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Canon's XH A1 and Next-Generation HDV
Posted Mar 2, 2007 Print Version     Page 1of 1

As an event videographer for over 17 years, I've used most everything from a two-piece camcorder and 3/4" tape system with 20-minute tape loads, to a Sony DSR 250 that shot more than 270 continuous minutes and ran a camera-top light and wireless receiver all from one camera battery.
I have found numerous excellent features and many annoying problems in the various systems, not to mention the "I wish..." issues that arise with just about any camera you use. With this in mind, I looked forward to getting my hands on the new Canon XH A1. By coming a little later to the prosumer HDV party with a compact all-in-one, Canon was able to take what people liked about the GL series and the technical prowess of the XL series and meld those features into one camcorder.

Raising the Bar
JVC was the first out of the gate in 2003 with their JY-HD10U, a single-chip, 720p30 camcorder that produced decent HD in good light, but really lacked sensitivity on par with SD camcorders of its day. It failed to develop any strong following for two years. Sony picked up the ball and put it in a different stadium two years later with the virtually identical HDR-FX1 and HVR-Z1U models. These three-chip 1440i60 prosumer camcorders were vastly superior in low light to the original JVC, but were clearly less sensitive than Sony's SD camcorders, the PD 150 and 170.

JVC's 720p30 GY-HD100 moved beyond the limitations of an internal lens with removable Fujinon glass. Canon introduced their XL H1 20x optical lens 1080i60 HDV camcorder that tests showed approached the image quality of camcorders several times its price. But these camcorders tend to cost several times what a compact, all-in-one camcorder can cost.

Meanwhile, Canon took their optic know-how and put a 20x optical lens into three-chip compact HDV camcorders. The XH A1 and G1 appeared in late 2006, with price points in line with HDV models from other manufacturers.

The A1 and G1 are essentially the same camcorder through and through, except the G1 offers a "Professional Jackpack" with HD-SDI, genlock, and time code. HD-SDI provides uncompressed 1.485Gbps output to a compatible deck, 4:2:2 color sampling, and embedded time code and audio. Genlock is essential for multi-camera synchronization in live-switched environments. An SMPTE time code terminal allows multiple cameras to be synched to a master clock.

As these features essentially double the cost of the camcorder, and are not as useful as HDV for event video recording, I'll be looking at the A1. At a street price of $3,700, it is almost half the cost of the G1, a little less expensive than Sony's new HVR-V1U, and about $1,000 less than Sony's HVR-Z1U.

An interesting accessory that Canon offers with its HDV models is the Console Image Control & Storage Software that lets you control key functions of the camcorder remotely through a PC, delivering camera setup and image adjustment capabilities over a single FireWire cable.

Some of Console's features can be found on third-party FireWire monitoring software packages, like image preview, hard drive recording, and scopes. But Console also offers complete setup and tweaking of the image control parameters inside the camcorder. No third-party package does this.

Compared to the former HDV benchmark, the Z1U, the A1's most immediate advantage is the 20x optical lens. Secondly, the A1 uses the same imaging chips as Canon's venerable XL H1 with more image tweaking control than the H1. The A1 offers more traditional LCD screen placement, unprecedented still-image capability, and three true control rings on the lens. Then Canon added Instant AutoFocus as icing on the cake. It would then seem a no-brainer to go with the Canon. But before you whip out your credit card, lets take a look at these features in depth, and also uncover some things you might not expect to find.

figure 1Battery Door
The first thing you do to test gear is power it up. With that in mind, I was a little stunned to see Canon implement an internal battery - a system Sony ditched after their first DV camcorder, 11 years ago. Canon puts the battery and the SD Flash media behind a door that covers the back of the camcorder. Though the cavity is large enough to hold the current "large-size" batteries, the door adds considerable time and effort to battery changes.

