Beneath your right fingertips, you'll find the usual zoom rocker and a photo button for capturing snapshots. However, the latter doesn't function unless you slide a switch--also right-finger accessible--from camera mode to memory card mode. That also diverts you from MiniDV video recording to card-based Motion JPEG capture. Thankfully, the LCD clearly reads Tape Mode or Card Mode to help prevent confusion.
Other right-side elements include a standard mode dial (Play, Off, Camera) and, at the opposite end, interface ports beneath a rubber cover: A/V, FireWire, and USB but no S-Video, as on last year's ZR90. Alas, you won't find a side-loading tape compartment; the ZR300 loads from the bottom, a not-uncommon design disappointment that's sure to frustrate tripod users.
The 2.4-inch, 112,000-pixel LCD swings out from the left and is easier to open than the one on last year's ZR90, which has an annoying separate release switch. Folding out the screen reveals five function buttons, some of them with rather confusing labels. For instance, the AE Shift/End Search and Card Mix/Rec Pause/Slide Show buttons are sure to send users to the instruction manual, though LCD Backlight and Digital Effects On/Off are fairly self-explanatory.
We had an easier time mastering the rest of the ZR300's controls, which include large, clearly marked Focus and Night Mode buttons just above the LCD compartment. The combination of a Menu button and a jog/select dial makes for easy navigation of the camera's onscreen menus. The dial also controls manual focus, although it's obviously nowhere near as precise as a focus ring would be. A nearby switch toggles between Easy and Program modes.
Canon's lithium-ion battery snaps onto the rear of the camcorder below the viewfinder, which, unlike the ones on previous ZR models, pulls out straight but doesn't tilt up. The Canon ZR300 is a step below the top of Canon's affordable ZR camcorder line. Above it, the ZR400 offers a larger CCD and a few additional features. While the ZR300's specs--340,000 pixels for video and 450,000 pixels for photos--are fine for home and vacation videography, consider spending another $50 on the ZR400, which effectively doubles those numbers.
On the other hand, the ZR300 offers at least one enticing feature not found in the ZR400: a 22X optical zoom (the ZR400's tops out at 14X, while Sony's similarly priced DCR-HC42 manages just 12X). We particularly appreciate the inclusion of Canon's 0.6X Wide Angle Attachment, which screws onto the lens for wide-angle shooting. The ZR300 also caters to wide-screen shooting with true 16:9 recording, meaning it uses the full width of the sensor, with no squeezing or interpolating. This stands in contrast to camcorders that simply impose letterboxing bars over the top and bottom of the screen.
Other features include electronic image stabilization; a backlight for the LCD, which makes for slightly easier outdoor viewing; seven autoexposure modes, including Sports, Portrait, and Sand & Snow; and a white LED for low-light shooting. Novices will appreciate the presence of Easy mode, which automatically controls focus, exposure, and other settings. Flipping a switch to Program mode gains you access to manually adjustable shutter speeds (1/60 to 1/2,000), white-balance settings, and the usual smattering of transitions and digital effects.
One complaint: the ZR300's three night modes--Night, Night+, and SuperNight--aren't particularly intuitive. You'll have to memorize which one adjusts shutter speed, which one automatically controls the LED, and which one lets you control the LED manually. And it's too bad you can't use the dedicated Night Mode button to toggle between the three modes; instead, you have to delve into the menus to choose which one the button should activate.
Although the ZR300 can capture minimovies to an SD/MMC card in Motion JPEG format, the maximum resolution of 320x240 limits their usefulness. Similarly, the camcorder's support for PictBridge and EXIF Print 2.2 seems rather pointless, given the submegapixel photo resolution--but it's there if you want it.
The ZR300 comes with a corded lens cap, an 8MB SD card (which has room for just 13 photos snapped at 1,024x768 in Superfine mode), USB and A/V cables, a wireless remote, and manuals for both the camera and Canon's bundled software. The software comprises only photo-specific programs, including Canon's familiar ZoomBrowser EX, PhotoRecord, and PhotoStitch for Windows, as well as ImageBrowser and PhotoStitch for Macintosh--there's nothing for video capture or editing. That's a minor letdown, given the ZR300's analog-to-digital converter, which enables the camcorder to record video from, say, a VCR. You'll have to supply the software to download that video to your PC for editing or DVD burning.
A bigger letdown is the lack of a microphone input or an accessory shoe. Although you can dub audio from external sources such as a CD player, the ZR300's A/V port works only when plugged into RCA sources using the included cable.
Canon also neglected to include a separate battery charger. To charge the battery, you have to plug the AC adapter directly into the camera. That means that if you buy an extra battery so that you can charge one while shooting with the other, you'll have to pick up a charger too. We were impressed with the overall performance of the Canon ZR300, which should more than adequately handle the needs of family moviemakers. Its LCD looks sharp and bright except under direct sunlight, at which point even the backlight offers little help. We found the zoom controls relatively quick and responsive, though zoom speed seemed faster when we were in standby mode than when we were actually shooting. The ZR300 definitely isn't the fastest at focusing, whether it's doing so manually or automatically, but again, for home movies and the like, it's passable.
On the other hand, it was surprisingly quick at automatically adjusting white balance when we moved from a dimly lit indoor environment to a sunny outdoor one and adequately quick at adjusting exposure. Canon's electronic image stabilizer did a decent job with high-zoom recording--much better than we could manage trying to hold the camera steady ourselves--but it's not the best we've seen.
The camcorder's stereo microphone, mounted just below the lens, did a good job recording sound both in front of and behind the camera but, by the same token, managed to avoid picking up noise from the zoom and tape mechanisms. As we note in Features, there's no way to connect an external microphone to the ZR300, so if you want more directional audio recording, you're out of luck.
As for battery life, the ZR300 went the distance, lasting longer than a 60-minute tape. We were able to operate the camcorder--everything from recording video to rewinding and viewing portions of a tape--for almost 1 hour, 20 minutes before the battery gave out. That's quite good, though obviously spare cells are a must for the vacation-bound. Under optimal lighting, the camera captures sharp, vibrant images with warm colors. In low-light conditions, however, don't expect quite the same results. While Canon has made an improvement over the low-light performance of last year's ZR90, and this camera's various night modes help make for brighter images, the ZR300 exhibited a distracting amount of noise in dim conditions. What's more, a tripod is a must if you use the slow-shutter Night mode; even if you're not panning, movies become blurry and jerky with just the slightest movement. The lack of an accessory shoe means you can't add an extra light source, either.
As for still photos, our general feeling is don't bother. Although the Canon ZR300 managed to reproduce colors pretty well, our sample photos appeared grainy and slightly washed out, with brightly lit areas overexposed. The same goes for the 320x240-pixel Motion JPEG movies, which consistently looked jerky and sounded terrible.