Canon's mid-range, full-HD Vixia HF R20 camcorder is a solid all-around shooter with a powerful lens and sensor combo, plus some attractive features. Ample built-in flash memory, a responsive touch-screen display, and several useful shooting modes help the HF R20 uphold Canon's good name.
Right out of the box, the HF R20 feels solid, professional, and well thought out. The body itself is sleek, light, and attractive and the most important controls are easily within fingers' reach. Both headphone and microphone jacks are provided for more accurate audio monitoring and recording. The lens cover opens and closes automatically, which may not seem so special, but it's one less thing to worry about when it comes time to shoot, and take the worry out of throwing the HF R20 in a purse or backpack.
But the two most exciting design features of the HF R20 have to be the built-in memory and touchscreen display. The HF R20 comes with 8GB of built in flash memory so as soon as the battery's charged, you can turn the camera on and begin shooting. It's about 2 hours of recording time at full quality, which actually outlasts the battery life. If that still doesn't seem like enough room, the HF R20 also has 2 SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card slots, which will allow for more storage than anyone will really need. The reliability and convenience of flash memory makes it the best thing to happen to camcorders since flip-out screens.
The HF R20's touchscreen display is bright, plenty big for viewing and reviewing footage, and refreshingly responsive. Most of the camera's menus and settings are accessed through the touch screen and are easy to navigate and understand. It supports touch commands for autofocus and auto-exposure, which is incredibly helpful and intuitive. Changing settings on the fly is quick and easy, and you never have to look away from the image. While a lot of camcorders have added touchscreens seemingly just to keep up with the times, the HF R20 actually uses this technology to its full potential.
Canon knows how to capture a beautiful image. Maybe it’s because they’re one of the few camcorder companies still making their own lenses, or maybe it’s because they tend to focus more on image quality than features. Either way, Canon always produces good-looking results and the HF R20 is no exception. The combination of a Canon HD lens and a full HD CMOS sensor makes for a stunning image in full light. Shots in the late afternoon sun showed sharp details and vibrant, natural colors. Everything looked pretty, even rust on a lamppost. In low light, the image became very grainy but detail and color remained clear and accurate and motion produced little to no blurring or artifacts. While many HD camcorders tend to wash out colors in bright light and mute them in dim light, the HF R20 provided a natural, accurate reproduction in both extremes. Furthermore, these results were with the camcorder doing all the exposure and focus work in auto mode. With a little more hands-on tweaks to the manual controls, the HF R20 can be very impressive.
While Canon may focus more on performance than features, the HF R20 does include some useful shooting modes. There are several preset scene modes such as Snow, Beach, Spotlight, and Fireworks that may come in handy from time to time. But the real gems are the multiple frame rate options, and the Portrait and CINE modes. The HF R20 allows you to switch from the standard 60i frame rate to either 30p or 24p. The 30p setting is standard among professional grade cameras, looks very clean, and translates very well when shared on the internet. 24p is the standard frame rate of film, and combined with manual exposure controls and manual focus, it can produce a classic filmic look.
And if you don’t quite have the patience for all those manual controls, the CINE mode switches to 24p for you, and also auto-adjusts exposure and color to produce more film-like results. In testing, the CINE mode produced noticeably warmer colors and a softer overall look. Finally, the Portrait mode will come in very handy for shooting close ups of friends and family. It sharpens the focus on the subject and slightly blurs the background to recreate the look of a shallow depth of field and make faces stand out.
The HF R20 boasts both standard and dynamic image stabilization. In testing neither of them appeared to work well. The 20x zoom range (expandable to 28x with some software-based assistance) is generous, but without a tripod or some other support, the longer half of that range is unusable. Cycling through no stabilization, standard stabilization, and dynamic stabilization during testing showed no visible shake reduction. The famous “jello effect” seen in many of Canon’s camcorders and even their DSLRs is certainly made worse with a lot of shaking and any motion at the long end of the HF R20’s zoom range created very noticeable bends and wobbles. So while the HF R20 will give you some of the best image quality you can get for the price, it’s not the best bet for shooting on the move.
The HF R20 comes packaged with Canon’s Pixela reviewing/sharing/editing software, which is supposed to help import videos and allow you to trim clips, add music, and easily downconvert HD clips for web sharing. Unfortunately this software is only compatible with PC (and I couldn't find direct access to the raw files stored on the camcorder), so Mac users will get to enjoy the sluggish, frustrating joys of iMovie. While the importing process is fairly easy with iMovie, it is very time consuming and buries your video files a little deeper than they ought to be.
The Bottom Line
The HF R20 is a well designed, easy-to-use camcorder with several useful and effective features. It produces beautiful HD images but requires some care, attention, and possibly a tripod to keep them stable. If you’re not planning on Cops-style run-around shots, or at least if you can live with the shakes, then the HF R20 is a very solid choice for a mid-range HD camcorder.