The Canon Vixia HG20 is an excellent HD camcorder that’s reasonably easy to operate out of the box and looks good, too. It’s almost identical to the company’s Vixia HF11, but rather than recording mainly to internal flash memory, it records to a hard drive. As for performance, it’s as good if not better than the Sony Handycam HDR-SR11. So in the end, it comes down to a preference for flash memory or hard-disk drive as your storage medium of choice. And if it’s for flash, your willingness to pay extra for it.
In addition to the price differential–which varies quite a bit on the Web, so it pays to shop around–there’s only a few spec variations between the flash-based HF11 and the HG20. The obvious is the HG20′s 60GB hard drive versus the HF11′s 32GB internal memory. In recording time, it’s 5 hours and 30 minutes to 2 hours and 55 minutes at 24Mbps (and both can be supplemented with SDHC cards). Ironically, there’s more differentiation between HG20 and its brother, the HG21: in addition to a larger 120GB hard drive, the HG21 offers an eye-level viewfinder.
Aside from capacity, it’s really just a matter of size and weight separating the HG20 and HF11; the HF11 is smaller and lighter at 2.9 inches wide by 2.5 inches high by 5.1 inches deep and 15.1 ounces to the HG20′s dimensions of 3.1 inches wide by 3 inches high by 5.4 inches deep and 17.6 ounces. Positions for controls and I/O jacks are slightly altered between the two as well. Most notably the dial to switch from video/still record to video/still playback is on the back for the HG20, on the side for the HF11. However, regardless of the model, the controls are large and easy to operate.
A five-way joystick and Function button–which navigates frequently needed shooting settings–live on the bezel of the camcorder’s smallish 2.7-inch LCD. Putting the controls out on the LCD instead of under the thumb can make it difficult to simultaneously change settings and keep the camcorder steady. In addition, manually focusing with the joystick can be a pain, regardless of the zoom-view focus assist.
The HG20 records AVCHD video at a maximum bit rate of 24Mbps, and can hold up to 22 hours 55 minutes of video at the lowest bit rate of 5Mbps. (There are five quality settings in all, which I find excessive.) That higher bit rate goes to support the full 1,920×1,080 capture, the norm for most of this year’s new models, compared with 1,440×1,080 for older AVCHD camcorders, which required only a 12Mbps maximum bit rate. You can record best-quality movies to SDHC cards as long as it’s a Class 4 or better (Class 6 is currently fastest).
Its optically stabilized f1.8-3.0 12x zoom lens has a longer reach than the typical 10x lens available in this class, but the rest of its features are pretty common in Canon’s prosumer models. For video, these include aperture- and shutter-priority exposure modes, 3 fixed/1 variable zoom speed options, a video light, Instant AF, and a wind-screen filter. You can also record in progressive 30 or 24 frames per second modes, as well as 60i. For still photos, metering, flash, and burst and exposure bracketing, options become available as well. The camcorder also supplies a complete set of ports and connectors: component or mini-HDMI out for direct-to-TV playback, mini headphone and mic jacks, and USB for downloading to computer.
The lens performs surprisingly well. Not only does the SuperRange optical image stabilization system work satisfactorily all the way out to the end, but the lens focuses quickly and holds the lock in both dim and bright conditions. Images look sharp, too. On the downside, high-contrast edges show more fringing than usual. The stereo microphone sits beneath the lens and generally delivers good audio quality. However, in recent models, Canon changed the wind-filter option from a forced-on to automatic, and ever since we’ve found it far less effective. The microphone attenuation (zoom mic) works pretty well, too.
Video overall looks quite good despite the use of a small, 1/3.2-inch 3.3-megapixel CMOS sensor. Recordings were properly exposed, nicely saturated, and sharp. As expected, in low light the video displays a good deal of noise and a somewhat compressed tonal range, but retains a significant amount of detail and fares above average compared with the rest of its class.
For the most part, the 24Mbps video is indistinguishable from the 17Mbps except in low light; when viewed on a large-screen plasma TV, the higher bit-rate video displayed significantly more luminance noise than the lower bit rate. The lower bit-rate video looked slightly softer, however. The difference between the two was still noticeable, but not as pronounced, when viewed on my calibrated CRT display. Even when extracting individual frames, I didn’t really see any fewer artifacts that would affect video editing. On the upside, there were no software incompatibility issues with the 24Mbps files.
An excellent choice for hard-disk-based HD recording, the HG20 gives the Sony HDR-SR11 a close run for the money and is a clear champion if you don’t like the Sony’s touch-screen interface. However, the real question is do you want more storage at a lower price or give up some storage space and extra cash for the smaller, lighter HF11. The HG20 gets my vote in that scenario.