Canon Optura Mini DV Camcorder Review

Canon’s 3-chip DV camcorders like the XL1 and GL1 are exceptional. Their past single chip DV camcorders, like the Elura, also have been decent performers. Now, Canon is re-using the name of their first consumer Mini DV camcorder, the Optura, and calling their latest Mini DV/digital still effort the Optura Pi.

Looks Like an Ultura

Canon’s original Optura was a distinct-looking camcorder with a unique swiveling LCD. Don’t let the name fool you, the Optura Pi looks more like Canon’s Ultura than the Optura. It has the same basic shape and microphone placement, and is small and rectangular, all like the Ultura. It almost makes you wonder why they didn’t call it the Ultura Pi.

A switch on the back of the camcorder lets you select between VCR mode, movie mode and progressive scan mode for extracting better digital stills. To enter the menu system, press the Menu button located low on the camcorder. Once in the menu system, you navigate with the menu wheel.

To use the zoom controls, you operate a toggle switch with your right index finger. There’s also a Focus button located on the back that lets you use the Menu wheel as a focus control.

Most of the controls are easy to use, but the Menu button is positioned low and puts your thumb at an awkward angle when you use it. The Power/VCR/Movie/P.Scan button is also harder to reach than those on other camcorders.

Eye of the Pi

The lens system on the Optura Pi offers a 12:1 optical zoom, a 48:1 digital zoom as well as optical image stabilization. The picture quality from Canon’s camcorders has always been good, and the Optura Pi continues that part of Canon’s tradition.

The optical image stabilization worked extremely well. The optical zoom works nicely too. Canon included a modest 48x digital zoom. In an era where every manufacturer wants to out-zoom the next it isn’t unusual to find camcorders with digital zooms with ratios up to 300:1. While the numbers sound impressive, we have yet to see a digital zoom that is usable at more than 50:1. Thanks, Canon, for keeping it realistic.

The autofocus system worked well. Canon has abandoned their famous FlexiZone focus system on the Optura Pi, but you can still use manual exposure, and focus through the menu system or the manual focus button.

On the Right Foot

One of the best features of the Optura Pi is the hot shoe on top of the camcorder housing. With this accessory shoe, you can power a variety of optional devices, such as an on-camera light, an external microphone or a flash unit for digital still photography. That’s a nice option.

The Optura Pi has a variety of I/O options. It has the necessary IEEE 1394 port for transporting DV footage to an editing workstation. As a bonus, the analog S-video and A/V connection allows you to import analog footage as well as display it. The Optura Pi also has microphone and headphone jacks, two of our favorite things to find on a camcorder. One complaint with the design of the camcorder: the rubbery cover that protects the A/V connections on the right side of the camcorder doesn’t fit very well. This doesn’t impact the operation of the camcorder, but it may annoy picky owners.

Still Fun

One of the big advantages of the progressive scan CCD is its ability to record higher-quality digital stills than you can with a normal NTSC CCD. The Optura Pi, like the original Optura has a plethora of digital still picture options. You can even hook up an optional floppy drive to store your image on a computer disk.

There are a variety of shooting and playback modes to allow you to display multiple still images on the screen at once. You can also use the hot shoe to attach a flash unit if you really get into using this camcorder as a digital still camera.

What’s That Noise?

When we powered up the Optura Pi, we noticed a loud motor noise. Wondering if the noise would be captured on the microphone, we rolled some tape and played it back to listen again. As we had anticipated, we heard the whirring noise on our tape. Camera noise limited the quality of the audio that the Optura Pi’s built-in mike could record. We heard yet another noise on tape every time we used the zoom controls. In whole, this camcorder is noisy. Most users would probably be very disappointed with this camcorder if they paid full price for it and heard the noise our test model made. The noise may be some sort of early production flaw that will be sorted out, but until then, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Final Thoughts

The motor noise aside, the Optura Pi is a fine compact camcorder with manual as well as automatic controls. Beginning to intermediate video hobbyists who are looking for a digital still camera and Mini DV camcorder balled up into one, will be pleased with its ease of use and image quality.


Canon Optura Pi

Mini DV Camcorder

Format Mini DV

Lens 12 :1 optical 48:1 digital zoom, f/1.6, 30.5mm filter diameter

Image Sensor 1/4-inch CCD (380,000 pixels)

Viewfinder 3.5-inch color LCD monitor, 0.44-inch color LCD viewfinder

Focus auto, manual

Image Stabilization Optical

Maximum Shutter Speed 1/4,000 sec

Exposure auto, manual, 6 exposure modes

White Balance auto, manual, indoor and

outdoor settings

Digital Effects fade, wipe, scroll, mosaic fade, art, black and white, sepia, mosaic

Audio 12- or 16-bit

Inputs IEEE 1394, S-video, A/V, mike, LANC

Outputs IEEE 1394, S-video, A/V, headphone, LANC

Edit Interface LANC

Other Features hot shoe, progressive scan,

digital stills

Dimensions 2 5/8 (h) x 3 3/8 (w) x 5 7/8 (d) inches

Weight (sans tape and battery) 1 pound 6 7/8 ounces

Video Performance (approx.)

Horizontal resolution (camera) 380 lines

Horizontal resolution (playback) 360 lines

Performance Times

Pause to Record 0.5 seconds

Power-up to Record 8 seconds

Fast-forward/Rewind (60 min. tape) 2 minutes 31 seconds



  • Hot Shoe
  • Analog inputs
  • Headphone and mike jacks


  • Noisy
  • Controls hard to reach

  • A good choice for casual shooters looking for digital video and stills.

Pi in the Sky

by Larry Lemm
Optura Pi Mini DV Camcorder
One Canon Plaza
Lake Success, NY 10042-1113
(800) 828-4040

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