As one of four models in Canon's 2005 ZR line, the compact MV800 easily achieves its goal: to provide hassle-free moviemaking for home and hobbyist users. Flip a switch, and it's in Easy mode, where it manages all the critical settings. If you want a little more control, a flip of the same switch gives it to you, though you shouldn't expect to make too many manual adjustments.
This is a point-and-shoot camcorder, one that delivers pleasing colour and commendable battery life for a pretty affordable street price. It also strives to be a point-and-shoot still camera, but it's almost useless in that regard. Still, we'd gladly pack the Canon MV800 for our next trip or special occasion, as it takes the hassle out of making good home movies.
Although there's nothing particularly striking or unique about the Canon MV800's appearance, its compact design makes for comfortable hand-holding and a coat-pocket fit. With a travel weight of around 500g, however, it's on the heavy side. That said, it and the other MV models are lighter and smaller than last year's lineup.
Beneath your right fingertips, you'll find the usual zoom rocker and a photo button for capturing snapshots. However, the latter doesn't function unless you slide a switch -- also right-finger accessible -- from camera mode to memory card mode. That also diverts you from MiniDV video recording to card-based Motion JPEG capture. Thankfully, the LCD clearly reads Tape Mode or Card Mode to help prevent confusion.
Other right-side elements include a standard mode dial (Play, Off, Camera) and, at the opposite end, interface ports beneath a rubber cover: A/V, FireWire and USB, but no S-Video. Alas, you won't find a side-loading tape compartment; the MV800 loads from the bottom, a not-uncommon design disappointment that's sure to frustrate tripod users.
The 61mm (2.4-inch), 112,000-pixel LCD swings out from the left and is easier to open than some previous Canon models, which have had an annoying separate release switch. Folding out the screen reveals five function buttons, some of them with rather confusing labels. For instance, the AE Shift/End Search and Card Mix/Rec Pause/Slide Show buttons are sure to send users to the instruction manual, though LCD Backlight and Digital Effects On/Off are fairly self-explanatory.
We had an easier time mastering the rest of the MV800's controls, which include large, clearly marked Focus and Night Mode buttons just above the LCD compartment. The combination of a Menu button and a jog/select dial makes for easy navigation of the camera's onscreen menus. The dial also controls manual focus, although it's obviously nowhere near as precise as a focus ring would be. A nearby switch toggles between Easy and Program modes.
Canon's lithium-ion battery snaps onto the rear of the camcorder below the viewfinder, which, unlike the ones on previous MV models, pulls out straight but doesn't tilt up.
The Canon MV800 offers at least one enticing feature not found further up the company's specs list: a 20x optical zoom. We particularly appreciate the inclusion of Canon's 0.6x Wide Angle Attachment, which screws onto the lens for wide-angle shooting. The MV800 also caters to wide-screen shooting with true 16:9 recording, meaning it uses the full width of the sensor, with no squeezing or interpolating. This stands in contrast to camcorders that simply impose letterboxing bars over the top and bottom of the screen.
Other features include electronic image stabilisation; a backlight for the LCD, which makes for slightly easier outdoor viewing; seven autoexposure modes, including Sports, Portrait and Sand & Snow; and a white LED for low-light shooting. Novices will appreciate the presence of Easy mode, which automatically controls focus, exposure and other settings. Flipping a switch to Program mode gains you access to manually adjustable shutter speeds (1/60 to 1/2000), white-balance settings and the usual smattering of transitions and digital effects.
One complaint: the MV800's three night modes -- Night, Night+ and SuperNight -- aren't particularly intuitive. You'll have to memorise which one adjusts shutter speed, which one automatically controls the LED and which one lets you control the LED manually. And it's annoying you can't use the dedicated Night Mode button to toggle between the three modes; instead, you have to delve into the menus to choose which one the button should activate.