Benchmark: The best HD 720p digicam around

When I learned that the new Canon SX200 IS digicam has not only exposure compensation in video mode, manual focus in steps, but also the very important exposure & focus locking, along manual white balance/color/sharpness/contrast/saturation/skinTone/R/G/B, it was a sure sale for me. So we went with my JBQ today at Costco and bought one for $330 (he got a toy too, he bought a 120GB iPod Classic to fit his 50 GBs of music).

The camera records in 1280×720 resolution, at 30.00 fps, at 24 mbps bitrate, with the h.264 (baseline level 4.1) codec & mono uncompressed audio, in the MOV container. Now, think that the best AVCHD camcorder out there, also records at a maximum of 24 mbps, but at the much more demanding 1920×1080 resolution. This means that 720p at 24 mbps is actually a very solid, very generous bitrate.

I set up a scene on my balcony and tested SX200 IS’ video capabilities against my Panasonic FX150, Kodak V1253, and my trusty Canon HV20. Please note that while I shot everything in auto, I turned down to the minimum the color/sharpness/contrast/saturation/SkinTone of the SX200 IS, because that’s the look I like the best (and it’s more color-grading friendly). Please take a good note: the DEFAULT video look of the camera is MUCH more punchy and sharp in every way, which it might be what some consumers want, but definitely not what a serious videographer wants (the damn thing doesn’t color grade otherwise).

The Panasonic has a larger sensor, it records 24 fps in MJPEG at 25 mbps. Unfortunately, this bitrate doesn’t seem to be enough for the less-optimized MJPEG codec, as the picture shows below. The very famous Panasonic LX3 produces the same looking video as the FX150 btw, the two digicams are more alike than different in their video behavior. The Panasonics have exposure compensation, but not locking, creating a very jumpy exposure effect, which kills the seriousness of the footage captured. On the upside, its MJPEG format is very smoothly editable under Sony Vegas, unlike the much slower format of the SX200 IS.

The Kodak V1253, records in 720/30p at 12 mbps MPEG4-SP (simple profile, the same kind of the mpeg4 format as… cellphones record as). The Kodak cameras are plagued with color problems mostly, and the fact that they have absolutely no controls (not even exposure compensation). Under Vegas, its format is near-uneditable, and makes the editor very crash-prone (it realistically requires proxy editing). What Kodak has for it instead, is cheaper prices, starting at $120 (I guess, you get what you pay for).

The Canon HV20, is an HDV camera, shooting 1440x1080i mpeg2 at 25 mbps. In order to properly compare it with these mostly-30p 720p cameras, I had to shoot in the shade with an ND4 filter, at 1/30th shutter speed. I always have Cinemode ON btw, in order to emulate the filmic look (which is why the screenshot is not very sharp and might surprise some of you). I used 720/60i project properties on Vegas (in other words, I trusted Vegas to do a proper resize of the footage), and I used “blend fields” as the de-interlacing algorithm as it provided the best-looking image compared to not de-interlacing at all, or using interpolation (I tried all three options, and analyzed their best(“full”) captured screenshots before I decided which one to include above). Compared to the SX200 IS, it has of course many more options and controls since it’s a real camcorder, but most importantly, it has a better lens that provides twice as much background blur.

As you can see, the HV20 (as expected, even with the less sharp Cinemode mode) and the SX200 IS kill the competition out of the water. Yes, I know of the newer Panasonics that use AVCHD-lite instead of MJPEG, but they still don’t have as much control or bitrate as this Canon camera! Sure, the SX200 IS doesn’t have shutter speed control and a 24p mode, but compared to ANY other consumer 720p digicam below $500, it has the MOST controls and the BEST image!

If they add shutter speed control and 24p option in a future model (even without IRIS/ISO control), that team at Canon should get a medal.

Verdict: get one yourself! Don’t bother with its competition (unless you prefer to buy an actual camcorder, or a DSLR).

Update: Read the comments below, there’s some more info.

19 Comments »

Steve wrote on June 14th, 2009 at 8:24 PM PST:

I agree that the SX200 is a nice camera. One thing it lacks that you didn’t mention is the ability to zoom in/out while recording. This is a feature that several of the Panasonics have, and personally is one I’d like to see added to the Canon.


