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If youíre in the market for a family camcorder, and youíve got £650 to spend, make sure you look at the Canon UC900 first!



You might be forgiven for thinking that analogue camcorder formats days are numbered, following the arrival of DVC, and that could well be true, but Canon have just convincingly proved thereís plenty of life left in the old dog yet. The UC900 has to be one of the best new family camcorders launched so far this year!


It costs £650, thatís towards the top end of the price band for family machines but take a look at the features. Itís small, weighing in at less than 900 grams, and itís very easy to use, but donít let that fool you, it has plenty of advanced facilities, including the star of the show, a genuinely innovative built-in edit controller, and weíll be looking at that in detail in a moment. Up front thereís a 20x optical zoom lens, which means thereís no loss of picture quality at maximum magnification. Itís fitted with an image stabiliser, thatís optical too, so again the picture is unaffected when itís in use.


Thereís the usual assortment of creative options, including hi-fi stereo sound and a 4-mode program AE system, controlled from a dial on the top of the machine. The main settings are:

* Sports -- high-speed shutter improves playback of fast action

* Portrait -- narrow depth of field for making the subject stand out against a soft-focus background

* Spotlight -- exposure compensation for brightly lit scenes or subjects

* Sand and Snow -- glare free shots of subjects against a dark background


Backlight compensation and manual high-speed shutter are separate functions; the former assists with the exposure of subjects set against a bright background, the latter can be used as a manual exposure control or to reduce blur on rapid movement. The key feature though, is Flexizone control of focus and exposure, a feature familiar on a number of Canonís high-end machines. A tiny joystick on the back of the camera body moves a Ďtargetí around the screen, the focusing and exposure systems can be set to lock on to whatever it is aimed at. This will help reduce the number of fuzzy or badly exposed shots. Manual focusing is possible, though itís a little convoluted and only works in the program AE modes, which seems like a bit of an oversight.


The Flexizone control has a number of other uses, it selects and changes items on the on-screen menu, and it has a part to play in the editing control system. Canon have made some improvements to the Flexizone system and itís now possible to configure the joystick, to suit movement of the users thumb. Routine operation have been further simplified by the inclusion of Ďcustomí buttons. Thereís two of them, and each can be assigned one of 16 frequently used functions, from fader, through to record search.   


In common with moth other Canon camcorders it has a simple title generator; this one can compose a single page containing two lines of up to 16 characters per line. It may not sound like much but it adds a professional touch to home video movies. It also has what Canon used to call a Sportsfinder eyepiece, that can be seen at a distance, though since several other manufacturers came up with similar ideas they donít make so much of it these days.



Edit control functions on camcorders isnít exactly a new idea, JVC and Sanyo have been doing it for years, but the way Canon have done it is unique. The edit controller is built into the machine, all of the other systems rely on external control modules, usually inside remote handsets, that have to be plugged into the camcorder. Thereís no extra bits and bobs with the UC900, just plug the AV output lead into the VCR, select the appropriate brand code, point the IR emitter on the backside of the machine at the VCR and away you go. It can be programmed to store up to 8 scenes, and before you point out that most accessory edit controllers have 99 scene memories, just ask yourself when was the last time you needed to assemble edit a video movie with that many scenes? In case you do theyíve got that covered as well, the UC900 has a Control L/LANC editing terminal!


The on-board controller is unusually flexible; edit in and out points on individual scenes can be amended, it has a preview function and scenes can be easily deleted. Thereís a clear and easy to follow on-screen edit decision list, and the display also shows the total time for each sequence. Accuracy can be fine-tuned with variable pre and post-roll times (in increments of 1/10th second) for the VCR. Most of the edit functions can be controlled from the remote handset, so thereís no need to hunch over the machine, dabbing at tiny buttons. Itís all very civilised and on itís own that feature could be enough justification to shortlist this machine.



It gets better. Picture quality is excellent! Resolution tests on our review sample gave figures in excess of 250-lines; thatís very unusual,  itís nudging the limits of the 8mm recording system. Not only that, but picture noise levels were well below average, in fact it had one of the cleanest pictures weíve seen in a long time, and that was on bog-standard tape. Colour fidelity in good natural light was very good, again with very little noise, even on areas of high saturation. The automatic white balance system is optimised for natural light but it had few problems dealing with tungsten light, and there was only the merest hint of a colour cast on recordings made under tube light.


