I just purchased our first flash memory camcorder, the Canon FS 200. I've briefly tried it out this weekend and here are some of my initial reactions. First let me tell you that we have been using Canon ZR series miniDV camcorders for many years. I usually try to keep about 10 of them operational and in stock for checkout and use daily. On average they've lasted only a couple years under pretty heavy use.
The Canon FS 200 is small.
How SMALL is it?
It's SO small that you can literally put it in your pants pocket. That could be good but it also means that it can be easily misplaced, forgotten, hidden, knocked off a table or tucked away by some nimble-fingered thief.
It's SO small that it is only about one inch longer than its power supply.
It's SO small that it will look silly on top of our big Bogen tripods.
It's SO small that when I strapped it on, my fingers wrap all the way over the top of the camera to the other side and overshoot the zoom control. Since I'm not a big fan of zooming, this may be a good thing.
It has a built-in lens cover than opens when you turn it on.
The main power switch is sort of hidden on top and a bit hard to find but it's not likely to be turned off accidentally.
The buttons are few and easy to use but I have small hands so those with big hands may find them a bit trickier. The menus were easy to follow if you work with Canons.
Once you know where the switch is, it's easy to turn on the on-camera light if you need it.
All the plugin ports/jacks are inside the LCD hatch so it has to be open when you're using them.
It features both an external mic input and a headphone/AV port. This is a MUST feature for me and has been harder to come by on lower cost camcorders. I tried both ports and they seem to work well. You need to use powered mics though. Dynamic mics don't work. Neither do phantom-powered mics without some kind of power supply in between. The mic and headphone ports are recessed slightly and I noticed that on one of my headphones with an right-angle connector, it didn't work as well. I think placement of the ports is better than in past cameras when they were located under your fingers or in the back.
There is no shoe adapter for connecting an external microphone to the camera. I recently purchased a few of the Bescor VB-50 Universal Shoe Mount Adapters which attach to the tripod mount. It can hold a shotgun mic, a wireless receiver or light. At about $12 each they have been very handy for us.
There is a METAL tripod mount on the bottom. Hooray!! Plastic mounts on the ZRs have been a bugger for us because they strip out.
With few moving parts, my hope is that the cameras may last longer.
The FS 200 ONLY records on SD cards. There is no internal memory. You can use up to a 32 GB card I'm told. I like this idea because kids will have their projects stored on their own card rather than on the camera. I never liked the idea that I'd have to make sure the same camera stayed with the same student through a project. That's what has kept me away from hard-drive based cameras in the past.
Memory cards are more expensive than miniDV tapes. I'm not sure how I'll adapt to that within my budget. I currently charge students a $10 lab fee and I expect that I'll have to bump that up to help cover the increased cost of new media. I'm not sure how big a card most kids will need. I may start them out with a 4 GB. I understand you can get about 3.5 hours of the highest quality continuous recording on a 16 GB card
The battery and SD cards mount on the bottom which can be a hassle if the camera is mounted on a tripod.
The battery is located INSIDE the camera housing so it appears that there is no way to use a bigger/longer lasting battery for this camera. It seems like it took longer to charge than my ZR cams but it was the first time so ???
One nice thing is that the camera will show you how much recording time you have left on the battery -- actual time, not just a battery icon.
You can turn on manual focus but it works with the joystick control and not a focus ring.
You can zoom either from the top slider or from buttons on the LCD screen.
Video I shot both inside and out looked quite good. The zoom worked smoothly and the digital zoom will take you to ridiculous distances that are filled only with a blurry, pixilly mess. The camera works well on extreme close ups with the zoom all the way out.
It doesn't do too well in low light. That's typical of the Canons I've had.
The cost of the camcorder at around $350 is within reason for our budget and I expect we'll be moving in this direction over the next couple years. Hopefully the price will come down with competition. I just hope Canon doesn't do the same thing they did with miniDV cams and start removing features and quality along with lowering prices.
When plugging the camera into the computer I found some problems. One unexpected one was that the camera needs to be plugged into its power supply and into an outlet in order to work. It won't connect on battery power. This means more hardware and cords on the student desktops during uploading time. It also means that we won't be able to upload onto a laptop in a car or out in the field away from electricity. I'm not sure if you can use a card reader for download. I don't have one with me so I can't check. That would be nice if it works.
I've read about and expected another problem. The FS 200 movie files are stored in .MOD format which has to be converted in order to work with Final Cut, Premiere or any of the iMovie releases prior to the horrible '08 version. You can simply change the .MOD suffix to .MPEG and the files will import fine. BUT you will only get picture and no audio. You need converter software to do the job correctly. I used MPEG Streamclip which is a free download and comes in handy for other uses. Find it at http://www.squared5.com.
Simply drop the .MOD file on the open window of Streamclip and export as a .MOV or .DV or .AVI or whatever. MPEG Streamclip allows you to set in and out points so you don't have to convert the entire file. That's good in case there's a lot of garbage footage where the operator forgot to turn off record.
Conversion is easy but it's an added step just to be able to edit footage. Streamclip works quickly but on long sequences, conversion could take a while. On the other hand, transferring at speed from miniDV tapes can also be time consuming. Some of my students have used their own cameras and brought in .MOD files. They seem to learn the conversion process pretty quickly.
.MOD is a compressed mpeg2 format so some will argue that it is not full-quality uncompressed video. Mpeg4 is already out there and it works better with the editing software so this format may not last long.
By the way, the camera transfers files via USB, not Firewire. RATS, and I just bought all new Firewire cables because the old ones were.....well, old.
It's not HD.
It does NOT come with an SD or SDHC card. You have to buy them separately. That means you can't use the camcorder straight from the box.
It comes in different colors.
It has a feature you can set where it records a 3-second loop constantly so that when you press the record button it actually grabs footage three seconds before you hit record. That way you may not miss the big play or .... Not sure how helpful this could be except that my students constantly hit record and start talking at the same time and miss stuff because the miniDV tapes have to get up to speed. All my lectures about counting to three after you hit record tend to be ignored. Maybe technology will save them.
In conclusion, there are things to like about this camcorder and I will likely buy a couple more when budget becomes available. Evolution of flash memory cameras will probably be rapid so the next best thing is just around the corner. I suspect the manufacturers will work together to make the format problem go away soon. In the meantime, the FS 200 seems to work well and could be a good camera for classroom assignments and projects. I'll stick with my 3-chip GL2s for studio, concert and sports broadcasts though.