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When Canon first showed us the HV10, we were surprised that the company chose a vertical form factor for its first compact HD camcorder. In our review, we found that the vertical design brought with it some irksome ergonomic issues. Canon's follow-up, the HV20, includes all the same features as the HV10, plus 24p recording, an HDMI output, a longer-lasting battery, and an accessory shoe, all in a horizontal design that is more comfortable to use.
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 colour 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 colour 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.
Canon's horizontal design solves certain problems, but also makes for a larger camcorder. You can fit the HV20 into a jacket pocket, but it might be a tight fit depending on the jacket. Part of the reason for its size is the HV20's nice, big, 10x optical, f/1.8 to f/3 zoom lens, which includes the company's Super-Range Optical Image Stabilisation. Unlike standard optical image stabilisation, this version incorporates feedback from the processor to fine-tune its shake-fighting adjustments. In our field tests, it proved effective well past the typical 75 percent of the zoom range, but still couldn't perfectly steady our handheld shots when zoomed out to the 10x maximum. Instant Auto Focus, which employs a helper sensor on the front of the tape compartment to measure the distance to your subject, proved very fast indeed. But it slowed considerably in low light, which is just as much of a challenge for the helper sensor as it is for a normal AF sensor. Be sure you don't accidentally cover up the helper sensor, or your AF performance will slow to subsonic speeds. We also noticed a tendency for the HV20's AF to hunt, especially in moderate-to-low light, and it occasionally focused on the wrong thing, such as a fence rather than what was behind the fence. Both of these issues seemed to happen more at the far, 10x end of the zoom.
Behind the lens, Canon places a 3-megapixel, 1/2.7-inch CMOS sensor that captures 1,920 horizontal and 1,080 vertical pixels for either 1080i high-definition or wide-screen standard-definition video. In the case of standard definition, those pixels are downconverted to fit the format. For still images, the camera captures 2.76 megapixels (1,920 x 1,440) in 4:3 mode and 2.07 megapixels (1,920x1,080) in 16:9 mode. Atop the lens, Canon places its Advanced Accessory Shoe. Technically, you can call it a hot shoe, because it can provide power to accessories such as video lights and directional microphones. Of course, this will take a bite out of your battery life. In its more-accurate "typical recording time" spec, Canon clocks battery life at 65 minutes in HDV mode with the LCD set to bright, when using the included 1,200 mAh BP-2L13 battery. Canon also offers the higher-capacity BP-2L14 and the lower-capacity NB-2LH batteries as accessories. An extra battery is always a good idea if you plan to bring the HV20 on holidays.
We were very impressed with the video we shot with the HV20. Our footage was quite sharp, colours 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, colour 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 it's very impressive for a camcorder, you still wouldn't want to print larger than snapshot size. But, if you don't print larger than 4 by 6-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 non budget camcorders this year. The HV20's stunning high-definition video and comfortable operation make it a great choice for non professional, 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.