Samsung SC-MX20 Camcorder Review by Kaitlyn Chantry Published on Oct 17, 2008 10:00 AM
Intro Format Still Features Audio / Playback / Connectivity Conclusion & Comparisons Specs and Ratings
Performance Auto / Manual Controls Handling and Use Other Features Photo Gallery
Earlier this year, Samsung blew us away with the surprisingly strong performance of their high definition SC-HMX20. Over the years, we had grown accustomed to mediocre video from the Samsung line and the HMX20 gave us not just reason to pause, but to recommend a Samsung camcorder. Unfortunately, the surprising improvements we saw in the HMX20 didn't trickle down to the latest standard definition camcorder: the Samsung SC-MX20 (MSRP $229.00). The MX20 still sports the same 1/6-inch CCD sensor and 34x optical zoom lens as its predecessor, the Samsung SC-MX10. With poorly colored video in bright light and dark—and plenty of noise in any conditions— the MX20 can't keep up with the competition. What the MX20 does do well is provide a smooth experience for beginners and experienced videographers alike. The menus are streamlined, the manual controls are intuitive, and the swivel grip makes just holding the camcorder fun and easy. If you're looking for the best performance from a simple, standard definition camcorder, there are other places you can turn. If you're more interested in a seamless video experience from store shelf to YouTube, we have plenty of good news ahead...
The Front (6.0) The Samsung SC-MX20 has virtually the same physical design as its predecessor, the SC-MX10. As with all the recent Samsung camcorders, the front is entirely consumed by the lens—more so than with most camcorders. This time around, Samsung borrowed from the design of their own high definition line, placing the Schneider-Kreuznach lens in a more distinctive cylindrical housing, rather than blending it in with the body of the camcorder, as they did on the SC-MX10. The result is a classier-looking camcorder. The SC-MX20's 34x optical lens has an aperture of f/1.6 - f/4.3 and a focal length of 2.3 - 78.2mm. This is all unchanged from last year's SC-MX10. Also unchanged from last year's model is the 30.5mm filter, a standard size for adding accessories like a telephoto or fisheye lens. On either side of the lens, you'll still find the built-in stereo microphone. This seems like a sensible place for the microphone, compared to the popular top-mounted microphones that are easily muffled by wandering pinkies. Really, the only noteworthy new feature to this generation is the built-in lens cover that can be manually opened and closed. We prefer this to the separate lens cover of the MX10 or the automatic lens cover of the SC-HMX20. Lens caps can be lost and the delicate inner mechanics of an automatic enclosure can fail. The built-in manual lens cover is a positive new feature.
The SC-MX20's new Schneider-Kreuznach lens has all the same specs as the Samsung lens on last year's MX10—only the branding has changed.
Not much is new: The lens barrel is more distinctive and Samsung has added this switch to control the new built-in lens enclosure.
The Right Side (5.75) The right side of the SC-MX20, as on most consumer camcorders, serves only as an otherwise barren handhold. There are no ports, switches, or other features. However, Samsung has given us reason to be interested again in the right side of a camcorder with their clever and unconventional swivel-grip. This is a repeat feature from last generation's SC-MX10 and SC-HMX10 (Review, Specs, Recent News, $288.95): a grip that allows you to rotate the body of the camcorder up to 180 degrees while keeping your hand in the same horizontal position. It's a very cool design, one that makes all sorts of angles possibleâ€”including flashlight-style shooting from the hip. Samsung did manage to make two improvements over last year's model: the pivot axle on the swivel grip and the adjustable hand strap have both been beefed up. On the SC-MX10 and the HMX10, the swivel grip tended to bend outward away from the body of the camcorder. Thanks to the more robust axle of the MX20, you would have to pull very hard and very deliberately in order to replicate this flaw. The other change is a welcome sight... Samsung has widened the hand strap for more coverage and, therefore, more stability. We prefer this upgrade over the improvement made for the high definition model: the HMX20 has the same narrow strap, but in a soft gray suede.
Even with its widened hand strap, the right side of the SC-MX20 looks like most camcorders...
...until you discover the nifty swivel grip.
The Back (5.25) The back of the SC-MX20 is nearly identical to its predecessor. Most of the real estate is taken up by a large port cover that opens to reveal outputs for standard AV and mini-USB, as well as a DC power input. The cover on these ports is attached with the same flimsy plastic strip that we see on a lot of camcorders; it looks like it could pull out or snap with too much wear and tear. To the right of the port cover, you'll still see the charge light, power switch, and record button. If you had trouble finding the record button on your MX10, Samsung has graciously doubled the size of the button this time around. We thought the old one was just fine, but we have no problems with the enlarged button either. Notably, the two skinny buttons that were lodged next to the port cover last generation have found new homes. The EasyQ button is now nestled within the LCD cavity, while the Mode button has shifted up slightly and increased in size. It's now nestled conveniently above the port cover, beneath the mode lights, which will tell you when the MX20 is in video or playback mode.
The SC-MX20 has a cleaner design on the back end than last generation's MX10.
The AV, mini-USB, and DC power ports are hidden away on this side too.
The Left Side (5.25) On the left, we have the sleek, black gloss we've come to expect from Samsung's consumer line. This surface, as well as the black front of the camcorder and the handstrap, are the portions of the MX20 that change in color with the various models. If the black isn't vibrant enough for you, take a look at Samsung's red, blue, and white offerings. The glossy black (or red or blue or white) surface is the back of the camcorder's LCD panel, which flips out to reveal a surprisingly bare interior cavity. Nestled within, you'll find the same small playback speaker and buttons for iCHECK (information display) and LCD Enhancer, which changes the way the image appears on the LCD, but not on the recorded footage. Immigrating over from the back of the camcorder is the Easy Q button, which puts the camcorder into a fully automated mode. This new placement is an improvement over the awkward, narrow Easy Q button on the back of last generation's SC-MX10.
The left side of the SC-MX20 is sleek and blackâ€”a lot like last generation's model and Samsung's high def line.
This is one of the more barren LCD cavities that we've seen on a camcorder.
