Saturday, May 10, 2008

Canon Vixia HF10 (HF100) Review

UPDATE, June 2010: AVCHD is a mainstream format now and you can read about editing workflow here -

UPDATE, LATE 2009: OK, a year and a half after I wrote this review, a lot has changed in the editing realm. Most newish computers with current software, like Vegas or CS4 on the PC or any of the Mac's editing programs, can handle AVCHD with no problems now. The current version of this camera, the HF200, has some subtle but real improvements in handling and controls and is a great little camera. - Chuck

I'm playing with a loaner Canon Vixia HF10 camcorder, which is nearly a twin to the HF100.

This is a cool, sexy camcorder and the lust factor for this critter is way high.

But try as I might to love it, it just ain't happening for me.

First, the good stuff:

* It's tiny -- smaller than a Coke can.
* It has mic and headphone jacks
* It has a decent lens and decent image stabilization
* It uses readily available SDHC flash cards
* The image is great
* It has manual controls, including exposure and audio (YAAAAYYY!!!)
* It takes 37mm filters and accessory lenses

The bad stuff:

* The file format, AVCHD, is hard to edit
* There's no viewfinder, only the lcd screen
* Built-in mics, like many camcorders, are very susceptible to wind noise
* Standard battery life is short: 40-50 minutes
* Have to take it off tripod plate to change battery; the latch is on the bottom
* Manual controls are through a fiddly joystick and nested menus
* It has a mini hotshoe that won't take any standard mics or accessories
* Ergonomics are crummy
* No firewire
* Headphone jack defaults to AV and you have to switch it via menu every time for playback (but it stays put in record mode)


This is a tiny high-def disk-based camcorder that shoots full HD at 1920x1080 and can also shoot several lower bitrates at 1440x1080 -- but it won't shoot standard def.

The HF10 is an AVCHD camera with 16gb of memory onboard and it also uses SDHC cards. (A similar model, the HF100, only uses cards, with no built-in memory.)

The AVCHD format is an extremely highly-compressed mpeg format. You need a really powerful computer to do anything with the files.

I use Macs and on that front, you need an Intel Mac running Final Cut Studio 2 upgraded to at least 6.02. iMovie 08 is also supposed to work with the files. If you have a G4 or G5 Mac or are using Final Cut 5 to edit with, you're out of luck -- you can't even look at the clips. (A program called Voltaic will let you very slowly convert the clips, though.)

I couldn't find anything in our office on the PC side to open the files. Premiere Pro (cs3 production suite) won't touch them, nor will Windows Movie Maker nor Windows Media Player. The HF10 comes with Pixela software, but I can't install outside software on our office computers, so I have no idea how it works.

If you've got the horsepower and the right programs, though, editing is pretty cool. You put the card in a reader and open "log and transfer" in Final Cut 6.02 and *boom* the thumbnails are there in a list instantly. You can scrub through and preview the clips but then you have to ingest them, which even on a 3ghz Mac Pro with 8gb of memory takes a little more than real time. Overall, it's a little quicker than tape, though, 'cause you can choose just the clips you want. I think you need the whole card folder structure to do the log and transfer, so you can't just drag the media files out of the deeply-nested "stream" folder.

When you ingest, Final Cut converts them to ProRes files, so a 15mb file on your sd card suddenly becomes 250mb on your computer.

The 1440x1080 files will play ok on a timeline along with HDV files, but you'll need to render when you output because they don't match exactly.


One of the biggest drawbacks is the handling of this camera. The record on/off switch is in the standard thumb position on the back, which would be fine if it had a viewfinder. But there's no secondary top-mounted record button, so you can't cradle the camera to hold it steady and still hit the button on the back. If you hold it with the grip and your thumb on the button, you have to hold it away from your body and it waves around like a California earthquake. There's no Lan-C jack to add a release, either.

The lcd screen is pretty good, except in sunlight. The controls are on the lcd screen, and you use a combination of push buttons along the bottom and a five-way joystick at the left of the screen. You toggle the joystick to select a menu item and then push it in to execute. (It works better than the HV20 joystick but is still fiddly.) The manual controls for exposure and audio are just like the HV20 - and are still a little difficult to figure out until you've used them a lot. There aren't any zebras to check exposure and the focus is also controlled through menus, so you'll use autofocus all the time.


You'll definitely need a few of the $100 higher-capacity batteries for this puppy. The stock battery is puny. You'll also need to buy class-6 (fast) SDHC cards to get the full HD video quality. But the lower bit rate settings are still pretty good, and will work with slower cards, even though it gives a warning when you put one in the slot, which is located under the lcd screen.

It has a standard 1/4-20 tripod socket, but no locator pin hole so you can't use tripod plates with fixed locator pins. You have to remove the tripod plate to change batteries.

The camera can't be used for live video because it doesn't have firewire, only USB. If you want to use the camera connected to your computer via USB instead of a card reader, it MUST be plugged into the ac power supply - so you're in trouble if you're in the field and forgot your card reader.


The handling of this camera is too awkward for news use unless you have more patience than I.

If you've got an Intel Mac and Final Cut Studio 2 and LOTS of disk space, this is a cool little camera. You could put together a tiny travel kit with a macbook pro and a small mic kit and a tabletop tripod that would all fit in a laptop bag.

Just make sure you can edit the files with your computer.

(In the video review, the audio is from the HF10: wide shots using the built-in mics; long shots using an Audio Technica ATR35s wired lavalier mic, which costs all of $25. Video of the Vixia was shot with a Canon XHA1. Still pictures from a Canon S3is.)