Auto exposure is fast and responsive, it deals well with unusual situations, though when it gets into trouble -- where thereís a very bright light in the scene for example -- the Flexizone system can be used to compensate.


The optical image stabiliser sorts out minor camera wobble and handshake, it makes hand-held shots look a lot smoother and although it canít do much about fast or violent movement -- no stabiliser can -- itís very good, especially with shots made whilst walking, or from a moving vehicle.


Audio performance is fine; the built-in microphones have good forward sensitivity but channel separation is a bit woolly, and the stereo soundstage only extends a couple of metres in front of the machine. Handling noises and motor whine are not too bad, you can hear them whirring away in the background when ambient noise levels are very low but it can be used with an external microphone socket, if thatís likely to be a problem.


The auto edit function is brilliant, just the job for licking short movies into shape. Cut accuracy is most impressive; we managed to consistently get to within 15 frames or so -- a little over half a second -- on an 8-scene sequence spread over a 10 minute section of tape. Further tinkering with the VCR timing adjustment could well improve on those figures.



If youíre in the market for a well-specified mid-range camcorder you should make sure the UC900 is high on your list. The built-in edit controller is an excellent idea. AV performance is outstanding, the exposure options cover most eventualities and the movie-makers of all abilities will find something to interest them in the machineís extensive range of creative facilities. Manual focusing could be better, and it gets through batteries at a fair old lick -- 20 minutes was about the best we got -- but thatís the only quibble on an otherwise superb machine.   



Camcorder prices have been coming down lately and thereís quite a few machines in the sub-£700 segment of the market, but youíll have a tough time finding anything to match the UC900. The new Panasonic RX5 is a good buy, and the Sony TR420 is a solid little machine, but unless youíre seeking improved picture performance, and are prepared to spend another couple of hundred pounds on a Hi8 machine, this has to be the one to go for.  



Make/model                              Canon UC900 

Recording format               8mm

Guide price                                £650



Lens                             f/1.6-3.6, 4-80mm

Zoom                            x20 optical

Filter diameter            46mm 

Pick-up device            0.3in CCD

Min illum                       3 lux    



Long play (LP)                        no                   

Max rec time                        90 mins (SP mode only)

IR remote control                        yes

Edit terminal                        yes, Control L


MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto focus                                yes

Manual focus                 yes (see text)         

Auto exposure               yes                              

Programmed AE                          yes ( 4-modes)

Fader                                        yes                  

Manual white balance no        

Auto white balance             yes                                          

Manual zoom                             no        

Power zoom                              yes                                                                              

Insert edit                                  no        

Audio dub                                  no

Character generator                       yes                  

Digital superimposer                 no        

Image stabiliser                         yes                                          

Video light                                 no        

Battery refresh               yes                                      

Accessory shoe             no        



time/date recording, high-speed shutter (7-speeds up to 1/10,000th sec), record review, Flexizone AE, backlight compensation, Ďcustom keyí operation, auto editing (see text)



Viewfinder                       0.5in monochrome

Viewfinder info               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, shutter speed, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, title, Flexizone target, zoom position, edit control functions



Stereo                                       yes      

Wind noise filter                         no                   

Mic socket                                yes                  

Headphone socket              yes      

Mic                                           single point stereo electret



Sockets                                    AV output (phono), headphone, microphone and

                                                Control L (minijack                                                                     

Dimensions                               105 x 112 x 206mm                      

Weight                          0.85 kg (inc. tape and battery)



Batteries (nicad, lithium & alkaline), straps, AC charger/power supply,

AV lead             yes      

video light                      no                    

remote control            yes      

cassette adaptor n/a                   

RF Converter             no        

Scart adaptor                 yes                  



Resolution                                 250-lines

Colour fidelity                           very good

Picture stability                         very good

Colour bleed                              none

White balance                            average

Exposure                                   good

Auto focus                                  good

Audio performance                   average

Insert edit                                  manual inserts clean

Playback thru adaptor              n/a



Value for money         9

Ease of use                  8

Performance               9

Features                      9



R Maybury 1996 2806





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