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Canon HF S200 to HV20 comparison review

I’ve put Canon HD FAQ here: Canon HD Flash Camcorders FAQ: HF10 / HF100 / HF11

Here’s my review of the Canon HF S200 and comparison with the HV20.

Introduction


HFS200 with optional BP-819 battery

The HF S200 is a new Canon HD camcorder released in April 2010 and records to secure digital cards (no internal memory). Direct competitors would be the Sony HDR-CX550V and Panasonic HDC-TM700. I focus mainly on comparison between older Canon HD models: HV20 tape based model and also compared to 2 year old HF100 model.

There are 2 additional new HF S models which are identical to HF S200 except for these differences:

  • HF S20: in addition it has 32GB built-in memory. +$100 MSRP
  • HF S21: in addition it has 64GB built-in memory and .27” viewfinder (123K pixels). +$400 MSRP

In general I’d say the HF S200 gives you best value since 32GB memory costs about $80 and prices will further drop. The viewfinder on HF S21 is nice but most will do fine with LCD and also viewfinder resolution isn’t that great (especially for an additional $200).

Compared to HF10/HF100/HF11:

  • Bigger LCD screen and with touch
  • Additional front custom dial with selectable Tv/Av/Focus/AGC/Exposure/Mic level
  • 2 new stabilization modes: dynamic (walking shots) and powered IS (steady shots)
  • Zebra striping, focus peaking, manual max gain configurable
  • Highest 24Mbps bitrate instead of max 17Mbps compression rate on HF10/100 (HF11 also offers 24Mbps)
  • Face recognition and object tracking (shows box around object and tries to keep it in focus, can be turned off)
  • Pre-recording 3 sec
  • 2 flash card slots

There are couple of other new features that I don’t cover here. You can check the manual here (if it doesn’t open reload page again):

Canon_VIXIA_HFS20_HFS21_HFS200_Instruction_Manual

 General Handling

The size is roughly same as previous models and it’s fairly compact and pretty light. The hinges and compartment covers have been improved since the HF series.

Zoom control is fairly similar but a bit flatter and wider. If you have bigger hands you might overreach the zoom control, so I would test this in store if you’re unsure about the handling. I found it comfortable to hold once I adjusted the strap properly.

Menu navigation is now mostly through the new touch screen. E.g. if you want to change stabilization or program mode you’ll have to use touch screen. So for example let’s say you want to change frame rate:

  • Touch ‘Func’
  • Touch ‘Menu’
  • Touch ‘movie clips’ tab
  • Swipe finger upwards to scroll through items until you selected ‘Frame Rate’
  • Touch current frame rate and then select new frame rate

It’s especially the scrolling through items that I didn’t like. It wasn’t that sensitive but once you get used to it it works alright. But I would have wished for alternative joystick control. E.g. the front dial could have been used as alternative scroll navigation. Where the touch screen does work much better is focusing. If you got incorrect focus then you can go to ‘Func’ and select ‘focus’. Then you just touch the object you want to focus on (and try to keep picture steady on the object while it’s determining focus).

The screen itself is bigger and has nice contrast. It’s viewable very well outdoors with exception if you have bright sunlight straight onto the screen. In that case covering the screen with your hand will work. The HF S21 has an additional (lower res) viewfinder but I personally can live without it and save on the extra cost (even though in some bright situations LCD screen can be tough to see).

You do have an additional dial in the front with a knob and push button in one. Yan choose 1 function to assign to but if you hold the button you can switch between the assignable functions (without requiring touch screen). Default is manual focus: push knob in once and then you can use the dial to adjust the focus. This works well but with the new touch screen you can also touch on the object you want to track (so focus isn’t fixed). Other assignable functions are exposure, shutter time (Tv mode only), focal length (Av mode only), focus, auto gain limit and mic recording level.

Startup has been little bit improved. In my tests it takes 3-4 seconds before recording starts after camcorder was fully shut off. In standby mode it’s almost instant. There’s a new pre-rec mode where it will prerecord 3 sec before you pushed the start button. This obviously will only work after camcorder is ready at least 3 seconds. I did a test with pre-rec 3 sec enabled and pressed record at 12:03 and sure enough the recording starts now really at 12:00. Not sure what the effect is on battery life but it’s a nice feature.

Battery life seems to be little bit improved about unchanged since the HF100 but I strongly recommend getting a bigger battery like the BP-819. Otherwise expect about 1 hour with the supplied battery. The BP-819 gives you with average mixed use about 3 hours.

