Canon's Vixia HG21 is a feature-filled high-definition camcorder that acts and feels like a workhorse. And for such a small camera, it produces great video image quality.
The HG21 sports a 1/3-inch CMOS sensor, the same size as Sony's HDR-CX12 ( Macworld rated 3.5 out of 5 mice ), and the sensor size has a positive effect upon the image quality. In low light and especially in well-lit situations, the HG21's video is of high quality and the image is remarkably clear for a consumer camcorder. I've seen camcorders that have smaller sensors, but the results suffer.
The camcorder supports 1,920-by-1,080 resolution at 24p Cinema Mode (24 frames per second), 30p Progressive Mode (30 fps), and, of course, 1080i-though I suggest that you stick with progressive modes. The p in 24p and 30p means that the camera uses progressive scan video, where video is drawn from top to bottom in one pass. Many camcorders, instead of progressive scan, use interlaced frames (the i in 1080i), where each video frame is displayed in alternate fields and horizontal lines are displayed from top to bottom. Interlaced video can look jaggy on a computer screen; look for progressive scan modes if you want to enjoy good-looking full resolution images on a computer screen. Canon has generally stayed ahead of the pack when it comes to offering progressive scan support.
The 24p Cinema Mode is what you would use if you want your video to have a movie theater-like feel, and in many instances, I think that 24p is enough for general use. But as it turns out, it's a good thing that the HG21 has 30p support, because iMovie '09 ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) disappointingly lacks support for 24p. If you want the 24p look, you need a video editing programme like Final Cut Pro ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ). If you simply want to shoot using progressive scan video (and I suggest you do), you can use 30p with iMovie.
One feature that Canon promotes with the HG21 (and rightly so) is its support of a 24Mbps bit rate. This is the highest bandwidth available for an AVCHD camcorder, though it's not supported by all camcorders. (I think that within a year, 80 percent of the camcorders over $800 will support such a bit rate.)
Why should you care about the bit rate? The imaging sensor in this camcorder captures data at nearly 1Gbps. To get that data squeezed onto the little hard drive in the camera, the video needs to be compressed. The more compression used on a video, the more the image quality is compromised-you'll have video with blockiness in areas of low contrast. The higher bandwidth means that less compression needs to be used on the video, which makes your video of little Susie smoother and more detailed as she's running across the backyard.
The HG21 also shoots stills, but don't leave your still camera behind just yet. The 1,920-by-1,080 still images the camera produces are fine in a pinch, but won't be anything you would generally want to print.
Because it has a 120GB hard drive to store footage, the HG21 is a little heavier than consumer HD camcorders that use only flash memory cards. You can store over 11 hours of video at the highest quality setting. The HG21 also has an SD card slot. This turns out to be more useful that it seems on the surface. Unfortunately, Canon forces you to connect the power adapter to the HG21 in order to transfer video from the camcorder's hard drive to your Mac; this can present a challenge if you are shooting on the road and a power outlet isn't nearby. Fortunately, there's a workaround: Shoot to an SD card, then transfer video over using an SD reader.
The HG21's user interface proves to be slightly technical but fairly easy to use with some practice. I have used the Canon's older Vixia HV20 extensively, so I am fairly well versed in the standard Canon camcorder menu system, which can be daunting at first for the uninitiated. There are really three menu systems, all driven from the LCD screen (which I initially found frustrating, though it grew on me). Navigation is all done with a small joystick, and it can take a little time for someone to develop the subtle touch required to pilot the interface. But once you get the hang of it, it's pretty smooth. Pressing the joystick brings up the manual controls, which, once mastered, are fast and simple, but at first are insanely frustrating-you have to pay very close attention to the little arrows on the screen to make sure you're in the correct place in the interface.
While the HG21 does have the manual controls that were available in past models, Canon chose to use the joystick to navigate these controls, instead of providing an analog wheel like in Canon's Vixia HV20, Vixia HV30, and Vixia HV40. This represents a painful step backward for the interface and makes it impossible to fine-tune the most important controls in real-life situations. This mars an otherwise near-flawless interface implementation.
Macworld's buying advice
Despite a few missteps, the Vixia HG21 is one of the better consumer HD camcorders that I've seen. The overall video image quality is very high, and the features and usability are there. If Canon could include the more advanced manual controls from past camcorders, the Vixia HG21 would be a home run.
[Alex Lindsay is the founder of Pixel Corps, a training and production guild specializing in digital media. Alex has been involved in computer graphics work for nearly 20 years.]