The Top (4.25) There's not much to see on the top of the SC-MX20. Many similar camcorders fill half of their top with the built-in microphone; on the MX20, the microphone is in the front, on either side of the lens. This is a great design, allowing the fingers of your right hand to wrap all the way around and rest on top, without fear of muffling the microphone with a stray pinky. There's even a comfortable, rubberized grip on the top of the camcorder, which we found helpful for increasing stability. The most noteworthy feature of the top is the MX20's zoom toggleâ€”at first glance, a fairly standard control. Unfortunately, it's the same toggle found on last generation's MX10; it's easy to grip, but offers a pitiful amount of control. This is something we'd like to see improved on all Samsung camcorders. If you want to zoom in or out at a slow, even crawl, the MX20 will frustrate you to no end. There is only a single, fast zoom speed, which can be achieved just as easily with the directional pad as with the slightly less responsive zoom toggle. This is a real disappointment. From an aerial view, you can also see the switch for the manual lens cover on the front and the Record and Mode buttons, which wrap up from the back.
The relatively unadorned top of the SC-MX20
That rubberized grip is handy.
The Bottom There isn't usually much to say about the bottom of a camcorderâ€”it typically holds the tripod mount, a sticker or two, and not much else. On all the standard definition Samsungs, however, the bottom is also home to the battery compartment and SD card slot. The placement is a bit of an inconvenience to anyone using the SC-MX20 on a tripod, but this probably isn't a camcorder that finds itself mounted to a tripod all that often. The compartment itself is functional enough, though the hinge on the cover seems unusually fragile. This single cover serves as protection for both the battery and the SD card; the battery is released by a small switch and the SD card sits in a traditional spring-loaded slot. The biggest compaint we have about the battery compartment is that it is entirely enclosed, which means no upgrading to a larger size battery.
The bottom of the SC-MX20 is busier than most, including a battery compartment and SDHC card slot.
Video Performance (2.75) Unfortunately, the Samsung SC-MX20 (Review, Specs, $249.99) didn't get the same sensor upgrade that its high definition cousin received; the MX20 still sports the same 1/6-inch CCD that we saw in last generation's MX10. The gross pixel count is still 680,000 and everything about the lens remains the same, except for the new Schneider branding. If the SC-MX20 is to have improved video performance, let's hope that Samsung has upgraded their processing. We tested the camcorder both in our labs and out in "real life" to see how it fared. Inside the lab, we shot a DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde chart at an even 3000 lux, then compared the results to other similar camcorders. Shooting in auto mode with a manual white balance, the Samsung produced footage fairly comparable to most of the competition. The biggest difference you'll see is that the MX20 seems to have a darker, noisier image. This becomes more of an issue in less-than-ideal lighting conditions. Compression artifacting plagues both larger fields of color and also areas of fine detail, but the sharpness looks quite good overall. Color, in general, looks muddy, especially compared to the often oversaturated look of today's camcorders.
The Samsung SC-MX20 at 3000 lux, automatic settings
Unfortunately, we did not test last generation's SC-MX10, but we can compare the MX20 to similar standard definition camcorders from other manufacturers. Overall, the MX10 looks darker and muddier than competing camcorders from JVC, Canon, Sony, and Panasonic. Is this the result of a sub-par sensor? Poor manual white balance? Or disappointing processing? The likely answer is "all of the above," but we would give the edge to processing, since this is the same type of sensor used in the JVC GZ-MS100 (Review, Specs, Recent News, $257.00), Canon FS100 (Review, Specs, $295.00), and the Panasonic SDR-H200 (Review, Specs, Recent News, $936.81)â€”all with better results.
Even though we've come to expect a fair amount of compression artifacting from standard definition camcorders, these blocky chunks of discoloration are reduced among the competition, especially the Sony DCR-DVD910 (Review, Specs, $465.85). The Samsung SCMX20 looks even worse than the JVC GZ-MS100, which was also riddled with compression artifacting and purple fringing. The most surprising result from the SC-MX20 was how sharp the footage looked, especially compared to the JVC. It's too bad that the areas of finest detail are marred by so much noise and discoloration.
Samsung SC-MX20 at 3000 lux auto
JVC GZ-MS100 at 3000 lux auto
Panasonic SDR-H200 at 3000 lux auto
Sony DCR-DVD910 at 3000 lux auto
Out of the lab, the Samsung SC-MX20 verified what we saw with our in-lab testing: the sharpness is quite good, but compression artifacting is everywhere you look. The colors, at least, seemed to look a lot better with natural outdoor lighting. Before we go any further, it's important to emphasize that Samsung is marketing the MX20 as their "Shoot and Share" YouTube camcorder. We're often spoiled by the beautiful footage we see on $2000 high-definition camcorders—we're bound to be disappointed with these standard def budget camcorders. Though there's a considerable amount of compression artifacting and motion trailing, these unpleasant side effects will get added to your video if you upload it to YouTube anyway—YouTube compresses video significantly in order to make files managable for the web. If the only destination you have in mind is YouTube, the SC-MX20 will be more than sufficient. As for how the Samsung compares to similar camcorders from the competition, we were disappointed to find Samsung falling behind the rest: more noise, more artifacting, disappointing color balance. It seems that the improvements to Samsung's high definition line— the ones that surprised and impressed us on the SC-HMX20 (Review, Specs, Recent News, $745.25)—simply didn't make it over to the standard definition models. The video performance on the MX20 is sufficient for YouTube, but generally mediocre. Video Resolution (4.875) To test video resolution, we shoot a DSC Labs video resolution chart at an even, bright light, then watch the playback footage on an HD monitor. The resolution is determined in line widths per picture height (lw/ph). The Samsung SC-MX20 produced a horizontal resolution of 325 lw/ph and a vertical resolution of 300 lw/ph. These results confirm what we saw with out eyes: the SC-MX20 is just a bit better than most other camcorders in its class when it comes to resolution. These numbers are identical to the Panasonic SDR-H200, but better than competing models from JVC, Canon, and Sony. Low Light Performance (4.45) Every camcorder that comes through our labs undergoes the same barrage of low light testing. Unfortunately, it's a rigorous series of tests that the Samsung SC-MX20 just couldn't withstand. Despite the excellent low light performance of Samsung's latest high definition model, the standard definition SC-MX20 didn't stand up to the competition. The first stage of our low light lab testing involves shooting the DSC Labs Chroma DuMonde chart at an even 60 lux and 15 lux, then comparing it to the results of similar camcorders.
