The HG21 is also part of Canon's new generation which has moved up to the top 24Mbits/sec data rate offered by the AVCHD format. Previously, camcorders maxed out at 17Mbits/sec. The increase in quality afforded by the less aggressive compression is quite subtle, but still noticeable if you know what you're looking for. With Panasonic's new professional AVCHD models using the same top rate, the HG21 is in good company, particularly as it offers a progressive shooting mode as well.
The range of manual settings is exactly the same as Canon camcorders from the HF10 onwards. But we have few complaints here, as the options were already comprehensive and easy to get to using the joystick on the edge of the LCD. Pressing the FUNC button calls up a quick menu system, where you can find five different manual shooting modes. The Program AE option is the most basic, providing just a simple Exposure control. However, there are also Shutter and Aperture priority modes available, which allow you to configure the shutter from ½ to 1/2000th and iris from F1.8 to F8 respectively. In both cases, the Exposure control remains available, giving you almost full control, although you can't adjust the amount of video gain which is being applied.
The final two modes are Cinema and Scene. Cinema mode alters the dynamic range for a more film-like look, which we found quite effective in some conditions, such as sunset shooting. But it's a shame you can't use it alongside the shutter or priority modes. The Scene modes include the usual options - Portrait, Sports, Night, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Spotlight and Fireworks. Canon also gives you control over sharpening, saturation, brightness and contrast via its Image Effects. Here you will find presets, plus a custom option that allows you to increase or decrease each setting by one increment.
There are minijacks for an external microphone and headphones to monitor the results. But, annoyingly, Canon has not taken the opportunity of a higher-end premium model to provide a standard-sized accessory shoe. And although the Instant Auto-Focus system is fast and accurate, we would still like to see a lens ring like the one Panasonic offers in its supremely feature-rich HDC-SD100 and HS100. Canon does provide a Focus Assist system, which zooms the frame automatically when you focus manually for a closer look. But it's still more cumbersome than the fast fine tuning possible with a ring.