Have you ever wanted to snap a still photo right in the middle of some event you’re videotaping? Neither have we — but clearly someone does. How else to explain the Canon Optura Xi’s ability to snap low-res digital photos, storing them on an SD card, while at the same time recording video to tape? It’s one of those whiz-bang features that impresses trade-magazine reviewers but finds little application in real life.

The direct digital descendant of the earliest video cameras, Canon’s Optura Xi is neither the smallest digital camcorder we’ve tested, nor is it the most full-featured. But it strikes a good balance between high-end capabilities and ease of use, delivers excellent video quality, and offers a good selection of extra features for consumers and amateur videographers alike. Never mind that many of those features are silly things, such as adding cutesy borders to videos while you’re recording them, which you’re unlikely to use more than once.

The Optura Xi’s long, narrow body and foldout 3.4-inch LCD screen hew closely to classic camcorder lines. Although the Canon is much smaller than its analog ancestors, it is big by current digital standards. Its lens offers 11x optical zoom and optical image stabilization; it’ll give you another 200x magnification through digital zoom, although the image gets extremely grainy at high digital zoom levels. At less than 2 pounds, it’s easy to hold in your right hand, and the designers have given careful attention to the placement of the most important buttons, making them easy to reach with the same hand: Your right thumb activates the record button, while your right index finger can reach up to work the zoom switch and press the photo shutter button.

Other controls are located on the left side of the camera body, including a dial that lets you select from eight different automated recording modes, each one optimized for a different lighting condition; an audio level dial; and a collection of standard playback control buttons. The Optura Xi includes a manual-focus ring around the lens — a nice, traditionalist touch. A button to switch between automatic and manual focus rests just behind the focusing ring.

The Optura Xi also includes a number of higher-end features buried within its menu system, such as zebra striping to indicate areas of overexposure, a variety of digital effects and scene transitions, and manual audio gain control. Recorded videos looked first-rate in almost all conditions, although the “night” and “super night” settings, designed for extremely low lighting levels, produced pixelated and jerky video in our tests. These modes are suitable only for unlit nighttime scenes without much movement. In other modes, the camera intelligently adjusts to varying light and focuses reasonably quickly.

Still photos are another matter, however. The Optura Xi’s 2 megapixel CCD produces images up to 1,632 x 1,224 pixels — a lower resolution than a midrange digital camera offers, but sufficient for 4 x 6-inch prints. In our tests, still images looked blurry, in part because the camera can take several seconds to focus accurately on its subject. Once focused, however, the images were clear and bright, and the pop-up flash provides welcome additional illumination. It’s not going to replace your digital still camera, but for catching shots that happen while you’ve got the video camera out, it works.

The Optura Xi records stills either to videotape or to an SD card, but if you’re snapping photos to the card while taping, the stills are limited to 640 x 480-pixel resolution. The included SD card is just 8MB, which will hold about five to 10 stills at the highest resolution or 50 to 80 at the lowest. Its battery lasted about an hour in our tests — just enough to fill up one 60-minute Mini-DV tape. (Canon sells a larger battery pack with twice the capacity for $70.)

Overall, the Optura Xi is a fine DV recorder with some appealing extras that will entice photographers and videophiles alike. Justifying its relatively steep $1,500 street price, however, is another matter. -Dylan Tweney

Canon Optura Xi
Weight: 1.9 pounds
Size: 7.9 x 3.5 x 3 inches
Specs: Mini-DV cassette and MPEG-4 video recording; 11x optical zoom; 2 megapixel CCD; SD card slot; FireWire, USB, and S-video outputs; flash for still photos

*** 1/2

Link: Canon Optura Xi

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