Almost every other camcorder has an external battery slot that requires only a finger and a thumb to push the release button and pop the battery out—often a time-critical task during events. In several one-handed time trials, I changed the battery in the Sony Z1U in three seconds or less. My times on the Canon A1 varied between 5 and 10 seconds, depending on how far the battery popped out of the camcorder. It may not seem like much, but when the battery fails at the most critical moment, as they often seem to do, faster is better.

Putting the battery behind a door also prevents the user from using alternate power rigs like the BeBob Coco. There is, however, an opening in the door for the cable from the AC adapter to come out—good news, since there's no external DC port.

figure 1Instant AF
Canon has put considerable effort into the focus system on these new camcorders because focus is so much more important in an HD image that will be shown on a big screen. Consumer autofocus systems can wind up hunting if you pan the image too fast or someone walks in front of the camcorder. Canon's solution is a separate system that gauges the distance from the subject to the camcorder and keeps the lens at that distance. So, even if what you are panning across is blurred by the panning, the system is designed to keep the focus where it needs to be. In testing, however, the Canon didn't focus any faster than other camcorders I use and there were times I still found it hunting.

This system is the primary focusing mechanism, with image edge detection moved to secondary status. The Instant AF system utilizes a sensor next to the lens. This means that the lens hood was re-designed to allow for that sensor to work. If you plan on using a wide-angle lens, adaptor, filter, or hood, be aware that it will block Canon's Instant AF sensor. You should go into the menu and turn off Instant AF if the sensor will be blocked. Another excellent feature on the A1 is the ability to adjust the focus while the camcorder is in autofocus. This is particularly useful when you are aiming the camera through some foreground object—a fence, flowers, etc. The camera will usually pick the closest item to autofocus on, but you can just rotate the focus ring to push the focus to the distant object. In numerous tries, I found this to work very well. The Sony Z1U is either manual or auto and requires you to find the switch to go manual so you can then adjust the focus, far less convenient than on the Canon.

figure 1Lens Rings
Sony has tried numerous solutions for lens control over the years. As a user of the unique DSR 250, I've found that three distinct rings offered usability most like that of using a real, detachable professional lens.

Sony's Z1U controls the iris with a separate little knob, something I never really liked. On the V1U, Sony's iris control is still a little dial, but at least they move it inline, right behind the zoom ring so the placement is far better. Canon, however, gets it right. The A1 has three distinct rotating rings on the lens: focus, zoom, and iris. Sony does the zoom ring better though, with a calibrated ring that stops at the ends of the zoom. If it can be done with servo zoom, one has to wonder why it hasn't been done with focus and iris.

Custom Buttons
A new feature that appeared for the first time a few years ago was the "soft" button, where the user selects what the button controls through the menu. This is an excellent feature that enables users to customize their cameras by making those features they need immediately accessible. However, this capability is limited to those few functions the manufacturer allows the user to select.

Canon offers two custom buttons and six assignable functions: Zebra, TV Screen, CWF+LCD BW, Magn. B. Lock, Shutter D. Lock, and CP Bkwd Key, and none. Sony's FX1 has three fixed buttons and three custom buttons. The Z1U has six assignable buttons and they control nine functions: Fader, Steadishot, Index Mark, Audio Dub, Display, Bars, Spot Light, Back Light, and Rec Review. In addition, the Sony offers a convenient "P-Menu" that allows users to create a sub-menu of their most used items from anywhere in the menu system. As menu systems get more involved and complex, this will become an even more important feature.

It is hard to compare these features directly, however, because each camcorder has dedicated buttons for what the other may put in a menu, or a custom button. Moreover, we have to wonder why so many features are excluded altogether. We're just dealing with software here, so any limitation on what a button calls up is arbitrary.

Image Stabilization
Both Sony and Canon offer very good optical image stabilization. During my initial hands-on with the A1, Canon advised that users turn off the image stabilization when using the camcorder on a tripod. This is something that all camera users should do because image stabilization will make tripod moves look "floaty" as it tries to compensate for deliberate camera moves.

