Canon Legria HF M41 review

The Canon LEGRIA HF M41 makes up one third of the brand's M-Series camcorder lineup, along with the cheaper HF M46 and the HF M406. What the HF M41 has over its siblings is its larger 32GB memory, along with a viewfinder and an external microphone input.

Clearly intended to grab some of the quality HD camcorder market from arch rival Panasonic, the HF M41 is equipped with a large 1/3in Canon CMOS Pro sensor with 2.37 megapixels. Sporting a DIGIC DV III image processor, the M41 also features a 10x optical zoom (plus a digital zoom with a range of 40-200x) and two image stabilisation systems - Dynamic OIS for reduce shaky footage while walking and a powered IS for using with the zoom. It features a focal length range of 6.1-61mm, and a 35mm equivalent focal length of 43.6-436mm along with a maximum aperture of F/1.8 to F/3.0.

Design

Measuring in at 137 x 74 x 71mm, the HF M41 is reasonably compact albeit a little chunky compared to similar models from rival brands such as the Panasonic SD90. It's also a fair bit heavier, tipping the scales at 360g. While that's not too heavy, it does mean that you'll notice when you're carrying the M41 around in your bag. If you're after a camcorder that weighs so little that you'll forget it's there, then this isn't it.

The slightly bulky chassis means that the build quality is reassuringly robust while the shiny black, slightly glittery finish lends the device a premium feel. The top of the unit features a matte, mottled finish underneath where your hand sits, making it easy to maintain a comfortable grip.

The power button is located on top of the unit, although it's not recessed or protected in any way, so it can be quite easy to knock it accidentally when it's in your bag. Overall, the unit is easy and comfortable to hold with nice, even weighting and with a cozy strap that sits in just the right place. The record button is in the logical place, under the thumb and feels slightly better placed that on some rival models. Also on the back of the camcorder is a button for activating the viewfinder, along with a covered power jack for charging.

The top of the unit is home to a switch, that can be used to toggle between the auto mode, manual setting mode and the cinema mode with the latter offering a selection of different filters. The zoom control sits in the middle of the unit and the relatively large surface area of the sliding button makes it easy to control smoothly. For extra steadiness, you can hold down the powered IS button (located next next to the screen) while zooming. This is one of the features that really marks out the M41 has a quality product - even without using the powered IS, the zoom control is significantly smoother than on many rival products.

Touchscreen or viewfinder? 

The LCD panel flips out at a right-angle but unlike some other similar models, there's no leeway for over-extending it, so if you push it too far, it's liable to break. In the same way, it can't be moved up or down, although it can be rotated 180 degrees, making it easier for you to include yourself in one of your videos.

The touchscreen LCD measures 3 inches and has a resolution of 230,000 dots. The display is bright and clear and it even fared pretty well out in strong daylight, although we did find that we had to switch to the viewfinder when the sun was at its brightest. The touch control isn't perfect and certainly not as good as that found on top-tier smartphones but it does the job without being too troublesome. There were a number of occasions when we had to tap our chosen icon more than once to get it to respond, but this didn't happen often enough to turn it into a bad user experience.

The onscreen menu was pretty easy to find our way around once we'd got to grips with the layout, with most of the options being clearly labelled so that didn't end up lost in a sea of navigation screens.

Flipping out the screen reveals the camcorder's connections along will a small selection of buttons. From here you can switch to the gallery mode to review your recording, you can bring up display information on the screen (including the battery indicator) and you can also call up the story creator mode. This offers a selection of themes with suggestions for scenes for you to film to make up a comprehensive video. For example, the travel theme includes suggested chapters including meeting the travellers, planning the trip and packing through to interesting landmarks, sunsets, days out and ending with the journey home and the best memories from the trip. Other themes available include party, ceremony and blog.

Next to these buttons are the camcorders connections. There's a mini HDMI out for hooking up to a HD-capable TV and there's also a Component out and a Mini-USB so that you can easily connect the unit to your computer and completing the lineup is an AV out jack. Aside from the power lead, our sample was supplied with a mini HDMI to HMDI cable, Mini-USB to USB and a component lead, so we presume that's what comes with the final retail unit as well.

The inclusion of a colour viewfinder is a useful addition, in theory, and something that's usually only found on high-end models. Measuring 0.24 inches, it offers a 100% view at 260,000 dots. It's handy when bright sunshine makes it impossible to see the screen, and there's a tiny lever on the side to get things in focus. However, it seems to put a blue tinge on everything, which may not be a huge issue for simple framing but could be a problem if colour is important to your composition. There's also no room for movement - it can't be tilted or extended to make it easier to use. Being right-handed but left-eyed (this is known as being "cross eye dominant"), we found that the viewfinder was very difficult to use without poking ourselves in the eye when reaching for the record button. The fact that the viewfinder is very small also makes it quite hard to see the subject properly. The fact that it also adds extra weight and bulk to the camcorder makes us question just how much of a benefit it really is.

