July 14th was an awful day to launch a digital camcorder. Just ask Canon. It announced the Vixia HF M32 on the same day Sony rocked the imaging world with the NEX-VG10, the first consumer-class interchangeable lens camcorder.
While Canon reps won't admit this is the case, I'm sure had they known what Sony was planning, they would have pushed the Vixia unveiling up a couple days.
For Canon, it's a shame, too. Reviewers and consumers have been very warm to the Vixia line because it offers great picture quality and simple operation at a reasonable price. In fact, the TechnologyGuide sites have two Vixia units in house for on-the-fly shooting at tradeshows and events.
Since July, the VG10 smoke has cleared and the HF M32 was on proud display at Canon Expo 2010, allowing DCR to get a chance to try out the latest addition to the Vixia line.
A Modest Update
As the Canon reps explained to me, the HF M32 is a mid-range model that is a straight addition to the Vixia line; and a modest update too, adding SDXC card compatibility. It includes 64GB built-in Flash memory, a 2.7-inch touch screen, "Touch and Track" focus tracking, and "Powered IS" optical image stabilization.
There is nothing particularly exciting about the updates, as similar features have been available on other competing devices. But Canon is known for performance and video quality, not features. Besides, I'm sure Canon is saving their big Vixia line refresh for CES, where last year they unveiled nine new models.
On the design side, Canon didn't deviate much from the standard Vixia look and feel. The HF M32 is compact and extremely light. Canon swapped the silver metallic body of the previous models for a sleeker black plastic and rounded a few of the edges to boot.
Testing the Focus and Stabilizer
Canon provided an array of shooting situations for attendees to test the new Vixia model. In a New York-themed area, Canon set up an ice-skating rink patterned after the famed rink at 30 Rockefeller Center. Users were encouraged to try focus tracking by following the figure skaters hired for the event.
The feature is activated with a simple tap of the subject on the screen. However, 2.7 inches is a bit cramped for a display (something I've complained about in past reviews), and the Canon touch screens require a hardy press. It took a few tries, but eventually I got it right and had "Touch and Track" maintaining focus on a particular figure skater. And even when she briefly skated out of frame, the feature picked her back up when she came back into the shot.
More impressive than the Touch and Track focus was the Power IS image stabilization system. To demonstrate, Canon set up multilevel platforms atop hydraulics in the form of a boat. A living statue portraying the Lady Liberty stood off in on corner of the room and attendees were encouraged to film the model at full zoom while the platforms shifted up and down.
Without image stabilization, the situation would create earthquake footage at best, but the Powered IS did a phenomenal job at keeping the shot smooth and steady, despite the floor's movement. I'm tempted to say it's the best image stabilizer I've seen on a consumer level camcorder, but I'll wait until I have more time with the Vixia line before making any bold claims.
Less Expensive Options
With an MSRP hovering close to $1000, the HF M32 is an expensive mid-range camcorder. Ultimately, the consumer is paying for the 64GB of internal storage. I'm a big believer in spending less and getting less memory as I have countless SD cards lying around. Besides, it's never a good idea to keep all your footage on one drive. Should you ever lose the camera of the drive fail, you are out of luck.
With that in mind, Canon also offers the 32GB HF M31 for $800, HF M30 with 8GB of memory, priced $700, and the SD-only HF M300 for $680. Unlike the HF M32, these units are not SDXC compatible, but they should all output the same video quality as Canon's newest model.