The Samsung SC-MX20 at 60 lux auto
At 60 lux, the most striking shortcomings of the MX20 are brightness, color balance, and noise. The footage looks darker than much of the competitionâ€”especially the Panasonic SDR-H200 and Sony DCR-DVD910, which probably boost the gain in order to brighten the image. The Samsung isn't the darkest camcorder we've seen at 60 lux, but it's certainly near the bottom of the pack. Unfortunately, making out your subject in the darkness is even more difficult with the clutter of compression artifacting and noise. And unlike the finegrained noise on the JVC GZ-MS100 or the more subtle grayscale noise on the Panasonic SDR-H200, the noise here on the Samsung SC-MX20 is coarse, tinted with color, and distracting.
Samsung SC-MX20 60 lux auto
JVC GZ-MS100 60 lux auto
Panasonic SDR-H200 60 lux auto
Sony DCR-DVD910 60 lux auto
Canon FS11 60 lux auto
At 15 lux, problems with darkness and noise are even more troubling than before. The camcorder also really struggles with color balance, depicting purple as a strange navy blue and giving the greens a yellow-brownish hue. This was a problem at 60 lux and even at 3000 lux, but it's made more apparent in the darkest settings.
The Samsung SC-MX20 at 15 lux auto
It isn't all bad news, however. The MX20 does manage impressive whites and blacks at both 60 lux and 15 lux—surprisingly good when compared to the abysmal white balance that the camcorder performs under bright, indoor lighting conditions. The MX20 also continues to look sharper than much of the competition, which helps when trying to distinguish fine detail under these less than ideal conditions. We would be remiss if we didn't also comment upon the SC-MX20's C.Nite modes, which are designed to improve the camcorder's performance in low light. There are three C.Nite modes to choose from: Auto, 1/30th shutter speed, and 1/15th shutter speed. At all three C.Nite settings, we found that the image was, in fact, brighter, less noisy, and more saturated. In Auto C.Nite, especially, the footage was a good improvement over the regular 15 lux results of the camcorder. Unfortunately, recording a still subject while mounted to a tripod gives a false impression of the C.Nite results: even with the auto settings for C.Nite, there was increased motion trailing when either the camcorder or your subject is moving. At 1/30th and 1/15th shutter speeds, the image was remarkably bright, but any movement made the footage practically useless. In short, we recommend trying out C.Nite for low light situations, but suggest sticking to the auto setting to avoid the unreadable blurriness of the 1/30th and 1/15th shutter speeds. Even the User Manual suggests that C.Nite is more useful for achieving a "slow motion like effect" than for improving ordinary low light performance. A tripod is also a must—the digital stabilization feature cannot be used when the camcorder is in C.Nite mode.
Samsung SC-MX20 at 15 lux C.Nite mode, auto
Samsung SC-MX20 at 15 lux C.Nite mode, 1/15th shutter speed
The second stage of low light testing measures sensitivity—what is the lowest light level at which the camcorder still produces readable footage? For this test, we connect the Samsung SC-MX20 to a waveform monitor, then slowly and steadily lower the light until the camcorder is outputting a maximum exposure of 50 IRE. The MX20 was able to produce a peak 50 IRE at 13 lux. This is a good score for camcorders in this class: identical to the JVC GZ-MS100 and the Canon FS11, better than the Sony DCR-DVD910 and Panasonic SDR-H200.
Why then does the Samsung appear to be darker than the competition? Our hypothesis is that the MX20 processor is good at handling blacks and whites, but less well equipped for grays and all the colors in between. While the brightest whites of a scene produce 50 IRE at 13 lux, the rest of the scene may lag far behind. This isn't good news for recording subtle nuances at twilight, but high contrast scenes will probably turn out better. The final stage of low light testing determines color accuracy, noise, and saturation. We shoot an X-Rite Color Checker chart at an even 60 lux, then run the results through Imatest imaging software. At best, the Samsung SC-MX20 was able to produce a color error of 16.6—identical to the poor results from the Panasonic SDR-H200. In the case of the Panasonic, the color error is likely a result of undersaturation due to the three small sensors; for the Samsung, we see the processor skewing colors toward the wrong tonality. (Seeing purple constantly outputted as blue is a videographer's nightmare.) Unsurprisingly, the Samsung also produced some of the worst noise in its class: the 1.5375 percent noise is a little higher than comparable models from Sony, Canon, and Panasonic. It's considerably worse than the results from the JVC GZ-MS100 or the JVC GZ-MG330 (Review, Specs, $317.95). Saturation measured just 59.95%—about on par with the Sony DCR-DVD910 and Panasonic SDR-H200, but a bit worse than the rest of the competition. All in all, what we saw in low light was pretty underwhelming. The Samsung SC-MX20 just isn't the low light performer that its high def big brother is; if you want an affordable standard definition camcorder for club hopping, evening barbeques, or your child's school play, the JVC GZ-MS100 or Canon FS100 would be better choices.
Stabilization (1.8) The SC-MX20 is equipped with Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS), just like its high definition big brother, the HMX20. EIS is generally not as effective as Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), which is featured on even standard definition Panasonics and Sonys. EIS creates a digital buffer around the frame to compensate for abrupt panning or shaking, while OIS isolates the lens itself in order to maintain resolution. Based on the disappointing results from the EIS on Samsung's HMX20, we weren't expecting much from the SC-MX20. Even so, we were disappointed. Image stabilization is tested at two speeds using our custom-built shake emulator. Speed one is roughly equivalent to normal handheld shake, while speed two is more similar to what you would experience on a bumpy car ride. At both speeds, the SC-MX20 EIS system did minimize some vertical shake, but did almost nothing to eliminate horizontal shake. At speed one, the shake reduction was a pitiful 28.57%, while speed two saw only a 7.69% decrease. These results are so pitifully below the average that we almost wonder why Samsung even bothered. Wide Angle (9.6) To test a camcorder's maximum field of view, we set the camcorder on a tripod, pull back the zoom fully, and disengage EIS. Using a vertical laser and interpreting the video on an external monitor, we can obtain a true aspect ratio. The SC-MX20 displayed a wide angle measurement of 48 degrees—identical to similar models from Canon and Sony and better than the competition from Panasonic. The JVC GZ-MS100 displayed an impressive 56 degrees. Compression (4.25) The Samsung SC-MX20 compresses video in the H.264 (MPEG-4.AVC) main profile format—the same format utilized in Samsung's high definition SC-HMX20 (Review, Specs, Recent News, $745.25). This format is easier to use than the AVCHD codec favored by high definition camcorders from Panasonic, Sony, Canon, and JVC... and it's about as convenient as the MPEG-2 format favored by most of the standard definition competition. Though MPEG-4 may be slightly more efficient than MPEG-2 compression, it's unlikely to impact consumers shooting in standard definition. Both formats are compatible with virtually any editing software and both formats may require you to download a plug-in to view the footage using a run-of-the-mill media player like QuickTime. There are three quality settings on the SC-MX20 that record 720x480, 60i video: TV Super Fine (about 5.0Mbps), TV Fine (about 4.0Mbps), and TV Normal (about 3.0Mbps). Even on the highest quality setting, we found the compression artifacting to be hugely disappointing. There is an additional quality setting that records 640x480 video, called Web & Mobile (about 2.0Mbps). This setting will significantly increase recording time, but looks horrendous. We suppose it might be sufficient for uploading to YouTube, which compresses video a great deal anyway, but we always recommend shooting at the highest quality setting so your originals are of a decent quality. For a list of recording times, see the chart in the next section. Media (6.25) The Samsung SC-MX20 records solely to SD/SDHC memory cards, which may be inserted in the slot at the bottom of the camcorder. The MX20 does not come with an SDHC card, but neither do most of the competing camcorders. Camcorders that record solely to memory cards are becoming increasingly popular, with comparable models being offered by JVC, Canon, and Panasonic. Manufacturers are finding that card-only camcorders allow them to keep prices low and meet the demand for solid state memory. Below is a table of approximate record times for SD/SDHC cards of various sizes.
