Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.Small enough to fit in a jacket pocket and weighing a little more than a pound, the Canon Optura 400's light weight and sleek vertical design make it an easy travel companion. The camcorder sports a variety of dedicated control buttons that provide instant access to common functions, and it makes relatively few compromises to achieve its compact size. Menu items are logically named, and the two-level menus are easy to navigate.
For the most part, the buttons and dials are intelligently placed, except for the zoom control and the photo-capture button, which sit very far forward on the camera, near the lens. While some people find this a very comfortable design, others may find it awkward, so definitely try this camcorder out before you buy. If you have small hands, you may end up holding the Optura 400 with two hands due to the difficulty of reaching the zoom control--ironic, given the camera's small size.
Canon plays up the Optura 400's still camera features, but the controls are clearly camcorder-focused. Most of the photo settings are either buried in menus or doubled up with the tape controls behind the LCD, making adjustments more cumbersome than with dedicated digital cameras. Manual focus is particularly awkward in both still and video modes, requiring use of the jog dial to adjust focus.
You'll need to remove the Optura 400 from a tripod to swap tapes, as the tape-access door is on the bottom of the camera.The Canon Optura 400 incorporates a 2-megapixel CCD; 1.2 megapixels get used for video (which is then downsampled to DV resolution) and 2 megapixels for still photos. The 10X optical zoom can reach 400X in digital zoom mode--but as is typical with digital zoom, the results are too blurry to be useful at maximum zoom. You can shoot video in both traditional 4:3 mode, as well as a wide-screen 16:9 letterbox format.
Despite its relatively small size, the Optura 400 doesn't sacrifice the features typically found on a camcorder in its price range. You'll find six preset shooting modes, manual exposure and white-balance settings, automatic and manual focus, and digital image stabilization. There are nine built-in fader/transition effects, nine digital effects, and multi-image screen capabilities, which create a mosaic from a sequence of still shots.
The Optura 400's night modes use a slow shutter speed in dark conditions. While this avoids the green tinge that afflicts the infrared mode used for night shooting on Sony's camcorders, the slow frame rate makes for jerky footage and blurry panning. There's also a bright LED assist lamp; it has a fairly short range but lets you shoot close objects in the dark with a better frame rate.
Still-image capture isn't an afterthought on the Optura 400. The camera captures 2-megapixel stills to SD cards; you can capture to tape as well. Though the resolution remains on the low side, the feature set is on a par with many low- to midrange still cameras, offering manual shutter-speed adjustments; a stitch-assist mode for panorama shots; and exposure presets for Sand, Snow, Sports, Spotlight, Portrait, and Low Light shots. There's a focus-assist light, as well as a flash with manual, automatic, and red-eye-reduction modes.