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Home / Photography / HD Camcorders

Canon HG21 review

By Mike Perlman, Friday 7 November 2008
Canon Vixia HG21
Canon Vixia HG21
Canon Vixia HG21
Canon Vixia HG21
Canon Vixia HG21
Canon Vixia HG21
Canon Vixia HG21
Advanced shooters and budget filmmakers take notice, our exclusive Canon HG21 review is here! You're going to want to grab some popcorn and flick on Cine mode for this one€¦

Review summary of the Canon Vixia HG21:
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Canon Vixia HG21 Canon has come dressed to impress with the 120GB Canon HG21 hard disk camcorder. Image quality is exceptional, shooting features are bountiful and the menu system is intuitive and stylish. These goodies come at a price, however, as the HG21 sports some no-frills architecture and a poor battery life. Throw in multiple frame rates, Cine Mode, advanced audio control, Optical Image Stabilization and a stalwart fleet of manual controls, and any woes regarding the minimal design and lack of battery stamina seem to be afterthoughts. Canon has also blasted the maximum bitrate to 24Mbps, finally matching that of HDV. With excellent joystick navigation, smooth menus and an image that rivals certain prosumer models, the Canon HG21 is certainly a worthwhile investment. This is a landmark camcorder that's definitely worthy of our high accolades. Release: November 2008. Price: $1300.
Pros: Exceptional video quality in most environments. Ample shooting features. Great audio control.
Cons: Lacks external controls. Poor battery life. Some low light issues.
Full Canon Vixia HG21 Review:
Design - Good

There's no doubt that the Canon HG21 is a sly, sexy camcorder in all its matte black glory. Canon has whittled down the original architecture of its debut HDD cam, the HG10, in favor of a more compact, user-friendly body. The HG21 weighs in at just over a pound and can fit in a large coat pocket or fanny pack, that's if you're daring enough to rock a fanny pack. Despite its significant diet, the Canon HG21 still manages to cram a prodigious 120GB HDD within its stealthy frame. Competitors, like the Sony HDR-SR12 are much larger than the HG21, but the Sony's large size admittedly promotes superior handling.

At only 2.7-inches, the LCD screen on the Canon HG21 is a little plain-jane (and not a touchscreen, like you'll find on Sony's camcorders). The camcorder also lacks the advanced zoom rocker we've seen on previous Canon models, like the Canon HG10.The HG21's port covers are cheaply constructed, held on by thin plastic strips. The only sound architectural improvement from previous Canon models is the LCD joystick, which enables instant menu selection and governs certain controls such as Exposure and Audio levels. Still, the HG21 is as consumer as they come on the outside, and this might ward off avid filmmakers on a super-low budget. We'd like to see a multi-function lens ring, pumped-up LCD screen and better port design on Canon's next HD cam.

Fortunately, the Canon HG21 retained the retractable viewfinder, which will save the day when the sun is blasting the LCD screen with excessive glare. There's also a Viewfinder On/Off button, which is not common amongst the camcorder population. The hand strap has a padded mesh liner along the inside of the strap. This is a comfortable ride, but the Sony HDR-SR12 feels more ergonomically sound thanks to its Land Rover stature. The Canon HG21 is more like a Subaru Outback; cozy, but it won't soak up rattling bumps like the Sony.

Interface and Menus €“ Very Good

Although the Canon HG21 is fairly lackluster on the outside, the inside is brimming with quality. Canon's revamped menu structure is one of the hottest interfaces in the camcorder world, flaunting a translucent black and burnt amber gradient color scheme. All action is controlled via the joystick, which is a bit fussy at times, refusing to leap to the next option. In addition, you'll just have to come to terms with the fact that the 2.7" LCD screen will not offer the largest viewing pane, which can be vexing when you're attempting to film yourself.

The Canon HG21 is equipped with a flat strip of buttons spanning across the bottom of the LCD panel containing key playback controls, an alternate Zoom toggle, Record button and Backlight Compensation button. When playing video clips back on the HG21, the Fast-Forward and Rewind controls do not function as efficiently as those on a tape-based camcorder. In fact, it's quite difficult to pause a clip on an exact frame because these playback controls are so spastic.

Shooting Features - Excellent

Advanced shooters will be pleased with the manual options on the Canon HG21. The camcorder is a manual control maverick and an auto control samurai. Not many camcorders offer this level of image control on the consumer level, and Canon shows that it's what's on the inside that counts.

The most enthralling feature the Canon HG21 has to offer is its ability to shoot in multiple frame rates. It can record video at 60i, 30p and 24p. When you throw the Canon HG21 into 60i, you will notice that motion is sharp. 60fps is used by most professional sports broadcasts for this reason. Since 30p and 24p are lower frame rates, motion will trail, giving your video a cinematic look. Many commercial movies are shot at 24p, and 30p is optimal for producing Internet videos because most sites like YouTube down-convert the frame rate to 30fps during processing. In a properly lit shooting environment, the Canon HG21's 24p mode will offer video that looks like it was plucked from the silver screen. Alternate frame rates are invaluable assets for any ardent filmmaker to have.

