Samsung SMX-C20 Camcorder Review
by Jamison Cush -  6/18/2010

Believe or not, they still make standard-definition camcorders and for the same price as most pocket HD camcorders, they typically offer more features and picture controls but shoot lower resolution footage.

Camcorder manufacturers know they need a hook to sell these devices, and with Samsung's SMX-C20, that means deviating from the traditional camcorder look. The C20 lens is angled approximately 25 degrees upward, giving it a more natural feel when gripped. The result is a comfortable and ergonomic design, one Samsung claims is ideal for long recordings.

SMX-C20 Lens Angle

Design alone does not a great camcorder make, and the C20 has plenty of competition from other devices in the same $200 (MSRP) price range, including standard-definition models from Sony and Panasonic in addition to the ever-growing pocket HD camcorder lineup. Read the review to find out how the SMX-C20 performed in my two weeks of testing, and find out if its features and modes make up for its relatively low resolution.

There are two models in the SMX-C lineup, the C20 and the C24. The C20 comes in red and purple and requires an SD or SDHC card up to 32GB. The C24 comes only in black and has a 16GB solid state drive (SSD).

The SSD defines the current crop of Samsung SD and HD camcorders. SSDs are smaller, lighter, faster, more reliable and consume less power than hard disk drives. Compared to SD cards, SSDs are generally faster at accessing data.

For this review, I used the SMX-C20, but aside from capacity, both the C20 and C24 share the same specs and performance.

Samsung SMX-C20

If the Samsung C20 were any smaller, it would rival pocket camcorders in compactness. It measures 1.39 x 2.21 x 4.29 inches and weighs approximately 5 ounces. It's easy to grip and I could almost wrap my hand completely around the device.

The front of the C20 houses the lens, which is slanted 25 degrees upward from the rest of the body. On the back are the record button, charge indicator light, and a compartment cover hiding a USB jack, DC-in jack, AV jack, SD/SDHC slot, and a removable rechargeable battery. The palm side is bare sans the hand strap hook, and the 2.7-inch LCD swivels out from the opposite side.

Samsung SMX-C20 Lens

The LCD opens up 90 degrees and rotates 180. Underneath it are the power button, speaker, share button (uploads clips directly to sharing sites once set up), display button, mode button, and the smart auto/view button. A record button, control knob for navigating the menu and manually adjusting picture controls and menu button are all found on the display panel.

Samsung SMX-C20 Inside

On top of the C20 are the zoom lever and photo button. Underneath contains a tripod receptacle and on-board microphone.

The C20's glossy plastic case is a fingerprint magnet, but the palm-side of the device consists of textured plastic. It's a nice touch and makes the ergonomic C20 even more comfortable for shooting.

Samsung SMX-C20 Back

I do have some nitpicky issues with the build, however. For starters, the buttons feel cheap, it's almost impossible to tell if you've pressed the power button because it doesn't click when pressed, and the power up/power down cycle takes a few seconds. I accidentally left the C20 on more than once after thinking I had pressed the button. Also, the record button requires a deep but light push. It reminds me of an old and worn game controller.

Ergonomics and Control
There's no question the angled lens takes some getting used to, particularly if you are used to shooting straight on with a traditional camcorder, but I think it's an excellent design choice. With other camcorders, I'm always bending my wrist back to shoot upward, which is painful after a few minutes of use. Samsung has eliminated the need for awkward wrist contortions with the C20, and I hope other camcorder manufacturers are taking note.

Otherwise, the C20 sports a traditional camcorder layout. All buttons and knobs are where you'd expect them with no glaring omissions.

Considering the C20's small size, the 2.7-inch LCD display is relatively large, but not large enough to support touch controls. As such, users control all menu navigation through a control knob, which I prefer to clumsily tapping a small screen attempting to select the proper menu item. The knob also doubles as a shortcut menu, allowing you quick access to the manual exposure and focus controllers.

Keeping in line with other low-cost camcorders, Samsung doesn't include a lens cover with the C20, or even a cloth bag to protect it from dust and scratches, leaving the lens exposed to all manner of debris and dirt. I don't understand why manufacturers are reluctant to include these items with their camcorders as they can make a huge difference in keeping the lens free from dust and scratches.

Menus and Modes
For video, the C20 has five modes broken down into two resolutions: TV and Web.

Though Samsung doesnt publish the bitrates, I assume TV Super Fine has a higher bitrate than TV Fine or TV Normal, which accounts for the difference in quality.

There are four photo resolutions:

The C20 is set to TV Fine by default, so you'll have to bump it up manually through the menu if you want to record at the highest resolution.

The C20 has a surprisingly deep menu system, which is really what sets it apart from HD pocket camcorders like the Flip that have limited or no menu controls. Menu items include:

A dedicated white balance is missing, but that is probably set through the iScene presets. Still, it's odd that Samsung would include manual focus and exposure and not a manual white balance.

Samsung SMX-C20 Menu

I love time-lapse recording, which on the C20 you can set to shoot one frame of footage at specific intervals ranging from one to 30 seconds. Curiously, the C20 manual suggests using it for "insects skin-casting," but I went with an old time-lapse standard: clouds moving through the sky at one frame every 15 seconds.

