A healthy meal should ideally supply nutrition and taste good enough to make eating a pleasure, not a chore. Similarly, a camcorder needs to capture high-quality video and make getting that video as easy as possible. Anything else is gravy, or parsley, that extra something you don’t need that just sits on your plate. The Canon Vixia HF M32 is a very good camcorder and a pleasure to use, but it comes with a big, expensive sprig of parsley.
Superior video quality
The camera’s sharp 15x optical-zoom lens and small ¼-inch CMOS imaging sensor gather imagery that gets recorded as 1080-line, 60fps interlaced HD video. The HF M32 lacks true progressive recording, but provides a pulldown mode to record progressive-like 24fps or 30fps video onto its 60i stream. That’s a bit of a hack, but it’s a well-established hack and results in very usable footage. Still, I’d prefer a true progressive 24p mode. The camera compresses video to the AVCHD format at user-selectable data rates from 5Mbps to 24Mbps, the highest the format supports.
The end result is video that looks really nice. Images exhibit good color accuracy, but show a bit of noise. However, even shots with a lot of motion look pleasingly smooth and sharp, without the blurriness found in footage from some mid-range camcorders. The small imaging sensor probably contributes to the camera’s adequate, but not great low-light sensitivity. The built-in microphone does a very good job recording dialog and both soft and loud sounds.
The camera makes getting those high-quality images fairly easy. The Smart Auto feature will select one of 11 scene modes (Sports, Sunset, Underwater, for example) with settings the camera thinks best fit your subject and content. You can also select a mode yourself or manually adjust controls such white balance, gain, aperture, and shutter speed.
You access those controls through a nicely designed and implemented 2.7-inch touch panel LCD screen and menu system. A couple drawbacks: The screen’s small size complicates selecting menu items and adjusting settings. The glossy finish gets easily smudged and reflects glare, a bigger issue with camcorders than iPhones since framing a shot constrains the position of a camcorder screen. Still, the LCD touch panel is usable. That’s a good thing since the HF M32 doesn’t include a custom control dial as found on higher-end Canon camcorders such as the HF S10, HF S20, and HF S21; the LCD panel provides the only access to many controls.
The camera includes three image stabilization options: Standard, Dynamic, and Powered IS. Each is designed to compensate for different degrees of camera shake. All provided passable—neither fantastic nor terrible—smoothing of shaky camera work. The standard battery provides about an hour and 45 minutes of runtime, and several hours of standby time. Users looking for longer runtimes can purchase higher-capacity Canon battery packs. The camera provides 3.5mm headphone and microphone jacks, a nice feature not found on all mid-level camcorders. HDMI and USB ports provide HDTV and computer connectivity.
Bringing the AVCHD material into iMovie or Final Cut Pro requires a lengthy file conversion. Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 provides native support for AVCHD. But once in any of the applications, editing video from the HF M32 isn’t a problem.
The HF M32 includes practical still-image features. Maximum still resolution runs around 3.3 megapixels, but that’s native resolution, not interpolated. The camera includes expected features such as a self timer and red-eye reduction flash. It also includes less-common but really useful features such as exposure bracketing: The camera can automatically take three shots, each with different exposure levels; you later choose the best image. You can also capture stills while recording video. The camera’s very sharp photographs exhibit great exposure control and good color accuracy. The stills don’t equal those you’d get from a $200 dedicated still camera, but they are fully satisfactory.
The camera’s 64GB built-in flash memory holds nearly six hours of 24Mbps video, over eight hours of 17Mbps material, and up to 24 hours of material at the lowest 5Mbps data rate. This sounds good, but consider how much built-in memory you really need. The HF M32 includes a SDHC/SDXC card slot; a fast 32GB SDHC card costs less than $100 and holds about three hours of 24Mbps material. With 64GB of built-in memory, the HF M32 includes a lot of parsley.
Macworld’s buying advice
The Canon Vixia HF M32 sits between two tempting alternatives in Canon’s line of consumer camcorders. The HF M31, which costs $300 less, offers essentially the same features as the HF M32, but includes 32GB of built-in memory rather than 64GB, and drops SDXC card support (though it maintains SDHC support).
The Vixia HF S20 carries the same $1000 price as the HF M32, has a bigger sensor, includes 32GB built-in memory and two SDHC card slots, takes eight-megapixel stills, offers a native 24p recording mode, sports a bigger 3.5-inch LCD screen, and adds a useful custom control dial. But if you want extra-roomy built-in memory and don’t need the extra features in the HF S20, then the Vixia HF M32 makes a very good choice for a mid-level HD camcorder.
[Jim Feeley is a writer and video producer based in Northern California.]