Toshiba Camileo S20 Pocket Camcorder Review
by Jamison Cush -  9/30/2010

With CES just around the corner, manufacturers are readying new devices to replace the current crop of HD camcorders, which means great deals on camcorders that will most likely output the same video quality as their predecessors.

It's with that caveat that I review the Toshiba Camileo S20, the pocket-sized version of the Camileo H30 DCR reviewed back in April, and the smallest of a lineup that also includes the higher-end X100.

Toshiba Camileo S20

DCR praised the Camileo H30 for its value and extras; Toshiba is one of the few manufacturers to include the HDMI cable. Is the S20 also a great value buy? Read this Camileo S20 review to find out.

The Toshiba Camileo S20 shoots 1080p at 30 fps video (H.264) through its five-megapixel CMOS sensor and fixed-focus lens, and takes stills up to 16-megapixels. There is no optical zoom, but it does offer a 4x digital zoom that DCR recommends avoiding because it degrades picture quality just like most other digital zooms. It has only 128MB of built-in memory, but takes both SD and SDHC cards.

At only 2/3-inches thick, the Toshiba Camileo S20 is an extremely compact pocket-sized HD camcorder. It also weighs approximately 9 ounces, give or take.

At first glance, it resembles a standard candy bar pocket HD camcorder, like the Flip or PlaySport. However, with a lens on top of a narrow edge and a flip-out LCD screen, it's actually a pistol grip style camcorder, reminiscent of the Sony bloggie CM5 if the bloggie went on a serious diet.

The S20 sports the same colors and sheer plastic of the H30 – black and metallic silver with a touch of red. That means that like the H30, it's a fingerprint magnet.

On one flat end is the flip-out LCD screen just beneath the on-board speaker. The three-inch LCD flips up 90 degrees and rotates 180, revealing the power button (the S20 also powers on when the LCD is flipped open) and a prerecord button that when activated records up the three seconds of footage before the record button is pressed.

Flip the S20 over and on the other side is a slide-out compartment hiding a removable lithium-ion battery. Just above that is the still/movie toggle button.

Toshiba Camileo S20

Looking at the S20 head-on reveals the fixed focus lens, on-board microphone, and LED light, which can be used as a steady light for both video and stills.

Toshiba Camileo S20

Opposite the lens side are the control buttons, including a record button, zoom toggle that doubles as an "OK" button and navigation lever for the menu, and three quick access buttons with multiple functions. Under that is a compartment hiding the AV out, HDMI out and USB out.

Toshiba Camileo S20

On top of the Camileo S20, users can switch between macro and landscape mode, and there is a covered compartment hiding the SD/SDHC card slot. Flip it over, and there is a tripod receptacle on the bottom of the pocket HD camcorder along with a wrist-strap slot.

Ergonomics and Controls
The S20 is extremely thin and light, and I find the pistol-grip style preferable to candy bar camcorder for extended shooting as it feels more natural in my hand. However, I have a few issues with the Camileo, in addition to the aforementioned glossy finish that leaves no fingerprint or smudge unseen.

First and foremost, there is such thing as being too thin. Due to its width, the S20 can be tough to secure and operate with one hand, especially with the screen swiveled up, which reduces the S20 thickness about 40 percent. Also, the control buttons run more than halfway down the backside of the camcorder. While the record button is on top and easily accessed, reaching the rest with your thumb is an awkward endeavor.

Finally, the lens is flush against the front and the microphone is directly underneath. It's very easy for a finger to slip over either during recording. There is a small notch below the mic, presumably to warn users of impending finger creep, but it does little to protect the mic or lens. Also, an exposed lens is ripe for scratches and smudges. Toshiba did include a nice case with the S20, but some sort of cover is prefered.

As a reviewer, I'm probably being a bit nitpicky. Toshiba ultimately made an extremely light and compact pocket camcorder, which requires certain ergonomic sacrifices. Overall, they did an admirable job of cramming in all the necessary controls and knobs.

Menus and Modes
It's apparent from the menu options that Toshiba endeavored to make the S20 something more than a Flip wannabe. The S20 has a relatively deep menu, for a pocket camcorder anyway.

On the video side, options include:

For stills, menu items include:

I love the inclusion of time-lapse video and slow motion. I can see casual users having fun with both. Same with the scene modes. Check out my time-lapsed trip from my cubicle down Route 95.

Unfortunately, accessing the menu items is a confusing and tedious chore. Each button, including the record button, has two functions with one dedicated to navigating the menu. It's extremely unintuitive, and even after a few days of testing, I still wasn't able to navigate the S20 without errantly pressing the wrong button on multiple occasions.

The S20 sports a 3.0-inch LCD, which is very large for a pocket camcorder. Many entry-level and mid-range camcorders actually have smaller displays topping out at 2.7 inches. As with any LCD, it is difficult to see in direct sunlight. There are no dedicated display controls in the menu to adjust brightness or cut through the glare.