Sony offers the ability to assign image stabilization to a custom button so the user can easily toggle it on and off. I found it interesting that even though Canon correctly advised that we disable image stabilization, the camera is unable to assign that menu function to a custom button, an omission I can't understand. You will always have to go three levels into the menu to get to image control and image stabilization on/off.

Rest assured, their advice is critical. In using the camcorder on a tripod, the three systems of image stabilization "corrected" my on-tripod activities several times. A few were quite sudden adjustments after I had finished panning. This is probably due to the Super-Range Optical Image Stabilizer that the Canon uses.

Long Lens
When the A1 and G1 were announced, the big buzz concerned the combination of compact HDV camcorders with a really good long lens. Until now, the only way to get beyond 10 or 12x was a clunky add-on converter, or a much more expensive camcorder with a broadcast lens. So a real 20x piece of glass was a big attention-getter.

Interestingly, the news was short-lived, as Sony announced a 20x lens in their new V1U. Those kind of things do not happen overnight, so it's clear Sony also knew that 10x and 12x lenses needed to be left behind with their next-generation product.

We didn't have a V1U available for head-to-head testing, but hands-on with the Canon A1 compared to the Z1U's 12x lens, you really do notice the extra reach. It also starts a hair wider, but nothing that would let you forego a wide-angle adapter for receptions. A drawback to the long lens is the f-stop increase from 1.6 to 3.4. The Z1U is 1.6 to 2.8. When I matched the zoom lengths, the f-stops were about the same, so it doesn't seem that either lens is significantly brighter or darker than the other.

If you have the available light, the Canon will give you the reach. But if it's dark, you won't be able to use the extra zoom without making the image too dark.

figure 1LCD Screen
The Sony Z1U has a generous 3.5" widescreen LCD monitor with unusual placement high up on the handle. The A1 has a smaller 2.5" LCD screen tucked under the handle in an unusual, rotating, locking position. Although both eschew the traditional side-of-body placement typical of compact prosumer camcorders, neither is an improvement.

Perhaps this is why Sony went back to side-of-body placement in the V1U. There, the screen is easily accessed, and it can be used to stabilize the camcorder body. While the A1's LCD screen can be used to stabilize the camcorder, it is very small. The Sony Z1U screen is much better to look at, but it cannot be used to stabilize the camera from the side because that is how it is designed to swing.

The LCD screen is what most users will stare at 90% of the time. A large, high-resolution screen capable of showing the video's entire dynamic range is critical. For the most part, camcorder LCD screens don't show anywhere near the full dynamic range of the video, which is why on-screen Zebra is important. But larger is certainly better when dealing with HD.

All these camcorders use some sort of "expanded focus" to overcome the inherent limited resolution of the LCD screens. Unfortunately, none of these camcorders offer this critical focusing tool while shooting—you must be paused to get the expanded view. This greatly limits the feature's usability.

Sony puts an expanded focus square in the middle of the viewable screen. This clearly indicates something different is going on. Canon fills the screen with the expanded view, removes some markers on the screen and adds the word "focus" in small yellow type in the center of the screen. I think this can easily be overlooked and some users will be surprised when they hit the Record button and the screen jumps back to a completely different framing.

Canon's 2.8" LCD offers only 207,000 pixels for your viewing pleasure. This is 73.9 pixels per diagonal inch (ppdi). Sony's new V1U's 3.5" screen offers 211,200 pixels. This is 60.3 ppdi, clearly lower, but more viewable because of the size and our normal viewing distance from the screen. The Sony Z1U's 3.5" screen packs in approximately 250,000 pixels (71.4 ppdi), for more critical assessment. As high resolution as the Canon screen is, it simply looks tiny in an era of 3"-plus LCD screens. There is plenty of space where the LCD hides to have made it considerably bigger, so this limitation seems unfortunately to be an arbitrary one.

