As the top model in Canon's MiniDV line this year, you shouldn't expect earth-shattering improvements from the ZR850 over last year's models. After all, manufacturers seem to be putting more resources into DVD and hard drive-based models. The overall design keeps what we referred to last year as the "palm-friendly design," and again bumps the optical zoom up a bit, this time from 25x to 35x. As we've come to expect from Canon, the ZR850 delivers admirable color reproduction in good lighting, but it can't keep up with the competition when it comes to low light.
One noteworthy improvement over last year's ZR700 is this model's sensor, which has been bumped up to a 1-megapixel CCD, instead of 680K pixels. This makes for slightly better still images, though they're still not near what you'd get from a dedicated still camera. One noteworthy omission compared with the ZR700 is the ZR850's lack of an analog-to-digital converter. If you're looking for a way to convert analog video to digital, you'll have to look elsewhere.
We like the layout of the controls on this year's ZR models. All controls are within reach of your thumb or fingers either on the right side or on the bezel of the 2.7-inch wide-screen display on the left side. This is much better than designs that put important buttons on the left side of the body behind the screen, where you can't readily see them. Plus, Canon redesigned the menu system, so that it's more like the one on its digital still cameras. When you press the function button, a list of options appears on the left side of the LCD, and the choices for each of those options appear in a strip along the bottom of the screen. Last year's ZR700 had four buttons below its LCD screen, but the ZR850 only has two, Function and Digital Effects. Canon now makes you delve into the menus to switch between wide-screen and 4:3 recording modes, or to turn the camera's rather low power video light on or off. The lack of an accessory shoe or microphone input is annoying, but that's also typical of camcorders in this price range.
Canon's Easy mode lets you shoot on autopilot and does a nice job making decisions for you. Program mode gives you a choice of eight autoexposure presets, four white balance settings (including evaluative), three image effects, and a handful of digital effects. You have to dig one layer deep, into the setup menu to choose one of the six shutter speeds, adjust zoom speed, switch between 16:9 and 4:3 recording, or turn on or off the digital zoom, the automatic slow shutter, or the electronic image stabilization. Our one gripe about the setup menus is that they don't scroll, and as such when you reach the top, you can't wrap to the bottom by pressing up again. Since the option to exit is at the bottom, this becomes even more frustrating.
In Still mode you can capture JPEG images at a pixel resolution of up to 1,152x864. You still have access to the same autoexposure, white balance, and image effect modes, though your shutter speed options are limited to 1/60, 1/100, 1/250, or auto. That's more than you see in some camcorders, as is this Canon's nine-point autofocus system. The stills we captured were better than we see from many camcorders, with fairly accurate colors, but they don't approach what you can get from a decent dedicated still camera.
Video was much better. With ample lighting, colors were very accurate and vibrant, and footage was sharp with responsive and quick focus. Once the lighting dims a bit, that starts to change. In normal mode, we saw a fair amount of noise when shooting indoors with low ambient light. Night mode didn't help much. Even with a tripod, the ZR850 had a very difficult time achieving focus. However, it's worth noting that, while very slow, the ZR850 was able to focus eventually in night mode, even in situations where the ZR830 and ZR800 refused to focus. As has become almost standard in less-expensive camcorders, the electronic image stabilization can't handle this camcorder's maximum zoom. We found that it was only effective to about 75 percent of the zoom range.
Despite our gripes, the ZR850 is a very capable camcorder for anyone looking for a tape-based, general purpose, or relaxed vacation camera. If you're thinking about stepping down in Canon's line to the ZR830 or the ZR800, you should note that both of those models use 680K sensors, which typically show a noticeable drop off in video quality compared to a 1-megapixel sensor, such as the one in the ZR850.