Recording Format

The HF S100 records (like almost all HD flash camcorders) in AVCHD format and features several quality settings. The highest setting features a full 1920×1080 resolution at 24Mbps which is highest among competitors. The default is the standard mode and clearly not as sharp so I’d recommend changing this to MxP immediately when you setup the camera the first time.

The recording is on SDHC cards and these can be found pretty cheap nowadays. A decent 16GB Class 6 SDHC card costs around $50. This will give you about 90 minutes of recording time at highest quality setting.

Note the AVCHD codec requires a pretty fast computer to do decent editing. E.g. at least duo-core fast CPU, 2GB memory and decent 256MB+ video card, preferably a quad core or Core i7. See HD Canon faq for more info on AVCHD and archiving and editing software.  

Audio quality and features

The audio is stereo 2 channel. I haven’t done a stereo separation test this time but I expect it to be similar to the previous models even though the microphones are now more cleanly separated on both sides. UPDATE: I did hear very clear channel separation outside and it seems this did actually improve. Roughly it was about 30/70% for right audio direction only.

The audio recording volume of the internal mic is pretty good and not too low (e.g. some manufacturers filter camcorder noise and reduce volume). You can adjust the recording input volume if desired (however the auto mode will avoid clipping). You hear almost no camcorder noise in the recording and the HF100 did pick up zoom motor noise at fastest zoom but this appears to be fixed in the HF S200. I did a few tests with fast zooming and I couldn’t hear clearly the zoom motor noise anymore. Overall sound is pretty good and similar to previous Canon models.

You can also use an external mic and adjust recording input volume and turn on/off ATT. I’ve tested the line in signal and quality has been improved over the HF100. I used to get some slight speed fluctuations which are now gone. I’ll post video on youtube soon.

There’s also a new 5.1 surround microphone available but haven’t tested it. 

Video quality

See comparison video here: http://vimeo.com/10814160

Indoors

Couple of differences compared to HV20/HF100:

  • Higher sharpening, contrast levels which cause in some places some contrast clipping (may not be visible unless you zoom in and freeze frame): checkout the shadow area under the sofa and notice the mosquito noise around the green pillow. You could lower contrast if desired (you can do this in custom picture effect)
  • More detail discernable (higher resolution) than HV20 but about same as HF100: checkout the power plates on the wall
  • Better dynamic range: checkout the the flowers: overexposed in some areas for HV20
  • Auto white balance almost identical (except in low-light, see later)

 
Comparison HF S200 to HV20. Click on picture to view 1:1 pixel

Outdoors

Auto W/B: for outdoors I noticed auto white balance appears again to be tweaked since HF100 and fortunately so far I haven’t noticed the magenta skies or too bluish issues in sunny conditions. Compared to HV20 it still has little bit more blue (less yellow) than HV20.

UPDATE W/B: I ran a W/B comparisons on a sunny day day with blue sky and it appears the magenta sky issue has been fixed with auto W/B. There’s still slightly some reddish cast but overall the picture looks overall very pleasing and warmer than daylight W/B:

Resolution: I don’t have the HF100 directly to compare but resolution is very similar and potentially slightly higher. Slashcam pointed out higher resolution but little bit more moire artifacts potentially due to downscaling but in everyday shots the difference is highly unlikely to be visible. Compared to HV20 it clearly resolved more detail. One thing I already noticed in last year models is that contrast and sharpness has been increased (artificially). See above. More pleasing to the eye but you can lose little bit of detail and get little bit more artifacts. But you still can manually adjust contrast and sharpness (for most recordings I prefer lowering contrast in custom picture effect manual mode to –1).

 
Comparison HF S200 to HV20. 2nd picture shows HFS200 default+sharpen -1. Click on picture to view 1:1 pixel

Low light

Auto W/B: low dim-light white balance has improved. There’s no green or strong reddish cast anymore. However the output though looks as noisy as always and the auto gain is now even more aggressive. This means that in a dark room it will increase exposure to brighten it up. This will cause 2 things: image is brighter than actual scene and incredibly noisy. Workaround is to change the AGC limit from auto to lower value. So first thing I changed is to set it to a manual value. I think around 18db 15db might already do a lot better and match more brightness of actual scene.