To further enhance the look of your cinematic masterpiece, the Canon HG21 is equipped with a battalion of image enhancements. Cine Mode is a filter that shifts the gamma level, desaturating colors and giving your footage more of a subtle film look. Combined with 24p, the image is stunning.

The Canon HG21 has Exposure and Focus control in the quick Joystick menu. Canon's Focus Assist feature magnifies the image so you can hone in on intricate details, which is very handy when you're shooting a long shot and need one particular area of the frame in focus. The Exposure range is sufficient for most light, but there's also an Aperture Priority AE mode that enables you to manually adjust the aperture if the image is too blown out. The camcorder also lets you adjust the shutter speed, ranging from 1/8 €“ 1/2000 second. For a consumer camcorder, this is a manual control force to be reckoned with. Now if only Canon added a multi-function lens ring to manage the Zoom and Focus.

Novice users should not be frightened off by all these manual controls. The Canon HG21 has an Easy mode just for you. Menus are inaccessible, all manual controls are disabled and the camcorder does all the work. You can pretty much press the Record button and Zoom. Plus, if you activate Auto Slow Shutter (ASS) before diving into easy mode, the Canon HG21 will automatically adjust the shutter speed to accommodate dark shooting environments. On the downside, the super low shutter speeds will cause your video to look like a choppy dream sequence.

Hardware and Connectivity €“ Very Good

The Canon HG21, along with its flash-based counterpart, the HF21, is the only AVCHD camcorder capable of recording at a bitrate that parallels HDV, 24Mbps. This is a monumental first in the camcorder world, as the max ceiling had been 17Mbps for quite some time. What this essentially means is that the HG21 can process more data at a faster rate, reportedly enhancing video quality. Canon also went with a smaller imager, but that didn't affect the camera's video performance. The Canon HG21's OIS functions well at low shake levels, but struggles a bit at higher levels of jitter.

Audio is not one of the HG21's strengths, but it offers plenty of options for improved sound capture. The onboard mic has a stereo levels meter that allows you to set the sensitivity based on the decibel level of the shooting environment. There's also a Wind Screen and Mic Attenuator, which are simply one-trick auto level controls that soften the pickup to avoid popping and hissing. These are pretty half-assed controls that will not make much of a difference. You'll want to use an external mic, and the HG21's hot accessory shoe can accommodate a spectrum of third party models.

The Canon HG21 is stocked with many essential ports: HDMI, Component, AV, Mic, Headphone, SDHC, Mini Advanced Shoe. Beware of the HG21's battery life. During a typical shoot, it should last you around 45 minutes to an hour if you're lucky. Plenty of backup packs are needed to accommodate this shortcoming.

Image Quality €“ Very Good

The Canon HG21 cranked out some of the best video performance we've seen in quite a while. The color palette and detail in most shooting environments cannot be rivaled by most other camcorders in its class. The HG21 sets a new high bar for high-def recording in the consumer space. However, keep in mind that we're still dealing with AVCHD here. At times you will be introduced to the dreaded AVCHD compression artifacts. When the lights dim, noise and grain come out to play. That's where the Canon HG21's alternate frame rates come to the rescue, as they helped the HG21 exhibit above-average low light performance.

While image samples you see here have been compressed to JPEGs, all of our analyses have been based on playback on a Full HD monitor via an HDMI connection.

  • Scene Test €“ Promenade View 60i

  • Scene Test €“ Promenade View in Cine Mode 60i

  • During this test the sky decided to cast a chalky, translucent haze upon the vicinity, challenging the Canon HG21 with all its might. However, the HG21 smites most of the encroaching fuzz. The color is spectacular, detail is triumphantly crisp given the circumstances and compression artifacts are nowhere to be found. On our HD monitor, a faint film of blurriness blanketed certain areas of the image, but that can be mainly attributed to the chemistry of the sky. In Cine Mode, the image adapts a dreary, ominous color scheme, but this is welcomed. It's a sign that the gamma shift is doing its job, and the image is even sharper. We just went from Steven Spielberg to Martin Scorsese in a matter of clicks. The HG21 is chock full of image adjustments to appease tourists and amateur filmmakers alike.

  • Color Test €“ Wigs 60i

  • Color Test €“ Candy 60i

  • Color Test €“ Glasses 60i

  • Crayola should be "Screamin' Green" with envy here. The colors the Canon HG21 produces are electrifying. At 60i without any image enhancements, the detail and palette fuse together beautifully. Rarely does a camcorder produce such bold colors while retaining the crisp, unwavering lines you see in the scarves, the reflection in the sunglass lenses and the edges of the candy boxes. In the candy image, there is slight pixilation in the Kit Kat stack, but the colors shine as they do in the other two images. There is virtually no color bleeding or fringing within any of these images, and the palette is consistently astounding. This is how color is done right in the camcorder world.

  • Detail Test €“ Building FaΓ§ade 60i

  • Detail Test €“ Promenade Sign 60i

  • Yet another display of excellence. The lines of the faΓ§ade pattern are sharp and exceedingly discernable, while the focused portion of the Promenade sign highlights its course surface without any compression side effects. Usually camcorders will struggle with surfaces like the heavily contrasted grain of the sign, tossing pixels around in no logical order. The Canon HG21 hones in on the fine divide between light grain and dark grain, churning a highly realistic representation of what the eye actually captures. The color is spot on in the faΓ§ade image, but it's the inherent life-like contrast and detail that places this display high above most other camcorders in its class.

