Canon HV20 Review

Canon HV20
“It seems Canon took the complaints about the HV10 to heart and solved most of them.”
  • Excellent HDV video
  • OIS
  • nice form factor
  • Bulky tape-based format; editing software is not included


The Canon HV20 is the company’s second HDV model, following on the heels of the HV10. Note: the HR10, the company’s first AVCHD camcorder using mini DVDs, will be introduced in August for $1,199 USD.

The HDV format uses MPEG2 compression at a bit rate of up to 25 Mbps and records 1920 x 1080 interlaced video. This compares to AVCHD’s 1440 x 1080i using MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 compression at a maximum 18 Mbps. Spec-wise, HDV has a clear lead and in real-world recording, you can definitely see the difference but I must stress AVCHD is far better than traditional standard-def video. The main issue I have with HDV is the fact it’s a tape-based system in a hard-drive, flash-memory world. With that on the table, let’s see how it holds up…

Features and Design

One of my main complaints about the HV10 was its vertical shape. I simply found its ergonomics very poor. With the HV20, Canon reverted to the traditional horizontal configuration and it feels very comfortable. Thank you, Canon! Measuring 3.5 x 3.2 x 5.4 (WHD, in inches) and weighing 20.8 ounces fully loaded, the camcorder is nicely designed with key controls such as the wide/tele zoom switch and the mode key within easy reach.

The Canon HV20 uses a 2.96-megapixel CMOS sensor combined with the DIGIC DV II processor, first found on Canon’s $10,000 USD pro-level XL H1. It also has optical image stabilization, a must when shooting high-definition video since every shake is even more noticeable. This camcorder is no beauty like the Panasonic HDC-SD1 but it’s far from a monstrosity. Other than a few decals noting the HDV format it really wouldn’t stand out nestled on the posts at your local CE emporium. The body is primarily silver with dark gray accents. Some have complained the camcorder feels cheap but that’s nitpicking—it’s a sub $1,000 USD camcorder, not an M1 tank or the new $1,699 USD JVC GZ-HD7US.

The front is dominated by the 10x Canon optical zoom with built-in lens cover. The digital zoom boost hits 200x but don’t bother turning it on since the results are fairly pixilated. Also upfront are a tiny LED enhancement light, Instant AF and remote sensors. On the top you’ll find the stereo mic and a plastic cover hiding the hot accessory shoe for an optional video light or microphone. You’ll also find the tape eject button, the wide/tele zoom control and a dedicated photo button. This $1,000 camcorder takes 3.1-megapixel stills. You can also take a 2MP still while you’re shooting video. The right side is the cover for the tape compartment plus two mode keys—one determines whether you’re recording to tape or miniSD card and the other switches between Auto and Program (manual) modes. Toward the front is a compartment for the mic and A/V-headphone terminals as well as a jack for connecting the supplied component video out cable.

The key feature on the left side is a solid 2.7-inch widescreen swing-out LCD screen rated 211K pixels; it handled bright sunshine well. While not a touchscreen like competing Sonys, main tape transport controls are located on the bottom of the screen (rewind, fast forward, play, stop). When the LCD is open, you’ll see the speaker, USB connection and the miniSD card slot. There are a number of buttons surrounding the screen on the main body for Display, turning on the light, BLC (Backlight Compensation) and Focus. Next to this button is a control for fine-tuning focus.

Most of your adjustments are made using the menu system that’s navigated using a small joystick and four-way controller located near the record button and function buttons on the back of the unit. The menu system is fairly logical but you do have to drill down to reach the useful scene modes such as portrait, beach, and fireworks and so on. There’s a small color viewfinder with diopter control and the main mode dial (camera, off, play). They’re all logically placed and easy to find. Also nicely done is the battery compartment under the viewfinder, When you snap the battery in, its flush to the body so no protruding chunks of metal get in your way. Next to the battery is a compartment for the HDMI and Firewire out connections. There’s also a DC in to connect the charger.

The Canon HV20 comes with a fairly basic kit—lacking a blank tape. I know companies are always looking to save money but why not toss in a DV cassette (around $3) in the carton with a $1,000 USD camcorder? If you buy this camcorder, ask the dealer to throw in a 3-pack of tapes or you’ll take your business elsewhere. Also, like the HV10, the software is lacking. The CD ROM (version 24.0) only has a browser for stills and drivers; no editing software at all. Fortunately, there are plenty of affordable video editing packages available. In the box is the AC adapter/charger, remote, component, A/V and USB cables. The trilingual Owner’s Manual is decent with 107 pages in English.

Once the battery was charged and tape/miniSD card loaded, it was time to start shooting.

Canon HV20
Image Courtesy of Canon

Setup and Use

While I had complaints about the HV10—mostly its upright shape and lack of HDMI output that have been rectified here—there was never an issue with video performance. The HV10 delivered the goods and the HV20 does so as well. I shot video of vibrant late spring flowers, family gatherings indoors and out as well as some beach scenes. The camcorder not only records HDV and SD video, it also has a 24p Cinema mode, the Holy Grail for camcorder enthusiasts. This is the same frame rate as motion picture film and as such gives a film-like recording compared to “harsher” home video.

This camcorder has a 10x optical zoom and it moves through the range very quickly. There were very few problems with auto focus—other than in very dark scenes when it hunted to lock in focus. There are a number of manual options such as focus to help in those situations. It also offers quick access to manual focus—you hit a dedicated key and turn a scroll dial. You can also adjust aperture and shutter speed with the joy stick. When recording at very slow shutter speeds, you really see the benefits of optical image stabilization. The OIS here is among the best I’ve seen and it’s one of the real pluses of this model.

When played back through component inputs on my Toshiba HDTV, picture quality was a joy to watch (the same can’t be said for my efforts as a Hollywood cinematographer!). Footage shot outdoors was as realistic as can be particularly swimming pool blues and shrubbery’s deep greens. Even skin tones were lifelike. Material shot indoors was decent but there was a bit of noise especially in very low light scenes. The built-in enhancement light helped a bit but it still looked more like surveillance videos on Cops than something you’d want to show the family.

Canon HV20
Image Courtesy of Canon

The HV20 also takes 3.1-megapixel stills and records them to miniSD cards. Canon used its photo know-how to ensure good quality—there’s a built-in flash–but they are still only 1920 x 1440 pixels compared to today’s basic 7MP digicams (3072 x 2304 pixels). You can get a solid 4×6 print, however.


It seems Canon took the complaints about the HV10 to heart and solved most of them—including the shape and lack of an HDMI out. They still need to beef up the editing component of the CD ROM, however. Video performance of this new HDV camcorder is top notch and I have no problems recommending it. Realize it is tape-based so forget about instant access to scenes like competing formats and there’s always the dreaded possibility of recording over precious memories. But if you follow some precautions, the Canon HV20 is a memory maker of the first rank.


• Much improved ergonomics
• Gorgeous 1080i video
• OIS, 2.7-inch widescreen LCD
• HDMI out


• Menu system could be more intuitive
• Uses bulky tapes
• No editing software

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