Overall there hasn’t been big improvements despite larger lens/chip but comparable to other models. There are now several options to improve low-light performance:

  • Do not use auto AGC setting and lower it to about 10-15dB which will reduce noise
  • Use the new night scene: dark(er) and contrasty and easy to use
  • Use 30p or 24p and Cinemode: more detail but not much contrast
  • Use manual Tv and slow framerate but motion will be jerky
  • Use new low-light scene: very bright but very noisy and motion is compromised since pretty low frame rate (Tv is better option here and gives you control)

UPDATE: see here low-light comparison video: http://vimeo.com/11631858

Here are some comparisons low-light crops: 1. Default compared to HV20, 2. HF S200 alternative settings:

 

UPDATE: I did couple of very low-light tests and noticed some random jumping white/gray pixels in fully black background when using manual gain. Setting gain to 0dB fixed it but picture will be pretty dark. Cinemode 24p also shows white/gray random pixels which I haven’t seen before in this mode (although that can be explained due to lower compression since in default high compression you won’t see this). I got a 2nd camcorder and that performed slightly better but not much so I guess this is partly ‘design’. I’ve uploaded framegrab 10dB here: framegrab 10dB recording with lens cap.

Depth of Field

I haven’t done any scientific tests here but one thing I noticed right away is that the DOF appears to be a bit shallower compared to HV20/HF100. I had couple of recordings fail due to object looked focused correctly but it was rather focused on another area slightly around it (to avoid this use either MF with zoom or click object to focus with peaking). Here’s an example of DOF with max zoom and distance is about 15 feet. Notice how hummingbird is in focus yet the feeder is not completely:

Purple Fringing / CA

There’s a purple fringing with very high contrast areas but typically these recordings are rare and typically don’t turn out good because of the high contrast anyway. You can remove the purple fringing in post-processing. See the Canon HD FAQ for details. Here’s an example with average and high fringing (with higher contrast the purple fringing will be higher). Click to see full picture:

There’s also some CA at full zoom especially on the sides. It’s about average but given the size of the lens I’d expect almost no CA.

 

Stabilization

There are 2 new stabilization modes:

  • Dynamic mode for walking shots
  • Powered IS for steady shots (brand new feature)

Both are big improvements over the standard mode the HF100/HV20 offers:

  • Dynamic mode works great for walking shots and they look a lot less jerky and you can achieve recordings now without getting seasick:-). There’s a slight delay when you stop moving with dynamic but I didn’t find that to be a big issue. I noticed with fast jerky movements standing still you’ll notice a warping/wobble effect (probably not caused by CMOS rolling shutter alone)
  • The powered IS is a brand new stabilization mode to steady a shot. It correct small movements fully and for zoomed shots works absolutely wonderful. I’ll post a video to illustrate this later. By default you have to hold the IS button but you can change it to be a toggle. I changed it right away to be a toggle

Comparison video stabilization modes: http://vimeo.com/10817385

Someone claimed that resolution would be lower in dynamic mode so I did a quick test (without movement) and I could not see any difference in resolution. See here 1:1 crop comparing stabilization modes:

UPDATE: downside I found out that the new 2 dynamic and powered IS modes don’t work with a lens attached:-(. See below under Wide-angle lens for mode details.

Manual control and Program modes

Manual control is almost identical so I‘ll only talk about differences:

  • Manual assignable control dial in front
  • B/W and/or color peaking for focus confirmation
  • Zebra striping for highlight clipping (70/100%)
  • Auto gain limiter
  • New PF24 progressive mode to shoot 24 fps natively (confirmed clip showed 24p). In combination with Cinemode this would give you a film like look. There’s still a 24p mode that records into a 60i container (I guess still useful for mixing frame rates)

I found picture a bit too contrasty for my taste. You can adjust these –/+ 1 step in custom image effects. Here are 2 comparisons (sunny and overcast):


Click to see 1:1 crop. Image effects comparison: default,sat-1,contrast-1,sat+contrast-1
 

Cinemode

Copied from last review since not changed:

Here’s little bit more info on the Cinemode program. Cinemode reduces the gamma output curve which effectively increases detail at highlights/shadow areas and reduces contrast and saturation. It also lowers sharpness (which could be close to the raw image sharpness?).

Indoors I found it works really great in dim to low-light if you use the 30p mode. See HF100 indoor example here: Cinemode indoor framerate comparison.

Also here are 2 examples for very low-light using Cinemode 24p:  Low light example #1 and Low light example #2. The progressive modes work best with cinemode to get a brighter picture (and 30p seems to be a good compromise to get decent fluid motion).

Outdoors is a bit different. First most would find it soft and missing contrast. So not for everyone. It does have though a very clean picture and you can do good post-processing on this. Second it does have more mid-range detail and less purple fringing I’ve seen so far. So your mileage will vary. You can also combine custom mode with Cinemode to increase contrast and saturation. I haven’t tested yet how this compares to default mode.