Another factor to consider is that the monitor placement of the V1U moves many control buttons back to the left side of the camcorder. This makes them much easier to access. Canon also places most camera control functions on the left side of the camcorder. In the end, this is where they really need to be and both the A1 and the V1U are improvements over the Z1U in this regard.

I've long enjoyed using a color LCD screen on a camcorder and have always felt that larger is better. When using cameras in a multi-camera setup, a large integrated LCD screen removes the need to clumsily add on extra, expensive, and heavy monitors. There's a huge live event production market for the first manufacturer that makes a compact camcorder (even an SD model) with a truly sizable, wide angle-view, integrated LCD screen. Adding iris control to the LANC port would be icing on the cake.

The Canon A1 viewfinder is crisp, with 269,000 pixels, but in testing the optics caused some readily visible chromatic aberration. There was purple fringing evident on the left and right sides of the viewfinder screen. Sony Z1U and V1U viewfinders have a resolution of 252,000 pixels and, despite being slightly smaller than the Canon's, suffer from no such color distortion.

Holding both viewfinders up to my eyes at the same time (something more difficult than one would suppose), I found that Canon looked noticeably sharper, but was also visibly smaller. This is because of the optics used to magnify the screen; more pixels in a smaller space would obviously appear sharper. Both seem to have the same luminance range. Both have diopter adjustments but the Sony has a wider opening which allows the eye to see the entire image further from the eyepiece. This can allow operators with glasses to easily view the screen without removing their glasses.

figure 1Audio
The Z1U (right) and the A1 (left) both have built-in stereo microphones that provide an excellent soundstage with no additional hardware. Sony's new V1U eliminates any built-in stereo mic in favor of a PD 150-like XLR-only setup for external microphones. This is clearly a step backward in ease of audio recording—especially in situations where smaller, lighter rigs are useful (multi-camera shoots, handheld camera stabilizers, etc.).

However, the A1 does not improve on the Z1U. They both require a menu switch between internal stereo and XLR-only audio. They do not offer a hardware switch that would make the transition faster, nor do they let you use the built-in mic for one channel, while using a wireless mic for the second, a feature that would prove very handy for most event video.

The audio quality of the built-in microphones is good enough for most events, but I wouldn't use it to record classical concert performances. Audio tests of prosumer camcorders have made it clear that the noise floor, stereo separation, and audio fidelity of any camcorder's built-in microphone is not going to match a high-quality external microphone—especially one you pre-amplify and mix outside of the camcorder. Both the Canon and Sony do feature line-level inputs and pads to handle connecting these camcorders directly to the line outputs of a mixer. Interestingly, the Canon also offers a stereo 3mm microphone jack. This defeats the internal stereo microphone and offers the ability to switch the camcorder between two different stereo feeds.

Despite having four wired inputs, the A1 does not record four channels of audio like the XL H1 does. None of the Sony prosumer camcorders offer four channels of audio recording.

Image Control
Here's where the Canon wins, hands down. There are almost two dozen interrelated image controls that can be adjusted into multiple, saveable user presets on the Canon camcorders. They can be shared between camcorders.

The Sony offers far less image control, catering more to the premise that video should be captured clean and processed in post. This methodology has value because you can change your "look" later, whereas if you do it all in camera, it's much harder to change your mind later.

Sony's Z1U offers several Picture Profiles with control over Color Level, Color Phase, Sharpness, Skin Detail, AE Shift, Auto Gain Control Limit, Iris Limit, White Balance Shift, Auto White Balance Sensitivity, Cinematone, and Cineframe.

The Canon can adjust Gamma, Knee, Black, Pedestal, Setup, Sharpness, Horizontal Detail Frequency, Detail Horizontal/Vertical Balance, Coring, Noise Reduction 1, Noise Reduction 2, Color Matrix, Color Gain, Color Phase, Red Gain, Green Gain, Blue Gain, Red/Green Matrix, Red/Blue Matrix, Green/Red Matrix, Green/Blue Matrix, Blue/Red Matrix, and Blue/Green Matrix. Thankfully, you can reset these settings so if you go too far with your adjustments, you can nuke everything and start over.

