Canon HDVFirst up, even though this is a thread about Canon HDV, let me point you to some great reviews of the latest consumer (happy-home-snapper like you and I) HDV cameras over at Camcorderinfo.com.
They found the Canon HV20 ($1,000 to $1,100) out-performed the Sony HDR-HC7 ($1,060 to $1,170), the Panasonic HDC-SD1 ($1,070 to $1,160), and the dearest in the category JVC's Everio GZ-HD7 ($1,520 to $1,700). The Canon and Sony record to tape and use HDV MPEG-2 compression. The Panasonic uses AVCHD, an MPEG-4 based option and stores video on SD cards. The Everio records on a 60GB hard drive with both AVCHD and a new kind of MPEG-2.
Camcorderinfo says that the Canon HV20 has an advantage over the Panasonic and JVC because it uses tried and true HDV MPEG-2 compression and their tests showed that HDV remains the best consumer HD format. They found that both the Canon and Sony scored higher than the others in the comparisons. In the lab, they say Canon and Sony produced very similar results - both displayed sharper images with less noise than the Panasonic and JVC.
Canon HDV Crispness
But they were, like me, very impressed with the crispness of the HV20's image (most notable in close-up shots). The Sony wasn't quite so sharp. Followed by the Panasonic. The JVC came in last between the four even though it's the dearest. Interestingly they found the Canon performed well in low light and I've found that too although I've read reviews elsewhere where they say it sucks in low light.
Below this, I'm going to post some footage I shot in a Chateau in a low light situation. You be the judge. I shot it on Automatic too. But not in the 24p mode that apparently more than doubles the light-gathering ability of its imager. This is the much-touted Cine Mode which gives the Canon HV20 an edge over the others. It makes for a softer more filmic look - the contrasts are toned down.
Summing up: Camcorderinfo found that Sony has a wide range of options in the manual control arena but the Canon and JVC get the focusing down better.
The Sony HDR-HC7 was most feature-packed but absence of a focus assist feature was a liability. Cam Control multifunction dial was not as easy to use as its predecessors Cam Control rings.
The Panasonic HDC-SD1 is too specialized, though it is good for close quarters shooting, situations that demand silent operation, or a rock-solid optical image stabilizer. There's no headphone jack and no accessory shoe. It also records AVCHD video which in their opinion is not a threat to HDV.
The JVC GZ-HD7 had great handling with neat controls like a focus ring and dedicated buttons for image control. It lacks a headphone jack or any means of monitoring and adjusting audio levels. The biggest bummer with the HD7, however, was video performance: it just doesn't cut it.
Canon HDV - Best performer
They found that although the Canon HV20 had cheap-feeling construction and an awful zoom lever it was the best performer for the price (around $1000).
I agree with that - the Canon construction is a bit on the Mickey Mouse side - I'd hate to drop it. And the Zoom Control sucks but I try not to zoom too much anyway. In fact I keep exorting the YouTube crowd to super-glue your zoom control Dude - nothing looks as cheesy as zooming in and out all over the place.
One thing they don't mention above is what Editing and Compression to use with Canon HDV - and the others for that matter. I've been trying all sorts of Codecs but I keep coming back to Quicktime's H264. The footage below was edited on iMovie (I have Final Cut Pro Studio but I find iMovie very easy) and compressed on H264, "Best" Quality, Single Pass encode at a size of 640×480 - anything bigger and the file is enormous. Yes I know that size is not 16:9 ratio but it doesn't matter to YouTube and the other video-sharing sites as they just automatically letterbox it. Canon HDV - way to go. Check out the Canon HV20 interactive site here.