoom range.
Despite our gripes, the MD160 is a very capable camcorder for anyone looking for a tape-based, general purpose or holiday camcorder. If you're thinking about stepping down in Canon's line to the MD101, you should note that this model uses a 800K sensor, which typically shows a noticeable drop off in video quality compared to a 1-megapixel sensor, such as the one in the MD160.
Additional editing by Kate Macefield