The Canon HG21 is a high-class, high-definition camcorder. A number of top-end features make it one of the most flexible consumer camcorders going. We wonder though if it is in fact overspecced for the average user, especially with a price of around £850.
The HG21 is pretty chunky. The right-hand side has a ridge that gives you plenty of room to curl your fingers around and grip. The zoom rocker and stills capture button are placed under the first fingers of the right hand, with a mode dial and record button under the right thumb.
Most of the controls are located on the screen bezel. Playback controls line the bottom of the 69mm (2.7-inch) screen. A mini-joystick navigates menus -- it's a bit stiff at first but big enough to have plenty of give. A button to toggle easy mode is located in the screen well, next to a button that calls up battery and memory information even when the camera is turned off.
The HDMI connection is at the back, under a small plastic cover. Another cover protects the connections for headphones, component out and microphone input. An uncovered USB connection and a sturdy memory card hatch sit in the screen well.
The HG21 features a viewfinder, which also slides out horizontally. It doesn't angle upwards so it can only be used for eye-level shooting, but it's still a welcome addition for those willing to crouch for different angles. Sliding out the viewfinder gives access to a swivelling cover for an accessory shoe. The cover doesn't look like it gets far enough out of the way, but that depends on the accessory you choose.
The HG21 battery compartment has space for a larger battery pack for longer filming times. Usually this kind of extra space gives the back end of a camcorder an ugly blocky look, but here the HG21's sleek lines are relatively uninterrupted.
The HG21 records full high definition video at 1920x1080p. You also have the option to shoot at assorted lower resolutions, all the way down to 640x480p for the Web. An optical image stabiliser is a big plus, helping keep video sharp.
Footage is stored on a 120GB hard disk drive. That holds 11 hours of HD video, or 45 hours in long play mode. Video and stills can also be recorded to, or transferred onto SD and SDHC memory cards. This allows you to back up your footage and also allows for easier transfer by whipping the card out. Transferring footage to a computer requires that the camera is connected to the mains, which is logical as it ensures the battery won't die in the middle of a long transfer time. It's still limiting, though, when you're on the go.
The camcorder can be put into fully automatic easy mode, or if you're feeling adventurous there are a plethora of manual controls. Exposure, focus, white balance and more can be adjusted manually. If you want to split the workload with the camera, there are 13 programmed exposure modes, and shutter and aperture priority.
At first glance the controls seem a little too simple for all these features: we found ourselves hunting for a menu button. The menus themselves are simple, and the joystick has a pleasing action. But the shooting option navigation, which uses the joystick to cycle through several small menus instead of one big one, is intensely frustrating to use.
Focus is fast and assured. Video is crisp with plenty of fine detail, as you'd expect from a high definition model. Colour is natural and well-reproduced, athough we found that setting white balance manually gave best results.
Low-light performance is good, with minimal noise problems. In an area where most camcorders fall down the HG21 stands up well, even if the lamp isn't particularly powerful.
The 3-megapixel stills look decent enough, with respectable colour and sharp definition. Stills capture is possible during video recording, but it is basically a frame grab from the video.
It's worth noting that even though the hard drive will hold 11 hours of HD footage, the battery won't last anywhere near that. As such, it may be worth investing in a spare or high-capacity battery. Similarly, the lamp isn't that powerful and the onboard mic isn't great because of slightly muddy sound -- and it has only two channels, so it won't get the best out of your five-channel surround sound setup. Consider making use of the mic input and accessory shoe -- while it's great to have these flexible expansion options, add-ons do add onto the cost.
The Canon HG21 is an exceptional camcorder. We just wonder what the point of it is. With its giant hard drive, great-looking video and assorted high-end features, it's worth the high price tag. But how many consumers are willing to part with that kind of cash when SDHC cards and external mics are likely to bump the price even further? The Canon HG20 seems a much more likely prospect, sporting a 60GB hard drive with a correspondingly drop in price. The Panasonic HDC-HS100 is another 60GB model with a more approachable price tag. Still, you know you've found a great product when the worst thing you can say is that it may be too good for its target market.
Edited by Cristina Psomadakis