Canon Vixia HG20 Camcorder Review

Canon Vixia HG20 Camcorder Review

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Video Performance* (10.75)*

The Canon HG20 follows in the tradition of all recent Canon HD camcorders: really excellent video performance. It features a 1/3.2-inch CMOS sensor with a gross pixel count of the 3,310,000 (and an effective pixel count of 2,070,000). This is identical to the internals of sister model, the Canon HF11. 

At 3000 lux, the Canon Vixia HG20 looks as good as its comrade, the Canon HF11 – that is to say, the video looks great. Canon continues to lead the industry in sharpness and color vivacity. Critics could easily point to the over saturation as an error, but Canon is simple playing to customer expectations, and it's hard to fault them when the picture looks so good.

*3000 lux auto at 1080/60i *
*3000 lux auto at 1080/30P *
*3000 lux auto at 1080/24P *

Only two camcorders we've reviewed have come close to Canon this year. The Sony HDR-SR12 was a fantastic performer in its own right (that performance should extend to the near-identical HDR-SR11, as well). The other competitor is the Samsung SC-HMX20, truly one of the biggest surprises of the year. After a long history of mediocrity in the camcorder market, the SC-HMX20 leaped forward with incredible resolution and great color accuracy. However, the HMX20 is a flash memory camcorder, and for comparative purposes we'll be limiting most of our comparisons in this review to other hard drive camcorders.

The Sony HDR-SR12 did not match the sharpness of the Canon HG20, though the color performance was excellent. The JVC GZ-HD40 has a great looking picture in its own right, but the color pallet does not look as even as Canon's. And while the JVC's fine detail resolution is impressive, it can't match the Canon HG20.

The Panasonic HDC-HS100 produced a bright, vivid image that was very clean, but did not match the sharpness of the Canon HG20. Sharpness goes a long way in home videos.

Oddly, the previous generation Canon HG10 looks cleaner, somehow. It's the lack of noise. The HG20 is definitely sharper, which makes the choice all the more difficult. The colors were slightly less saturated, which is also compelling. However, given the ease of access to saturation control that Canon camcorders offer, this is not much of an issue.

Out of the lab, we shot with the Canon HG20 and the Panasonic HDC-HS100. Shooting the scene below, a complex mix of different exposure levels with lots of fine detail in the shadow, the Canon HG20 definitely came out ahead. Aside from the clear improvement in resolution, you can make out more detail in the leaves. And yet the Canon also seemed to do a marginally better job rendering details in the highlights of the sky, indicating a better dynamic range. There are some obvious color distinctions here, with the Panasonic favoring warmer tones. Both camcorders were in auto mode.

Let's look at color in a little more detail. Below is a shot under fluorescent lighting in auto mode. The Panasonic HDC-HS100 is way too warm, and the Canon HG20 is too cool.

Canon HG20 in auto WB
Panasonic HDC-HS100 i*n auto WB*

When we adjusted to a manual white balance, they actually both do a pretty good job, with Canon favoring a more vivid red for the table. However, from having spent a lot of time with those freakishly bright tables, we can attest that the Canon is more accurate in this instance.

Canon HG20 in manual WB
Panasonic HDC-HS100 i*n manual WB*

Now for a widow-maker shot. This is a tree branch swaying in the breeze against an overcast sky, and both camcorders are at full zoom. This puts pretty much every element of a camcorder to the test. Interestingly, the Panasonic pulled ahead in the race. It tinted the sky blue, while the Canon kept it steel grey. Also, the Canon left some purple fringing along the areas of high contrast, something Panasonic managed to avoid.

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Canon HG20 in auto mode 100% crop
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Panasonic HDC-HS100 i*n auto mode* 100% crop

Finally, we have this wide shot of a scenic square. The detail from both camcorders is good, but the Panasonic HDC-HS100 casts too warm a color balance. Sure, that's easy to change with some adjustments, but face facts: the vast majority of camcorder owners don't even know how to make a manual white balance, let alone correct colors in post-production.

Canon HG20 in auto mode
Panasonic HDC-HS100 i*n auto mode*

If we look at a close up portion of this shot, we can also see a clearly superior color compression from Canon.

Overall, the Canon HG20 is a very strong performer in most types of light.

Video Resolution* (21.94)*

The video resolution was tested by shooting a DSC Labs video resolution chart at an even, bright light. The footage was then played back on an HD monitor to determine resolution, expressed in line widths per picture height (lw/ph). The Canon HG20 produced a horizontal resolution of 675 lw/ph and a vertical resolution of 650 lw/ph.

Shooting in 1080/30P mode, the camcorder produced a horizontal resolution of 650 lw/ph and a vertical resolution of 650 lw/ph.

In 1080/24P, the HF11 produced a horizontal resolution of 650 lw/ph and a vertical resolution of 650 lw/ph.

It was no surprise that these were the same scores as the Canon HF11. The Sony HDR-SR12 came close, but not quite as good. The Samsung SC-HMX20 was our top resolution performer this year.

Low Light Performance* (13.95)*

The low light performance of the Canon HG20 was tested in three stages. First, we shot the DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde chart at an even 60 lux and 15 lux, then compared the results with our bank of previous camcorders.