TV Super Fine (720x480, 60i, 5.0Mbps)
TV Fine (720x480, 60i, 4.0Mbps)
TV Normal (720x480, 60i, 3.0Mbps)
Web & Mobile (720x480, 2.0Mbps)
Editing (6.0) Since Samsung is marketing the SC-MX20 as its "Shoot and Share" camcorder, it had better be easy to do both. We liked what we saw with ease of use for shooting... now how about the sharing? The MX20 ships with the CyberLink MediaShow software. It's actually a decent little program, so long as Windows is your operating system of choice and your aspirations for home movies are small. You can import clips, assemble them in any order, then create a DVD or upload them to YouTube. Individual clips can be trimmed, and there's some limited color, white balance, and contrast control.
The welcome screen lets you choose from a couple of cryptic icons. This is how you get started importing.
The edit screen doesn't give you much to play with, but it's easy to use.
The import screen is fairly straight-forward. Pick the clips you want or just grab them all.
The "fine tune" option gives you a little more controlâ€”you'll probably want to use that White Balance adjustment.
Similar to the software that shipped with the Kodak Zi6 (Review, Specs, Recent News, $169.99), video clips can only be uploaded to YouTube. If you prefer another host, you're on your own. The idea behind including such a feature is to simplify and encourage the uploading process. Unfortunately, the CyberLink software errs of the side of offering so many little tweaks and options that complete neophytes are bound to get frustrated simply finding the upload wizard.
If you head back to the Share tab, you'll find a button in the upper-left made just for YouTube-ifying.
Once you do find it, the process is dead simple. Pick the clip you want to upload, log into YouTube or create a new account, provide some information about the clip, and that's itâ€”you're done. Shutterbugs should take note that the software also allows you to upload stills to Flickr.
Enter in the appropriate information, click "Upload" and you're on your way!
Picture & Manual Control Automatic Control (4.25) When we sit down with a standard definition "YouTube camcorder," our expectations for automatic controls are pretty high. Most people who buy these camcorders don't want to bother with manual adjustments—they want to turn it on and shoot good video. So, it's with some disappointment that we encountered the automatic controls on the SC-MX20. In order for the auto controls to kick in, you can set the various options to Auto or engage Easy mode—we found no discernible difference between shooting with all options set to Auto and shooting in EasyQ mode. The bonus/downside to Easy mode is that it completely disables any access to manual settings, putting them blessedly out of the way or annoyingly inaccessible, depending on your viewpoint. For the most part, the MX20's automatic focus was responsive, but from time to time the camcorder would have difficulty deciding where to focus, especially in areas of high contrast or in low light. Even more painful was the long deliberation that often took place while the automatic exposure adjustment was happening. There are certainly benefits to a slow and gradual exposure shift, but there are downsides as well—such as missing out on key events while the camcorder struggles to select the proper exposure. As for white balance, the MX20 fared well in natural light, but had a hard time adjusting in most indoor lighting—especially fluorescent. There are also a number of one-touch correction features that are useful for anyone who doesn't care to get bogged down in individual manual controls. Ironically, even these tools are considered too complicated for EasyQ mode; they are accessed through the menu, which is entirely unavailable while in EasyQ. Probably the most useful of these features is the iSCENE mode, which tells the camcorder to automatically adjust exposure, shutter speed, and focus depending on the scene selected. Options are: Sports, Portrait, Spotlight, Beach, Snow, High Speed, Food, and Waterfall. There are also four custom white balance settings, face detection, and back light compensation. These tools all use the camcorder's internal workings to do the brunt of the work for you, leaving manual controls to the more savvy user.
The directional pad on the LCD panel is used for making all one-touch automatic adjustments and using the camcorder's manual controls.
