The XH models inherit the nifty large mode dial from previous XL-series camcorders. Ironically, you can operate the XH's in fully automatic mode; after all, for many jobs, getting the shot is usually more important than getting it right.
The usual second set of controls populate the handle. Personally, I find the secondary zoom switch a bit slippery and small. Also on the handle, beneath a plastic cover, are playback controls and still shooting options, such as metering and drive mode.
The XH models support 16 steps of constant-rate zoom. I'm not crazy about the placement or operation of the dial, as I kept hitting the photo button instead. The primary zoom switch works smoothly, however, and has a fluid feel at both constant and variable rates.
This is the first Canon camcorder to support high-capacity (2GB or more) SD cards; you can save 1,920x1,080 stills to the card or use it to transfer custom settings between XH models. Sorry, no saved-setting compatibility with the XL H1. Canon has also added locks for several modes. For instance, this lock prevents you from accidentally turning the camcorder on while in standby.
Well, maybe not a multitude--there's no surround sound--but in addition to the built-in mic, there's a terminal for an external mic (inset) as well as two XLR inputs. With the built-in mic, you have two equalization presets: one to screen out wind noise and one tuned for voice frequencies.
The XH A1's rather functional set of I/O options consist of LANC, FireWire 400, a headphone jack, a composite output, a component output, and this rather lonely BNC video connector. The camcorder automatically downconverts the video when necessary. For any real production-studio or multicamera work, you'll need to spring for the JackPack or buy the XH G1. That provides a Genlock input and SMPTE Time Code I/O, as well as an HD- and SD-SDI interface. Using Canon's extra-cost Console software or connecting to a hard drive (such as Focus Enhancements' FireStore) via FireWire, you can record directly to disk as well.
The 20X zoom lens supplies rings to control focus, zoom, and iris. Canon added a Slow setting to make the camcorder's electronic focus feel a bit more like an SLR's mechanical operation, and it does help. In fact, I wish they'd done something similar for the iris: it slides around so easily that it's very hard to obtain a particular aperture value and very easy to displace once you've settled.
Many of the shooting controls lie within this portion of the body. While I think it's a little more cluttered than it needs to be (why have separate on/off switches for automatic gain and white balance when they can be part of the selector sets?), it's a fairly logical and usable layout. I do have two minor complaints, however. First, you can set home positions for focus and zoom, but not a default iris value. Second, the HDV logo on that monochrome LCD glows blue when you're recording in HD, but there's no backlight for the display.
As with many of the other controls on the XH camcorders, the audio levels don't really provide much tactile feedback, which is fine for controlled shooting environments but not great for responding to quickly changing circumstances (short of putting everything on auto). For instance, what about a semimanual option for audio levels which locks the channels to move together, but lets you set the global level? I do like the way the LCD flips down and snaps into the top of the body rather than the side, though.