The Canon XH A1 is as close to perfect as any camcorder in its price range, with great resolution, very high contrast ratio, and extraordinary customizability. I did find the auto-focus somewhat lacking, which may be a concern for some potential buyers.
The XH line has two camcorders, the A1 ($3,999) that I reviewed and the G1 ($6,999). The difference between the two cameras is the G1 has a Professional Jackpack with HD-SDI, genlock, and timecode connectors. Both camcorders use electronics identical to those of the XL H1, which means three 1/3in. CCDs with a pixel count of 1.67 megapixels. If you do the math for Canon’s (and Sony’s) flavor of HDV video (1440×1080 rectangular pixels that are eventually scaled to 1920×1080), it comes to 1,555,200 pixels. This confirms that the chip performs a pixel-for-pixel capture when shooting HDV — no upward interpolation is required.
The camera shoots in HDV 60i, 24F, and 30F modes, as well as DV in 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios. Canon calls these “frame mode” rather than progressive because the camera uses interlaced chips — although the company claims the result is visually identical to 24p and 30p. I didn’t test the XL A1 in these modes, but my earlier tests of the XL H1 (described at digitalcontentproducer.com/cameras/revfeat/film_look) confirmed Canon’s statements.
Tour de XH A1
Like virtually all camcorders in this genre, the XH A1 has a similar body style to the Sony VX2000 and HDR-FX1. It is about 14in. long, 7.4in. tall (including handle), and 6.4in. wide, and weighs 4.6lbs. without the battery. An external (empty) microphone holder sits on top of the upper handle, which was a touch too big for my Shure SM89 shotgun microphone — rubber adapters would be a nice touch. The top handle also has separate zoom, start/stop, and photo controls, along with video playback controls and an intelligent accessory shoe.
The camera comes with a fixed 20X optical zoom (best in class) with optical image stabilization, which you turn on and off via menu controls, rather than a switch on the body. Because you can’t access menu controls while shooting, and can’t allocate one of the two custom keys to enable/disable OIS, this could be a problem if you frequently change from tripod to handheld. Of course, this is a problem shared by most camcorders of this form factor. When set to variable, the zoom controls have 16 separate speeds that you select with variable pressure on the control. A switch behind the zoom control lets you set zoom speed to constant, with a dial to choose the speed.
Two XLR connectors sit on the front right, with relevant controls such as line/mic toggle directly above. The connectors can supply Phantom power (+48V) to microphones that need it. There’s another 3.5mm stereo mini-jack input directly below the microphone holder that supplies no power. Wheel controls for adjusting incoming volume are on the back left of the camera, with volume meters in the LCD or viewfinder. Overall, the audio setup is top notch.
In the back is a closed battery compartment that is large enough for most Canon long-life batteries, although users on the message boards have complained that it’s too small for some third-party batteries. The battery door doesn’t swing below 90 degrees, so I had no problem changing batteries on any of the three tested tripods. Also on the back is an I/O bay with LANC control, FireWire, headphone jack, and analog output with composite video, but no S-Video output. There’s also a standalone BNC connector for composite video output.
The 2.8in. 207K TFT LCD panel folds into the top of the main camera body, and displays in native 16:9 mode. Visibility in direct sunlight was OK, but I’ve definitely seen better. The 0.59in. viewfinder — also 16:9 — shows more detail with its 269K pixels. As with most camcorders, the bulk of the controls are on the left side of the body, but Canon did move the menu button to the back left and the select flywheel to the back, where it’s much easier to access and configure than on the XL H1.