Canon EOS 20D Review
Last updated January 2006

Photo copyright 2003 Canon Inc.

This review is not intended to be a comprehensive evaluation of the EOS 20D.  I leave jobs like that to the perfectly competent folks at Imaging Resource et al.  This review is a written from the point of view of a Canon EOS 10D owner, which I have used for a year and a half.

Quick Impressions

About eighteen months after Canon introduced the EOS 10D digital SLR camera, Canon has now introduced its greatly improved successor consumer digital SLR, the model 20D.  And as a perfect example of how consumer electronics loses its value before it makes it through your doorway, I paid $200 less for the 20D than for the 10D.  So rather than traversing the digital afterlife known as eBay, my 10D now belongs to my wife.

Like its predecessor, the 20D can ship as a body only, in which case it comes with no lens and no memory.  That's fine for those of us who are already Canon aficionados.  But taking a cue from the market success of the Digital Rebel, it's also available in two kit forms with memory and a choice of EF-S lenses.  This helps take the guesswork out of the equation for new customers.  Since I still intend to switch back and forth to film however, the digital-specific EF-S -mount lenses don't interest me.  Note well, the cheapest 20D kit sells for what the 10D body sold for at its introduction!

The 20D is a bit lighter (almost three ounces claimed) and a couple of millimeters smaller in every overall dimension.  It has a longer "beak" to make a resting place for the higher-reaching pop-up flash, whose output regulation also seems somewhat improved.  Most of the controls are right where you expect them to be, but Canon have removed the annoying "direction" button and the handy custom assist button, and have added a hat-switch type "multi-controller" to assume directional functions.  The top LCD is a bit smaller but still perfectly sharp and readable.  The main LCD display is the same size but not quite as bright as the 10D's, setting for setting.  There are deeper reliefs around the buttons adjacent the display, and the command dial has been stylized, perhaps pointlessly.  The function to disable the command dial is now integral to the main power switch, and it's more difficult to [accidentally?] turn off the power completely.  The grip material is more rubbery for more secure feel, the texture of the body material is somehow more "substantial", the CF activity light has moved to the camera back, and the rubber cover over the connectors now closes nearly flush with the body of the camera.  The battery and CF doors don't feel quite as robust as the 10D's, but the battery door seems a little easier to coax open.  The area adjacent the battery slot now hides the backup coin cell, moved from the traditional camera base location.

The camera now includes a charger that dispenses with a power cord in favor of hinged prongs that fold flush into the charger, making for a more compact travel package.  An AC adapter is still missing, but is hardly necessary unless you expect to do a lot of direct printing.  If you had an AC adapter for your 10D, it'll work fine with the 20D.  The battery included is a now a BP511A, which still uses Li-Ion chemistry and looks almost identical to the BP511 but offers about 20% more charge capacity.  Also helping keep the travel package compact is a thinner USB cable, whose surprising white color may end up causing it to be confused for an iPod accessory.  The software package still comes in several bits and pieces but seems to install more smoothly.  Included is Adobe Elements 2.0, even though 3.0 is now Adobe's current offering.  The camera manual is now a small booklet that squeezes into a shirt-pocket, so it may be more easily used for reference.

The biggest and most immediately noticeable improvements in the 20D are the nearly instant startup/wake-up time, faster shutter, faster sync, higher maximum shooting speed and larger buffer, greatly improved image quality at high ISO settings (amazing, in fact), long exposure noise reduction, a USB 2.0 connection instead of 1.1, huge increases in the speed of writing to the flash memory, synchronous use of the flash memory, and enormous speed improvements all around.  Auto-focus now employs nine points and functions more quickly, reliably and accurately.  Of course, let's not forget nearly two more megapixels of sensor resolution, too!

In Detail

I've always felt that digital SLR cameras were terrific tools to learn and perfect the craft of photography.  The 20D takes this several steps further by adding filter effects (removing much of the need to collect color filters), by finally introducing monochromatic modes, and by offering parametric color balance and processing adjustments that make Photoshop and/or sharpening filters less of a necessity for consumer- and print- ready output.  The display also seems somewhat more representative of actual picture clarity when reviewing and zooming in on details.

Subtle operational improvements include a "sticky" playback display mode that remembers whether you were reviewing the default picture/exposure screen, just the picture, or the histogram/data screen layout.

According to the data from Imaging Resource, Canon has addressed my gripe about using more aggressive JPEG compression in the higher resolution "fine" settings on the 10D.  Large/fine was compressing at about 7:1 with the 10D but is now around 5:1 with the 20D.

Reviewing photographs on the LCD is much faster now!  No more "waitaminnit, that fuzzy image will clear up in a sec".  Images pop up in no more than a half a second when being read from the memory card, are immediately clear, and are cached by the camera (as long as you stay in playback mode) so they appear immediately when revisited.

The 20D is also the least expensive digital SLR to be compatible with Canon's Data Verification Kit, which is a must-have for legal and forensic work.

