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 Xi is bottom-loading, so you'll have to remove it from a tripod to swap MiniDV cassettes--a time-waster during long meetings, training sessions, and so on.
The standard-size Xi offers a comfortable grip, and the camcorder's 1.8-pound weight makes for a solid feel that promotes steady shooting. The intelligently placed controls are easily accessible and intuitive. Ports are just as handily positioned, and their covers match up exactly. The camera's fittings and moving parts bespeak precision manufacture and well-executed construction--qualities we've come to expect from the Optura line. The Xi will be a fine traveling companion if you don't mind carrying a small camera bag.
Thanks to its 2-megapixel CCD, the Xi snaps better still images than most of its competition. They'll look fine in about 5x7 or smaller prints, and you can send photos directly from the camera to a PictBridge-enabled printer.
The Xi offers three modes for shooting in dim conditions: Low Light, Night, and Super Night. Each increases brightness and color saturation by decreasing shutter speed, which results in blurred motion and trailing bright spots. Super Night combines the Night shutter speed with white light from an LED that Canon installed just below the lens. The additional illumination is a nice touch, but in the dark, most subjects flinch when the highly directional beam shines into their faces. Also, it would be nice if you could activate the light in other modes, such as Low Light and standard Auto.
The Xi's shutter- and aperture-priority modes, intended primarily for use with still captures, are of limited value when you're shooting video. We'd like to see a fully manual mode offering complete control over shutter, aperture, and gain. On the upside, the lens-mounted focus ring teams with the 3.5-inch viewfinder to make manual focusing quite comfortable. Finally, the Xi provides two features rare in this price range: lines called zebra stripes appear on the display to indicate a scene's overexposed areas, and (as with the Optura 300) you can set audio levels manually.
We tested the battery with the LCD enabled. We'd hoped for a 60-minute life span (the length of a typical tape), but the Xi lost it after 50 minutes.
We particularly like the Xi's zoom control. Achieving a dramatic slow zoom is surprisingly easy. Most camcorders in this class stall or speed up, but the Optura maintained a smooth progression.
You flip a panel out from the camera body to see the color LCD. Its 246,000-pixel screen is accurate and easy to view.
The camcorder's autofocus performs acceptably, responding relatively quickly and decisively. However, it tends to spasm more often than we'd like in difficult situations.
The Xi's image stabilization is optical, while the 300's is electronic, and in general, the newer model's is superior. But the difference is slight, and it may be due in part to the Xi's added heft, which tends to steady your hand a bit.
Despite their different lenses, the Xi and the 300 produce very similar images. Both models employ an RGB color filter, so they generate more-saturated colors than a typical camcorder. Compared with their Sony competitors, these Opturas display less noise, especially in dim environments.
This video frame shows the camcorder's tendency to generate soft pictures. Plus, you can see the solid-color squares bleeding into one another.
The Xi's videos are noticeably soft, with more smearing artifacts than we normally see. White balance tends to be on the warm side but is neutral enough. As for snapshots, the Xi delivers acceptable quality in moderately dim conditions, such as the low light of some restaurants. Colors come out muted, but the absence of excessive noise indicates a clean gain signal.
Still photos look quite pleasing. The colors are nicely sharp and more saturated than those of many other camcorders--almost unnaturally saturated.