Along with a standard tripod mount on the bottom of the unit, there's also a mini advanced shoe on the top of the camcorder so that you can hook up a range of compatible Canon accesories. What's more, there's a 43mm filter thread lens adaptor for extra shooting flexibility.

Commit to memory

Along with a generous 32GB of built-in Flash memory, the the M41 has dual SDXC card slots. If one card becomes full up while recording, the camcorder will automatically switch to the second card, so that you capture seamless footage without having to stop and switch manually. The card slots are located side-by-side beneath a flip-out cover that sits under the handle. The dual slots can handle SDHC, SD and SDXC cards up to 64GB, although none are supplied with the camcorder, so you'll have to shell out for them separately.

You can also transfer footage and stills from the built-in memory onto the cards to make it easier to view them on a computer without having to hook up the camcorder to your computer. When copying over files on the camcorder, you can also choose to convert them to standard definition for easier uploading to the web. The internal memory can accomodate up to 12hrs and 15mins of recording, while a 64GB SDXC card can take up to 24hrs and 30mins.

There are five recording quality modes with MXP being the highest and capturing footage at full HD (1920 x 1080) at a bit rate of 24Mbps. Recordings can be made at either at 50 frames per second (interlaced) or 24 (progressive). If you want to fit more footage into onto the built-in memory or your SD cards then you can opt for FXP (1920 x 1080 at 17Mbps), XP+ (1440 x 1080 at 12Mbps), SP (1440 x 1080 at 7Mbps or LP (1440 x 1080 at 5Mbps).

Performance

Using the Smart Auto mode means that the camcorder will take care of the tricky stuff for you, automatically picking the optimum settings, while the Instant AF is geared up for speedy and accurate focusing. If you prefer to control your own video-related destiny then you can switch to the manual model and tweak the settings yourself. There are various factors that you can adjust including white balance, exposure, sharpness and contrast.

Using the Cinema mode means that you'll be able to choose from a selection of filters to give your footage a more cinematic look. Along with the classic cinema option (i.e., standard colour), you have the choice of Monochrome, Vivid, Dream, Cool, Nostalgic, Sepia, Old Movies and Memory. The results are pretty cool, although inevitably, some of the clarity of HD recording is lost thanks to the retro effects.

All three modes offer Touch Decoration which enables you to add colourful designs to your pictures without the need for a PC. You can choose from titles, frames or animated graphics to jazz up your videos. If you're splashing out £500+ on a camcorder then it's fairly unlikely that this sort of clipart-based add-on will appeal but at least the choice is there should you want to use it.

When recording, we found the autofocus mode to be good although it was a tad on the slow side when adjusting to a new position. The quality of the video was excellent - the images were really smooth and packed with detail, while edges were well-defined, without any of the pixellation that you might get from a lower-specced model. Recording it low light conditions, on a slightly overcast day was impressive, with realistic colours and hardly any noise.

The audio was also good and managed to keep the usual hiss associated with camcorder sound to a minumum. It picks up individual sources of noise effectively but if you're trying to capture crystal clear speech then you'll probably want to invest in an external microphone. The on-board speaker isn't too bad for playing back clips, but obviously it's no match for a proper set of speakers.

Still photos can be taken either during recording or while the camcorder is on but not recording. You can snap away while using the auto or manual modes, although not while using the cinema mode. Somewhat disappointingly, there's no hard button for capturing stills - instead you'll need to press the relevant icon in the bottom left-hand corner of the touchscreen. This can be a bit of a pain when trying to line up a shot as putting pressure on the screen inevitably ends up with the camcorder moving slightly so we found that we had to take most pictures more than once to get a steady shot. The results aren't bad at all - there's plenty of detail and colours are pretty punchy too. Thanks to the screen-only operation, the M41 isn't really set up for stills so we would only recommend using this if you don't have a separate camera on you.

The supplied BP-808 battery offers up to 2 hours and 10 minutes of charge time and because it only fills about half of the available space, there's plenty of room for you to switch it for a larger, longer-lasting, battery without spoiling the sleek lines of the chassis.

The M41 comes with handy little wireless remote control that enables you to carry out basic functions such as stop and start recording, zooming, taking a photo and switching to the gallery view to review your videos or stills.

Verdict

The Canon Legria HF M41 is an excellent camcorder and offers plenty of compelling features such as the cinema filters and the external microphone port. It's comfortable to use and captures great quality HD footage while also allowing for some flexibility and a few creatives touches, making it a good choice for keen amateur filmmakers and those want HD home movies.

However, at £589.95, it's still a little on the pricey side and doesn't bring that much more to the table than Panasonic's SD-90 (£428 when reviewed and now selling for £391.99). Although the actual video quality is arguably better on the Canon, the bulkier chassis, slightly slower autofocus and lack of 3D capability mean that the M41 doesn't offer quite as much value for money.