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Last year’s bottom-end MiniDV camcorder, the ZR100, has received a number of improvements in the upgrade. The internals are largely the same – a 1/6" CCD with 340K effective pixels and DigicDV processor – but the body has been made 16% smaller and 12% lighter. The optical zoom was increased from 20x to 25x. The interface has been completely redesigned from a jog dial to the joystick system. The LCD is now 2.7" widescreen rather than 4:3 screen. The prices have dropped, too. The MSRP on the ZR100 was $350. The starting price on the ZR500, conversely, is only $299. The ZR500 also offers a new built-in lens cap, three pre-set zoom speeds, and most importantly, a microphone input. This last feature was not included on any of the ZR models last year, and not even the bottom-end Elura.
In performance, the ZR100 and ZR500 also showed a difference. Bright light performance was largely the same, but in low light the new ZR500 looked much better. Neither camcorder captures stills. Clearly, the improvements make the ZR100 an obsolete model. This is the first ZR we've liked in qute some time. They've hit the sweet spots - a mic jack and low light. Well done. Congratulations should be in order for Canon for making a replacement model worthy of its purpose.
The Sony HC26 takes the bottom-of-the-line role quite studiously – it offers very little in exchange for its $350 MSRP, fifty dollars more than the ZR100. By comparison, the HC26 offers a slightly higher ease of use, automatic controls, better battery time, and a smaller frame. The downside is, well, most everything else, including bright and low light performance. While the Sony does include a "photo" button, it records the stills to MiniDV tape, which is hardly much better than not having a button at all (as in the ZR500). In both cases, the resolution is so low as to make the still worthless. This is no contest – the Canon ZR500 has a better picture, a mic-input, and a lower price.
While we have not gotten a change to review the GS29 yet, we did review the next-step-up model, the GS39, which is similar in most regards. The GS39 had inferior video performance, but not by much. The GS29, which also runs at a $299 MSRP, has the same chip size as the ZR500, but cannot shoot in 16:9. The LCD is also smaller (2.5"), but the zoom is larger (30x). Stills are shot to MiniDV tape at the same 640 x 480 resolution. The GS29 offers better manual control, but the inability to shoot 16:9 is something you may kick yourself for later when you buy a widescreen. If you’re set on Panasonic and on a tight budget, it’s still better to skip this one all together and look at the GS39. Even there, however, competition is tight with the ZR500. And don’t forget the audio input, which does not come included on either Panasonic.
The GR-D350 takes the bottom-rung position in JVC’s MiniDV line. Also at an MSRP of $300, this camcorder has the same imager specs, but offers a 32x zoom. The LCD is smaller (2.5). It trades out the major deficit of no mic input with the modest benefit of a headphone jack. JVC has ease of use about equal to that of Canon, with the added feature of a "data battery," which gives you the remaining battery life and shooting time to the second – a pretty useful feature in clutch situations. We have not had a chance to test any JVC’s yet, but last year’s D250 had comparable bright light and terrible low light. No announcements on improved imager specs lead us to expect more of the same this year.
The next model up from the ZR500 is identical in its imager specs, and therefore likely to be identical in its performance. Priced at $349, the extra fifty dollars would buy you the ability to record stills to an SD/MMC card at a maximum resolution of 1024 x 768. It also comes with a remote control, 9-Point AiAF auto focus, PictBridge compatibility, and the Zoom Browser software. All this means, essentially, that fifty bucks will buy you moderately better photos, but still far, far below what a dedicated digital still camera could produce. The only thing that adds to vide quality is the improved auto focus, which should be interesting to test.
Who It’s For
Point and shooters should love the ZR500. The Easy mode is clearly marked by a switch on the upper right side of the camcorder, and the automatic controls are nearly as good as a comparably priced Sony. Engaging the menu is simple with the new joystick control, our favorite navigation device for consumer cams.
Budget Consumers* (8.0)*
The budget consumer will surely find appealing aspects of the Canon ZR500. It provides a Mic-in port, a handful of manual controls, an easy structure, basic control, and an Easy mode. It’s just too bad that users aren’t given a snapshot mode with this camcorder; however, as mentioned in the still photo section, for fifty dollars more you can lose the Mic-in port and gain an SD card slot. It all depends on which is more important to your recording practice, but it would be nice to have both and not compromise at all.
Still Photo / Video Camera Hybrid* (0.0)*
Well, let’s see. This camcorder doesn’t have an SD card slot and can’t record still images to tape, so that pretty much makes this section of the "Who It’s For" a total bust. It’s a surprising omission, especially considering that most manufacturers can’t talk enough about the importance of the hybrid future of camcorders and digital cameras. If hybridism is paramount and price is a concern, check out the Sony MiniDV line this year, or spend $50 more and buy the ZR600.
Gadget Freaks* (1.0)*
With few manual controls, a stripped-down feature free exterior and a handful of odd digital effects mode, the gadget freak is not likely to consider this camcorder an option. If gadgets and style are important, expect to spend more money for the latest and greatest.
Manual Control Freaks* (3.0)*
Without a focus ring, and with a less than stunning zoom control, the lack of overall manual controls will leave the manual control freaks with an unfulfilled yearning in their hearts. If price is a concern and manual controls are craved, the offerings of Panasonic will certainly be more appealing when compared to the Canon ZR500.
Pros/ Serious Hobbyists* (2.0)*
There is no reason for the pro or serious hobbyist to sully themselves with the Canon ZR500. The design, style, price, controls, structure, layout, and image results are all intended for the automatic mode-loving budget market and not the serious user.
The Canon ZR500 is a great start to their MiniDV line. First off, we love the microphone input, an item you will not find on any other manufacturer’s low-end model. Conversely, this is the only ZR model this year to offer a mic input, which is a little confusing. If they can charge as low as $300 for the whole package, a mic jack obviously does not cost much to produce. Ah, the wonders of price structuring.
When compared to the competition, the ZR500 shines. It has better bright light vide performance than the Panasonic PV-GS39, the Sony DCR-HC26, and, we expect, the JVC GR-D350. In low light performance, it truly shined, and showed significant improvements over last year’s ZR100. The improvements from last year don’t stop there: this camcorder is smaller, lighter, has a bigger zoom, a bigger LCD, and a better menu interface.
Too often, replacement models do little more than bump up the zoom and change the color of a camcorder. Canon has gone above and beyond this year, overhauling old designs and building off of a solid imaging system. As I said earlier, this is one of the best ZR camcorders we've seen in years. The low light performance has been a thorn in their side for too long, and barred us from making recommendations towards them without an assortment of caveats: 'good video... but bad low light;' 'good design... but no mic input.' No more. Barring the ability to take stills, expect the ZR500 to be one of the best deals in the low-end market.
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