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.The Canon Optura 500's basic layout hasn't changed much from that of the Optura 300, with which this reviewer was quite smitten. The upright, vertical layout fits a hand nicely, and controls fall into place for comfortable fingertip access. The body is landscaped nicely; ports are well placed and easy to access, and they don't feel crammed in. Likewise, many commonly sought controls, such as manual focus, exposure shift, Night mode, and the video light are found directly on the body rather than buried in the menu system. Its dimensions and weight are largely similar to the Optura 300's, and as such, it shares with its predecessor the ability to travel easily without giving you that lugging-a-brick feeling.
The camera sits comfortably in the hand, with a rotating adjustable grip belt that gives plenty of purchase to even those of us with bigger mitts. Controls line up with your fingers, and the zoom slide is fairly easily coerced into providing a slow and steady zoom throughout the length of the lens--hard to achieve on some pressure-sensitive zoom controls.
We'd still love to see a manual focus ring on the lens, but in fairness, manual focus using the set dial isn't so bad once you get the hang of it. Because it's a bottom loader, the camera must be removed from a tripod before switching tapes--a minor issue, as this little number's primary desire is to be cradled in your palm and carried on your person.The Canon Optura 500's built-in white LED gives a visible boost when filming in low light, and we love the fact that you can now turn it on whenever you want, even when not in Night mode. Unfortunately, the LED is so bright and directional that most people will groan and throw their hands in front of their faces if you aim it at them in a low-light setting. The removable ring-light adapter, which diffuses the LED and spreads the light into a softer emitting ring around the lens, is a sound attempt at solving this problem and much less bothersome to your human subjects. Of course, it also cuts down on the light's throw, so you must also get closer to your subjects. The removable adapter is another item to carry in your pocket and potentially lose; we'd love to see it integrated into the body.
The 2-megapixel chip produces high-quality prints. Using the top resolution (1,632x1,224) and compression setting, you can print up to 5x7 inches at a reasonable quality. There is a built-in neutral density filter that you can choose to enable in the menu for photo mode only, which kicks in when shooting stills in very bright situations. Recording video to the memory card remains something of a novelty, creating rough AVI clips using a Microsoft-specific version of the MPEG-4 codec that is difficult to play back on a Macintosh computer.
The Optura 500, like the 300, is still largely automated, with no aperture- or shutter-priority modes, no manual gain control, and no zebra stripes to indicate areas in the image where exposure has peaked to total white. We're happy to see external mic and headphone jacks, as well as an optional manual audio-level control, the three of which boost your audio-capture capability nearer to the prosumer level. We'd love the inclusion of an accessory shoe, allowing more-serious users to mount a small shotgun mic, but you can get an optional attachment from Canon.Canon blesses the Optura 500 with a 211,000-pixel, 2.5-inch, flip-out LCD, up from 123,000 pixels in the 400. The added resolution makes the unit a pleasure to shoot and helps ensure proper focus. We find the 500 a delight to operate, packing a lot of camera into a size that's not burdensome when you're on the go.