Canon ZR500 Camcorder Review
The ZR500 captures video using a 1/6" CCD with 680K gross pixels. This yields an effective pixel count of 340K pixels in 4:3, 400K in 16:9 with the electronic image stabilization on, and 450K in 16:9 with the image stabilization off. This is the same imaging system found on all the 2006 ZR models, so don’t expect huge or even noticeable differences in video quality. All three models also sport Canon’s DigicDV processor.
We test all of our camcorders for basic video performance by shooting a color chart specially calibrated for video at 3000 lux. Under these conditions, the ZR500 produced a richly saturated image. This is the type of result that you’ll often see in lower-end camcorders that try to make a "better picture." By boosting the saturation rather than accurately reporting the colors, the camcorder provides what most people would take for an acceptable image. And it is acceptable, for most purposes. But the result of the saturation increase means a decrease in sharpness, indicated by the blurred lines between color tiles. Also, great color that is also accurate requires great lighting, something that videographers often don’t have access to, unless you carry a lighting kit with you everywhere.
The saturation increase appears to be new this year. When compared to the ZR100, the camcorder that the ZR500 is replacing, the boosting of the blue and green channels is especially apparent. Last year’s image was also sharper. The Panasonic PV-GS39, which runs about $50 more than the ZR500, produced a much noisier picture with duller colors. The reds appear stronger in the Panasonic, but overall, the ZR500 image is far more preferable. The DCR-HC26, Sony’s lowest-end MiniDV camcorder, also running about $50 more, produced a washed-out image. It was marginally sharper, which some users may look for, but the noise was as bad as that on the GS39 with even duller colors. The ZR500 definitely comes out the winner in this competition.
|* Video Performance*|
**Video Resolution ***(10.0)*
The Canon ZR500 was tested for its video resolution in 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios by shooting a standard ISO 12233 resolution chart and running the results through Imatest imaging software. In 4:3, the ZR500 produced 363.5 lines of horizontal resolution (with an average 1.5% clipping) and 274.8 lines of vertical resolution (with an average 1.5% clipping), yielding an approximate resolution of 99889.8. In 16:9, the ZR500 produced 477.1 lines of horizontal resolution (with an average 1.1% clipping) and 280.0 lines of vertical resolution (with an average 1.6% clipping), yielding an approximate resolution of 133588.0
When images are analyzed in Imatest, clipping can occur when an image is too contrasty. While nearly all camcorders can obtain accurate data from the IOS 12233 chart without clipping, nearly every Canon camcorder has provided images that have resulted in this error. There are methods by which to obtain a resolution result without the clipping error (by way of a lower contrast chart), but our standardization methods dictate that all camcorders be tested under statistically identical conditions.
Nevertheless, we did try to correct for errors. When clipping occurs, Imatest requests that you either increase or decrease the exposure. In this case, we were to increase the exposure. Rather than increase the actual amount of light on the chart, which measured an ample 4000 lux, we increased the EV value on the ZR500 to +3. Doing so had a negative impact on resolution, likely because increasing exposure would open the iris wider, thus decreasing sharpness. In 4:3, the ZR500 produced a score of 75706.84, and in 16:9, 109924.36. In increasing the EV value, the clipping did decrease slightly, but did not disappear.
Low Light Performance*(4.75)*
As with every camcorder that passes through our doors, the Canon ZR500 was tested for its low light performance in two lighting levels, 60 lux and 15 lux. At 60 lux, the camcorder retained a great deal of color information and remained very sharp. Fine grain noise rose sharply, which seems to be the result of some incontrollable, automatic gain. Most JVCs, including last year’s bottom-end GR-D250, allow you turn the auto gain control on and off. Panasonics, the GS29 and GS39 included, offer full manual gain from 0dB to 18dB. But even if Canon doesn’t offer the gain control, their automatic handling of things seems to work to our satisfaction.
By comparison, last year’s ZR100 had slightly higher noise levels and a little less sharpness. At 60 lux, the Sony HC26 had much higher noise levels, with patches of blue noise appearing all the way up to the violets and reds. Overall, the picture was nearly as bright as the ZR500’s, but the Canon had stronger green and yellow saturations which managed to push through the noise.
At 15 lux, the ZR500 began to show some odd horizontal striping patterns, most clearly evident in the top row of color tiles. The pattern has a uniformity in its gain, almost like the grain in denim. At this light level, the camcorder also began to exhibit a problem we thought endemic to Sony alone – blue noise appearing across the violet-red color tiles. Despite this disappointing tendency, the ZR500 managed to retain a decent amount of color information. The sharpness was the real surprise here. It does not look like the Canon had to struggle one bit to retain focus. Yet this was a performance we found to be hit or miss outside of the testing room. At times, it could make out fine text at light levels as low as 4 lux. At other times, it could not focus on something as large as a door frame at 10 lux. We can attest, though, that this was not a good still from a mediocre video clip that focused in and out. It looked this good the whole time.
Last year’s ZR100 could not match for sharpness, and its noise was not as subdued and fine-grained. The Sony HC26 lost nearly all its color information and was therefore virtually worthless at this light level. The Panasonic PV-GS39 had a comparable amount of color information, but had trouble focusing. The conclusion: Canon surprised us with this one. Who knew a 1/6" CCD could reproduce images this well in low light? They've turned around their biggest weakness it appears.
Wide Angle* (8.4)*
The ZR500 was tested for the width of its field in both 4:3 and 16:9. In 4:3 mode, the wide angle was measured at 42 degrees. In 16:9 mode, the camcorder displayed a wide angle of 53 degrees. This 11 degree expansion of the field when switched to 16:9 proves that the ZR500 possesses true widescreen, rather than a "crop and zoom" or similar technique to put the picture in a 16:9 frame by subtracting rather than adding information.
Before you buy the Canon ZR500, take a look at these other camcorders.
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