Where most other camcorder manufacturers have found themselves caught up in the waves created by the Flip pocket Internet camcorders, Canon has resolutely stuck to traditional formats. So, whilst the LEGRIA HF R38 sits at the compact end of Canon's range, it's not as dinky as some of the smallest models from competitors, such as Sony's Bloggie Sport. But, conversely, it comes with most of the usual features we've come to expect from Canon's camcorders.
The R38 sports a relatively small 1/4.85in CMOS with 3.28Mpixels, although only 2.07Mpixels are actually used for video or stills. The sensor size means the F1.8 lens can provide a pretty powerful 32x optical zoom, and thanks to the extra pixels this can be boosted to 51x in Advanced mode. This crops into the sensor, but doesn't result in the loss of resolution associated with a traditional digital zoom.
There are three automated shooting modes. Alongside the regular AVCHD option is a Story Creator mode, which is essentially the latter but with onscreen hints and tips based around a theme such as Travel or Kids & Pets. The AVCHD format options range up to Full HD at 24Mbits/sec, and in any other mode than auto you can also enable a PF25 progressive setting instead of the standard 50i interlaced configuration. There's also a Web mode, which switches format to MP4 and uses 720p resolution at 4 or 9Mbits/sec. The R38 is top of its particular range subset, so comes with a decidedly healthy 32GB of memory built in, as well as a SDXC-compatible card slot should you need more. But you might not, as the on-board allocation will be enough for nearly three hours of footage even at the top 24Mbits/sec quality mode.
Running in parallel with this is the ability to switch between Auto, Manual, and Cinema. The latter adds a film look to your footage via seven preset options, although it restricts some of the other settings that are available, placing it somewhere between auto and manual. In particular, you can't call on the scene modes that are available with manual mode enabled. Unlike Canon's higher-end models, there are no priority modes on the R38 for shutter or iris, just a generalised exposure control, which can be adjusted by slider or by touching a spot within the frame on the LCD panel.
But there are 11 scene modes to choose from, ranging from Portrait to Snow, Beach and Fireworks. You can focus manually using a slider or by touching the screen, and white balance options include a manual mode as well as two presets and the fully automatic setting. Even with the camera set to auto, you can also call upon Canon's slightly odd Decorations. These parallel the animations JVC camcorders now make available. With Canon's offering, you can draw on the frame as you shoot, add particles, and superimpose captions including date and time - which might actually prove useful rather than just fun. You can also superimpose an image, and pause the frame temporarily. We would recommend you do all of these things at the editing stage rather than during shooting, but they will be potentially amusing if you intend to share your videos essentially unedited.