Canon's 2010 HF S series of AVCHD camcorders consists of two models that, as usual, differ by memory configuration and the availability of an electronic viewfinder (EVF). This year models' key specs remain the same as their predecessors', with the same combination of optics and sensor, but they now incorporate Canon's latest optical image stabilisation technologies, including the new Powered IS capability for improved stabilisation at the telephoto end.
As the largest and heaviest models in their class, the HF S21 and HF S20 are nevertheless comfortable to hold and use. They can fit in a pocket, if you happen to have a roomy jacket pocket. The HF S21 has a set of small rubberised bumpers on the top in front of the zoom switch that give you a little extra grip — a very nice design touch.
As with its predecessors, the HF S21 uses an odd built-in lens cover that uses a closing-eye type rather than the aperture-blade design that we usually see. The difference wouldn't be notable except that when the cover is closed, the two plastic pieces rattle against each other. As this only happens when the camcorder is off, it's not an operational problem, but it is a minor irritation.
Canon packs a lot of stuff in the LCD recess, including buttons for switching between shooting and playback, video snapshot (four-second clips used to create a "highlights reel" effect) and a pair of SD/SDHC card slots. While it's nice to have a pair of card slots, we suspect this is partly Canon's way of compensating for the HF S21's lack of SDXC support, as you'll need two 32GB SDHC cards to get 64GB, the minimum size of an SDXC card.
However, it does enable support for Eye-Fi wireless uploading and it lets you down-convert HD video to standard-def video on the camcorder as well as copy to an Eye-Fi SD card in the second slot. Canon uses the limited bezel space for a dual-function button. While playing back video, it handles the wireless uploading; while shooting video, it lets you toggle between the Powered IS and the current image stabilisation state.
The component, composite/headphone and wired remote jacks are underneath a slide-down cover in the recess as well. We think the headphone jack location is awkward for shooters who use the headphones and EVF while recording, not to mention the drain on the already underpowered battery of having to power both the EVF and the LCD at the same time.
The top of the camcorder looks a lot busier than it really is: it consists of the typical power, photo and zoom switches, plus a bunch of lights and labels. Further forward are the accessory shoe and a pop-up flash and video light combo. The unit's stereo microphones rest on either side of the large lens barrel, with a mic input just below the front strap connector.
On the grip side of the camcorder is a small auto/manual switch and a flip-up cover under which the mini-HDMI and USB connectors reside. As with the older models, the strap tends to get in the way when connecting devices. The battery recess is clearly designed to hold a larger battery. We suggest for the higher-capacity BP-819 battery because the supplied 890mAh model usually lasts less than an hour.
Canon's manual control dial functions the same as Sony's does. You press and hold the centre button to select the dial's operation: manual focus, exposure compensation, aperture or shutter, mic level and automatic gain control limit — which caps the signal boosting in low light to minimise visual noise.
All these options are available via the touchscreen as well. The function icon pulls up the frequently used settings, as well as the full menu system another level down. In addition to the usual, it offers real shutter- and aperture-priority shooting modes with a shutter speed range of 1/8 to 1/2000 second and aperture options ranging from f1.8 to f8, giving you more control over shutter speed and depth of field than you generally see in a prosumer camcorder. The HF S21 also offers Canon's Cine mode for adjusting colour and gamma, as well as progressive modes that recorded in interlaced format.
In still mode, you can select metering and drive modes, too. Other high-end features include x.v.colour mode, colour bars, a choice between 70 or 100 IRE Zebra stripes and a test tone. And if you have a yen for surround sound, it's supported via an optional external mic.
Thanks to a large, high-resolution LCD and (mostly) big virtual buttons, the bulk of the interface is one of the most streamlined and easy to use that we've seen on a camcorder. The LCD is pretty easily viewed in direct sunlight, although it's shiny and reflective, so you'll have to play with the angle a bit.
The only place where the interface falls short is in the menu system, which is teeth-gnashingly frustrating to use. The first issue is the scroll area: it's on the inside edge, so your hand blocks the display while you're scrolling. The second issue is the multi-touch-like scroll operations that make it impossible to accurately move a single entry at a time — we always found ourselves scrolling past the entry we wanted and frequently selecting the wrong entries along the way. At best, it will take some getting used to; at worst, it will drive you nuts. You should definitely try the HF S21 in store before you buy.
The low-resolution electronic viewfinder (EVF) is better than nothing — which is exactly what the cheaper HF S20 offers — but it's pretty coarse for manual focus. However, between the focus-assist magnification and peaking for edge detection, it's relatively usable. Because of its location, the dioptre is a bit annoying to set without poking your eye out.
The zoom feels very nice and it's pretty easy to maintain a steady zoom rate with it. Although we ran into a few frustrating situations where the autofocus guessed incorrectly about the subject — usually preferring the background, no matter how much of the frame the foreground subject took up. Once locked on the correct subject, though, it didn't lose it. In part, this is probably because the speed of the AF mechanism that giveth with its zippyness and taketh away with its accuracy.
Like Sony's camcorders, Canon defaults the video quality to the second-worst option, 7Mbps at not a full-HD resolution of 1440x1080. That means the video you get out of the box is rather unbecoming of an AU$1800-plus camcorder. There's no reason not to default to the second-best, 17Mbps full HD mode, which looks quite good and likely won't have the playback issues you might run into with the best-quality 24Mbps mode.
According to Canon, it has tweaked the sensor for improved low-light performance and enhanced the Digic DV III processor for better rendering of blues and purples. In our experience video including clear sky do look a little better. In decent light in its highest — and even second highest — quality settings, the video looks quite good. It's probably the sharpest among its competitors, though not by a lot.
Though it has some trouble accurately reproducing deep reds and pinks, overall, the camcorder has very pleasing colour. In low light, it meters for brighter exposures with more saturated colours than Sony does, but the video is also noisier overall than both Sony and Panasonic. However, it does look improved over last year's models. The audio records with excellent clarity as well.
While the camcorder's still images look a bit over-processed, they look a lot better than the interpolated photos generated by Sony and Panasonic's lower-resolution sensors. While photos shot in still mode look OK, stills shot while in video mode are much noisier.
If you're a video hobbyist or a pro looking for something portable to complement your workhorse equipment, the Canon Legria HF S21 is a solid choice. But if you don't need the more subtle aspects of the manual controls, such as shutter speeds below 1/15 second or a choice of Zebra stripe levels, then it's more expensive than it's worth.