Here’s the JPG comparison (using photo editing tool): Outdoor framegrab cinemode comparison
Here’s the vimeo video (first default, then cinemode and last + approximate PP): Outdoor video comparison

Also here’s a great HF100 video of another user: Charlotte, NC (Uptown)

Wide-angle lens


HF S200 with WD-H58 lens attached and BP-819 battery

In my opinion wide-angle lens is a must for almost all recent HD camcorders because the minimum focal length typically starts above 35mm. So shots look a little bit zoomed in. Best wide-angle lens in this case is probably the Canon WD-H58 but it’s pretty pricey (about $270).

I received the WD-H58 wide-angle lens and quality looks good throughout the zoom range. I did find some slight softness on the right side occasionally (might be dependent on aperture but didn’t do comparison tests). At full zoom some edge softness was at times more visible and there’s some CA but overall good performance for this type of lens. UPDATE: in bright conditions I didn’t notice edge softness so probably related to aperture (click to zoom):

The lens is pretty heavy and makes the camcorder pretty top heavy. So it’s not quite as comfortable to hold unless you put your hand under the camcorder for support instead. But disappointing issue I noticed is that the dynamic and powered IS doesn’t work anymore with lens attached since I saw small movements that normally would be corrected. Looking at manual it says standard mode should be used when using wide or tele converter:-(. Not sure why it doesn’t work but I did notice it obscures the AF sensor in front. Canon really should have moved the sensor. I did test some walking shots and correction in dynamic mode is affected as well and not as corrective as without the lens. At full wide settings it’s little bit less bad if correction is less but still disappointing Canon could not apply same correction with lens.

Here’s comparison with no lens attached and with WD-H58. Looks almost same except slightly softer on right side (this is with default settings and again I think it would look better with contrast -1 and saturation –1 perhaps as well):

 
Full zoom WD-H58

Competitors 

I haven’t tested other competitive models so I can’t draw any conclusion. However according to at least 2 reviews the Panasonic HDC-TM700 is currently best rated. Personally I still prefer Canon’s auto (reddish) W/B little bit better but that’s purely personal preference. Both have strength and weaknesses. Plus side of TM700 is that min. focal length is wider at 35mm instead of 43mm so you might not have to invest in a wide-angle lens but I’d still recommend wide-angle for landscape or interior shots. Here’s 1 comparison picture indoor cropped 1:1 by slashcam.de between HF S21 and TM700. Resolution looks very similar. In some areas the Panasonic doesn’t do as well: check upper left corner, and check the violet rose dithering artifacts. I think difference is partially due to better Canon compression but otherwise they’re very close (except different indoor W/B):

Summary

Pro/cons:

+ Great image stabilization with the new powered IS for steadying shots. Dynamic IS is big improvement and fairly decent for walking shots
+ Good resolution
+ Good fast focus same as HV20 / HF200
+ Lot’s of manual controls including aperture/shutter priority modes and different frame rates
+ Additional 1.7x Zoom with virtually no resolution loss. Downside is that you have to go through menu to toggle it
+ Better W/B in low-light than HV20 / HF100
+ Great dim/low-light quality for consumer camcorder using Cinemode with a progressive mode
+ Good audio and good recording volume level, it does pick up slightly some zoom motor noise at highest speed
+ Good AVCHD encoder at highest quality
+/- Little bit high contrast/sharpening which can cause contrast clipping and other artifacts. You can adjust in custom mode
– Menu navigation not possible with joystick control and touch screen navigation can be a bit slow
– Wide-angle or tele Lens will obscure AF sensor and powered IS doesn’t work with lens attached
– Little bit pricey despite touch screen: $999. If you can wait prices should drop: currently $899
– Low-light with manual gain or cinemode shows jumping white/gray random pixels in dark areas
– Low-light performance not much improved despite larger sensor (but with manual settings good results can be achieved)
– Purple/bluish fringing in overexposed areas and some CA at full zoom but similar to HF100/HV20
– Despite highest 24MBps AVCHD compression there are still (block) artifacts in toughest scenario’s (e.g. waterfall zoomed in).
– No viewfinder but most might be fine without. However if you really can’t do without consider the (more expensive) HF-S21

2 responses

  1. clint

    You have done A LOT of research and work with these cameras. If I could ask, which one would you recommend:the Vixia HF S10 / HF S21 / or HF 200. There is quite a price difference and wanted to get your opinion on if it is worth the price jump to the HF S21. I think the HF 200 can be purchased at Costco for around 550. Thank you.

    April 16, 2010 at 10:12 am

  2. Lucien

    The HF 200 is missing dynamic/powered IS so doesn\’t have great stabilization if you need that. See review for differences HF S10. Sensor is the same but main differences are the powered IS and touch screen.

    April 17, 2010 at 7:28 pm

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