Compared to Panasonic's sleek HDC-SD1, the Canon HV20 HD camcorder looks a bit ungainly, mostly because of the large tape mechanism grafted on to one side. It records 1920 x 1080-pixel HDV-formatted high definition footage to Mini DV tapes, whereas the HDC-SD1 records in AVCHD format to SDHC Cards. However, it has more features and costs quite a bit less than Panasonic's model, and despite its size, they both weigh about the same.
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 with smooth zooming. The motorised lens cover is integrated into the body and automatically slides open when you power up the unit. In other words, you don't have to worry about a lens cap intruding into your shot or getting yanked by a curious toddler.
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 which are always a big plus.
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 considerably. 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. 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 conducted our lab tests with ambient lighting, which often proves pretty challenging for camcorders. The Canon HV20 came in third place 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 Mini DV 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. 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 for this camera: if we were planning to buy the 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. To import and edit the HV20's HDV footage, you will need a third-party editing package (check out our review of Vegas Movie Studio + DVD 7 (Platinum Edition) ).
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. Nevertheless, the Canon HV20 is one of the better HDV models on the market, at a pretty good price to boot.