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Canon Vixia HF M50 Review
The Canon Vixia HF M50 is a capable digital camcorder, offering a variety of useful features, built-in storage, and great looking video, but it’s hard to justify the price when compared with some of the better digital cameras out there.
(3.5 out of 5)
- Comfortable to use
- Solid video quality, even in low light
- Effective image stabilization
- Built-in flash memory
- Wi-Fi connectivity.
- Somewhat limited focal range
- Cumbersome touch controls.
In a time when most high-end smartphones and point-and-shoot cameras can capture HD video, the consumer camcorder lies in a precarious position. The Canon Vixia HF M50 ($649.99 direct) represents the company’s midrange model, offering a variety of useful features, like Wi-Fi and built-in flash memory, and high-quality video, all in a compact and familiar form-factor. However, the question remains: Who is this camcorder meant for and is it worth the rather steep asking price?
Design and Features
One of the advantages of a dedicated camcorder over a smartphone or digital camera is the comfortable form factor. The M50 is a perfect cylinder, measuring 2.5 by 2.7 by 4.8 inches (HWD) and weighing 10.9 ounces. It’s neither too big nor too small, and fits nicely into the palm of the hand. A typical point and shoot, like our Editors’ Choice Canon PowerShot S100 ($429.99, 4.5 stars), weighs around 5 to 7 ounces, making it a bit more difficult to hold steady when recording.
The body is constructed from glossy and matte black plastics, with some metal highlights and elements. The Record button sits to the right of the removable, rechargeable battery, and is easily accessible by thumb. The zoom rocker is positioned on top, in front of the mini advanced accessory shoe. To the left of the zoom rocker is the power button, and in the recess behind the LCD are Home, Video Snap (to take a quick 4-second video), and Playback buttons. Below those buttons are a mini USB and mini HDMI port, as well as a 3.5mm headphone jack and 3.5mm mic jack. Below the hand strap is a single card slot that accepts SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards. The M50 comes with 8GB of built-in memory.
The 3-inch LCD is touch enabled, and all the controls can be accessed through a series of touch menus. The 230k-dot screen resolution is too grainy to appreciate the HD video being captured, and it was a bit dim in bright sunlight. Touch input is decent, though it’s difficult to be precise with some of the smaller virtual buttons—for example, setting up Wi-Fi is a pain due to the cramped virtual keyboard. The built-in Wi-Fi is a nice touch, though, as you can wirelessly transfer video from the camcorder to your computer or to YouTube and Facebook through a free app for iOS devices. The lack of physical controls makes it a bit cumbersome to make advanced changes to exposure, white balance, or focus.
Canon equipped the M50 with a 1/3-inch HD CMOS Pro sensor with a 10x optical zoom lens that covers a 43.4-436mm focal length (35mm equivalent). The “Pro” tag denotes greater low light performance, with an f/1.8 aperture at its widest point, which narrows down to f/3 when zoomed all the way in. The lower-end Vixia HF R300 ($349.99, 3.5 stars) packs a 32x optical zoom factor, with a 38.5-1,232mm focal length (35mm equivalent), but uses a 1/4.85-inch CMOS sensor. The larger sensor on the M50 means larger pixels, which equates to better low light performance. The R300 is a bit more versatile, both at its widest and most zoomed in, but the low light performance is vastly superior with the M50.
There are a number of recording modes, with the highest quality set at 24Mbps and full HD video in MXP mode. It’s not true progressive video, but rather uses 60 interlaced fields per second that are then encoded to 30 frames per second. There is a Cinema Mode that artificially makes the video appear to move at 24 frames per second, the standard for film projects, but it still isn’t truly progressive. At its highest setting, video is recorded in AVCHD, while lower quality clips can be saved as MP4s, but those are limited to 30 minutes each.
For most, the full Auto mode should suffice, as navigating the touch screen menus and adjusting settings is not especially intuitive or precise. In my tests, the autofocus was accurate, but it had some trouble keeping a lock on objects when fully zoomed in, switching focus to the background intermittently. Auto white balance and exposure were surprisingly fast and accurate, though panning across a room with varied lighting caused very noticeable shifts in color—though that’s pretty typical with Auto modes. The M50 has a Powered Image Stabilization mode and a Dynamic auto mode. Both worked well, though I would keep it in Powered mode if you’re planning on using the zoom extensively. One minor gripe: When at its telephoto reach, the image stabilization gave the video a bit of a dreamy wobble effect, reminiscent of HDTVs with high refresh rates.
Video looked sharp in MXP mode, with the M50 capturing fine details and textures at both its widest angle and telephoto reach. Image noise is kept to a minimum, and even in low-light settings, the quality was good. Dynamic range was acceptable, though the dark spots of shadows were a bit too dark, losing too much detail, while bright spots remained properly exposed. The lower-priced R300 was able to capture comparably sharp video, though its low-light performance lagged behind the M50. Color accuracy was also a bit more problematic on the R300, as colors tended to appear cooler than in real life.
Audio quality was decent, though not entirely impressive. The microphone picked up voices loud and clear from reasonable distances, but was also prone to wind interference. Luckily, there are microphone and headphone jacks for better audio quality and more precise monitoring.
Many people will consider their smartphones or point-and-shoots to be capable replacements for a standalone camcorder. When compared with our Editors’ Choice high-end point-and-shoot, the Canon PowerShot S100, the M50 is in the same realm on sharpness, but the real advantage with the M50 is smoother looking video in moving shots. The S100′s video is choppier through movements, even slow pans, and the auto-exposure can cause instances of overexposure that appear as quick flashes. That same choppiness plagues smartphone and tablet video, while neither of those is really suited for anything but ideal lighting situations. In terms of still photos, the M50 can capture JPEG images, but at 2-megapixel resolution, the quality is mediocre. The S100 pumps out beautiful photos, and smartphone cameras are starting to take great stills too.
The Canon Vixia HF M50 captures pleasantly crisp, fluid video in a variety of lighting situations, with an easy-to-use and accurate fully automatic mode. Extras like built-in flash memory and Wi-Fi connectivity sweeten the deal, but the $649.99 price tag is a bit steep when you consider that good compact interchangeable lens cameras can be had for the same price. The lower priced Vixia HF R300 can capture similarly good-looking video, but suffers a bit in terms of lighting range. The R300 does, however, have the advantage of a wider angle lens and 32x optical zoom. With such a compact body, some sacrifices in manual controls had to be made. Luckily, the fully automatic mode is fast and accurate, though more advanced shooters may find the touch-screen navigation too cumbersome and imprecise. An interchangeable lens digital camera like our Editors’ Choice Sony Alpha NEX-C3 ($649.99, 4.5 stars) takes some truly stunning still images, but its video capture tops out at 720p. If you plan on playing your home movies or video projects on large HDTVs it might make sense to pony up the extra cash for a dedicated camcorder. However, unless the familiar camcorder form factor is a must-have, a solid digital camera like the NEX-C3 or the Olympus PEN E-PM1 ($499.99, 4 stars) are more versatile.
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By Eugene Kim, PCMag