Giving independent videographers something to choose from besides its popular but long-in-the-tooth GL2, Canon offers up two HDV models designed to appeal to the prosumer and entry-level pro markets. Derived from the same technology that the professional-level XL H1 uses, the XH A1 and the XH G1 HDV models trade the XL H1's interchangeable lens system to lower the cost by one-half to two-thirds the price of the higher-end model. The two XH models share a single body, but the G1 includes the equivalent of the XL H1's JackPack--HD-SDI output with embedded audio and time code, Genlock synchronization, and Timecode In/Out--a group of connectors critical for anyone trying to mix multiple video input sources. In addition, the SDI output is the only way to get 4:2:2 output. We tested the lower-end XH A1.
All things considered it feels comfortable shooting with the XH A1; though it weighs almost five pounds, it's still considerably lighter than most. All the buttons and controls sit in logical locations, grouped roughly by function and generally in the same locations as they appear on competing models. They're good sizes, and various bumps and divots in the buttons provide enough tactile feedback to operate without looking. A large chunk of the camcorder's architecture lets you determine the speed and subtlety with which shifts occur during shooting, including focus, zoom and exposure changes, and white-balance adjustments. (For a complete discussion of the controls, click through the slide show.)
On the lens barrel, rings of different sizes and textures operate focus, zoom, and iris. In response to complaints about the mushiness of servo-controlled focus, Canon offers a Slow speed option; that option, plus a distance readout help to maintain a finer control over focus response, but you'll probably still want to try it and compare to others if you're picky about the feel. I think it feels about the same as the Panasonic AG-HVX200's.
The same three 1/3-inch CCDs with 1080i (1,440x1,080) native resolution that drive the XL H1 sit at the center of the XH series' imaging system, and like the H1, both models can record in 1080i at 30F or 24F frame rates. The latter comes in two versions, one which records to tape at 24 frames per second, and one which downconverts from 24fps to 30fps/60i using 2:3:3:2 pull-down before recording for greater editing compatibility. Their feature sets share many of the H1's technologies, including a Digic DV II processor, Super-Range Optical Image Stabilization, and the H1's customization architecture. The XH cameras have fixed 20x zoom lenses rather than the interchangeable lenses on the XL, but they offer a wider-angle view: 32.5mm-to-650mm equivalent.
The lens and focusing system perform very well. The lens displays very good edge-to-edge sharpness, albeit with a tendency to display a bit of magenta chromatic aberration on the sides, and the center focus looks great, especially when zoomed in tight. As usual, Canon's optical stabilizer works exceptionally well, even all the way out to 20x.
With Instant AF enabled, the autofocus works quickly, and the Push AF, which activates an Instant AF override in manual-focus mode, speeds manual focus considerably. As noted in the XH series' documentation, there's a bit of an autofocus lag in 24F and 30F modes; it's perceptible, but if you shoot a lot in those modes and use AF, your shooting rhythm should adapt after a while. Canon moved the Peaking and Magnify focusing aids out to the body of the camera--they were in the menu system in the XL H1--and you'll rely on them pretty heavily; the tiny, low-resolution LCD is pretty difficult to work with.
Canon provides seven gain levels: 36dB, 18dB, 12dB, 6dB, 3dB, 0dB, and -3dB (although, irritatingly, you can only program three on the L/M/H switch. At its lowest gain, video looks incredibly smooth, and even as high as 3dB you can shoot in low light with relatively little noise. At 12dB there's quite a bit of (mostly) luminance noise, but it doesn't really obscure much detail and you can shoot in near darkness. The quiet on-camera mic works pretty well in basic up-close-and-personal shooting, but you've got plenty of add-on options should your needs be more complex.
As you'd expect from camcorders in their class, the XH's produce excellent HD and SD video: sharp, saturated and smooth. The controversy that began with the XL H1 over the relative quality of Canon's 24F versus Panasonic's 24P--implemented by models such as the Panasonic AG-HVX200--continues, and applies equally to the XH series. To summarize: Panasonic's 24P is a full 720-line frame of video captured roughly every 1/24 second. Canon's 24F "fakes" progressive scan by slightly offsetting the vertical readout of the green CCD from those of the blue and red, generating a frame with 1.5x the lines of the 540-line field, or 810 lines, albeit ones using spatial rather than temporal interlace. As a result, the quality question arises: Do Canon's pseudo-progressive frames look the same as a true progressive frame or does one see artifacts?
I didn't see any; footage I shot specifically to test for 24F artifacts looked correct to me. (I played it back directly on our reference HDTV, the 50-inch Pioneer Pro-FHD1, to bypass the myriad software issues surrounding 24fps editing and playback.) However, if you want to see a bevy of test results, you can find them in the Texas Shootout on DV.com.
At their aggressive prices, the Canon XH A1 and XH G1 look mighty attractive compared to their respective competitors in the indie filmmaker and entry-level studio markets.