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Eugenia wrote on June 14th, 2009 at 8:39 PM PST:

The Panasonic FX150/LX3 can’t zoom while recording either. From all the cameras I have here, only the Kodaks can. And honestly, it’s the most useless thing ever. Digicams (and even DSLRs) are not designed the same way camcorders are, so zooming is never smooth or in-focus (not to mention their gzzz gzzz sound they make that the mic picks up). Therefore, it makes more sense to just first zoom at the level you want, and then start recording.

Additionally, for the kind of videos I do — which are not normal home videos — I never zoom while recording.


Ivan wrote on June 14th, 2009 at 9:25 PM PST:

The LX3 allows to choose form 4 different ‘film’ modes, and each can be modified on 4 levels: contrast, sharpness, saturation and noise reduction.
It is clear from your sample that the FX150, in auto mode, is the most saturated image. I would love to have seen the sx200 shot with auto settings. That would have been a more fair comparison.
I also would love to see a low light shot.
BTW, zooming with the SZ3 (tz7) while filming doesn’t make a sound, but some users complain about the slow speed of the zoom.


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Eugenia wrote on June 14th, 2009 at 10:43 PM PST:

You can download online many samples of the default look of the SX200. The default look of the SX200 is pretty saturated and contrasty, but still heaps better than what the FX150 produces under daylight.

However, to please you, I shot two low light samples, all in defaults, one with the FX150 and one with the SX200 IS. Right click to download them and compare them. Please note that my FX150 does not have any such “filmic” looks as you describe that lets you change contrast, etc. So everything used in these two clips is defaults.

Finally, the FX150 and the LX3 have a larger sensor, so they might be a bit better in low light than the SX200 IS. However, if you are going to shoot in such conditions, you are just a consumer who doesn’t take video seriously, or simply you are after “memories”. I don’t do home video, I [try to] do some more involved videography. Therefore, if the light conditions are bad, I will simply not shoot. Or, I will just go to our storage room and take out my 500 Watt studio lights. The point is, under normal lighting conditions, the SX200 can’t be beat by these Panasonic cameras. Even the new TZ7 that records in 27 mbps AVCHD-Lite can’t (I saw some raw sample footage earlier today from it). All the Panasonics are high-noise regarding their video.


blover wrote on June 14th, 2009 at 10:47 PM PST:

I’m sold, great for concerts and guerrilla filmmaking.


Ivan wrote on June 14th, 2009 at 11:34 PM PST:

E, thank you for the effort you put in this. I made a similar lowlight clip with my LX3, and it’s basically the same as the FX150. (I won’t upload, because I’d loose my one hd movie per week).
In my opinion, Panasonic beats the sx200 in low light conditions, but Canon wins in daylight conditions.
Your needs are obviously different than mine: I DO homemovies and I love to walk around with my very compact LX3, which is one of the best P&S, and be able to shoot pretty good video also, and then get home and start editing without crashes.


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Eugenia wrote on June 15th, 2009 at 12:26 AM PST:

The Panny has visibly more detail in low light. I set manual white balance, and exposure on LOW on both cams, in order avoid some of the noise. Unfortunately, the Panny’s *codec* (not sensor) is much more noisy and had luma problems (look at the yellow stuff in the pic below). So I guess, for low light, it depends if you want more detail and more noise, or less detail and less noise. Regardless, in good lighting conditions, the SX200 can’t be beat.

Download the sample images here (2 MB).


WT wrote on June 15th, 2009 at 2:40 AM PST:

I had the ZS3 and LX3 and also the SX200. Kept the SX200, but not for the reasons here. On the LX3 video — I found it much cleaner, and much better in low light. Not even close to the SX200, which I find super grainy in low light.

I think the 2.0 lens on the LX3 really helps it here, getting in 1 1/2 stops more light than the SX200.

