Canon locates most of the camcorder's controls in convenient places. The only real victims of placement here are the two switches on the right side of the body that let you switch between auto or program modes, and MiniDV tape or MiniSD flash memory card media. Granted, you won't need to switch these while shooting, but they'd be easier to deal with if placed on the left side. Canon generally parcels out its menu-based controls well, making the most likely used items, such as exposure compensation and microphone level, quickly accessible by pressing the joystick. At the same time, other oft-accessed controls--program, shutter- and aperture-priority, cine, and scene modes, along with the white balance, image effects, and still-image mode--hide behind the function button. As usual, Canon puts four buttons below the camcorder's 2.7-inch, wide-screen LCD. These buttons let you zoom in or out, start and stop recording, access focus assist mode, and double as playback controls.
Unfortunately, Canon doesn't let you change white balance while shooting, so if you move from one type of lighting to another, you're forced either to stop then restart shooting or to accept the resulting color cast. This is surprising given that Canon tries to appeal to a more-advanced level of user with this model's 24p shooting mode. Meant to mimic the 24fps frame rate of film, the mode does a good job of that, though its slower frame rate may cause fast-moving subjects to get a bit choppy when compared to 30fps video. Also, don't expect the footage to have the same tonal characteristics as film. To address this, Canon includes cine mode, which can be combined with 24p mode if desired and tries to achieve a film-like look by changing the color and gamma performance. Purists likely won't be satisfied, but it's worth a try if you want a different, more-muted look to your footage.
Speaking of footage, we were very impressed with the video we shot with the HV20. Our footage was quite sharp, colors showed plenty of saturation, and we saw surprisingly little noise, especially in good lighting conditions. Like the HV10, the HV20 did tend to lose some information in highlights, though it preserves noticeably more highlight detail than most non-HD camcorders, and shadow detail was impressive. Since it's a single-chip design (as opposed to three-chip), low-light performance isn't amazing. Still, the graininess in low light was considerably better than you'd see in a camcorder with a smaller sensor, though in extremely dim conditions, color fidelity and overall dynamic range drop precipitously, leaving largely monochrome video with very little shadow detail. Canon's night mode does little to fix this, instead dropping the shutter to such a slow speed that you end up with video that looks like lazy stop-action animation.
Still images reminded us of what we saw with the HV10. While very impressive for a camcorder, you still won't want to print larger than snapshot size. But, if you don't print larger than 4x6 inches, you may be pleased with the results.
Despite our handful of gripes, the HV20 will likely be a big seller for Canon. We wouldn't be surprised if it's among the top-selling nonbudget camcorders this year, especially if retailers drop the price to less than $1,000. The HV20's stunning high-definition video and comfortable operation make it a great choice for nonprofessional, HD-happy videographers. However, if you often find yourself shooting in low light, don't mind a touch screen interface, and can stand to lay down a little extra cash, Sony's Handycam HDR-HC7 is definitely worth consideration.