Canon Vixia HF S20 review:

Canon Vixia HF S20

0.27 inch 123,000 dots
No Yes
0.27 inch, 123,000 dots
0.2 inch 201,000 pixel
LCD 3.5-inch 922,000-dot touch screen 2.8-inch n/a 3-inch 230,400-dot 3.5-inch 921,000-dot touch screen Primary media 0GB/32GB/64GB flash; SDHC 64GB flash; SDHC 32GB flash/240GB hard disk; SDXC 64GB flash; SDXC HD recording AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1440x1080/60i @ 12, 7, 5 Mbps
H.264 MPEG-4:
1080/60i @ 24, 17, 12, 5 Mbps
AVCHD: 1080/60p 28Mbps; 1080/60i @ 17, 13, 9 ,5 Mbps AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1,440x1,080/60i @ 9,5 Mbps
Manual shutter speed and iris Yes Yes Yes Yes Accessory shoe Yes Yes Yes Yes
Audio 2 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
2 channels;
mic, headphone jacks 5.1 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
5.1 channels;
mic, headphone jacks Body dimensions (WHD, inches) 3 x 2.9 x 5.8 2.7 x 2.9 x 5.4 2.6 x 2.7 x 5.4 2.6 x 3 x 5.8 Operating weight (ounces) 18 17 (est) 15.2/17.7 17 (est) Mfr. Price $999/$1,099.99/$1,399.99 $1,199.95 $999/$1,399.95 $1,199.99 Ship date April 2010 March 2010 April 2010 February 2010

Canon's manual control dial functions the same as Sony's does. You press and hold the center button to select the dial's operation: manual focus, exposure compensation, aperture or shutter, mic level and automatic gain control limit--which caps the signal boosting in low light to minimize visual noise. All the options are available via the touch screen as well. The function icon pulls up both the frequently used settings as well as the full menu system another level down. In addition to the usual, it offers real shutter- and aperture-priority shooting modes with a shutter speed range of 1/8 to 1/2,000 second and aperture options ranging from f1.8 to f8, giving you more control over shutter speed and depth of field than you generally see in a prosumer model. It also offers Canon's Cine mode for adjusting color and gamma to go with its 24F progressive modes, though it and 30F are recorded as 60i. In still mode, you can select metering and drive modes, too. Other high-end features include x.v.Color mode, color bars, a choice between 70 or 100 IRE Zebra stripes, and a test tone. And if have a yen for surround sound, it's supported via an optional external mic. (For a complete account of the camcorders' features and operation, download the PDF manual.)

Thanks to a large, high-resolution LCD and (mostly) big virtual buttons, the bulk of the interface is one of the most streamlined and easy to use that I've seen on a camcorder. The LCD is pretty easily viewed in direct sunlight, although it's shiny and reflective so you'll have to play with the angle a bit. The only place where the interface falls short is in the menu system, and there it's teeth-gnashingly frustrating to use. The first issue is the scroll area: it's on the inside edge, so your hand blocks the display while you're scrolling. The second issue is the multitouch-like scroll operations that makes it impossible to accurately move a single entry at a time, so I always scroll past the entry I want, and frequently select the wrong entries along the way. At best, it will take some getting used to; at worst, it will make you nuts. You should definitely try it before you buy.

The low-resolution EVF is better than nothing--which is what the HF S20 and HF S200 offer--but it's pretty coarse for manual focus. However, between the focus assist magnification and peaking for edge detection, it's relatively usable. Because of its location, the diopter is a bit annoying to set without poking your eye out; your eye and your finger need to be in the same place.

The zoom feels very nice, and it's pretty easy to maintain a steady zoom rate with it. Although I ran into a few frustrating situations where the autofocus guessed wrong about the subject--usually preferring the background, no matter how much of the frame the foreground subject took up, and was especially problematic while zooming in. Once locked on the correct subject, though, it didn't lose it. In part, this is probably because the speed of the AF--it's pretty zippy, which usually trades off for accuracy.

Like Sony, Canon defaults the video quality to the second-worst option, 7 megabits per second at not full-HD 1,440x1,080-pixel resolution. That means the video you get out of the box looks like something you'd pay about $400 for, rather than the $700-plus you probably shelled out for one of these models. This might make sense if it was a cheap model with videos destined for nothing more than quick-and-dirty Web upload, but not in a model that costs $1,000 or more. There's no reason not to default to the second-best, 17Mbps full HD mode, which looks quite good and likely won't have the playback issues you might run into with the best-quality 24Mbps model.

According to Canon, it has tweaked the sensor for improved low-light performance and enhanced the Digic DV III processor for better rendering of blues and purples. (Video of the sky does look a little better.) In decent light in its best--and even second best--modes, the video looks quite good. It's probably the sharpest among its competitors, though not by a lot. Though it has some trouble accurately reproducing deep reds and pinks, overall, the camcorder has very pleasing color. In low light, it meters for brighter exposures with more saturated colors than Sony does, but the video is also noisier overall than both Sony and Panasonic. However, it does look improved over last year's models. The audio records with excellent clarity as well.

Though the camcorder's still images look a bit overprocessed, they look a lot better than the interpolated photos generated by Sony and Panasonic's lower-resolution sensors. Photos shot in still mode look OK, but stills shot while in video mode are much noisier.

If you're a video hobbyist or a pro looking for something portable to complement your workhorse equipment, the Canon Vixia HF S21 is a solid choice. But if you don't need the more subtle aspects of the manual controls, such as shutter speeds below 1/15 second or a choice of Zebra stripe levels, then it's more expensive than it's worth. Its cheaper but EVF-free siblings, the Canon Vixia HF S20 and HF S200 are good, but similarly overpriced compared with competitive models from Sony and Panasonic. If you can live without the EVF, I'd go for the cheapest of the three, the HF S200.

What you'll pay

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