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Canon Vixia HF S20 review: Canon Vixia HF S20

Canon Vixia HF S20

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Reviews

I've been writing about and reviewing consumer technology since before the turn of the century. I'm also a photographer and cat herder, frequently at the same time.

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OVR
8.0

Canon Vixia HF S20

The Good

Excellent set of manual features; dual SDHC slots; generally well-designed interface.

The Bad

Poorly designed touch-screen menu system; short battery life; defaults to low-quality video mode; doesn't support SDXC; relatively expensive.

The Bottom Line

Though they're an excellent trio of camcorders, the Vixia HF S21, HF S20, and HF S200 are significantly more expensive than their respective competitors, especially since the S20 and S200 lack electronic viewfinders. If you can forgo some of the subtleties of the manual controls, you can probably get what you need with a cheaper camcorder.

Though I really liked Canon's 2009 prosumer Vixia HF S1x series, I couldn't fully endorse the HF S10/S11 because it lacked an electronic viewfinder, a feature that higher-end users appreciate. Camcorders with EVFs are easier to hold stably while recording video, and EVFs tend to be easier to see with than an LCD in bright sunlight. I'm quite happy to hear that Canon opted to put an EVF on its highest-end model, the Vixia HF S21, for 2010. Unfortunately, the camcorder costs $200 more than than competing EVF-equipped models, making it--and its lower-priced, EVF-free siblings--generally more expensive than their direct competitors. (This review is based on testing of the HF S21.)

Canon's 2010 HF S series of AVCHD camcorders consists of three models that, as usual, differ by memory configuration and the aforementioned viewfinder. Their key specs remain the same as their predecessors', with the same optics and sensor, but they now incorporate Canon's latest optical image stabilization technologies, including the new Powered IS capability for improved stabilization at the telephoto end.


  Canon HF R100/10/11 Canon HF M300/M30/M31 Canon HF S200/S20/S21
Sensor 2.4-megapixel CMOS 3-megapixel CMOS 8-megapixel CMOS
1/5.5 inch 1/4 inch 1/2.6 inch
Lens 20x
f1.8-3.6
40 - 800mm (16:9)
15x
f1.8-3.2
39.5 - 592.5mm (16:9)
10x
f1.8-3.0
43.5 - 435mm (16:9)
Min illumination (lux) standard: 5.5
low light: 0.4
standard: 5.5
low light: 0.4
standard: 4
low light: 0.3

EVF

No No Yes
123,000 dots
LCD 2.7-inch 211,000-dot 2.7-inch 211,000-dot touch screen 3.5-inch 922,000-dot touch screen
Primary media 0GB/8GB/32GB flash; SDHC 0GB/8GB/32GB flash; SDHC 0GB/32GB/64GB flash; SDHC
HD recording MPEG-4:
1080/60i @ 24 Mbps; 1440x1080/60i @ 12, 7, 5 Mbps
(all video interpolated up from 1664 x 936)
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1440x1080/60i @ 12, 7, 5 Mbps
AVCHD:
1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1440x1080/60i @ 12, 7, 5 Mbps
Manual shutter speed and iris No Yes Yes
Accessory shoe No Yes Yes
Audio 2 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
2 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
2 channels;
mic, headphone jacks
Body dimensions (WHD, inches) 2.4 x 2.5 x 4.9 2.7 x 2.4 x 4.8 3 x 2.9 x 5.8
Operating weight (ounces) 10.9 (est) 12.9 (est) 18
Mfr. Price $499.99/$549.99/$699.99 $679.99/$699.99/$799.99 $999.99/$1,099.99/$1,399.99
Ship date March 2010 March 2010 March 2010

As the largest and heaviest models in their class, the HF S2 models are nevertheless comfortable to hold and use and will still fit into a roomy jacket pocket. Each model has a set of small rubberized bumpers on the top in front of the zoom switch that give you a little extra grip--a very nice design touch. As with its predecessors, they use an odd built-in lens cover that uses a closing-eye type rather than aperture-blade design that we usually see. The difference wouldn't be notable except that when the cover is closed, the two plastic pieces rattle against each other; since the camcorder is off, it's not a problem, but it is a minor irritation.

Canon packs a lot of stuff in the LCD recess, including buttons for switching between shooting and playback, video snapshot (4-second clips used to create a "highlights reel" effect) and a pair of SD card slots. Though it's nice to have a pair of slots, I suspect this is partly Canon's way of compensating for the camcorders' lack of SDXC support; you'd need two 32GB SDHC cards to get 64GB, the minimum size SDXC card. However, it does enable support for Eye-Fi wireless uploading and it lets you downconvert HD video to standard def video on the camcorder as well as copy to an Eye-Fi SD card in the second slot. Canon uses the limited bezel space for one dual-function button. While playing back video, it handles the wireless uploading; while shooting video, it lets you toggle between the Powered IS and the current image stabilization state.

The component, composite/headphone, and wired remote jacks are underneath a slide-down cover in the recess as well. I think the headphone jack location is awkward for shooters who use the headphones and EVF while recording, not to mention the drain on the already underpowered battery of using the EVF and the LCD at the same time.

The top of the camcorder looks a lot busier than it really is; it consists of the typical power, photo, and zoom switches, plus a bunch of lights and labels. Farther forward are the accessory shoe and a pop-up flash-video light combo. The stereo mics rest on either side of the large lens barrel, with a mic input just below the front strap connector. On the grip side of the camcorder is a small auto/manual switch and a flip-up cover under which the Mini-HDMI and USB connectors reside. As with the older models, the strap tends to get in the way when connecting devices. The battery recess is clearly designed to hold a larger battery. I suggest you budget $75 to $100 for the higher-capacity BP-819 battery because the supplied 890mAh model usually lasts less than an hour.


  Canon HF S200 / S20 / S21 JVC Everio GZ-HM1 Panasonic HDC-TM700 / HS700 Sony Handycam HDR-CX550V
Sensor 8-megapixel CMOS 10-megapixel BIS CMOS 3 x 3-megapixel 3CMOS 6-megapixel Exmor R CMOS
1/2.6 inch 1/2.3 inch 1/4.1 inch 1/2.88 inch
Lens 10x
f1.8-3.0
43.5 - 435mm (16:9)
10x
f2.8-4.5
n/a
12x
f1.5-2.8
35 - 420mm (16:9)
10x
f1.8-3.4
29.8 - 298mm (16:9)
Min recommended illumination (lux) standard: 4
low light: 0.3
standard: 11
low light: 3
Night Shot (IR): 0
standard: 1400
low light: 1.6
Color Night View: 1
standard: 11
low light: 3
Night Shot (IR): 0

EVF

No/No/Yes
0.27 inch 123,000 dots
No Yes
0.27 inch, 123,000 dots
Yes
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.

OVR
8.0

Canon Vixia HF S20

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8Image quality 8