In the world of camcorder high fashion, this season's must-have feature is undoubtedly the waterproof case. Models from many big-name manufacturers are sporting the latest water-resistant designs, including Kodak's PlaySport and JVC's Picsio GC-WP10. The Xacti VPC-CA100 from Sanyo is the latest device to come dressed in its own swimwear, but it bucks a few other trends at the same time. Sanyo shuns the candybar look that's currently very popular among mini camcorders in favour of Sanyo's preferred pistol-grip styling. It's also a little harder on the pocket than some, in terms of size, weight and price (around £280 online).
Part of Sanyo's 'dual camera' range, the Xacti VPC-CA100 is capable of taking photos at up to 14 megapixels (16 megapixels with interpolation) as well as recording 1080p high-definition video. On top of that, you get a digital image stabiliser, a face-chasing feature and a zoom magnification of up to 12x -- though the implementation of the zoom is somewhat odd, as we'll see later. USB, HDMI and standard AV are the main connections available and, while there's not a huge amount of internal memory to shout about (50MB), the VPC-CA100's memory card slot will accept high-capacity SDXC media if you ask it nicely.
All in all, that's a pretty impressive roster of features and capabilities for a pocket camcorder. And, yes, on top of all that, the VPC-CA100 is indeed waterproof up to a depth of 3m (or 10ft). That's not going to be much use if you're a deep-sea diver looking to film a sunken wreck, but for casual beach shots and water sports, it's more than enough to let you film in wet conditions without the worry of ruining your expensive camera.
Battery, memory and ports are all covered by water-tight sealed compartments, while all controls and buttons are built into the body to stop the unit from springing a leak. In the case of the five-way navigation pad and menu button, this can be a pain. These controls are much less responsive than we would have liked, making it a little awkward to browse settings and suchlike. Still, at least there's no fussy or counter-intuitive touchscreen control system to contend with. In fact, the VPC-CA100 is very easy to use, especially if you leave it in full automatic mode and switch to the optional simplified menu scheme. The ray-gun shape also makes the device comfortable to wield, and the reasonably large (2.7-inch) fold-out screen means it's easy to line up good-looking shots.
A bigger splash
There's no getting away from the fact that the VPC-CA100 is a little large. In the greater scheme of things, it's still incredibly small. But, compared to most slimline candybar camcorders, the Xacti's form factor is a little bulky and, at 242g, slightly heavier than most of its rivals. In practice, this is only likely to be a problem if you are on the beach or playing some kind of sport that requires you to be as unburdened and mobile as possible.
We have a couple of other minor niggles with the design, too. First off, there's no lens cover. A protective layer of clear plastic protects the lens itself but, since this device is intended for rough and ready use, surely it should have some kind of sturdy removable protector, too? Normally Sanyo is pretty generous with its accessories, so we were surprised that there wasn't even a clip-on lens cover included. On a related note, we were saddened to discover that Sanyo appears to have stopped supplying HDMI cables with their Xactis.
The other thing that annoys us about the VPC-CA100's construction is the fact that access to the SD card slot can only be achieved by removing the battery pack first. This means turning the camera off completely and fiddling around unnecessarily if you want to swap cards on the fly. Again, this may not be a problem for some people. If you're just using one, large-capacity card, you may never really need to extract it. But, since it's cheaper to buy several smaller-capacity cards, we reckon this one might end up irritating quite a few users.
Available in yellow and pink as well as black, the VPC-CA100 is also capable of recording colourful, rich HD video clips. Outdoors in strong sunlight, the camera performs admirably in 1080p, 1080i and 720p modes. Of course, technically, 1080p provides the most detail per frame, but the frame rate itself is only 30 frames per second (fps), which means the 60fps/720p mode can come in quite handy for filming fast-moving subjects.
We were pleased that the VPC-CA100 didn't suffer from anywhere near as much CMOS-related picture wobble as other cameras of its type. Overall, the image has a very smooth feel, thanks, perhaps, to the image stabiliser. We did notice, however, that the camera's auto function has a tendency to switch shutter speeds rather too eagerly in shadier or darker conditions, which lends a slight stuttering motion to recordings. Also, the VPC-CA100's autofocus was a little hesitant, with the otherwise sharp picture occasionally giving way to brief blurriness as it worked out what to actually focus on.
The 'double range' zoom, meanwhile, provides two zoom modes: 'wide' (40mm to 240mm) and 'tele' (80mm to 480 mm). Both offer 6x magnification without the quality loss associated with digital zooms, but it's not entirely clear why Sanyo didn't just opt for a single 12x zoom. As it stands, both zooms are effectively separate. A button just below the zoom rocker lets you switch between the two modes, but doing so while filming will result in a brief pause in your footage.
These issues aside, the VPC-CA100 offers a solid performance on both the video and photo side of things. Still images can be taken in standard or widescreen ratios, and quality is easily on a par with many budget compact cameras. Colours are a little unpredictable, so it's wise to set the white balance manually if possible. Framing can also be a minor issue, since the display defaults to 16:9. If you're lining up a 4:3 photo, pressing the photo button halfway down allows you to compose things in the right ratio before clicking the shutter.
The Sanyo Xacti VPC-CA100's waterproof aspect is interesting and, depending on how you plan to use it, potentially very useful. While it isn't going to make many full-size camcorders quake in their boots, compared to most other mini video cameras, the VPC-CA100's performance and range of features put it right at the top of its league. At £280, however, it also ranks quite highly in terms of price.
Edited by Emma Bayly