  • Sharpness Test €“ Graffiti

  • Those sharp lines are also present in our classic graffiti test. Ghosting is nonexistent and signs of compression appear vanquished. That is, until you look deeply into the black lettering. The Canon HG21 has hidden a significant deal of blocky compression runoff within the strokes of the paint. With the Sony HDR-SR12, we were able to see the lines of the brush within the lettering, but the HG21 does not exhibit that kind of detail here. This is a slight disappointment, but not worth calling the whole thing off. The image is still top notch, but if you're a scrutinizing film connoisseur, this will slightly annoy you. Most shooters will overcome the minor flaw and resume salivating heavily over the Canon HG21's magnificent color performance.

  • Motion Test €“ Manhattan Bridge 60i

  • We tested the HG21 for motion by shooting from a motorcycle traveling approximately 40MPH on the Manhattan Bridge. For the most part, this image holds up exceptionally well. Compression artifacts and minor dosages of noise are present in the walls of the bridge, as well as most of the sky. However, the background remains in focus and the detail is strong for such a demanding shooting task. Certain portions of the video clip fared far better than others and this frame grab represents mainly the negative effects of AVCHD compression. Canon needs to do a little motion testing in the labs€”perhaps via motorcycle? Regardless, our complaints with this image are minimal.

  • Night Test €“ Times Square 60i

  • Times Square is the definitive tourist test, and the HG21 receives a B- here. Brightness is fantastic, especially at 60i, and colors are once again exploding with vibrant hues. But look who showed up to the party€”Mr. Compression and Mr. Stepping. Mr. Compression is dancing up a storm within the paneling of the black gas guzzler, most of the tourists in the background and Jim Carrey's new movie poster. Mr. Stepping is gallivanting along the curves of the taxi cabs, red pathways of the Maxell sign and most notably the stoplight pole on the left side of the image. Nighttime is like the silver bullet for AVCHD compression, and you can witness the detail and sharpness getting run over by the oncoming traffic. From about three feet away, this image looks splendid, but our relentless eyes examined every inch of this frame up close and the diagnosis is not pleasant. On the flip side, this image represents some of the best night-time performance we've seen in the camcorder world, which says a lot about low light capability on the consumer front.

  • Night Test €“ Court 60i

  • Night Test €“ Court in Cine Mode 60i

  • Night Test €“ Court 30p

  • Night Test €“ Court 24p

  • Here's a glimpse of the evil creatures that lurk about the night. For camcorders, these creatures are known as noise and compression. You can also catch some blue noise scrambling across certain areas of the courthouse. Then along comes Cine Mode to banish the horrid demons of image defacement. Yes, the image is significantly darker due to the gamma shift, but noise and compression levels have drastically dwindled.

    You'll also notice that the 30p and 24p images display less noise and compression as well, yet retain the brightest exposure. This is the magic of lower progressive frame rates. Compared to 60i, 30p and 24p are the way to go. They will save you in a low-light setting. Cine Mode combined with 30p or 24p is your best option in shooting environments like this one, and the Canon HG21 redeems itself by stocking these killer features.

  • Low Light Test €“ Desk and Lamp 60i

  • Low Light Test €“ Desk and Lamp 30p

  • Low Light Test €“ Desk and Lamp 60i with Manual White Balance

  • A similar parameter is found here in the classic desk and lamp test, yet the results are slightly different. In the darkness and shadows, the 60i image is slammed with noise and acute compression artifacts. 30p slightly ameliorates the noise crisis and wards off a large chunk of the compression, but the noise is still prevalent. There's also a slight fringing along the edge of the lamp, represented by a purplish arc. Even with a manual White Balance at 60i, the image exhibits the same flaws. This is a challenging environment for a camcorder, not doubt. The Canon HG21 manages to at least provide a decent exposure and colors are still popping. The noise is also not an aerial attack, but rather more refined pixilation. No big complaints here.

  • Candle Test €“ 60i

  • Candle Test €“ 30p

  • Candle Test €“ 60i Cine Mode

  • Candle Test €“ 60i with Manual White Balance

  • The foreboding candle test will make any camcorder quiver within its lens barrel. Surprisingly, the Canon HG21 holds its own while most of the light takes a vacation. Detail is sharp along the ridge of the candle glass and background noise is minimal. The gold shine of the lamp is quite realistic as well. You can detect a bit of noise and compression within the body of the candle, but the color gradation is smooth like an Irish pint. Look at the exposure boost 30p offers as well. Shooting at low frame rates in dim lighting is the ticket with the HG21. Cine Mode staves off a significant amount of noise, yet sucks the warmth out of the image. If you want an eerie or dramatic atmosphere, Cine Mode is the way to go. The candle with a manual White Balance looks almost black and white here and noise is flourishing. Keep it in Auto here, or play with the White Balance presets to dial in low-light environments.
    Name Score Price
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