Well, stating that this is the best mid-range camcorder is quite a claim, but to be fair, it's not my assertion - that award was just bestowed on the M40 this week by CamcorderInfo.com ...and by mid-range, they mean video cameras priced between $500 and $1000. What makes this camera an even better deal is that you can get all three versions (M400, M40, and M41) for under $500.
Keep in mind that most reviewers of camcorders look at specs and then make a subjective judgment about the quality of the video. The CamcorderInfo.com folks (with whom I am not affiliated) do extensive lab-based testing to measure, for example, color accuracy, noise, and low-light performance in controlled and consistent conditions. The fact that they rate this camera so highly is high praise indeed. They also have a great 11 page review on the M40 if you are interested.
So why did they like this camera so much? Put simply, its sensor. This camera's sensor is larger and more optimized for HD video than the competition. Most of those other cameras use a quarter inch sensor, while this camera has one that is one-third of an inch size. When you calculate sensor area, that is a heck of a difference. Canon has also optimized the hardware and software to focus this sensor on HD resolution...so it does it well. Many other cameras not only have a smaller sensor, they integrate it so it can record HD *and* higher than HD resolution still pictures. Canon did not do so here. Yes, you can take still photos with the camera, but at full HD resolution only (1920×1080) - not larger. Canon appears to have decided to not sacrifice video quality to get a higher megapixel rating for still pictures. Hey, you are buying a *video* camera...right? :)
So what are they then doing with such a large sensor? Grabbing more light, suppressing visual noise, and getting better color accuracy. Even more impressive is that this camera has the exact same sensor as CamcorderInfo's "price be darned" consumer camcorder of the year - Canon Vixia HF G10 ($1499). Yes, buy an M400, M40, or M41 and you will get a sensor that is in the best consumer video camera of the year.
So what do you sacrifice? Primarily, 60p. This camera shoots at 60i...with modes for 30p and 24p. Some other mid-range cameras shoot at 60p. Does that make them better? Well, that depends on your usage. If filming indoors is important to you (e.g., birthday parties, school plays, indoor sports), then 60p of dark video isn't all that useful...and bright 60i video with accurate colors cannot be beat. Personally, I have filmed my daughter's gymnastics in a moderately dark gym and even with the fast movement, the video was jaw-dropping.
You also give up the aforementioned high-resolution still pictures, but frankly, I think that's a gimmick. The zoom is also limited to 10x...which is another concession Canon made to otherwise bring you a top notch video camera at this price. For me, 10x is overkill even from the cheap seats at my daughter's events, but your mileage my vary.
Frankly, I think that this camera is getting discounted because many consumers purchase either based on price alone or by looking at specs. Specs like 60p jump off the page. The fact that this camera's sensor is so superior to much of the competition is a far more subtle advantage...that perhaps may hurt the sales of this line. Well, hey, that's good news for you. When I first started looking at the M41, it was $799. I just picked it up for $499...and an M40 for $449. Awesome stuff. Get a camera that beats the rest of the mid-range and its price is below the mid-range. :)
So what's not to like?
1) The software. You get two packages - a video transfer utility and a video browser/editor that also includes a transfer capability. You can only choose to install one. I opted for the video browser/editor, which installed fine on Windows 7 Pro 64bit, but then would not work....and I am apparently not the lone ranger. Thus, I uninstalled and just installed the transfer utility...which just moves the files. It's also not very configurable. Of course, you can also just connect the camera to your PC and drag the files off yourself, but that's a bit more work...and the transfer utility does a good job of keeping track of what you have already copied off.
This software issue really disappointed me, but to be frank, the software included with most cameras is pretty bad. Sony sells a fantastic video editor - Sony Vegas (multiple editions), but does not bundle it with the Sony cameras that I considered. In fact, the software that they do bundle is apparently also not compatible with 64 bit OSes...so factor in that you will probably need to buy editing software if you want to play around with the video. Actually, the M400/40/41 line allows you to cut videos, introduce fades, and add titles in the camera, but I'd prefer to do it on my PC with more capable software. No worries, you have your choice of a wide range of very capable video editing packages for well under 100 beans...and most of them trump anything that would ever be bundled with a camera.
2) The battery...which is very small. In fact, it is significantly physically smaller than the recessed cavity into which it fits. I smell Canon's marketing and sales departments at work with this decision. Oh well, the included battery works well for my use (i.e., 60 to 90 mins of filming), but I could easily see how someone else may feel compelled to get a second larger capacity battery.
3) The lens...which maxes at 10x, but some folks claim suffers from vignetting at greater than 5x when the aperture is wide open. It's also not very wide. You can address some of these issues with an aftermarket wide angle lens (bulky) and by playing with F stops in manual mode when you are shooting against a monochromatic background, but Canon could have done better. That said, these issues don't really bother me and the camera's low-light capabilities are perfect for me...so I am in a forgiving mood. ;)
4) The LCD screen...which is resistive (not capacitive), so it takes either a firm push or you must use a fingernail. On the positive side, you can use it while wearing gloves. Also a plus - it's bright. Brighter than the LCD on the more expensive G10, albeit with fewer pixels.
5) The Menus...which are not very intuitive. I had to read the manual cover to cover to see what the camera could do...and now that I know, I'll plod through menus looking for what I need. Amazing, because the menus on my Canon 40D are awesome.
So, if I didn't scare you away...and low-light is a big deal to you...which model should you get?
That depends. If you have plenty of high-speed SD cards, the M400 may be the ticket. It has no internal memory. Instead, it has two SD card slots and supports relay recording between the cards. Actually, all three models have two such slots...and support relay recording. The M40 adds 16 GB of internal memory and the M41 ups that to 32 GB and gives you a viewfinder, which is nice for sunny days.
I originally bought the M40 since I didn't want to find myself in the stands and realize that I didn't have an SD card in the camera, but then returned it and picked up the M41 since my wife seemed to miss having a viewfinder. That said, I hear many folks who have the viewfinder still end up using the LCD most of the time. Whatever you choose, you essentially get the same camera otherwise...with the awesome sensor from the HF G10.
On the other hand, if you shoot almost exclusively fast moving action in decent lighting conditions, you may be better served by a camera that supports 60p and/or suffers less from vignetting...but check the CamcorderInfo web site to see how each camera does shooting video rather than relying on specs alone.
So why 5 stars with these warts? Because I just don't see any other option anywhere near this price that will give you such a fantastic low-light sensor and the resultant high-quality video. It's the current mid-range low-light king...and I feel that it's only fair to rate it based on the current competition in the price range. If low-light capabilities are not a priority for you, then I would drop the rating to 4 stars. If you were familiar with the term vignetting before this review and look for it in the corners of your pictures and videos, you probably would rate lower.
BTW, if you *do* decide to buy either an M400, M40, or M41, do yourself a favor and switch the camera off AUTO mode. AUTO mode is locked to 1440x1080 at 7 Mbps...and this baby can do 1920x1080 at all the way up to 24 Mbps...but not in AUTO mode. Many other useful menu items are hidden in AUTO mode...like the one that changes the powered IS from "push and hold" to "toggle on/off".