Samsung HMX-U20 review

4 out of 5
£169.99

For

Image quality, autofocus, optical zoom

Against

Environmental noise from mic, background and operational noise in quiet conditions, low light performance not great, screen viewing angle not brilliant

Sticking with the slightly bent form factor of the HMX-U10, Samsung return with another stab at the pocket camcorder segment. The previous model suffered the way many of these cameras do: it was fixed focus and failed to deliver good results except in exacting situations. The HMX-U20 goes some way to correct this, and as a result, we have a device that is not only better than the last version, but better than many of its rivals when it comes to image quality.

Samsung has given its pocket camcorders a 7-degree bend, which we can only see as a way of making them appear distinctive. Samsung claims it enables the controls to fall naturally under the thumb whilst holding the camcorder, but we find it to be exactly the opposite. If anything, we've repeatedly found ourselves unable to see what is going on on the display.

This is partly due to that bent design, but also because of a limited viewing angle on the 2-inch LCD display. If you are going to make life easier for users, at least have the screen maintain its colour when viewed from above. If anything, you are likely to be holding the camcorder at eye level, which is fine, or resting it on a surface to avoid those inevitable shakes, where viewing angle becomes all the more important. 

Beneath the screen you'll find the controls. Shooting controls - video, stills and the zoom toggle range across the middle. Beneath these are a relatively conventional cross-type arrangement of buttons offering menu navigation and playback. With options being kept to a minimum - as they should on this type of devices - there is little to get confused about.

But it isn't bereft of settings. You can change the resolution from the headline 1080/30p down to a respectable 720/60p or lower, if you want to restrict the file size or make uploading faster when you come to sharing online. It's worth picking the resolution that suits your intended purpose: 1080p is better for big screens, like playback on your TV, whilst 720p gives adequate quality for online video. 

Around the front of the U20, the lens housing looks a little bulbous. It might not be as svelte as some rivals, but this is actually a real benefit. Not only do you get an autofocus lens, but you also get a 3x optical zoom. We have often advised against using the digital zoom that this type of camcorder so often possesses, but optical is a different story. It is a little softer when zoomed, but it does give you a viable option for getting a little closer on the action.

One of the menu options will let you turn on mute for zooming, so you don't hear the movement of the lens. This is an option where you'll have to see what your preference is. We'd rather hear the lens moving than have a long pause in the soundtrack, but it depends on your subject matter. A zoom in a quiet gallery might work well with mute, but zooming in on your kids in the garden, with a long silent pause, just seems wrong.

Rated as an F/3.5 lens, it doesn't perform especially well when the lights go down. Noise is evident in video in shadow areas, although it isn't critical on this type of device. Indoors this becomes more obvious, and when faced with a typical night shot, you'll find that the focusing doesn’t cope either. In this respect it isn't much different from other pocket camcorders.

However, when fed normal daylight conditions, the Samsung HMX-U20 becomes a very capable device. Handshake is a problem - leading to the classic image wobble that you get from small devices - but a screw mount on the bottom means you can quickly and easily attach it to something more stable. In many of the test videos (not the one below mind you...) we use a mini tripod for added stability and this really is worthwhile.

The U20 gives a realistic interpretation of colours and coped well in our tests in both sunny and cloudy settings, offering up realistic tones. There is plenty of detail in video too, and thanks to the autofocusing, you'll get sharper images both closer and farther away than you do from many rival devices. Focusing isn't hugely fast, but it works well enough for the sort of point and shoot video this device is designed for.

In terms of connections, the HMX-U20 offers a built-in USB for connection direct to your PC or Mac. Onboard software and an instant upload button try to make the process as smooth as possible getting your content online, although we always prefer to view and upload independently as it gives you more control and the chance to view on the big screen first.

Talking of big screens, there is also a type C HDMI connection on the U20, so you'll be able to connect it to your HD TV. Often this will show up flaws in the camera's quality, but in this case we were very impressed with the video quality. Hooking up to a Samsung TV also meant we could control it with the TV remote through Anynet - a minor point but nice all the same.

Of course if there is a flaw that the Samsung HMX-U20 suffers, it is that the mic can't cope with wind at all and will pick up environmental noise whenever you film, with background hiss thrown in for good measure. Reports from the US, which saw this camera launch before it hit the UK, identified that you can hear the autofocus mechanism as a background clicking during videos. Unfortunately that is an issue with audio, so if you are filming somewhere quiet, perhaps with a narration over the top blogger style, then you'll notice it if you are moving the camera around.

For some this might make the U20 a non-starter. With compact devices of this type there is always a compromise to be made: clean audio might be paired with poor video quality and in this case it is the reverse. The two mics are placed either side of the lens housing, which probably explains the cause of the problem. Forewarned is forearmed they say, so with the U20 bear in mind that audio in quiet scenes may be compromised as a result. 

There is no external mic socket which would have gone some way to eliminate these audio flaws. A good example of the audio quality indoors is in our BlackBerry Torch review, which you can find here (the review) or here (the YouTube video), with the focus not changing, you don't get the background clicking.

The U20 has a removable rechargeable battery and a power pack will let you charge the battery whilst it is in the camera, or via USB. You'll have to use the power pack if you want to take advantage of the time lapse capture option, as the battery only gives you 100 minutes, so you can hook up to the power and let it run all day for that Philip Bloom experience.

It takes SD cards so you can expand the memory as you see fit, making this a flexible pocket camcorder. The U20 is compact, measuring 15.6 x 52.5 x 104mm and weighing only 111g, so it is highly portable and pocketable.

We've been using the U20 for a number of videos, some shown here in this review, but we also used it to capture some hands-on time with new HTC phones at the launch event – you can find the footage in the First Look of the HTC Desire HD and Desire Z, or on YouTube.

Still capture is also possible and the quality is reasonable, although there is noticeable lag between pressing the button and capturing the image, and again, low light performance is poor.

Verdict

The Samsung HMX-U20 isn't perfect, but it punches hard in one of the areas that matters: the video quality is above par for this type of device, with both autofocus and optical zoom a step above the normal fixed focus options. You aren't overwhelmed with options and those you do get make sense, so it is a really easy camera to use. 

The downsides are that low light capture is noisy and in darkness the focus doesn't work. The lack of an external mic socket is a shame for those more interested in vlogging and quiet videos will have the background clicking as the autofocus hunts around. But for your average holiday videos or something to get some quality footage of the kids in the garden, then the Samsung HMX-U20 works well.