The custom functions you can set include Shockless White Balance, Shockless Gain, Auto Exposure Response, High Speed Zoom, Focus Ring Control, Button Operation (one push or long push), Rings Direction (for all three rings), Dials Direction (for two dials), Focus Priority, Simultaneous Image Record, Marker Level (for three markers), Focus Assist B&W Mode, Object Distance Units, Zoom Indicator, Color Bar Type, 1kHs Tone, Wireless Remote Number, Power Save, Tally Lamp, LED Setting, Beep Setting, and Character Record. There are also 21 custom display settings.

Moreover, the entire camera profile of one A1 camcorder can be saved to flash media (SD cards) and loaded into as many other A1 and G1 camcorders as you need. This makes it nearly effortless to clone your master camcorder's "look" onto as many rental cameras as your shoot may require. Or you can just rent, and once you find the settings you like, save them, and know that every time you rent, you can easily set the camera back up exactly like you had it last time.

Unlike the Z1U, Sony's new V1U can also save profiles to flash media (Memory Stick Duo PRO) and transfer them between camcorders.

Low Light
I'll be blunt and say that after moving into HD production, I miss my PD 150 and DSR 250. The PD 170 was reportedly even better. But HDV packs as many as 4.5 times as many pixels into the same, or even smaller amount of space. This means each HD pixel only sees a fraction of the amount of light coming through the lens as the much larger SD pixel does. This is one of the reasons the size of the lens grew so dramatically between the SD camcorder and the HD camcorders—to let more light in.

The Z1U, which I have used for well over a year now, is certainly no low-light champ compared to previous SD cameras. But it holds its own in the HDV realm. The A1 offers comparable performance, but the A1's ability to tweak the image means the A1's 18db images can be made to look better than those from the Z1U.

Sony's V1U, based on CMOS chips, is clearly the light loser here. No matter the amount of processing, the CMOS chips are just not able to produce as bright an image as CCD chips at this time. In a few years, this may all change. For now, however, CCD chips rule the low-light reception halls.

Unfortunately, manufacturers seem to be moving away from easy analog connections by bundling them into multi-connectors. Until recently, users would have Y/C, Composite, and two RCA jacks for audio to easily monitor what's going on in the camcorder. Today, that connectivity can only be accessed through specialized multi-pin jacks requiring unique cables you must carry with you all the time.

The Z1U offers composite and stereo audio via a 4-conductor 3mm jack. It also offers HDV and DV out a 4-pin FireWire port. Component is available on a specialized port by using a supplied RGB cable. The A1 has an analog component video out, and video and stereo audio via a 4-conductor 3mm jack switchable with a single BNC jack for video out. It also has FireWire out.

The V1U has three connectors—the same specialized component out as the Z1U—a new 10-pin analog A/V output jack, and a 4-pin FireWire port on the right of the camcorder. It has an HDMI out and a USB port on the left of the camcorder.

figure 1Additional Features
Canon touts the A1's ability to take stills in addition to the camera's video capabilities. The Z1U lacks any sort of flash media capability to record stills. Not only does the A1 offer high-quality (1920x1080, 2 MP) stills and a hot shoe that will control a still camera flash, it can also take digital stills while shooting video. However, there is a disparity in quality between stills from video (left, bottom) and stills as stills (left, top).

Canon explains that there are two different image processors and stills that are shot as stills have different processing from video stills. Stills shot while recording video are recorded in the same color space as the video—useful for accurately representing the video that was shot, but not necessarily for producing images to be printed independently. Canon also offers the ability to record camera data into a separate file with the still image.

