The Real Deal
The Real Prosumer Camcorder Deal
We had the opportunity to join about 20 journalists and critics at a special Canon event to usher in Canon's XH-A1 and XH-G1 prosumer camcorders. We realized just how confident Canon is that these two prosumer camcorders will make a huge splash in the market. But, are they for everyone?
Prosumer Camcorder House Cleaning
First, the XH-A1 and XH-G1 are nearly identical prosumer camcorders, except the G1 has a professional jack pack, with an HD SDI, genlock and time code terminal each. This additional jack pack separates the price tags: $3,999 (A1) and $6,999 (G1). Unless you've got an expensive, professional HD SDI live mixer or a professional deck, the G1 won't justify its existence in your next production, so our review will mainly address the XH-A1. Also, Canon sent us a laptop with their Console application and a Focus Enhancements DTE to review with this camcorder. We've got a lot of ground to cover, so buckle up. But, just so you know, we're choosing to focus on the prosumer camcorder for now.
Among all the prosumer camcorders we've seen thus far, the XH-A1 prosumer camcorder has by far more function and image control options, making it an ideal camcorder for the budding director of photography. On the outside, the A1 shows classic Canon features (e.g., the "steering wheel" or shooting mode wheel), but also some unexpected features. One is the top placement of the LCD display. We think this is a clever position, leaving the left side of the camcorder accessible; however, the LCD is a tad small. We think 3" is a minimum for an HDV prosumer camcorder and, while its 207K resolution ain't bad, focusing is a consideration. Thankfully, Canon has implemented a new Instant Auto Focus feature (known as "Instant AF"). This helps snap the focus more quickly and accurately into the ballpark focal length at a fraction of a second before the typical auto focus adds the precise touch. Instant AF uses an additional focus sensor on the outside of the lens, which means matte boxes and other accessories might interfere with its effectiveness. It can be deactivated, but if you're really such a control freak, you'll likely use just the manual focus. Using the LCD display only, we were able to manually focus in an extreme close-up successfully 3 out of 4 shots. The missed shot was just a touch soft. An external monitor could fix that for more accurate focus control.
You can unlock a new Pandora's box when you connect this camcorder via FireWire to a compatible laptop with Canon Console software. Console is like Adobe/Serious Magic DV Rack, with vectorscope, waveform monitor and DVR functions, but with camera controls built into the software. With Console you can change all the image properties (e.g., color temperature, black levels, knee, etc.) plus control functions like zoom, focus and iris with a click of the mouse. All the while, you're monitoring and saving footage on the laptop and saving custom presets as you go. It costs an extra $500 for the software, but, if you're shooting in the studio and need something like this, it's well worth it. And it will help you know immediately if your focus is too soft or on the mark.
Simple is Still Sexy
Whiz-bang features aside, the XH-A1 is a simple, feel-good prosumer camcorder. It's slightly front heavy; less so than the XL line, but you can still feel a slight pull downwards. This is a trade-off we welcome with Canon's precision high-quality optics and long 20x, 72mm lens. To add a wide angle adapter, you'll want to balance it out or use a decent support.
With manual focus, zoom and iris rings on the barrel of the lens, the XH-A1 prosumer camcorder marks itself as first in its class with an on-lens, servo-controlled, manual iris. This is the result of Canon listening to its users and keeping them happy. Throw in manual audio controls with 2-channel XLR inputs and several frame modes (i.e., 1080/60i, 1080/30F, 1080/24F) and now they've got their fan base's ear. Canon has made the HDV standard adopt their "F" frame modes so that there's no pull-down across the FireWire connection. In other words, 24F, (with compatible editing software, check to see if yours is updated) undergoes 20% less compression, because the new standard does not duplicate frames as placeholders (i.e., frame pull-down), but rather sends only 24 frames over FireWire connection per second, without duplicates. That's good news for independent filmmakers using HDV and printing to film.
Seeing Is Believing
With the three 1/3" (1440 x 1080 pixels) CCDs, the image quality is very pleasing. Color balance is natural and accurate. Properly lit scenes look brilliant in playback. The XH-A1's ability to resolve the high resolution, 1080i is stunning. For image quality, this is one of the top 1080i camcorders we've seen. The on-board mic delivers decent sound, but most users will take advantage of extra features fitting for pro shooters: accessory shoe, shotgun mic mount, two independent and manual audio channels and two XLR inputs. The one small audio complaint is that the manual gain dials for right and left channels are a little strange in their graphics, making potting up and down a bit disorienting. But we feel you'll get used to it with a little practice. Anyone looking to point and shoot without reading a manual should steer clear, or at least consider chalking out a good weekend to learn all the features. Even the pro shooter will need some get-acquainted time, as the XH-A1 raises the bar for prosumer camcorder functionality and performance.
Image Sensor: 3 1/3-inch 16:9 CCDs
Pixels on CCD: 1.67 Megapixels
Video Effective Pixels: 1.56 Megapixels (HD), 1.17 Megapixels (SD, 4:3)
Format: Mini DV and HDV 1080i
Lens: 20x optical, 32.5-650mm, f/1.6-3.5
Viewfinder: color .57" (269K pixels, 16:9)
LCD Viewscreen: 2.8-inch color (207K pixels, 16:9)
Focus: auto, Instant AF, manual
Anamorphic 16:9: yes
Image Stabilization: optical
Exposure: auto, manual
Minimum Shutter Speed: 1/4
Maximum Shutter Speed: 1/15000
Iris: auto, manual (servo ring)
Electronic Gain: -3dB to 36dB
Neutral Density Filter: 1/6, 1/32
Zebra Stripes: yes, 70-100 IRE (increments of 5 IRE)
White Balance: auto, manual, presets
Audio: 12-bit, 16-bit (DV), stereo MP2 (HDV)
Audio Gain: auto, manual
Microphone Input: 2 ch. XLR and 1/8" stereo mic
Headphone Output: 1/8-inch stereo mini
Outputs: FireWire, Component, BNC, Video Composite, Stereo Composite
Edit Interface: FireWire
Dimensions: (w x h x d): 6.4 x 7.4 x 13.8 in (not including grip belt)
Weight (sans tape and battery): 4.6 lb
External Battery Charger Included: yes
Battery Type: Li-Ion
On-Camera Light: no
Accessory Shoe: Yes, hot
- Manual iris ring
- Numerous image customization options
- 20x optical zoom
- XLR inputs
- A tad front heavy
- LCD display is small
The XH-A1 is an extremely powerful camcorder wrapped around a very approachable HDV tape format that is bound to please prosumer and professional shooters.
Mark Montgomery is Videomaker's Technical Editor.
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