Overall Manual Control (5.0) Even the high definition Samsungs don't offer a wealth of manual controls, so it comes as no surprise that their standard definition lineup would carry just the bare minumum. All manual adjustments are made using the directional pad on the camcorder's LCD panel— no fancy joysticks, touchscreens, control dials, or lens rings here. Since most of the adjustments are made in fairly large increments, the directional pad is usually more than enough control. We also like that you can access several manual controls in two places: the quick d-pad menu and the main administrative menu. Placing them in two places might seem redundant, but it's better than splitting all your functions into separate places; this way, you'll usually find what you're looking for no matter where you look. On the Samsung SC-MX20, you'll find manual focus, exposure, shutter speed, white balance, and the various one-touch controls mentioned above. Zoom (5.0) There is one thing about Samsung camcorders that never ceases to disappoint: the zoom toggle feels like most zoom toggles out on the market, but only adjusts zoom at a single, fast, nonvariable speed. Even when you think you're toggling very lightly, a slow zoom just isn't possible. Considering that zoom is the most common "manual control" used on entry-level consumer camcorders, we're surprised that Samsung hasn't remedied this sad state of affairs for the MX20. It's especially frustrating when compared to the level of
control offered by the Canon FS100 (Review, Specs, $295.00), which lets you choose between three fixed zoom speeds and a pressure-sensitive variable zoom. Since the zoom on the SC-MX20 is only capable of moving at one quick speed, there's no real advantage to using the toggle over the directional pad for zoom control. Either one will get the job done, and how you control the zoom will probably just come down to personal preference. With either the toggle or the d-pad, zooming will cause a small scale to appear on the LCD; your zoom progress will be marked at one of 14 intervals on the scale. Unfortunately, the scale is not numbered and many different zoom ratios belong to each interval, so shot replication is a bit tricky. Zoom Power Ratio (34.0) The Samsung SC-MX20 has a 34x optical zoom, which is about average for a standard definition, consumer camcorder. It might seem baffling that the far more expensive SC-HMX20 (Review, Specs, Recent News, $745.25) from Samsung has only a 10x optical zoom... this is a question of optics. Larger sensors need longer barrels to get a powerful zoom. Camcorders with a small 1/6-inch sensor, like the MX20, can reach a 34x zoom in much less space. So, on the higher end camcorders, you get less zoom power, but a higher resolution sensor. On these less expensive standard def camcorders, the performance isn't as good, but you get a lot more zoom. Science! Just remember that the more zoom you use, the more you'll want a tripod or impressively steady hands. At 34x zoom, you'll notice shakiness even more; the MX20's digital image stabilization isn't up to the task of that much correction. If the 34x optical zoom isn't enough for you, you can activate the up to 1200x digital zoom. But this will decrease image quality significantly and even the slightest shake will make your subject go completely out of frame. Stick to the optical zoom. Focus (4.0) The manual focus on the SC-MX20 will not impress experienced users, but it is servicable. The tool is accessed by either the administrative menu or the quick d-pad menu. Left and right on the directional pad will allow you to make fine adjustments, though it happens slowly and you have only the image on the LCD to use for judging accuracy. There is no focus assist tool or viewfinder to help you when doing a manual focus, but at least the sliding scale is on the bottom of the screen, instead of right in the middleâ€”as it is on the Samsung SC-HMX20 and many other camcorders from other manufacturers.
The MX20's manual focus is actually quite good. Since the MX20 has no touch screen, it doesn't offer the excellent TouchPoint focus you find on Samsung's high definition model. This is a feature that Samsung seems to have copied from Sony and we couldn't be happier. On the MX20, though, you'll have to rely on the slow d-pad focus or just stick to automatic. In most scenarios, this is more than sufficient. We suggest switching to manual only when something in the foreground or background is drawing the auto focus away from your intended subject. Exposure & Aperture (6.0) The manual exposure tool on the Samsung SC-MX20 is very similar to that found on Samsung's high definition model, the SC-HMX20. It is incredibly easy to find and to use. Using either the d-pad menu or the administrative menu, you select Manual and a slider will appear at the bottom of the screen. Use the left and right buttons on the directional pad to select one of 30 numbered increments that are available.
The SC-MX20 has 30 increments for adjusting exposure.
This manner of controlling exposure is happily straightforward and should serve as a model to other manufacturers. Sony has a similar control, but the scale is un-numbered, making shot replication difficult. Canon, JVC, and Panasonic all have fewer increments and on both Canon and Panasonic camcorders, the exposure tool is buried in the menus. The SC-MX20 does not offer direct control over aperture, which comes as no real surprise: the high definition Samsung SC-HMX20 doesn't have it either. As for the competition, it's a mixed bag. Some Panasonics and JVCs at this price point offer aperture control, while equivalent Canons and Sonys do not. Shutter Speed (6.2) Shutter speed can be adjusted manually just as quickly and easily as exposure. Using either the d-pad menu or the administrative menu, you can bring up the slider that is the main interface of the shutter speed control. Using left and right on the directional pad, you can select one of eight different shutter speeds: 1/60, 1/100, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000, 1/2000, 1/4000, 1/10000. Using the MX20's C.Nite mode will grant you access to speeds of 1/30 or 1/15, but once you've entered this mode, access to manual shutter speed disappears.
Eight shutter speeds are at your disposal. White Balance (6.75) With only four functions available on the d-pad menu, we were surprised to find that white balance is not one of them. This menu gives you quick access to manual exposure, shutter speed, focus, and... voice mute? So, you'll have to go delving into the menus to access the white balance settings. Fortunately, Samsung makes the MX20 menus a breeze to navigateâ€”it won't take you long to locate the manual white balance, which we recommend using over any of the other white balance settings available.
Since white balance isn't part of the quick directional pad menu, you'll have to go into the menus to adjust it manually.
Unfortunately, the auto white balance isn't always accurate, especially in any kind of unnatural, indoor lighting. If you want to try playing with the various white balance options, you can traipse into the menus and try out Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, or Tungsten. Inside the labs, we always rely on the most accurate option: manual white balance. We were disappointed to find that even the manual white balance just wasn't very good. Gain (0.0) Like every manufacturer except Panasonic, Samsung does not offer gain control on any of its consumer camcorders. Other Manual Controls (2.5) Guidelines - Like most cameras and camcorders these days, the SC-MX20 offers a couple options for using guidelines to help line up your shots. These lines appear only on the LCD and not on your final recorded footage. The choices this time around are Cross, Grid (for rule-of-thirdsy goodness), and Safety Zone. The last is an interesting one: a small crosshair denotes the center of the screen and a box marks approximately the middle two-thirds of the screen as "safe." Presumably, auto mode will make sure anything in this box will be properly exposed and in focus. The guidelines can be used while in EasyQ mode, as long as you activate the lines first, then EasyQ. Face Detection - Another feature getting thrown onto just about every camera and camcorder these days. Face detection supposedly identifies faces, then adjusts to make sure those faces have appropriate color balance, exposure, and focus. The manual doesn't tell us how many faces the MX20 can detect, but it does give us a number of caveats about the feature not working in some conditions, not detecting profiles, and not being available for EasyQ mode, iSCENE settings, manual shutter or exposure, Digital Effects, or C.Nite modes. Backlight Compensation - As long as you're not in EasyQ mode, you can activate backlight compensation whenever your subject is getting overshadowed by a bright background like a ski slope or sunny window. Backlight compensation will brighten the foreground considerably, often with a washed out look. It doesn't make for great footage, but it's better than having your subject entirely obscured in shadow. Still Features (0.0) Despite some misleading specs on the Samsung website, there is no dedicated still photography on the SC-MX20 (Review, Specs, $249.99). There is no still camera mode, nor a still capture button. This is actually an odd omission, since comparable camcorders from all the other major manufacturers include a dedicated still photo mode. The camcorder does have an Interval Recording feature, which will take a still photograph at specified intervals and record the series of stills as a single movie file. (See Other Features.) Still Performance (0.0) There are no still features on the Samsung SC-MX20. Still Resolution (0.0) There are no still features on the Samsung SC-MX20. Ease of Use (8.25) Even for a camcorder that is marketed to a more casual consumer, the Samsung SC-MX20 is remarkably easy to use. Much of the accessibility is due to the clear and intuitive menu system, accessed via the Menu button and navigated with the directional pad. The directional pad may not be as responsive as a joystick, but it's certainly adequate. The quick menu, accessed by pressing the button at the center of the directional pad, gives easy access to four commonly used functions: focus, exposure, shutter speed, and voice mute. We might have preferred to see white balance on there instead of voice mute, but the main administrative menu is so easy to navigate that everything is equally accessible. Plus, all four of these quick menu options are replicated in the admin menu, so you never have to stumble around trying to remember which features are in which menu. This is a case of redundancy used well.
