This post is a review of Canon’s new mid-range HD camcorder, the Canon Vixia HF M31. As a detailed, technical write up on the pros and cons of this new HD camcorder has been published by Camcorderinfo.com, this review will deal solely with my first-hand experience of having used this video camera for a few weeks. Hopefully, others considering the purchase of an HD camcorder will find this article useful in their research. Note that the HF M31 / HFM31 (32GB internal memory) is part of a series from Canon that includes the HF M30 /HFM30 (8GB internal memory) and HF M300 / HFM300 (SD/SDHC memory card only).
HF M31 Product Overview
The new HFM line of HD camcorders from Canon is easy to use. The small size is great as a secondary camera for a camera bag already loaded with a large dSLR. But don’t let the small size fool you, this HD camcorder is a very capable piece of technology. Canon upgraded last year’s highly regarded HF20 and HF200 models with better image stabilization and a touchscreen LCD to produce the new HFM series. Colour, noise and sharpness performance was very good for a model in this price range. Image quality wise, Canon could have done better with low light performance. Having said that, indoor video quality was not poor but it also was not great; it contained a little more grain than I prefer and the image was not as bright as it could be. Overall, the HF M31 / HFM31 produced very high-quality videos.
HF M31 Compression & Media
The HFM series line of HD camcorders uses AVCHD compression (which is based on the MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 codec) just like most consumer HD camcorders. It has 5 levels of HD quality settings but no standard definition recording just in case anyone absolutely needs this. At up to 24 mbps, we really did see very good quality image on a 50+ inch progressive LCD screen. Keep in mind that the camcorder’s three frame rates (60i, PF24, and PF30) can be used for recording with each quality setting. Do note that the PF24 and PF30 frame rates are not recorded natively. Recordings made using these frame rates are converted by the camcorder and recorded onto memory as 60i. In the real world, we saw good results from PF30 and would not consider using PF24 for any scenes with panning or lots of movement. In fact, just shoot at 60i as it has been around for a long time and very compatible across technologies. And, if needed, deinterlace the final video when you output from your video editing software. Note, to edit AVCHD files, you will need the right software and hardware. Even on a 64-bit quad core computer with lots of RAM, rendering out 1080p videos from AVCHD files required a lot of computing power.
HF M31 Handling and Usability
One of the biggest strengths of the HFM series is its small size but that is also its largest downfall in my opinion. Small size means you tend to use the gear more often; we all know how large cameras can sometimes deter it from being used. But small video cameras have a pitfall in that it is not as easy to get a steady shot. So I was quite surprised that hand-held footages were very acceptable. In fact, even when zoomed in at 15X optical (or even 60x digital), one press of the Power Image Stabilization button coupled with the right breathing and camera holding technique, you can get an extremely steady image. This is when the subject is not moving of course. By default, Dynamic Image Stabilization is enabled and this mode is meant for your everyday shooting. It does an ok job when used with care, even during a walking scene as you will see in the video above.
The biggest update from last year’s HF model was a new touchscreen LCD. Most controls are now accessed using the LCD screen. Think of it like an iPhone screen but less sensitive to touch. Images produced here are bright and saturated. The best use of the LCD screen has to be the focusing system. When face detection and tracking are enabled, the camcorder does a very good job at “finding” faces and making sure focus lock is on them. To override, just touch another subject on the LCD screen and the camcorder will lock and track this new subject. A segment of the video above will show you exactly how this works. The LCD focus system is probably the neatest and most useful update in this new HD camcorder.
Things to Improve on the HF M31
As mentioned above, I think low light performance and image stabilization could be better on this unit. But given all the pluses discussed above, I can live with some grain and a slightly darker scene during low light recordings. On the other hand, what I really dislike is Canon’s proprietary hot-shoe size. You have to buy proprietary Canon gear, such as microphones or accessories that attach to a hot-shoe because the shoe provided on this camcorder is slightly smaller than the standard size. You can always purchase a shoe adapter such as the ones found at DM Accessories but that adds costs and you may lose the “hot” side of things if you go this route.
The second thing that Canon should have provided was a mini HDMI to HDMI cable. If you choose to use HDMI to send a signal out to your TV or computer, you will have to purchase this cable as it’s not provided.
Lastly, when the camcorder is powered off, there is no locking mechanism for the image stabilization system. You should never shake sensitive equipment like a camcorder but even more so with this unit. You will hear the rattling of something loose inside. That is actually the image stabilization system! I am surprised that there is no way to park the mechanical parts of this system when the power is turned off on the unit. Once power is turned on, there is no more rattling as the stabilization system is activated and locked down.
Conclusion – Canon Vixia HF M31 / HF M 30 / HF M300
The Canon Vixia HF M31 is easy to use, fun and capable of recording very high-quality video. For a camcorder that records HD video at up to 24 mbps, I can live with, at least for now, a somewhat darker and slightly grainy image during low light shooting. In normal and bright light conditions, video footage is sharp, vibrant and smooth. For those of you considering the purchase of a new HD camcorder, you can check out the video above. All footages were taken on a cloudy day and no post-processing was applied; only transitions and titles were added. Happy shooting!