Toshiba Camileo S20

Another thing missing is touch controls. Touch would go a long way to making S20 menu navigation more manageable. The H30 has them and it's a shame S20 doesn't. Toshiba actually showed two similar models at the IFA expo in Berlin last month, the P20 and S30, both sporting touch screens. While they are only currently set for UK release, I think they'll find their way Stateside soon enough.

Despite the clumsy menu navigation, casual shooters will have no trouble picking up and shooting with the S20.  All the picture controls are set to auto by default, and the Camileo S20 powers on as soon as you open the LCD. From there, simply hit the record button to start filming. Of course, changing resolutions or playing back footage requires a tricky trip through the menu.

Shooting Performance
I have no complaints about the S20's auto settings. All do a decent job and meet the standard set by other pocket camcorders. The auto white balance shows appropriate colors, the auto exposure quickly corrects with any change in lighting, and the auto focus is tough to trick.

The 4x digital zoom predictably destroys image quality and is best left alone; it doesn't work at the highest recording resolution anyway. The image stabilization is also mostly useless, and again, that's par for the pocket camcorder course.

The battery lasted for approximately one hour and 50 minutes of continuous shooting. That's average for pocket camcorders. And the S20's battery is removable, meaning users can purchase and pack an extra unit for added juice in a pinch.

The macro setting works as advertised. With it enabled, the camera needs about four inches of space to focus. When macro is switched off, the S20 requires approximately 10 inches.

Also, the rolling-shutter effect, or skewing, that plagued the H30 (and many other CMOS-sporting camcorders) is also present on the S20.

Video Quality
I lauded the Camileo H30 for its bright and saturated colors and I was hoping the S20 would offer the same picture quality. In fact, it doesn't. The footage appears washed out. It's almost like there is a haze lingering over the scene, which negatively affects detail level.

I don't want to be too harsh, though. The S20 may not impress, and is especially poor in low light, but most pocket camcorders fall into the "good enough" category. The Camileo S20 is good enough, but not by much.

The fact is that smartphones are catching up to pocket camcorders in terms of video quality, so it may be time for the Flip, Bloggie, and S20 to up their game.

Cue the dancing skunk!

Here is how the Camileo S20 performs under constant light. Notice the lack of detail in the skunk's fur. Please be sure to turn on full-screen mode and enable HD to view the accurate S20 output.

Here is how  the S20 performs in low light -- about the equivalent of a bar setting. Once again, other pocket camcorders struggle at this light level. The Camileo S20 falls just below that pack. Again, please enable HD for an accurate glimpse of the S20's low-light performance.

Still Image Quality
Toshiba claims the Camileo S20 shoots 16 megapixel stills. It only has a five-megapixel sensor, so how can that be? The answer: interpolation. I'm guessing the S20 adds the extra pixels after the still is snapped.

Looking at the stills, you can clearly see the image is large, but the details are lacking. Enlarge the image to 100 percent, and the grain is salient. Again, the same hazy quality seen lingering in the video footage is apparent in the stills.

Sample Images

Sound Quality
With no external mic input and no dedicated mic controls, the S20's audio pickup is on par with other pocket camcorders (with the notable exception of the Kodak Zi8), meaning it's acceptable at best.

Operation and Extras
If there is an area in which Toshiba excels, it's value. As with the H30, the S20 ships with all necessary accessories and a few excellent extras. Here's the rundown:

The HDMI cable and tripod are extremely noteworthy. The S20 is the only camcorder I know of that ships with both. Also, the carrying case is thick and durable. It's a huge step above the flimsy pouches that may ship with other pocket camcorders.

The ArcSoft software that ships with the S20 is bulky and awkward, but better than nothing. This is typical of prepackaged imaging programs. Also, it's automatically set to install useless toolbars and other bloatware. While disabling these features is as easy as unchecking the programs during the install process, it's an unwelcomed hassle.

The S20 produces AVI files, which can easily be dragged and dropped from the device if you want to avoid the ArcSoft experience.

The S20 has three distinct strengths and two glaring weaknesses. On the plus side, it is super slim, has a large (for its class, anyway) 3.0-inch display, and comes loaded with extras like the HDMI cable and mini tripod.

However, it also has one of the more confusing menu navigations schemes of any pocket camcorder, which is not easily dismissed as this is a product class built on simplicity. Also, its video quality is mediocre in decent lighting and sub-par in low light. The rationale for choosing it over the others is that it's one of the least expensive pocket camcorders on the market.

Ultimately, the Camileo S20 is a "good enough" camcorder. Stacked against the other "good enough" units on the store shelves, Toshiba's added extras make a compelling case for the Camileo S20.