How Good is a $250 HD Camera with 24p?

When I was putting together my list of gift ideas for video nerds, I stumbled upon the Canon Vixia HF R100, and was totally amazed at the price of this thing. But my jaw didn’t really hit my toes until I read about its extensive audio capabilities. For $250 you get a full-blown camcorder that shoots 1080i HD video at 24p, has an external mic input and a headphone output. Then I discovered it had manual audio control of both the external or the built-in mics. Now I was envious in addition to being amazed! I decided to go see what this camera felt like in my hands, and to try out its manual audio control functions. I walked away impressed, and I think I grumbled something under my breath as I passed the HDSLRs on my way out.

I didn’t buy this camera and carry out comprehensive tests of its abilities. I can’t bombard you with charts and graphs and critical test footage. I merely downloaded its PDF manual from the Internet and played with a display model at a camera store. Besides, all of that testing isn’t really necessary. This isn’t the machine that you should use to shoot your next film. This is a little cam that you can easily carry with you all the time, so your really nice one can stay at home and rest in its cozy bag.

When I first picked up the HF R100, I was really surprised at how lightweight it was. It was much smaller in person than it had looked on screen. It takes the form factor of a handycam, but it’s really more of a candycam. This is a video camera that can dance on the tips of your fingers. Sometimes when cameras get too small and slight, it can be a bad thing. They become difficult to hold steady, and the controls are too small and annoying to use.

Simply nudging upward on the HF R100’s joystick allows you to access its manual audio controls.

The HF R100 didn’t suffer from these problems. This is an inexpensive consumer camera. The controls and buttons don’t instill you with that “built-to-survive-a-Siberian-ice-storm” confidence. But that’s not the kind of bird we’re dealing with here. What the controls lack in industrial strength, they make up for with ease and innovation. The HF R100’s articulating display features a wisely placed joystick just to the left of the screen. I only needed to mess around with this camera for 45 seconds to determine that the joystick controller kicked ass.

I printed out a small portion of the HF R100‘s manual about its audio capabilities, but I think I would have figured it out faster without the paper. Some people have complained that navigating the menus of the HF R100 is a little more difficult than it should be, but I disagree. The first time I tried to access the audio controls, it wasn’t terribly intuitive. But if I owned this camera accessing the audio controls would become second nature. It’s a breeze.

There are numerous clinchers that will make most video-enabled DSLR owners a little peeved. Not only can you manually adjust the audio levels, but you can also have the audio meters displayed on the screen at all times. You can select to change its A/V output to act as a headphone output, and you can adjust the headphone volume. The audio meters turn red if you’re peaking. Canon even included a hash mark at -12dB. Yes, all of the features that would have people doing somersaults in the street had they been included on Canon’s EOS 60D are included here.

As someone who is likely going to spend over $1000 on a Panasonic GH2 this month, I’m a little perturbed. I don’t just want all of these features in my DSLR, I need them. I’m going tobe forced to spend the next few years bending over backwards with audio workarounds. But I want the big sensor, and I want to take a lot of nice stills too, so the HF R100 did not sway me from my plan to upgrade to a DSLR for video. Besides, I already own a Panasonic PV-GS200 mini DV handycam. I paid nearly $800 for it five years ago, and the HF R100 blows it completely out of the water in every regard.

If you’re tempted by this little cam, don’t sleep on it. Its white hot $250 price tag will cease to exist on December 25th. After that the price shoots back up to $379.00 –where it belongs. If you’re buying this as a gift, you need to get your order in no later than Tuesday December 21st at noon (12PM Eastern Standard time) in order for you to have it under the tree on Christmas morning. And don’t forget to pick up an extra NB-2LH battery, the must-have essential for any video camera.

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Writer, musician, photo taker and video maker. When not writing somewhat longish articles for this blog, I write incredibly short things on Twitter: @SamMallery

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