But, I need the zoom, so the SX200 won out. The ZS3 was fairly comparable to the SX200


Bob C wrote on June 15th, 2009 at 8:32 AM PST:

OT: I like your accent! I viewed the SX200 low light video…


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Eugenia wrote on June 15th, 2009 at 10:16 AM PST:

>On the LX3 video — I found it much cleaner, and much better in low light.

In low light, maybe. But in daylght, the SX200 blows it out of the water.


VonRiesling wrote on June 15th, 2009 at 10:23 AM PST:

Thank you for doing these comparisons. These mean more to me than a pile of reviewer sites who don’t focus on the movie aspect of these types of cameras. If I didn’t already have a Lumix TZ5 I would jump on this model Canon.


blover wrote on June 15th, 2009 at 10:39 AM PST:

Why don’t you do the SX200 in low light and reduce exposure/gain to see if the detail comes through more.


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Eugenia wrote on June 15th, 2009 at 10:40 AM PST:

Isn’t that exactly what I did above? Read the comments and click the links.


blover wrote on June 15th, 2009 at 10:48 AM PST:

you did it on “default”… I mean can you do the light trick and cut the gain down on the SX200?

thanks.


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Eugenia wrote on June 15th, 2009 at 10:50 AM PST:

No, read carefully the NEW IMAGES I linked later. Not the videos. The videos linked are before the images. They are different shots.


Michael J. wrote on June 15th, 2009 at 11:16 AM PST:

Are you saying that a video camera that has no shutter speed control is good for anyting better than “memory” movies?

Also, you wrote that you can control exposure. Is it the same all-in-one aperture/shutter/gain slider that Sony camcorders use? Does the camera display current settings when you press the Photo button half-way? What is default shutter speed for 30p video: 1/30 or 1/60 or something else? Does the cam has a built-in ND filter (I don’t think so, but who knows).


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Eugenia wrote on June 15th, 2009 at 11:22 AM PST:

>Are you saying that a video camera that has no shutter speed control is good for anyting better than “memory” movies?

Yes. Many of my videos shot on HV20 that were certainly more on the artistic side rather than “memories”, were shot in 60i Cinemode, which has no such controls. In fact, the few controls I used for these videos are not more than what this digicam offers.

>Is it the same all-in-one aperture/shutter/gain slider that Sony camcorders use?

I think that was clear from the article. I wrote Exposure Compensation and Exposure Locking, not “manual exposure”.

>Does the camera display current settings when you press the Photo button half-way?

No, this is not the HV20.

>What is default shutter speed for 30p video: 1/30 or 1/60 or something else?

No one knows.

>Does the cam has a built-in ND filter (I don’t think so, but who knows).

Possibly no. This is a question to ask Canon, not me.


Michael J. wrote on June 15th, 2009 at 2:00 PM PST:

>> Are you saying that a video camera
>> that has no shutter speed control
>> is good for anyting better
>> than “memory” movies?

> Yes. Many of my videos shot on HV20 that were certainly
> more on the artistic side rather than “memories”,
> were shot in 60i Cinemode, which has no such controls.

Everyone knows that in normal lighning conditions the HV uses 1/60 shutter for 60i Cinemode. So, with the HV you know the “normal” value AND you can verify it at any given time with the Photo button. With this new Canon digicam you don’t know the number and, as your further reply indicates, you cannot verify it.

>> Is it the same all-in-one aperture/shutter/gain slider
>> that Sony camcorders use?

> I think that was clear from the article. I wrote Exposure Compensation
> and Exposure Locking, not “manual exposure”.

I assume this was a “yes”.


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Eugenia wrote on June 15th, 2009 at 2:12 PM PST:

>With this new Canon digicam you don’t know the number

No, like in any of these digicams, the video mode is very automatic. However, as I clearly said in the article, you still have more control over it than in other digicams. It’s all about what their *direct* competition is able to do, not what your nifty camcorder does. This digicam does not compete with camcorders. Each to its own. Don’t try to replace your HV20 with this camera, but your older digicam and its VGA video instead.

>I assume this was a “yes”.

Exposure Compensation and Exposure Locking is not what we call “manual exposure” (which usually means “full manual control”). But it’s better than nothing, and more than what any other digicam offers.


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