Canon has a sterling reputation when it comes to their camcorders and digital cameras, but unfortunately, the Canon ZR950 Mini DV camcorder doesn't do much to inspire confidence. It's a simple, budget camcorder meant for basic video shooting. So the bar is set pretty low: we're not expecting this camcorder to work miracles, just live up to its stated goals. The ZR950 is meant to be exceptionally easy to use and a good choice for novice users and Canon has taken steps in the camcorder's design to achieve this.
On the face of things, the ZR950 does look like a comfortable, simple camcorder for basic entry-level shooting. Canon has featured the camcorder's "easy mode" quite prominently, and it's accessible via a dedicated switch on the body of the camcorder. Really, though, this isn't a major advantage over any other MiniDV camcorcer. The "easy mode" is simply plain old boring automatic mode.
Most of the major features and functions of the camera are found deep within the menu system. The body of the camera and the bezel of the LCD are home to mostly ancillary settings. Perhaps Canon believed that the average user of the ZR950 would be more concerned with special effects and transitional wipes than more technical settings like configuring the aspect ratio or handling the brightness and contrast of a scene. Though it's understandable, perhaps Canon would have been better served by making those crucial features more approachable to novice users, instead of glossing over them completely and giving so much real-estate and emphasis to the flashy, fun (but ultimately frivolous) parts of home video recording.
The Canon ZR950 was not particularly impressive when it came to video quality, especially when compared to similar MiniDV camcorders from JVC and Sony. The video from the ZR950 lacked the crispness and fine details one should expect from even a budget camcorder like this. In a pinch, the video would do, but it's certainly not the best you can get for this amount of money.
The ZR950 has a very long 27x optical zoom, but it was hard to get a steady shot when fully-extended. The lightweight body of the ZR950 is a bonus in that it makes the camcorder exceptionally portable and comfortable to hold, but a little extra ballast might have anchored it in the hand better, and reduced its penchant to shimmy and shake with the slightest hand movements.
Just because you're buying an inexpensive camcorder, you shouldn't get stuck with a cheap camcorder. There are plenty of reasonably priced camcorders that offer adequate or excellent video performance, camcorders like the JVC GR-D850, which we found very impressive back in May. It's worth shopping around to find that perfect blend of performance and affordability. Unfortunately, the ZR950 does not meet that standard.