You can see the differences in the two images of the dark tree and the bright, sunlit house. I found the stills from video to have a softer luminance range—showing more yellow in the siding than the true still image did. However, the true still image more faithfully reproduces the difference between the dark areas of the tree and the brightness of the sunlit house. It also more faithfully reproduced the colors of the blue sky and the green tree.

The only problem is that true stills require the user to turn off the tape mechanism and slide a little switch to select the SD card. This is useful if you need it, but for the most part, stills from the video part of the camera will serve you better when you have an event to shoot. If you plan on printing these out for some sort of "same day" photo album, you can run them through a bit of computer processing to give the images back their full luminance and color.

Another feature Canon continues with the A1 and G1 is the optional Tripod Adapter (TA-100) that attaches with four screws to the bottom of the camcorder. This provides a much more professional and sturdy mount than the typical, single 1/4" threader screw. It would be wonderful if more camcorders had the ability to use a more professional mount like this, and they were all compatible with each other.

figure 1Console
There are several software packages, such as DV Rack for Windows and Divergent's new ScopeBox for Mac, that connect to DV and HDV camcorders and let the user critically assess the image through the use of software waveform and vector scopes. Those software packages also show audio and enable the computer to record the camera's output directly to a hard drive. But they can only display what the camera's doing. They don't control the camcorder.

Canon has introduced software called Console that does everything. You can picture it as a software-based Camera Control Unit. Console does even what the camcorder can't: showing you both the enlarged Focus Assist view and the regular image (as well as scopes and audio) all at the same time.

The main problem with it is the computer. While providing the software as a PC-hosted application makes the utility upgradable, a mouse is not the best tool to use for adjusting camera parameters. What's more, there is a delay between the camera and what you see and hear on the computer. There is also a delay between any adjustment you make and seeing it on the computer screen.

This delay may not be a problem for the 24-plus image controls Console offers, but trying to zoom or adjust the iris or any active camera control is quite an exercise. You almost have to be telepathic to stop an adjustment where you think the camera will be in the future, while Console shows you where it was a second ago.

Though real-time camera manipulation may prove tricky, Console is really about making the depth and breadth of image manipulation much easier to execute and to see. You can access the camcorder's image settings after you've tweaked them to your heart's content. It can save them to the hard drive and email them around the world. Someone in Australia shooting a scene for you can have the exact same image settings as you. Very cool.

It is also far, far easier to make those adjustments and see how one parameter affects another in the Console interface. Instead of monkeying around with a small LCD screen and one little dial to adjust or select between each parameter, using a mouse to jump between Coring, Noise Reduction, and Gain really enables users to get to the "look" they want about 10 times faster than by using the buttons on the camcorder.

It almost begs to have a different interface that can be displayed on the biggest screen possible—or even use dual monitors to spread out the various palettes. That way you could adjust the image parameters while leaving the majority of the screen open to show the HD image from the camera in a pixel-for-pixel view so you could critically see what you were adjusting. I would have suggested using the Component out to see the HD directly, but when the camcorder is connected to Console, the reduced frame rate (about 5fps) is also what you get from the camcorder's own video out.

With a 15" (1024x768) laptop screen, and all the wasted space taken up with Windows menu bars, I could only scale out the Rec Viewer window to 47% of the actual image size. Nearly three inches of the laptop's screen, top to bottom, are unavailable to the Console application. Let's hope the next version of Console takes over the screen and makes a much better use of the pixels available.

You'll also need a pretty decent PC to run Console. I was given a Pentium 4, 2.8GHz with 960MB RAM and while using it, the laptop fan was kicked up to the third cooling speed. Console also toggles XP Professional to the "Always On" setting, which means your battery life will be reduced in the field. Overall, I found Console to be useful, and very powerful, but hampered by a cluttered interface, wasted screen real estate, reduced camera frame rate, and a delay from the camcorder to Console. These are forgivable shortcomings for a first-version software package, but it clearly needs work.

