Samsung is coming into its own on the camcorder front, with the Samsung HMX20 -- not to be confused with the standard def MX20 -- building on the everyman appeal of the HMX10. It's a sleeker, more confident beast, but how does the £650 camcorder stand up to the established likes of Canon and Sony?
For such a clever camera, the HMX20 is extremely compact. It's quite heavy for it's size, however, which at least goes hand-in-hand with seriously sturdy build quality. We like the absence of flappy rubber covers for the connections; instead, USB is hidden behind a sliding hatch, and the battery and SD card slots are protected by a neat flip-open door like the boot of a car.
The USB connection is duplicated in the included dock, alongside a full-sized HDMI connection. Mini-HDMI sockets are more common when squeezed into camcorder bodies, but regardless of size, the HMX20 doesn't actually include an HDMI cable. On the one hand the dock is one more bit of kit to carry around, especially if you intend to share your video on a friend's HDTV. But the design is quite clever, with the camcorder sitting in the dock at an angle so when the screen is folded round you can place the dock on a table and watch your footage.
The controls couldn't be simpler: power and record buttons sit at the back, with the record and zoom controls duplicated on the screen bezel. Zooming is far too brisk, with very little fine control. The mode button toggles between video, still capture and playback, with a handy LED showing which mode the camera is in. Above that is the stills button. Also on the screen bezel is a quick menu button for easy access to common shooting options.
The reason for the streamlined controls is that the HMX20 boasts a touchscreen. It's a 69mm (2.7-inch) screen that uses on-screen sliders to adjust settings like exposure. Although this is a pretty intuitive way to control the camera, it does involve tapping at the ends of the slider rather than actually sliding your finger up and down.
One other button worth mentioning is located in the screen well, and allows you to check the status of the battery and memory card without even having to turn on the camcorder on.
Samsung has added the novel twist-grip to most of its camcorder line. The right side of the camera, where it rests in the palm of the hand, is hinged. This means you can start with the traditional shoulder-level grip, fingers pointing upwards and thumb towards you, and twist the camera down to shoot at waist-level with the fingers pointing down and the thumb pointing away from you. This is particularly handy for getting closer to the level of children rather than filming the tops of their heads, and gives you a general flexibility in shooting angles. The twisting motion is pretty smooth, but may need to loosen up to be smooth enough to perform while still filming.
There's no accessory shoe, but you do get a pop-up flash and microphone socket, as well as a built-in stereo microphone and wind filter. Unusually, the mic is underneath the camcorder.
The HMX20 is a hybrid camcorder, which means it can record to removable SD and SDHC memory cards and also has on-board memory. It holds 8GB of footage in flash memory, which is less susceptible to knocks than hard disk drives, with the trade-off being somewhat lower capacity. The inclusion of memory card support means you can transfer footage from the internal memory to a removable card and continue shooting.
Video is recorded at 1080p high-definition resolution, and saved in H.264 format. Windows Media Player and QuickTime struggle with this format, although iMovie is happy to read footage.
The enormous 1/1.8-inch CMOS sensor gives impressive 6-megapixel stills. Face recognition works in both still and video modes. You also get a 10x optical zoom, going up to 100x digital, and digital image stabilisation. One of our favourite features is the slow motion function, allowing 1/2, 1/4 and 1/8 speed filming up to 250 frames per second -- but it should be noted this is at reduced resolution, and the resultant clips are not high definition.
Sound is only recorded in two channels, which is then encoded in AAC format. The mic is protected by a WindCut Plus wind filter.
Colours are natural and fresh. There is some tendency to blow out highlights, but exposure is generally quick to adjust. Diagonal lines suffered from some jaggedness but the picture was generally free of compression artefacts. There's a nice crispness to the detail, with only a trace of grain -- graininess is only an issue in low light.
Although lower lighting conditions did see a fair bit of noise, fine detail stayed sharp and colour relatively vibrant. The camera did a good job of exposing but not focusing in darker conditions, with zoom changes fixing the autofocus in low-light situations. It's a shame that there's no manual control over gain, which may have alleviated some of these problems. Nonetheless, we were impressed with the low-light performance.
Our main concern was the lack of optical image stabilisation. Panning too quickly -- which isn't that quickly at all -- leads to motion blur, and handheld filming also sees softness creep in. It's a shame that the excellent sensor is held back by the relatively poor performance of the electronic stabilisation system.
We were hugely impressed with the Samsung HMX20. Despite a lack of decent image stabilisation, it produces crisp high-definition video in a sleek, accessible package. It may not top the Canon HF10, but is still a great option for consumers seeking the power of high definition without the complication of an overpowered camcorder. The glossy styling and excellent low-light performance helped us look past the unsubtle zoom and lean manual controls, with the HMX20 giving more established camcorder-manufacturers a real run for their money.
Edited by Marian Smith