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Canon Vixia HF S20 review: Canon Vixia HF S20

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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.

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8.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Image quality 8

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
40 - 800mm (16:9)
39.5 - 592.5mm (16:9)
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


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)
1080/60i @ 24, 17 Mbps; 1440x1080/60i @ 12, 7, 5 Mbps
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
43.5 - 435mm (16:9)
35 - 420mm (16:9)
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


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