The one baffling feature is the EasyQ mode, which seems to do nothing except disable the menu functions. We're not really sure why anyone would want to do this, since the menus are so easy to use and actually contain some beginner-friendly items. Strangely, even features that can be used in EasyQ mode (such as Guidelines) can only be activated or deactivated outside of EasyQ mode. If you decide to use a grid and then change your mind, you'll have to exit EasyQ, deactivate the grid, then re-enter EasyQ. This is a lot of needless shuffling about just to have a mode that prevents accidental menu activation. We would like to see an EasyQ mode where some basic menu features are still enabled. Take our advice: don't use EasyQ mode. The SC-MX20 is a great camcorder for learning the basics of manual controls like exposure, focus, shutter speed, and white balance. We recommend shooting with everything in auto and playing with one or two manual controls at a time. And start with manual white balanceâ€”the MX20's auto white balance leaves much to be desired. Handling (7.25) If you've handled any of the other recent Samsung camcorders, the MX20 will be a familiar tool. What you have, essentially, is a little torpedo that fits right in the palm of your hand. It's small and light, without an internal hard drive or DVD drive to bulk up the right side of the camcorder. This absence makes the MX20 more portable, but it also means there's less to gripâ€”with hard drive camcorders, you're often wrapping your fingers around the top of the drive for added leverage. Fortunately, Samsung is quickly becoming the best in the business for hand holds: not only have they widened the hand strap for increased stability, but they've increased the rotation on their unique swivel grip. You now have a complete 180-degree rotation for finding all those strange shooting positions you never thought possible. We're big fans of the "flashlight" grip, which lets you rest your camcorder comfortably below shoulder level. For long shoots that are likely to tire out your arm, this is a fantastic feature.
The Samsung SC-MX20 can be held like a traditional camcorder...
...or you can use the swivel grip to experiment with alternate hand holds.
In several different positions, the main controls are in easy reach. In the traditional upright hand hold, the record button rests easily under the thumb and the zoom toggle under the index finger. Both the record start/stop and zoom functions are duplicated on the LCD panel, for easy two-handed shooting at almost any angle. (We found this to be the easiest way to operate the camcorder from our favorite "flashlight" grip position.) Plus, the LCD panel and swivel grip axle are both solidly constructed and move smoothly and easily; the Samsung SC-MX20 encourages you to experiment, without fear of wear and tear breaking the most important components. A few silver and glossy black surfaces are prone to greasy fingerprinting, but at least there's no touch screen to attract untold grime. If you anticipate using any of the manual controls on the SC-MX20, you'll be relying entirely upon the directional pad mounted to the camcorder's LCD panel. It's a fairly responsive control and easy to use, but it isn't quite as reliable as a joystick or as finely tuned as Sony's cam control dial or Panasonic's multi-function ring. Sometimes, it's hard to get your thumb in there to click on the d-pad, especially when you're aiming for the right arrow with your left hand. (We would sometimes click the center button instead of the right button, causing some annoying backtracking through the manual controls.) Fortunately, the menus and the manual adjustments are all very straight-forward, so there's minimal cause to struggle with the d-pad. Menu (8.0) The Samsung SC-MX20 has some of the most easily navigated menus that we've seen this year. With consumer camcorders adding more features every generation, the menus seem to be getting more convoluted. Fortunately, the MX20 features a single, straightforward menu system that packs all the features into one intuitive, tabbed structure. Unlike some of the competing camcorders, there's no need to use guesswork or rifle through three different menus in order to find the feature you want. Plus, the MX20 allows you to change your menu color (options include blue, pink, purple, orange, and green) and to set your menu transparency so you can keep a better eye on your subject while navigating the menus (choose from 0%, 20%, 40%, or 60% transparent). The main administrative menu is accessed via the Menu button on the LCD panel and contains the following options:
Administrative Menu iSCENE
Auto, Sports, Portrait, Spotlight, Beach, Snow, High Speed, Food, Waterfall, Manual
Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, Tungsten, Custom WB
Auto, Manual (0-29)
Auto, Manual (1/60, 1/100, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000, 1/2000, 1/4000, 1/10000)
Auto, Face Detection, Manual
Off, Black & White, Sepia, Negative, Art, Emboss, Mosaic, Mirror, Pastel, Cosmetic, Stepprinting
TV Super Fine, TV Fine, TV Normal, Web & Mobile
Off, Auto, 1/30, 1/15
Off, In, Out, In-Out
Off, Cross, Grid, Safety Zone
Storage Info, Format, File No. (Series, Reset), Time Zone, Date/Time Set, Date Format, Time Format, Date/Time, LCD Brightness (-15 - +15), LCD Color, Beep Sound, Auto Power Off, TV Display, Default Set, Version, Menu Color, Transparency, Language, Demo
The main administrative menu of the Samsung SC-MX20
Plenty of less important options are filed under the Settings tab.
