Canon HV20 HDV Camcorder Review

Review of the Canon HV20 high definition camcorder. The Canon HV20 won camcorder of the year - read the review here.

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Video Performance* (10.75)*

The Canon HV20 comes equipped with some familiar innards: the same 1/2.7" CMOS and Digic DVII processor found in the HV10. Last year, we found the HV10 to have the best bright light video performance of any consumer HD camcorder, but the low light was disappointing. This chip offers a gross pixel count of 2,960,000. In 16:9, this equates to a 2,070,000 effective pixel count. In 4:3, the pixel count is reduced to 1,550,000.


In bright light, the footage from the HV20 looked as good as the HV10, that is to say… excellent. The most remarkable feature of the video performance is the crispness and clarity. So many consumer HD camcorders of late have held true to resolution expectations, but once you blow them up on a big screen, the noise becomes evident. The HV10 had a distinct lack of apparent noise. Up close, it turns out that the Canon HV20 does not actually lack noise so much as produce a finer grain than the competition. Sony’s HDR-HC7 had great looking color in bright light (certainly more saturated), but the blue channel’s noise is so much more apparent to the eye because the grain is large. The Canon HV20 was also brighter than the HC7 in 1080i auto mode. The Sony clearly showed more in-camera sharpening, which helped bring out borders, but our tests showed it to be only incrementally better in the actual resolution. In bright light, the colors were richer than the HV20; the opposite held true in low light. Full resolution images here.


Full resolution images here

Just for comparison’s sake, we also held the HV20 up against the XH A1 ($3999 MSRP), a price difference of about nearly $3000. Technically, this is the next step up in the Canon HDV line, though we doubt very much that someone would be torn between one or the other. The XH A1’s image was less saturated and more accurate. Pro camcorders like this record the image with peak fidelity, assuming that if you want more saturated colors, you can do that in post. Consumer camcorders make the assumption that you’ll want them more saturated, so they might as well do the work for you. The Canon XH A1 also had far, far less in-camera sharpening. Again, it’s working under the assumption that you want the most accurate image.


More or less the widow-maker feature that makes the HV20 the year’s most alluring HDV consumer camcorder, recording in 24P is simply beautiful. This is true 24 progressive frames per second, not a digital effect. Because the frame rate is slowing down compared to 1080i, we expected some increased sensitivity. The real question was whether that sensitivity would result in increased noise. We’re pleased to say that we did not see a noticeable increase, at least in bright light (3000 lux).


Not everyone wants to shoot in 24P, but you’ll probably want to once you see the HV20’s performance. We must preface, for some readers, that 24P does not look like film. Not ever. Not Ever, does video look like film, at least not without very expensive camera and post production equipment. In other words, it will never happen with this camcorder. What 24P does offer is a different look, particularly to motion. Fortunately, the HV20 managed to avoid some of the staccato motion stutter of older camcorder that try to emulate true 24P. Those accustomed to 60i and 1080i might find the difference in motion rendering unsettling. There is an unquestionable divide between adherents to different camps, based largely on aesthetics. You’ll have to work this part out for yourself. We found that the 24P mode also had the benefit of a producing a great look on finely textured surfaces like fabric. Shooting fast motion, like sports, however, would be better in 1080i. All in all, the 24P mode is reason enough to choose the HV20 over anything else on the market in this price range, because it’s presented as an option. See below for the benefit 24P had on our low light tests.


Cinema Mode

The other selling point on the Canon HV20 is the Cinema, or CINE, Mode. Independent of 24P, you can also use this color setting with 1080i or 60i shooting modes. The HV20’s CINE mode corresponds to the XH A1’s Cine V mode (Custom Preset #8). This shifts the gamma curve to respond to a greater dynamic range in the lower end, decreases sharpness, and generally reduces saturation. The camcorder also has options for minor manipulations in sharpness, brightness, color depth, and contrast. These effects are outlined in the Other Manual Controls section later in the review. Full resolution images here.


*Taken from the Canon XH A1 manual, this diagram shows the gamma curve

of normal video and CINE 1. There is no CINE 2 setting on the HV20. *

Video Resolution* (18.75)*

To test the resolution of the Canon HV20’s video, we shoot a DSC Labs video resolution CamAlign chart under bright, even light. Resolution is measured in line widths per picture height. In 1080i, the HV20 showed a vertical resolution of 575 lw/ph and a horizontal resolution of 625 lw/ph. In 24P, the camcorder actually improved the vertical resolution, producing less break-up and artifacting in areas of high-density information, boosting the vertical resolution up to 600 lw/ph. The horizontal resolution remained unchanged at 625 lw/ph.