My only substantial gripe with the new camera is the shutter release is significantly louder, making surreptitious or discrete camera use more difficult.  That power switch is also turning out to be a bit of a menace - I prefer to keep the command dial enabled, and I'm finding my efforts to turn off the camera frequently result in it being left on, in the command dial disabled setting.

Other little niggles...  The increase in shooting speed now requires more judicious setting of the continuous drive mode in order to avoid taking more shots than you intended.  But that's the "price to pay" for a camera whose shooting speed is now on par with costly professional film cameras.  The focus-assist lamp - actually a stroboscopic "zzzzzt!" from the built-in flash - seems to be more trigger-happy than the 10D's.  The "pictures available" readout stops at 999.  Since I'm cursed with short thumbs, the multi-controller is a bit of a reach and takes a little getting used to.  And the 20D introduces yet another variety of RAW file format that is not yet readable by most software on the market - as of the first week of January, Adobe's Camera Raw plug-in is in beta and ThumbsPlus! just got theirs to market.

Canon claims that battery life has improved.  Then again, they're also packing a more powerful battery in this package.  The design of the battery compartment precludes actual measurements without destroying a good battery, but the idle current in the camera's "sleep" mode definitely has been drastically reduced to some miniscule amount that is barely greater than the battery's "leakage" current.  In spite of the camera constantly being left on over the course of a week, then being used lightly for nearly a month, the battery charge indicator is just beginning to indicate a low charge.  Once someone gives me an old BP511 that I can disassemble, or lets me borrow an AC adapter, I'll rig up some tests.  I can also confirm that the low battery warning on the 20D still comes on absurdly early, as it did on the 10D.

The upgrades on the 20D beget a couple of new custom functions.  Notably...

Custom Function #13 optionally programs the multi-controller to select focus points.  I really like this feature!  The multi-controller works much better than the 10D's approach of using the assist button as a temporary focus point override.  Just point the controller at the focus point you want, or press it down for the center point, and there it stays.  A stab at the focus point selection button returns the selection to auto.  You can also use CF13 to program the command dial for focus point selection, but it's not nearly as handy or as intuitive.

CF2 turns on Long Exposure Noise Reduction, which uses dark frame data to subtract noise from exposures over one second long.  By default this feature is turned off, though in practicality it's hard to imagine why.  There is no apparent penalty, other than the fact that you're further entrusting the minutiae of your subject to the whimsy of the CMOS and the camera's computer.

Lemony Fresh!

I don't exactly want to accuse Canon of having reliability problems with the 20D, but it looks like I may have received one that came off the production line during happy hour.  While gently pressing a cloth against the top LCD to clean it, weird patterns would show up and gradually disappear.  Then I discovered that the camera would not stay powered on when exposed to cool (< 60F) ambient temperatures.  Luckily I discovered this right away and was able to enjoy a trouble-free exchange with the highly rated e-tailer BuyDig.com.  The replacement camera works perfectly fine, even after a couple of weeks of daily carry and rattling about on my motorcycle through most of a winter day.

Things were only slightly better with my new CompactFlash card.

Delighted with the relative economy of the 20D, I spent all that "saved" money on a high performance 4GB Ultra-II CompactFlash card from Sandisk.  What I really wanted was an Extreme-III, since the reviews at Rob Galbraith's web site showed those to be the best performing 4GB cards, but Sandisk says those won't be in the retail channel for another month.  It was wait or compromise, so I chose to compromise.

I received the card, stuck it into the camera, and it showed up as only 2GB.  Apparently there's a tiny little switch hidden along the edge of these > 2GB CF cards, to make them usable in devices that can't recognize such large cards.  The switch "cripples" the card to show up as only 2GB.  I didn't know anything about this switch at the time (no mention of it in the packaging, nor any mention on their web site) and, foolishly, Sandisk shipped the card with that switch in the crippled position.  When I called Sandisk to complain that my card only showed up as 2GB, they told me it was defective!  Only after I arranged for an exchange of the CF card, did someone at Canon (yes, CANON) point out and explain this switch to me, enabling me to restore it the CF card to full 4GB - er, I mean 3.7GB - functionality.  Yeah, sometimes a megabyte is not really a megabyte...

That old issue of binary versus decimal interpretation of the term "megabyte" rears its ugly head once again.  I was not terribly surprised when Sandisk's "4GB" CF showed up as 3.7GB instead, but I still feel ripped off for 9% of what I thought I was paying to get.  Unfortunately Sandisk aren't the only folks cheating.  But that doesn't mean we have to take this crap sitting down.

Final Impression

The Canon EOS 20D is not merely an incremental improvement over the 10D.  The only thing I could ask for is faster servo/predictive autofocus, which so far remains in the domain of Canon's professional ($3500 and up) digital SLRs.  Although basic usability remains close to the 10D, the speed improvements are so pervasive and substantial in the new camera that I could never imagine going back.


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