There is also a quick menu accessed via the center button of the directional pad. This menu gives easy access to four commonly used functions. All four of these features can also be accessed via the main administrative menu, so there's no fear of trying to remember which menu to use. It's nice to have quick access to these controls, but we might have suggested replacing voice mute with white balanceâ€”especially since the auto white balance is not usually the best setting to use. The directional pad's quick menu contains the following options:
Quick Menu Shutter
Auto, Manual (1/60, 1/100, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000, 1/2000, 1/4000, 1/10000)
Auto, Manual (0-29)
Auto, Face Detection, Manual
The four options on the quick "d-pad menu" are: Exposure, Shutter, Voice Mute, and Focus.
Portability (8.25) The Samsung SC-MX20 is small and light, owing largely to the lack of internal memory and viewfinder; this camcorder is a lens barrel and that's about it. The result is a camcorder that weighs just 272.16g (0.6 lbs.) and measures just 66.04 x 60.96 x 124.46mm (4.9 x 2.6 x 2.4-inches). This is certainly one of the smallest traditional camcorders that's come through our labs. It's still a bit too large for tossing into your back pocket, but it's small and light enough that you could carry it around all day without much of a bother. The surfaces are all fairly rugged and seem resilient to most scratches and fingerprints, but Samsung has also includes an optional carrying pouch to protect the camcorder further. This isn't the kind of carrying case that would protect the MX20 from a drop or hard knock, but it's better than tossing it in your bag unprotected. Adding to the portability, the SC-MX20 records entirely to SD/SDHC memory cards, a highly compact, portable, and shock resistant medium. There are no tapes to clutter up your bag, no discs to get scratched, and no hard drive to fail you after one too many bumps. Unfortunately, the MX20 is not equipped with any internal flash memory, so you'll have to stock up on memory cards or transfer your footage constantly. Relying on memory cards does help decrease the price of the camcorder, which is why you can now find standard definition, card-only models from Canon, JVC, and Panasonic. One small flaw: the battery compartment is entirely enclosed, so there's no chance of purchasing a longer lasting battery. If you plan to be out recording all day, you might want to have a spare. LCD and Viewfinder (3.0) The Samsung SC-MX20 comes equipped with a 2.7-inch LCD that flips out from the left side... as usual. The screen resolution is 112,000 pixels, which is low even compared to other standard def camcorders. While it's always nice to be surprised by your video quality when you see it on the big screen, a low resolution LCD can spell trouble when you're trying to perform a manual focus. There is no viewfinder on the SC-MX20, which is pretty common for standard definition, flash memory camcorders. When you're buying a camcorder in this class, just remember that you won't have that glare-free, battery-saving viewfinder on long, sunny days.
Battery Life (18.1) We tested the efficiency of the SC-MX20's IA-BP85ST rechargeable battery pack by recording continuously in Auto mode with DIS disabled and the LCD flipped open. The battery performed admirably, lasting a total of 181 minutes and 11 seconds (3 hours, 1 minute, 11 seconds). That's a solid duration for such a small battery. Since the battery compartment is enclosed, however, you won't be able to upgrade to a larger battery. We recommend just buying one or two spares if you plan on taking the camcorder out for a long day of shooting.
The IA-BP85ST battery and enclosed battery compartment of the Samsung SCMX20. Audio (3.0) While the Samsung SC-MX20 (Review, Specs, $249.99) does have a couple of intriguing audio options, it certainly doesn't offer the breadth or depth of control that more experienced videographers crave. Then again, there is also no accessory shoe, microphone output, or headphone jack... this isn't a camcorder for the pros. The only sound input available is the built-in microphone, cleverly mounted on either side of the lensâ€”out of reach from wandering pinkies. The menus offer no monitor or control over audio levels, but there are two options designed to provide better audio: wind cut and voice mute. According to Samsung, the wind cut feature cuts off "low frequency components in the sound picked up by the microphone." This might help reduce some background wind noise, but it can muffle other sounds too. And it certainly won't magically wipe away the distraction of a truly blustery day. If you want to mute the sound entirely, you can enable "Voice Mute," which will make a completely silent recording. (Contrary to the name of this feature, the camcorder cannot selectively mute voices and record other sound.) Playback (2.0) Like most camcorders, the Samsung SC-MX20 has a separate playback mode, which can be engaged by pressing the mode button at the back end of the camcorder. The playback mode is very basic: a screen full of thumbnails opens and you use the directional pad to highlight a clip, then press the center button on the d-pad to select it. While the clip is playing, you can raise and lower the volume (up and down on the d-pad) or skip to the beginning or end of the clip (left and right on the d-pad). Holding down on left and right will also let you fast-forward or rewind. Strangely, returning to the thumbnails is accomplished by pressing down on the joystick, then pressing the zoom toggle. It's the one unintuitive control on the entire camcorder. Finally, if you want to delete a clip or change your playback options, you can press the Menu button. There isn't a whole lot you can do, but there are a few options:
Playback Menu Play Option
Play All, Play One, Repeat All, Repeat One
This File, All Files
Storage Info, Format, File No. (Series, Reset), Time Zone, Date/Time Set, Date Format, Time Format, Date/Time, LCD Brightness (-15 - +15), LCD Color, Beep Sound, Auto Power Off, TV Display, Default Set, Version, Menu Color, Transparency, Language, Demo
Connectivity (4.0) The SC-MX20 is certainly minimalistic when it comes to its ports. Designed with just two different compartments, Samsung has given the user the bare minimum when it comes to connectivity. On the bottom, you'll find a compartment housing the battery and SD/SDHC card slot. The cover is spring-loaded and releases with a sturdy switch. Inside, the battery is held in place by its own small switch, while memory cards are released with the traditional spring mechanism. The bottom location makes good design sense, but is less than ideal if your camcorder is typically mounted on a tripodâ€” you can't replace the battery or the memory card without removing the tripod plate. This compartment is also the flimsiest component of the otherwise durable MX20; the hinge for the cover seems delicately built and will likely break with too much wear and tear.
The compartment door has a flimsy hinge, but the battery and memory cards are safely stowed away.
On the back of the camcorder, you'll find the primary port cavity: a small enclosure for the AV output, DC power input, and USB jack. The cover is attached by a thin plastic strip, but it feels a bit sturdier than similar designs on other camcorders. The placement keeps the cords out of the way when you're recording or just transferring files.
