Tiny video cameras that record to flash memory cards are cute, but their lack of power, low image quality, and limited storage capacity mean they’re really just expensive toys. For quality video recordings of any substantial length, you need to use miniDV tape. Canon’s ZR-90 is a good choice, with an excellent balance of portability and power. It’s nearly as small as a digital video camcorder can get without jettisoning the tape entirely, yet it boasts many of the features of larger, higher-end camcorders.
At just over a pound, this petite video cam is easy to hold and control with one hand. The ZR-90’s gray and silver case isn’t much to look at, but its size alone will attract plenty of attention. We’re not going to lie to you and say you can fit it in a jacket pocket, but you could easily hide it inside a lunch bag with room left over for a sandwich and an apple. More practically, its light weight means you can hold it with one hand throughout long shots without fatigue.
The ZR-90 boots up in just three seconds. The foldout LCD, at 2.4 inches, is small, but it’s sufficiently clear and bright. You can also peer into the flip-up eyepiece just as with video cameras of yore, but you’re unlikely to enjoy the experience much; it’s useful primarily when bright sunlight washes out the LCD or when you want to conserve battery life. Using the LCD, we got an hour and 10 minutes of recording time on the standard battery.
To achieve the ZR-90’s small size, Canon has dropped some of the user-friendly controls found on its higher-end cameras, such as a recording-mode selection dial and a manual-focus ring. Instead, the ZR-90 makes you use menus for most settings, including exposure, white balance, and special effects. The ZR-90 includes preset modes for sports, portraits, spotlights, and low light. For the most part these modes work well, although the fully automatic “easy recording” mode delivers excellent video in almost every situation.
The ZR-90’s low-light setting does wonders at pulling detail and color out of dimly lit scenes, but at a price: Moving objects look blurry and jerky. A special night-mode button illuminates a miniature headlight on the camera’s front, which can help if you’re shooting nearby subjects in deep darkness.
The ZR-90 includes an SD slot and can capture still images at up to 1,024 x 768-pixel resolution as well as 320 x 240-pixel, 15 fps AVI movies. If you’re recording to tape, you can simultaneously snap 640 x 480-pixel stills to the SD card, but you first have to turn the function on in the camera’s settings — inexplicably, this feature is not enabled by default. When shooting still images, shutter lag is 0.8 seconds, or just 0.3 seconds if you’re simultaneously recording video. It takes the ZR-90 two to three seconds to recover between shots.
The ZR-90 includes a USB port and a Digital Video (FireWire) port for connecting to your PC, as well as software for transferring and editing still images. With a DV cable (not included), you can also use the ZR-90 as a webcam. However, you can’t transfer video from the tape to your computer unless you get additional software. (There is one unsatisfying workaround: You can use the ZR-90 to copy video from the tape to an AVI file on the SD card, then upload this file to your computer via USB — but you’ll need an extremely expensive high-capacity SD card, and you will lose image quality.) That’s a disappointing oversight in a camcorder that is otherwise so well connected.
The ZR-90’s sibling, the $499 ZR-85, has 20x optical zoom and lacks the night-mode headlight; the $399 ZR-80 lacks an SD card slot and the night-mode headlight and has just 18x optical zoom. With its strong complement of features, light weight, and low price, the ZR-90 handily earns our Mobile Choice rating. -Dylan Tweney
Best Feature: Miniature size and price
Worst Feature: Can’t transfer video directly to your computer
Weight: 1.3 pounds
Size: 5.7 x 3.7 x 2.5 inches
Specs: 0.3-megapixel video recording to miniDV tape; 0.7-megapixel still image capture; 22x optical zoom; SD slot (8MB card included); USB; FireWire; S-video; lithium-ion battery
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Link: Canon ZR-90
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