These scores were similar to the Sony HDR-HC7, which produced a slightly higher score 650 lines of vertical resolution and 580 lines of horizontal resolution.

Low Light Performance* (16.6)*

Last year, the Canon HV10’s weak point was low light performance, and kept us from making it a recommended buy. When the HV20 was announced, Canon stated that they had increased the sensitivity, yet retained the same imager and processor as the HV10. At the time, they were unable to state how exactly this had been achieved. The answer is clear to us now: 24P.


Full resolution images here

There are differences in the HV10 and HV20’s 1080i image, though. We saw a bump in overall brightness in 1080i, most likely due to an increased gain. This had the effect of making the image noisy, seemingly noisier than the HV10, but overall preferable. We complained bitterly about the dim picture on the HV10. Sacrificing some noise for a brighter, sharper picture was the answer. The image was noisy in both images, but importantly, the look of the noise has changed. Whereas in the HV10, the noise was of a larger grain, with a lot of visible blue noise, the HV20 has a finer grain noise. We like the improvements this year. To the eye, the 1080i, 60 lux image looked similar to the Sony HDR-HC7 in terms of color reproduction, though the HV20 appeared a little richer. Canon clearly edged out Sony in sharpness, and also produced a cleaner image in the dark greys and blacks. Sony’s blacks were too noisy.

In 1080i, the Canon HV20 produced a much better level of sensitivity than the Sony HDR-HC7, achieving 50 IRE at a light level or 7 lux. The HC7 required 17 lux. Sony had a slightly better color error of 11, versus 11.9 from the Canon HV20, according to Imatest imaging software. The HV20 was very similar in noise to the HDR-HC7: 2.14% for Canon versus 2.52% for Sony. This was no surprise, given what we saw by our own eyes. Full resolution images here.


Switching over to the 24P mode, the strength of the Canon HV20 becomes clear. This camcorder is a killer in low light. The sensitivity (ability to produce 50 IRE) dropped all the way down to 3 lux, a fraction of the light required by the Sony HDR-HC7. Not only that, in 24P the color error decreased (8.24) and the noise decreased (1.81%). Because the 24P mode is a regular shooting mode, and not a special effect, we used that performance to tabulate the final score for Low Light Performance. Scores factor in sensitivity, noise, and color accuracy.

Comparing the 1080i images and 24P images side-by-side, the difference to the eye is clear. Any doubts about shooting 24P will wash away. Noise is more visible, to be sure, but the color performance is excellent.

Against the HV20’s 24P mode, the Sony HDR-HC7 could not hold a candle. Canon hands down.

Of course, the HV20 was soundly trounced by the Canon XH A1 (no surprises here). The XH A1 at 60 lux was nearly as bright as in 3000 lux. No consumer camcorder can make that claim.

We remind readers that the scoring rubric has changed for 2007, so the score of the Canon HV20 is not directly comparable to the score of the Canon XH A1.


Full resolution images here


Stabilization* (7.13)*

The Canon HV20 is equipped with the company's Super Range OIS, an optical image stabilization (OIS) system that reduces the effects of camcorder shake on recorded video. OIS systems stabilize the image by physically isolating the lens element from the camcorder body, sometimes using gyroscopes or motors. Canon’s Super Range OIS also employs digital processing to improve stabilization of long focal length shots, and the system works very well. The other more common stabilization method, EIS (electronic image stabilization), reduces vibration through digital processing alone, and reduces video resolution. OIS does not reduce video resolution and is a superior stabilization system.

We tested the HV20's OIS system using our camcorder shake emulator, custom built for The shake emulator can be adjusted to produce movements at different intensities and frequencies.

We tested the HV20 at Speed 1, equivalent to the shake produced while holding a camcorder and standing still; and Speed 2, equivalent to the more intense shake of a moving vehicle. The Canon HV20's OIS reduced recorded image shake by approximately 83% at Speed 1, and 36% at Speed 2. Measuring the motion difference between footage shot with OIS off and OIS on derived these calculations.

Wide Angle* (10.0)*

We measure the field of view of camcorders in 16:9 mode. The zoom is set to its widest angle, image stabilization is turned off, and we view the full video frame on an external monitor derive a field of view measurement. The HV20's maximum field of view was 50 degrees.

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.


  1. Performance
  2. Format
  3. Auto / Manual Controls
  4. Still Features
  5. Handling and Use
  6. Audio / Playback / Connectivity
  7. Other Features
  8. Comparisons / Conclusion
  9. Specs and Ratings
Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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