As we reported in the recent JVC GZ-HD40 review, high-definition hard disc drive and flash memory-based camcorders are arriving fast and furiously. One of the newest on the scene is the Canon Vixia HG21, a model with a whopping 120GB HDD, a 3.3-megapixel CMOS sensor, potent 12x zoom and optical image stabilization to help eliminate the shakes from your videos. What’s also really great about this one is the fact it records at a very fast bit rate of 24 Mbps—almost the level of many HDV and MPEG-2 TS camcorders. In theory a faster bit rate means better video. Whether this baby delivered the goods is exactly what we wanted to discover…
Features and Design
The “dressed in black” HG21 is a low, long model measuring 3.1 x 3 x 5.5 (WHD, in inches) and tips the scales at 19 ounces with the battery. Speaking of juice, the HG21 has a nicely recessed battery that smoothes the lines and doesn’t intrude in any way. It’s nicely done. And, in case you’re wondering, the HDMI connection isn’t tucked behind the battery like the Panasonic HS9.
The front is dominated by a 12x optical zoom that translates to 42.9-514.8mm in 35mm terms. This is great on the telephoto side but I’d still like a wider view for close-ups. The lens has a built-in cover that opens and shuts when you power on/off. The JVC GZ-HD40 by comparison has a 10x zoom and a manually-operated lens cover. Also on the front is a flash for improved still quality, the Instant AF sensor and a stereo mic, not Dolby 5.1 surround like many Sonys.
The right side houses the 120GB hard drive and small logos attest to this fact. Toward the lens is a compartment with a mic input and A/V out. At the back is another door covering the mini HDMI output. Make sure you pick up an adapter to work with a full-size HDMI connector if you don’t feel like buying a new cable. You’ll also find a comfortable, adjustable Velcro strap.
The widescreen swing-out LCD takes up most of the left of the HG21. It measures 2.7-inches and is rated 211K pixels. It’s a decent monitor and in case the sun is too bright or the scene too dark, the unit has a pullout viewfinder in the back with diopter control. I typically use the LCD 95-plus percent of the time but I definitely used the .27-inch viewfinder with this one. Canon should upgrade the LCD or have an auto gain up or a screen brightness button rather than burying the adjustments deep in the menu system. When the LCD is closed the gloss black finish is dotted with a few logos and a silvery metal insert proclaiming the fact you own a HD Vixia HG21. Sadly, there are no shining blue lights like the HD40.
When you flip open the screen you’ll see a series of controls under it on the bezel along with a 4-way joystick control on the left side. The stick lets you walk through menus and make adjustments. The bottom controls give you access to the main functions, letting you adjust the zoom, engage backlight control and start/stop your videos and stills during playback. I like the handy BLC button since this helps you get a quality recording of common situations such as your subject standing in a window.
There are just two controls on the body with the screen open—Easy and Display/Battery Info (LCD adjustment should be added). Easy is basically no-brainer mode where the camcorder makes all the adjustments and you can’t tweak the unit at all. The Display button lets you decide whether you want the screen dotted with a million icons or none. It shows battery life remaining to the minute, a great service. Grid lines are available to help keep your horizons straight. Also found on the body is a slot for common SDHC cards (not hard to find microSDHC like the HD40), a USB out and the speaker. You’ll need a Class 4 card to record HD video on it rather than just stills. With 120GB I really doubt anyone will need additional space for video but the card is convenient for downloading stills via a reader.
The top has the cover hiding the hot shoe, power button along with CMOS and OIS logos. On the right above the hard drive are the wide/tele toggle switch and a button for taking snapshots. At the rear is the pull-out viewfinder, a key to turn it on and a circular mode dial to choose between recording video/stills and playing them back. On the bottom is a tripod mount and battery release.
All in all, this is a good looking, sensibly designed camcorder that fits easily in your hand.
What’s Included in the Box
The Vixia HG21 comes with a solid kit including rechargeable battery, AC adapter, remote, component, A/V and USB cables as well as a printed 134-page owner’s manual. It seems like a little phone book because there are 134 pages for each of three languages. The supplied CD-ROMs have Pixela ImageMixer 3 SE and Digital Video Solution disk Ver. 31.0 software. Pixela helps you manage your footage, edit it and burn AVCHD or DVD disks. The other software is for downloading and editing stills.
After snapping in the battery and charging it up, it was time to see if 24 Mbps video meant anything special.
Image Courtesy of Canon
Performance and Use
The Vixia HG21 has a 3.3-megapixel CMOS sensor which makes it capable of recording high-def video (1920 x 1080I) and 2048 x 1536 pixel (3MP) stills. CMOS sensors are the current quality benchmark for HD camcorders. Canon and Sony have used them for years while JVC and Panasonic recently joined their ranks. CMOS sensors simply do a better job than competing CCDs—producing less noise and more accurate colors, especially in low light. As pointed out earlier, this model records AVCHD at 24 Mbps per second versus 17 of the JVC GZ-HD40 and Sony HDR-SR12, both with 120GB HDDs. The JVC also records MPEG-2 TS video at 26 Mbps and has a 1080P output via upconversion so comparing the two would be a good challenge for the Canon.
