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Canon Vixia HF S20 Review

Highs

  • Superior video and stills
  • Excellent 3.5” touch screen
  • 32GB built-in memory
  • Dual SD cards for additional storage
  • Good optical image stabilization system

Rating

Our Score 9
User Score 0

Lows

  • Expensive
  • Eats batteries; definitely grab a spare
  • Digital noise without enough light (still/video)
  • Not SDXC card compatible
You can't go wrong with the Vixia HF S20 as it comes from Canon's high-quality Vixia line of camcorders; the only question is which Vixia model suits your needs the best.

canon-vixia-hf-s20-e5What’s In the Box

The camcorder, of course, along with a remote; A/V, USB and component video cables; battery/charger; and CD-ROM with Pixela ImageMixer 3SE for handling video. The 220-page owner’s manual is also here as a PDF. An extra battery and a mini HDMI cable would be worthwhile add-ons.

Performance and Use

This is a top-tier device for capturing movies and photos. For video, you can record 1920×1080 Full HD at up to 24 Mbps, the absolute best for AVCHD. With the 32GB of built-in memory, you can capture almost three hours’ worth of footage; drop it down to 17 Mbps and that total bumps up to four. And that’s not counting any high-speed SD cards you may use. As for stills, since the video camera has an 8.59MP imager, it takes 8-megapixel stills at native resolution—no interpolation, no nothing. Specs are 3264×2456 pixels in 4:3 aspect ratio. It’s not the 12-18MP of DSLRs, but it’s more than good enough for 8x10s.

Most people use Auto when shooting camcorders and cameras. While that’s all well and good, the HF S20 makes it easy to go beyond simple point-and-shoot functionality. Just slide the Auto/Manual switch near the record button and you have access to adjustments in both modes. The newly-designed menus and touchscreen controls make this easy to do. One of our favorites was the aperture adjustment in photo mode that lets you swipe it. As you raise or lower the setting, you see the results on the 3.5” LCD. Also on the photo side, the HF S20 has two burst modes—3 or 5 fps per second, as good as any sub-$1,000 DSLR. As a plus, there are 9 AF points so there’s little grabbing and accuracy is very good, although not as pin-sharp as better DSLRs. Digital single lens reflex cameras at this price level (like the $1,099 15MP Canon EOS 50D) have 9 cross-type AF sensors which are more accurate; the HF S20 has no cross-type sensors). But this is really quibbling. Photo quality is top-notch.

canon-vixia-hf-s20-e2In essence, the Vixia HF S20 is a pleasure to use—as simple or as complex as you’d like. It feels just right in your hand, with a comfortable strap and logically positioned controls. With its improved menu system, there’s hardly need for the owner’s manual but it’s still a worthwhile read so you can dig into the possibilities. The screen, at 922K pixels, is a beauty. The Display button on the body gives it a boost if direct sunlight is a problem (and it was).

The results were not surprising since it’s basically a more refined version of the HF S10. Video was excellent. We used it during a blizzard and bright sunshine. The videos on a 50-inch screen were accurate representations of what we saw with our eyes which is exactly what you want from a camcorder. In these instances there was hardly any digital noise. We shot video of a candle in a dark room and there was definitely noise here though, just as there with photos taken in very low light. We recommend using the flash and video light in those situations. The new Powered OIS – which is designed to smooth out the shakes with telephoto shots – did a fine job.

Bear in mind, however, that although we’ve heaped mostly praise on the HF S20, it does have an Achilles heel. With its big screen and OIS, it drains juice from the battery quickly, much faster than you’d expect in fact, given the stated time. Canon should boost the milli-ampage on the supplied pack for the next generation—or at least provide a discount coupon for a spare.

Conclusion

Like 2009’s HF S10, this camcorder is hard to beat. Our only objection here is price, since it has an MSRP of $1,099 when it hits in April, plus you really need an extra battery for a long shoot. If you can’t wait for this one to arrive, the S10 costs $899 at legit online outfits or you can buy the new HF S200 for $999. (The latter has the same specs but there’s no internal memory; you supply it via the two SDHC card slots.) If you’re feeling flush, you can always wait for the $1,399 HF S21 with 64GB of memory and an electronic viewfinder as well. But no matter which option you choose, you simply can’t go wrong with these very sophisticated home video makers.

Highs:

  • Superior video and stills
  • Excellent 3.5” touch screen
  • 32GB built-in memory
  • Dual SD cards for additional storage
  • Good optical image stabilization system

Lows:

  • Expensive
  • Eats batteries; definitely grab a spare
  • Digital noise without enough light (still/video)
  • Not SDXC card compatible

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