Hands On: Canon's Vixia HF S11 Dual Flash Memory Camcorder
Ever since consumer camcorders became high-def capable, professional video makers have been casting a jealous eye on the category's extra portability and lower price tag. They wondered when the equipment would be good enough to do most of the job of their larger video cameras. With Canon's introduction of the Vixia HF S11 Dual Flash Memory Camcorder, the pros may finally be ready to pounce. At the same time the camera offers plenty of features designed to appeal to the most demanding home video enthusiast.
Having taken the Vixia HF S11 for a spin and scrutinized the results on a full HD TV, I was impressed both by how the camera handled on the street and the resulting picture quality. Unlike low-end "high-def" home camcorders that top out at 720p or scrimp on the horizontal resolution, frame rate, bit rate, or all of the above and provide no optical zoom, the HF S11 can record video at the full HD resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels at a breathtaking 24 megabits per seconds (Mbps). It does so through a Genuine Canon HD Video Lens with 10x optical zoom.
Canon calls its highest quality recording option MXP mode, but if you want to squeeze even more high-def video into the camera's memory, you can step down to FXP mode, which captures 17 Mbps at 1440 x 1080 pixels. Given the camera's 64 Gigabytes (GB) of built-in memory, MXP affords 5 hours and 55 minutes of video; FXP, 8 hours and 20 minutes. But there's also an SD/SDHC memory card slot – hence the "Dual Flash Memory" name. Insert a 32 GB memory card, and you can get nearly 3 hours of added recording time in MXP mode or more than 4 hours in FXP mode.
The camera employs the AVCHD specification in which the video signal is recorded using MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 compression and the audio signal is recorded in Dolby Digital. One benefit is that that you'll be able to transfer high-def video to your computer and burn scenes to standard DVD-R discs for use with an AVCHD-compatible Blu-ray Disc player. You can also create AVCHD discs directly from the camera using Canon's DW-100 DVD Burner (left).
Despite a variety of auto settings, the HF S11 allows for plenty of manual control. What makes manual operation so natural is the inclusion of a custom dial under the lens that lets the videographer adjust for one of such frequently used functions as focus, exposure, audio recording level, and the limit for automatic gain control. Independent film makers may opt for the cinematic look of Cine Mode in which recordings are made at 24 frames per second.
Videographers usually avoid home-oriented camcorders because the equipment can't accept pro accessories. Not so with the HF S11. In addition to sporting an external mic jack and a headphone jack (which is also used for A/V output), the camera is topped by Canon's Mini Advanced Accessory Shoe. The shoe accepts optional mics, lights, and the RA-V1 remote control adapter for adding a LANC terminal.
Anyone who just missed a shot should appreciate the HF S11's pre-recording function. This enables you to set the camera to record video continuously into a temporary 3-second memory buffer. When you press the Start/Stop button, the scene will contain the three seconds before you started shooting. The main caveat is the camera must at least be pointed at the subject. Pre-recording is especially useful for nature shots or your kid fielding a play.
Another feature I came to value was face detection. When the function is turned on, the camcorder automatically detects people's faces and uses the information to adjust the focus and set the best exposure for videos and photos. If more than one person is in the picture, you can move the white detection rectangle over a particular face in order to select that person as the main subject. This pays off especially upon viewing footage from a birthday party.
Face detection is deployed by the HF S11 in another context. In finding a scene among your recordings, the camera can search by calendar screen, date selection, or scenes with faces. Curiously, when I used that last criterion, the camera failed to distinguish between human and non-human mugs. Hence, the thumbnails of scenes showing jockeys from scenes I recorded in front of the 21 Club in Manhattan. (A full-size photo that I captured from the video at 1920 x 1080 pixels appears below.)
I had fun with the video snapshot function, which lets you shoot live video limited to 4 seconds or clips of the same length that you capture from longer recordings on playback. (A blue border frames the camera's LCD while the function is active.) You then arrange the video clips into a set that plays to background music stored in the camera. So, for example, after shooting scenes from a block of skyscrapers along West 52nd Street (bookended by "Swing Street" signs acknowledging the jazz clubs that once dominated the block), I strung together clips juxtaposing the block's modern architecture with its one remaining vestige, the 21 Club, set to ragtime from the early 20th Century – music supplied by Canon.
Those who use the HF S11 as an 8 Megapixel still camera will be pleased with the results. (I shot the partially-shaded pumpkins below from a vantage point across the street using the camera's auto exposure and focus settings.) The lens outperforms the optics in most point-and-shoot cameras. There's a popup electronic flash (in addition to a video light) and there's a hybrid shooting mode in which you can take photos while recording video. With the camera's sumptuous internal memory, you can store thousands of high-res photos without fumbling for a memory card.
One capability the HF S11 doesn't have that I wish it did would be to save photos or videos simultaneously to internal and card memory. That way you'd have automatic backup or the ability to hand off a copy to someone else without first having to make a copy. In the meantime, it's still an impressive instrument.
All told, the Vixia HF S11 Dual Flash Memory Camcorder isn't just about dual flash memory. It's also about dual end-user appeal. It's for independent videographers who appreciate the quality optics, manual overrides, flexibility in adding external accessories, and ability to record at 24 Mbps – the highest bit rate in the AVCHD format. But it's also for video enthusiasts everywhere who crave the camcorder's auto assistance while chronicling family outings at a resolution that does justice to their full HD TV sets at home.