Canon has changed its HD camcorder strategy in 2009. Where the 2008 models were all essentially variations on a theme, the new Legria range has split in two. One half is even higher end, represented by the HF S10, while the other half is intended to be more mainstream and affordable. Our first taste of this more modest division is the HF20.
Where the HF S10 is bigger and more packed with features than any of Canon's previous Flash memory-based offerings, the HF20 is slightly smaller. It is 40g lighter and a few millimetres shorter in each dimension, but this reduction in size has come at the expense of an important internal specification - the sensor. The HF20's 1/4in CMOS is considerably smaller than any Canon HD camcorder produced until now, but it's relatively high resolution, with 3.89Mpixels, although only 2.99Mpixels are used when recording video.
Unlike the HF S10, the extra sensor pixels aren't harnessed for a digital telephoto, but the optical zoom is already a healthy 15x, thanks to the smaller sensor. Image stabilisation uses an optical system, too, which is more effective than digital methods.
So the HF20 is not the leap forward in specification of the HF S10. It lacks the manual control wheel on the lens, too, but it does have some features in common with its premium cousin. For a start, there's the same quick access to a selection of frequently used settings. Simply push the joystick up to scroll through the options, which range from toggling the built-in LED video light and backlight compensation to controlling mic levels.
You can also turn on or off the face detection system. Without the HF S10's control wheel, the joystick is used for manual focusing, too. The HF20 does still include a focus assist system, which zooms the LCD as you adjust so you can get a closer look. However, there are no peaking or alternative methods to further aid focusing. Fortunately, Canon's Instant AF is one of the quickest autofocus systems in the business.
Canon's now-familiar 'Function' button puts the HF20's various modes just a few finger presses away. In addition to the standard 'Program' mode, there are aperture and shutter priority options, plus 'Cine', which alters the gamut for more film-like colour. Finally, there is the usual array of scene presets. Priority modes can be used in tandem with the exposure setting to provide quasi-independent control over both shutter and aperture.