At 60 lux (a moderately low light), shooting in the 1080/60i frame rate, the Canon HG20 retained a good amount of color. Once again, Canon appears to be sacrificing color accuracy for saturation that can push its way through the gloom of a darkened room. It's not a bad strategy, losing points on our accuracy tests, but gaining more in visual appeal and sensitivity. The whites remain fairly strong and most of the fine detail is retained. We weren't too pleased with the noise, which has been a problem with most of the Canons this year. However, the tremendous resolution of every Canon HD camcorder more than makes up for any setbacks noise could have posed to fine detail retention.

*60 lux auto at 1080/60i *
60 lux auto at 1080/30P
60 lux auto at 1080/24P

In the same light level at 1080/30P, the increase in sensitivity and color accuracy is remarkable. It didn't do much to reduce noise, however, which is a shame. It seems like Canon could spare the horses and scale back on signal amplification in 30P in order to decrease the noise.

At 1080/24P, the Canon HG20 picks up a little more color and sensitivity compared to 30P, but not too much more. If you don't like the look of 24P video (which can look jumpy or blurry to some people), the 30P mode has nearly all the same benefits in low light.

Comparatively, the Canon HF11 looked identical, which comes as no surprise, considering they have identical imaging systems. The previous generation Canon HG10 surprised us, showing an image that didn't have the sharpness of the HG20, but did a far better job with noise. The Sony HDR-SR12 looked darker than the Canon HG20, but the colors were very good. The Panasonic HDC-HS100 looks dull and washed out at 60 lux, but scored remarkably well for noise. The JVC GZ-HD40 was decent, not managing to capture as much light but scoring better in color accuracy and noise than the Canon HG20.

15 lux auto at 1080/60i
15 lux auto at 1080/30P
15 lux auto at 1080/24P

At 15 lux in 1080/60i, the noise increase was painful, but the colors were still decent. 

At 15 lux in 1080/30P, there's some improvement over the 1080/60i shooting, but not as much of a difference as we saw in the 60 lux tests.

At 15 lux with the 1080/24P mode engaged, the colors were definitely at their best.

The second test examines the HG20's color accuracy, noise, and saturation under low light conditions. We shoot an X-Rite Color Checker chart at an even 60 lux, then export frame grabs to Imatest imaging software to get the numbers. At 1080/60i, according to Imatest, the color error of the Canon HG20 was 12.9. This is pretty much the same score that we saw on the Canon HF11 (no surprise, it uses the same lens/processor system). The noise measured 1.8675%, which is definitely on the high end of the scale. This score was by far the worst of the competition, including the Sony HDR-SR12, the Canon HF11, the Panasonic HDC-HS100, and the JVC GZ-HD40. The saturation measured 66.07%.

Of course, when we tested the camcorder in its other frame rates, the performance improved. In 1080/30P, the color error got much better, clocking in at 9.03. The noise decreased to 1.62%. The saturation improved, rising up to 84.82%.

At 1080/24P, the camcorder's color error was reduced only a little, to 8.27. The noise actually increased to 1.875%. The saturation increased to 88.89%.

Overall, the color accuracy scores could have been better, but Canon is playing to the market expectations and over saturating its colors. However, the next set of tests explains at least one reason why Canon continues to dominate our leader boards.

The third test measures the camcorder's sensitivity. We lower the lights in a slow and steady manner while the camcorder is connected to a waveform monitor. We're looking for the amount of light required for the camcorder to achieve a peak exposure output of 50 IRE (a measurement of exposure). At 1080/60i, the Canon HG20 required 11 lux.

In 1080/30P, the Canon HG20 could produce the same results with only 5 lux of light.

In 1080/20P, the camcorder required 4 lux of light to produce the same exposure. Clearly, shooting in either 30P or 24P is the way to go if you want the best low light performance.

By comparison, the Sony HDR-SR12 required 14 lux of light. Granted, that's a big difference from the Canon's best score, but the SR12 only shoots in 1080i. When you compare the 1080i scores directly, the Canon is only a little more sensitive. Also, the Sony tends to look less noisy. So it stands to reason that if Sony started putting multiple frame rates on its camcorders, they could be cleaning up in low light performance.

Overall, Canon once again produced a brilliant low light performer. Shooting strictly in 1080/60i, the HG20 can hang with the best of them, though the over saturated colors cost it a little. Canon's ace in the hole continues to be its 30P and 24P frame rates, which not only look good, but do wonders for low light sensitivity.

Stabilization* (6.1)*

The stabilization system of the Canon HG20 was tested by shooting a target with the camcorder attached to our specially designed shake device at two speeds. Speed one, approximately matching the shake of an unsteady hand, and speed two, a rather emphatic shaking. When we turned the optical image stabilization system on, the Canon HG20 reduced speed one shake by 70%. At speed two, the camcorder corrected by 30.7%.

This score is just a little bit less than the Canon HF11, but was in a similar range to other Canons. A camcorder's weight, dimensions, and weight distribution all play part in the stabilization performance. On average, this is a decent score.

Wide Angle* (9.8)*

The Canon HG20 produces a maximum wide angle of 49 degrees. This score is about average for all consumer camcorders, give or take a couple 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. Conclusion & Comparisons
  9. Photo Gallery
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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