The Dial
Canon uses a power/function dial on the side of the camcorder. This enables easy access to aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, and auto, and switches the camcorder between camera and VCR modes. Under your right thumb is a lock switch, which enables users to put the camera into a power save mode, while keeping all their other settings intact.

Sony prosumer camcorders offer a universal thumb switch that switches the power on to either a deck mode or camcorder and single-button activation of manual shutter, iris, gain, and more. The Z1U will actually maintain any manual settings through turning the camcorder off with the thumb switch. So the advantage of a single finger control of power on the Sony, as well as the ability to immediately go manual on any one particular setting without rotating through others, makes the Sony a bit more easily controlled.

Moreover, the Sony allows you to toggle manual controls in as needed—while shooting. You can tap the shutter button, slow it down, and then decide that, with the additional light, you'd like to increase depth of field instead of lowering the gain, so you tap Iris and dial that down. The Canon simply cannot do this. If you dial the Canon to Shutter priority and slow the shutter down, you have to rotate the dial again to Manual to get more control and this throws away what you were doing.

So the Sony is more convenient when you need to slowly add more control as you shoot. The Canon requires you to know, before you hit the Record button, what control you need and dial it in then.

Both the Canon XH A1 and Sony's V1U offer true 24p capability. This is actually a first for Sony, which has offered only approximations of progressive video in the past. Canon offered 24p in its XL2 but not in the XL H1, which featured a 24-frame acquisition mode using interlaced chips.

While I have fewer clients asking about 24p than HD, having a camcorder that does it right is important as more variation comes into play in the future. If you haven't worked in a "true" progressive mode before, just beware that 24p shooting is different from 60i shooting. Pans must be slower and more controlled to look smooth because you are recording much less temporal (time-related) information.

How critical is it? My American Cinematographer manual has an entire chapter dedicated to proper panning at various shutter speeds, with different length prime lenses (35mm, 50mm, 100mm, etc.).

One factor 24p does have in its favor these days is that many of our clients are moving to flat screens, which are inherently progressive displays. So you can shoot in the same mode as the video will eventually be displayed. Moreover, if you shoot, edit, and master at 24p, you reduce the amount of data you require as opposed to 60i. This means you can compress less when making your DVDs. If you're producing video for streaming, which is also (always) progressive, 24p means there's no interlace artifacts to deal with.

Wish List
Among various quibbles I have with this camera, and things I'd like to see in future models, first and foremost is that I had hoped that Canon would have moved beyond clumsy DV tape loader-and-door combinations. I've found myself on more than one occasion closing the door on my XL-series camcorder to find that the separate, internal tape mechanism had not closed.

While Sony has long offered the ability to press only the outer door to load the tape and then close the outer door, Canon's A1 actually works against that. Pushing the outer door against the inner door forces the inner door closed, but there is a metal piece in the outer door that catches the inner door and prevents the tape mechanism from loading. The safe method is to directly close the inner mechanism, and once it has loaded the tape, close the outer door. This adds needless worry to a process that should not be saddled with these problems.

If it is possible to load nearly every other tape mechanism from 3/4, Betacam, Hi8, SVHS, and more with a simple push of the tape into a mechanism, why are we still fiddling with inner and outer doors which fail to work together properly?

All this said, Canon has clearly produced a winner here. Amazing Canon optics and amazing Canon imaging, in a compact and very affordable package. The option of HD-SDI out on the G1 for live/studio use is just another big feather in Canon's cap here. While many users will not be pushing and pulling the image controls in these camcorders, it's good to know those controls are there and offer unprecedented capability in a small prosumer camcorder. Not outside of a paintbox on a pro camera have users had this much control over image acquisition.

Anthony Burokas of IEBA Communications, a self-confessed "gadget guy," has been an event videographer for more than 15 years. He has shot award-winning video internationally and is technical director for the PBS series Flavors of America.

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