I took Sony to task in my CX110 review for its small 2.7-inch LCD, but I'll laud Samsung for including one on their C20. The difference is that the CX110 was a touchscreen, and 2.7-inches is too small for effective touch navigation. Also, the C20 is a much smaller device, closer in size to a pocket camcorder than an entry-level HD camcorder. The last pocket camcorder I reviewed, the Kodak PlaySport, had a 2.0-inch screen.

Various display settings are tucked in the SMX-C20 menu to control LCD brightness, color and toggle the LCD enhancer, which ups the displays contrast. This full set of options does well in combating solar glare and the 230k display dots are sufficient to monitor the action.

Despite a relatively deep menu, users can simply pick up the C20 and start shooting thanks to the iScene button. Press it and the C20 recognizes the shooting situation, adjusting exposure, color and focus accordingly. After testing out all the different iScene settings, I shot with it on almost exclusively, without ever having to readjust.

Shooting Performance
A common SD camcorder trait is an extended optical zoom. Some Panasonic models go past 70x. I was disappointed to see the C20 only had a 10x zoom. It's certainly not a bad zoom - the lever is a tad bit loose, but otherwise functional - but an extend zoom makes a great selling point against pocket camcorders all sporting a fixed-focus lens. Also, dont be impressed with the 1200x digital zoom as it degrades image quality beyond recognition.

The manual focus and manual EV (exposure value) controls are both adjusted by the control knob on the LCD panel, so they aren't especially useful for on-the-fly adjustments while shooting and are best left for when staging a shot.

The anti-shake option (image stabilization for devices with CCD sensors; the mounted sensor moves in the opposite direction of the camera) functions well, but has its limits. It doesn't work with any of the Web resolutions, some digital effects and in Night or Darkness iScene mode. The auto focus does a fine job of keeping up with various lighting conditions and steady movement. The fully-charged battery lasted a little less than two hours with the C20 recording at the highest resolution before dying.

Video Quality
If it isn't yet clear, the C20 is a standard-definition camcorder. That means its video resolutions are below those offered by a high-definition camcorder. Given HD is now the unofficial industry standard, it's hard not to judge SD camcorders harshly.

In constant lighting, the SMX-C20 actually does an admirable job of trying to keep up with the HD boys, but can't quite compensate for its missing pixels. There is general softness on the edges and the colors are muted - flaws that are very apparent blown up on a large-screen HDTV. But it's passable, especially when shown on older television (not LCD, LED or plasma) or for Internet use.

The C20 actually has one slight advantage in its CCD image sensor. Unlike the CMOS sensor found in most HD camcorders, the CCD is not susceptible to skewing, eliminating the annoying image warp that occurs when you pan an HD camera too fast.

Turn off the lights and the C20 video quality predictably suffers — more so than most HD camcorders I've tested — even with the iScene set to "Night."

Image Quality
With low-resolution video come low-megapixel stills. The SMX-C20 JPGs top out at approximately 1.6 megapixels, which is less than what most cameraphones offer these days. Still, megapixel count isn't the only spec that matters in picture quality - the lens also plays a role. That said, the C20 stills aren't horrible, but they are on the low end of what camcorders are capable of shooting.

Sample Images

Sound Quality
I was hoping the C20 would have an external mic input, which would make this SD camcorder a bit more tempting as many low-end HD camcorders don't offer one. Alas, Samsung disappoints. There is only a stereo on-board mic positioned underneath the lens.

The mic is reasonably sensitive, and there is a wind cut feature that cuts off low frequency sounds like wind or even crowd noise. However, it can only do so much, and loud crowds and stiff breezes will still unfavorably affect the audio quality.

Operations and Extras
The Samsung SMX-C20 ships with the battery, AC power adaptor, AV cables, USB cable, hand strap and a 125-page user manual on CD. For once, I won't complain about the missing HDMI cable, as AV is sufficient for standard definition video.

Loaded on board the C20 is Intelli-studio video editing software. You have manually install from the device, otherwise the camera will launch a light version when you connect the C20 to a PC. Intelli-studio is like any other packaged editing suite, it's good for quick video edits and simple effects, and is user friendly, but overall unremarkable. It's only Windows compatible, but Mac users should have no issue using iMovie in its stead.

The camera shoots in the H.264/AVC format and spits out MP4 files. If you want to skip Intelli-studio, you can simply drag and drop the video files onto your Mac or PC.

If the Samsung SMX-C20 were an HD camcorder with the same comfortable design and features, I would love it, and would even expect to pay more than the C20's $200 MSRP.

As it stands, I'd recommend spending more money and buying an HD camcorder before settling on the C20. SD camcorders are a dying breed and I suspect manufacturers will be phasing them out over the next few years. However, if $200 is your absolute limit, and you want more features than pocket HD camcorders typically offer, AND you watch all your videos online or on an old CRT television, then the SMX-C20 is worth considering.

Regardless, the C20 design is superb for casual shooting, and I hope to see more camcorders sporting the look.