Compared to Panasonic's sleek HDC-SD1, the Canon HV20 HD camcorder looks a bit ungainly, mostly because it has a large MiniDV tape mechanism grafted on to one side.

The Canon HV20 records 1,920x1,080-pixel HDV-formatted high-definition footage or standard-definition footage to MiniDV tapes, whereas the Panasonic HDC-SD1 (review here) records in AVCHD format to SDHC Cards.

However, the Canon and the Panasonic weigh almost the same. The Canon HV20 weighs 0.51kg, the HDC-SD1, 0.48kg. (Canon will release its first AVCHD camcorder, the HR10, in August 2007.)

The Canon 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, although the latter has a variable-speed setting, which helps smooth zooming.

The Canon HV20's lens cover is integrated into the body - and it's motorised, 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 Canon HV20 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 Canon HV20 offers a 24p mode to simulate the look of film recording; this setting 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, the Canon HV20 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 us 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 we 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 Canon 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 Canon 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 Canon HV20 produced superb-looking video (although most camcorders do pretty well in such an environment).

The Canon HV20 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 Canon HV20 has HDMI (high definition multimedia interface) 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 adaptors; if we were planning to buy the Canon HV20, we'd probably invest in the wide-angle adapter, because more than once we found ourselves trying to zoom out after already reaching the camcorder's widest setting.

Canon provides software for transferring still images from the Canon HV20 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 review of Adobe Premiere Elements 3, read our Corel Ulead VideoStudio 11 Plus review, and check out our Pinnacle Studio 11 Ultimate review).

We found that even highly compressed web videos looked better when we used footage from the Canon HV20 instead of video from a standard-definition camcorder, but we 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, we would steer clear of AVCHD models unless we had an extremely powerful PC. And the Canon HV20 is one of the better HDV models on the market, at a pretty good price to boot.

Canon HV20: Specs

  • Analogue line-in
  • built in stereo microphone (MPEG1 Audio Layer 2 stereo)
  • 2.76Mp still photography
  • 80x88x138mm
  • no built-in memory, miniSD card slot included
  • night recording mode
  • rechargeable battery
  • 2.7in widescreen LCD
  • 13 shooting modes
  • HDV
  • video input/output HDMI, DV (in/out)
  • 535g
  • (40x digital zoom), 10x optical zoom
  • 2-year guarantee
  • Analogue line-in
  • built in stereo microphone (MPEG1 Audio Layer 2 stereo)
  • 2.76Mp still photography
  • 80x88x138mm
  • no built-in memory, miniSD card slot included
  • night recording mode
  • rechargeable battery
  • 2.7in widescreen LCD
  • 13 shooting modes
  • HDV
  • video input/output HDMI, DV (in/out)
  • 535g
  • (40x digital zoom), 10x optical zoom
  • 2-year guarantee

OUR VERDICT

Since the HDV format demands less computing power than the AVCHD format does, we would steer clear of AVCHD models unless we had an extremely powerful PC. And the Canon HV20 is one of the better HDV models on the market, at a pretty good price to boot.

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