At a Glance
Compared to Panasonic's sleek HDC-SD1, the Canon HV20 looks a bit ungainly, mostly because it has a large MiniDV tape mechanism grafted onto one side. The HV20 records 1920-by-1080-pixel HDV-formatted high-definition footage or standard-definition footage to MiniDV tapes, whereas the HDC-SD1 records in AVCHD format to SDHC Cards. However, they weigh almost the same: The HV20 weighs 18 ounces, the HDC-SD1, 17 ounces. (Canon will release its first AVCHD camcorder, the HR10, in August.)
The HV20 has some tiny buttons--an avoidable design decision given the size of its body; the start/stop button and the zoom button are particularly small, though the latter has a variable-speed setting, which helps smooth zooming. The lens cover is integrated into the body--and it's motorized, so it slides open when you power up and slides shut when you power down. That way, you don't have to worry about a lens cap intruding into your shot or getting yanked by a curious toddler.
The HV20 ($999 as of May 22, 2007) came out on top of our August 2007 issue's chart mainly because it has more features and costs quite a bit less than the Panasonic HDC-SD1. The HV20 offers a 24p mode to simulate the look of film recording; thissetting adds a certain lushness to video, as long as you don't use it to capture fast-action or low-light clips. This camcorder doesn't have a full-manual mode, but it does have aperture- and shutter-priority modes. However, unlike past Canon models, it lacks a mode dial on its body, so you must scroll through a menu and use a tiny joystick to select different capture modes. Having to use this method slowed me down. A dedicated button on the camera body is supposed to enable the camcorder to compensate for a backlit subject, but it didn't even out the exposure as much as I would have liked (in fact, it lightened both dark areas and bright areas). Nevertheless, because it's a dedicated button, you can push it at the first sign that your subject is too dark, rather than fiddling with one of the priority modes.
We conduct lab tests with ambient lighting, which often proves pretty challenging for camcorders. The HV20 came in third out of four high-definition models we tested at the same time, but it wasn't far behind the second-place Sony HDR-SR1 (which also records HDV to MiniDV tapes). Nothing stood out in the HV20's output as a serious failing, but its performance in low light (where we dim the lights to simulate a poorly lit indoors setting) lagged somewhat. In less-challenging, well-lit settings--for example, a sunny outdoor park scene--the HV20 produced superb-looking video (though most camcorders do pretty well in such an environment). The Canon earned top marks for its still-image shots, and its sound quality earned very good scores. We got nearly 2 hours out of its battery, an outstanding mark.
Like most high-definition camcorders, the HV20 has HDMI and component-out connectors for connecting it to an HDTV (we tested with HDMI). An accessory shoe, which you can attach a video light or a microphone to (without having to use an additional battery pack) hides beneath a removable plastic panel on top of the camcorder. Canon offers telephoto and wide-angle adapters; if I were planning to buy the HV20, I'd probably invest in the wide-angle adapter, because more than once I found myself trying to zoom out after already reaching the camcorder's widest setting.
Canon provides software for transferring still images to your computer, but none for transferring video. Several video-editing applications do let you import and edit the HV20's HDV footage (see our reviews of Adobe Premiere Elements 3, Corel Ulead VideoStudio 11 Plus, and Pinnacle Studio 11 Ultimate). I found that even highly compressed Web videos looked better when I used footage from the HV20 instead of video from a standard-definition camcorder, but I had to invest much more time to render them, because editing high-definition footage requires a very powerful computer.
Since the HDV format demands less computing power than the AVCHD format does, I would steer clear of AVCHD models unless I had an extremely powerful PC. And the HV20 one of the better HDV models on the market, at a pretty good price to boot.