Just three lonely ports on the Samsung SC-MX20. Whatâ€™s in the Box? Not much comes packaged with the Samsung SCMX20: - IA-BP85St battery pack - AA-E9 type AC power adapter - AV cable - USB cable - Software CD (Cyberlink MediaShow) - User manual CD
- Quick Start guide - Pouch (optional) You'll need to stock up on memory cards, since the MX20 doesn't come with any internal or external memory. And you may want one or two spare batteries if you plan on going out of a long shoot. The optional pouch will only protect the camcorder from dirt and scratchesâ€”we recommend a padded bag or case. Other Features (5.0) Digital Effect - The MX20 comes with a slew of mostly useless digital effects, including: Black & White, Sepia, Negative, Art, Emboss, Mosaic, Mirror, Pastel, Cosmetic, Stepprinting. While we can see some people playing with the black and white, sepia, or art effects, some of the options here are just silly. Mosaic, Mirror, and Stepprinting are sadly unavailable in 16:9 Wide or C.Nite modes. You'll have to turn off wide screen and shoot in bright light if you want to take advantage of the creepy mirror effect:
An example of the "Mirror" digital effect, from the Samsung SC-MX20 user guide.
Interval Recording - You can use the SC-MX20 to do a sort of time lapse still photography by activating Interval Recording. The camcorder will record a single still image at specific intervals and store the series as a movie file. It's a fun little tool for watching the changing weather or the blooming of a flower. The available intervals are 1, 3, 5, 10, 15, and 30 seconds. Stills can be taken in these intervals for a duration of 24, 48, or 72 hours. (There's also an infinite option, which will have the camcorder take stills until the memory card is full.) Keep in mind that you'll want the power adapter plugged in and a mighty large memory card if you plan to do interval recording for a long expanse of time. Stills are recorded as 800 x 600 JPEGs. C.Nite - The MX20 has a special mode for low light conditions. C.Nite has three possible settings: Auto, 1/30th shutter speed, and 1/15th shutter speed. Even according to the User Manual, this is more useful for achieveing a "slow motion like effect" than for improving ordinary low light footage. (See Low Light Performance.) Fader - The usual fading effects. The MX20 lets you fade in, fade out, or fade in at the beginning and out at the end. iCHECK - A quick tap of the iCHECK button (located in the LCD cavity) will toggle on and off the typical display information: how long a clip has been recording, what mode you're in, what manual options you're using, etc. But holding down on the iCHECK button for about 4 seconds will bring up a very useful screen detailing precise battery life and remaining storage capacity. Conclusion Our greatest disappointment in bringing the Samsung SC-MX20 (Review, Specs, $249.99) to our labs is certainly the video performance. Considering how much of an improvement Samsung had made in just one generation of their high definition line, we had hoped to see some of that work pay off here. Unfortunately, The MX20 has poor color and plenty of noise and compression artifactingâ€” certainly more than the competition. And it's not much of a champ in low light either. But in the YouTube line of business, video performance isn't everything. If you plan to upload most of your footage to the web, you're not likely to see much of a difference between the SC-MX20 and comparable models from Canon or JVC. What you will notice is how easy the Samsung is to use: from shooting in auto mode to tweaking the manual controls, navigating the menus, and uploading to YouTube. Plus, this is a slick camcorder to look at, comes in a few different colors, and has a clever pivot grip to make for some unique shooting angles. If you're looking for the best performer in the standard definition, flash memory class of camcorders, the Samsung SC-MX20 is not for you. But some people want an easy, intuitive video experience with more power and control than the micro-camcorders like the Pure Digital Flip Mino (Specs, Recent News, $154.95). If that's you, take a look at this "Shoot and Share" camcorder... Samsung may have hit the nail on the head. Comparisons JVC GZ-MS100 This standard defintion, card-only "YouTube" camcorder from JVC is probably the most direct comparison one can make to the MX20. While Samsung wins out for ease of use and handling, the low light performance on the MS100 is considerably better. If you know you want to use your camcorder in darker settings, spring for the MS100. Otherwise, you can save a little money and will probably find the MX20 adequate.
Canon FS100 The FS100 (MSRP $290.00) is Canon's standard definition, card-only camcorder. We reviewed the Canon FS11, which is identical to the FS100 on paper, except for the inclusion of some internal flash memory. The Canon does prove to have superior video performance, but the difference isn't overwhelming. If you just want an easy-to-use camcorder for throwing your videos up on YouTube, you might prefer the stylish and intuitive Samsung.
Panasonic SDR-S7 Panasonic's version of the standard definition memory card camcorder is the SDR-S7 (MSRP $299.95). On the comparable HDD/memory card hybrid from Panasonic—the SDR-H200 (Review, Specs, Recent News, $936.81)—the low light performance was nothing to write home about, but the automatic controls and the overall video performance far outstripped the Samsung. It's not quite as easy to use, but it's still pretty straightforward. If you're willing to spend the extra $70 or so for the Panasonic, you'll probably be glad you did.
Pure Digital Flip Mino Let's face it—the Flip Mino has gathered plenty of excitement and interest for good reason. It's incredibly compact, trendy, and couldn't be easier to use. (And now you can color and design your Flip just about any way you want it.) If you opt for the Flip over the MX20, be prepared for a noteable downgrade in image quality and loss of all manual controls, including optical zoom. This is a decision you can only make for yourself.
Who It’s For Point-and-Shooters The MX20 is one of the most intuitive, accessible camcorders for navigating the menus and making simple manual adjustments. If you own a PC, the easy upload to YouTube is an added bonus. Point-and-shooters rejoice! Budget Consumers Samsung has consistently offered competitive products for just a bit less money than the competition. What you'll sacrifice here is a bit of video performance, but the MX20 is a great deal overall. Still Photo / Video Camera Hybrid Go somewhere else. The MX20 doesn't even have a still photo mode or a capture button. Gadget Freaks The rotating swivel grip is, let's face it, a very cool toy. Gadgeteers will love the cool new angles and grips they can achieve. Plus, we have to admit that the interval recording (for Samsung's version of time lapse photography) is a cool feature. Manual Control Freaks If you're a manual control freak shopping in the standard definition line, you're going to find slim pickings anyway. The Samsung offers plenty of basic manual controls that are all easy to access, but manual control enthusiasts will probably frown at the directional pad as the only means of making fine adjustments. Pros / Serious Hobbyists The mediocre video performance from the MX20 will scare away most serious hobbyists. Add that to the limitations on manual controls and lack of microphone input and this simply won't be making it on the professional holiday wish lists.