This camcorder has a 120GB hard drive so it can record 11 hours of MXP 24 Mbps video. If you want to use lesser rates, you can store anywhere from 15 to 45 hours of footage. Although giving up some space, I set the HG21 to highest quality. As an aside I can hardly imagine recording 10-plus hours unless taking a Grand Tour vacation. And hours of goo-goo baby footage is only something a new parent would love.
Before getting into the actual performance, let me commend Canon engineers for the newly redesigned menu system. It is extremely simple to use, with very legible type. Not that camcorders are difficult to use, but this menu makes it even easier. I’d still like to see a quicker adjustment for LCD brightness, however.
Image Courtesy of Canon
Recording and Picture Taking
I started off shooting in the Easy, no-brainer mode, then used a variety of scene modes and moved to manual adjustments. With Easy, the only adjustment you can make is the zoom which is fine for most users saving family memories or nice vacations. Taking a step beyond Easy are the usual scene settings such as Portrait, Beach, Night and so on. Taking the full manual plunge, you have the whole gamut—focus, white balance, aperture, shutter speed and so on. When adjusting the aperture or shutter speed, a handy graphic appears showing the range available. Again this redesign is nicely done.
A big storm had just passed through the New Jersey coast so I visited Asbury Park to record the pounding waves and take footage of the colorful buildings on the boardwalk. It was a bit overcast early on so white balance was set to cloudy and when the sun broke through, WB was changed again while in manual.
Along with the basic 60I frame rate, this camcorder lets you record at 24P or 30P for a more film-like feel. Scenes were shot in variety of frame rates but at the maximum 24 Mbps setting. Beyond the Shore, I recorded similar fall/foliage scene as the HD40 as well as a jaunt to Shea Stadium. A variety of stills were taken too.
Once done it was time to view the various scenes on a 50-inch 1080P Panasonic plasma via HDMI. Stills were directly downloaded to my Dell PC via USB and prints were made. The results? The video shot outdoors was outstanding, pretty close to the 1080P output of the JVC GZ-HD40—which is no small achievement. Colors were really spot on, focusing was quick with little grabbing and the OIS did a fine job smoothing out jerky handheld scenes. Close-ups of brickwork on the old Asbury convention hall had few jaggies and scenes were very lifelike. The camcorder even handled bundles of day-glo colored orange tape. Another positive is the built-in mic. While not surround sound, it handled ocean breezes well and it didn’t sound like I was standing in a wind tunnel.
As noted, I did some recording in 24P cinema mode and must admit I prefer the vivid, more robust colors of 60I clips. But that’s my taste. Where 24P came in handy was indoors since there was less noise versus 60I in dim light. Although I was able to record a still life in low light, digital noise reared its ugly head in both instances. If you plan on shooting in low light, spending some cash for the optional video light makes sense. But video in good available light was terrific.
As far as the stills were concerned, this is a Canon so photos aren’t a throwaway feature. The HG21 has a 9-point AF system so the 3MP photos are pretty sharp but colors are not always 100 percent accurate. However, you’d be OK making 4×6 prints. The flash is quite helpful dealing with close-ups and even subjects 5-6 feet away. On the manual side there’s aperture- and shutter-priority, you can adjust focus, metering, white balance, image effects (like Canon digicams), use a burst mode or set up auto exposure bracketing. Again, these are 3MP prints so they’re decent but not as good as the Sony HDR-SR12 which has a 5.6MP CMOS sensor and uses interpolation to hit a spec of 10-megapixels. Surprisingly this 2008 Canon does not have Face Detection for stills or video. That would’ve been a nice touch especially since high-end Sonys like the SR12 have it.
The Canon Vixia HG21 is an excellent camcorder that delivers superior video quality and decent stills. I can easily recommend it and you really can’t go wrong with this home video maker. It’s comparable to the Sony HDR-SR12 reviewed earlier and another Editor’s Choice. Since both are $1,299 USD list, a lot boil to personal ergonomics and how important stills are to you (the Sony is better). That said the HG21 records excellent video in almost lighting conditions. If you do buy one, definitely spring for an extra battery since this HDD model (and all others) eats power quickly. Simply put: this baby is in the top ranks of 2008 consumer camcorders. For the record Canon also has the HG20 with a 60GB HDD for $949. It has the same video quality but doesn’t have a viewfinder, making it a deal breaker given the LCD’s short comings.
• Terrific video
• Fast, accurate focusing
• Great new menu system
• LCD should be better
• No Face Detection
• Eats batteries