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HDV Camcorder Showdown, Part One: Features and Usability
Posted Apr 24, 2006 Print Version     Page 1of 1
  

This first installment of a two-part series on HDV camcorders analyzes the features and usability of the three leading 3CCD models: the Sony FX1/Z1U, the JVC HD100, and the Canon XL H1. Next month we'll do quality comparisons based on three live event shoots and lab testing.


It all starts with the camcorder. Not to state the obvious, but whether you're shooting weddings, concerts, or interviews, or editing in Premiere Pro, Vegas, or Final Cut, each project begins with the shoot. This inescapable fact of videography life, plus a price tag that can approach five figures, makes camcorder selection a critical business decision.


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Figure One. If you insist on tape storage and a price tag of under $10,000, there are only four camcorders that fit the bill: the JVC GY-HD100 ($5,495), the Sony HDR-FX1 and HVR=FX1 ($2,995 and $4,900, respectively), and the Canon XL H1 ($8,999).

Though there are dozens of camcorders available, your relevant choices are far fewer. Even if you've been an HDV Luddite to date, the imminent arrival of the first batch of high-definition DVD recorders makes HDV a practical necessity. As much as you may love your VX2100, XL2, or Panasonic DV camcorder, buying a new one, at least to serve as your "A" camcorder, makes little sense.

On the topic of that "A" camcorder, 3CCDs is also prominent on the must-have checklist, eliminating the low-cost Sony units and the older JVC HDV camcorders. If you insist on tape storage and a price tag of under $10,000, there are only four camcorders that fit the bill: the Sony HDR-FX1 and HVR-Z1U ($2,995 and $4,900, respectively, at www.bhvideo.com), the Canon XL H1 ($8,999), and the JVC GY-HD100 ($5,495).


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Figure Two. The Canon XL H1's massive 5.4 x 108 mm lens (20x) has a 35 mm equivalent of 38.9-778 mm.

This article analyzes the features and usability of these three camcorders. Next month we compare quality. Since we've reviewed the FX1, the Z1U, and the GY-HD100 in the past, I'll spend much of the narrative on the XL H1, mentioning the others to highlight the standout features or deficiencies of the Canon unit.

Just as a disclaimer, neither article analyzes the progressive (JVC) or faux-progressive (Sony and Canon) performance of any of the camcorders. Mark Smiler's review of the GY-HD100 in the April issue details the JVC unit's impressive progressive capabilities. A comparison of Canon's 24f ("frame") mode and Sony's CineFrame recording will be grist for future articles.

The Tasks

To compare the camcorders, I used them in three live shoots, supplemented by standard comparative testing in the lab. The first shoot was a live concert of the Potluck Trio, a jazz group, performing at the Old Courthouse in nearby Independence, Virginia. The group is using audio captured from the concert to help book future concerts and gigs.


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Figure Three. In the Kilby flatpicking training video, Steve used the LCDs on the FX1 and HD100 to check hand positioning with the pick and on frets, which were zoomed in for maximum clarity. On the left is Steve watching the JVC LCD; on the right is what the JVC was shooting.

The second shoot was a training DVD for local flatpicker Steve Kilby, shot in his home studio. I'll deliver a DVD he'll sell to current students and offer online at www.kilbymusic.com. The final shoot was of the Rejoice Ringers, a handbell orchestra that will distribute the DVDs to television stations and other outlets to help promote upcoming concerts and book new gigs.

Just for the record, I own an FX1 (not a Z1U), but as you probably know, the cameras are pretty much identical except that the Z1U has XLR connectors, a few additional configuration options and presets, and can store video in DVCAM format (but only for standard-def, not HDV). The quality of video captured by each camcorder is identical, as is usability.

The Camcorders

Let's start with a brief look at each camcorder, then jump into my findings. To save space, I'll mention that all three camcorders shoot in both 16:9 and 4:3 DV mode, which I see as absolutely essential. The FX1 was the first 3CCD HDV camera introduced, and shoots in 1080i mode. The FX1/Z1U is easily the smallest of the three models, weighing in at 4 lb., 11 oz. (without battery), and is the only one-piece model; the other two feature detachable lenses and microphones.

However, the Z1U is the only unit without a standard shoulder mount, though Sony offers this option for around $400. Focal distances for the Z1U range from 4.5-54 mm, with a 35 mm equivalent of 32.5-390 mm, easily both the widest angle and shortest zoom (12X optical) of the three.

The 8.3 lb. shoulder-mounted XL H1 looks virtually identical to Canon's XL2, save a few extra buttons and a black exterior. XL2 owners can use all lenses and other accessories, though Canon ships a new, high-definition lens with the XL H1, and warns you when you plug in an older, SD lens. The XL H1 shoots in 1080i mode, as well as 24f and 30f modes that approximate progressive. Note that the XL H1 doesn't support progressive mode in DV formats, which was available in the XL2.

The massive 5.4 x 108 mm lens (20X) has a 35 mm equivalent of 38.9-778 mm. The XL H1 was the only camcorder of the three with Genlock synchronization or SMPTE time code in and out—essentials for high-end, multiple-camera shoots. The XL H1 also supports uncompressed HD-SDI and SD-SDI output, though we don't explore these capabilities in either article.

The GY-HD100 is another shoulder-mount, though at 6.9 lb., it's over a pound lighter than the XL H1. The GY-HD100 shoots in true 720p HDV mode, and can also shoot in 24p and 30p in DV mode. The 16X Fujinon lens JVC shipped with the camera has a focal length of 5.5-88 m, for a 35 mm equivalent of 40 to 633 mm. The lens is detachable, and JVC also sells a 13X lens. Clearly targeting high-end producers, the GY-HD100 is the only 3CCD HDV camcorder without image stabilization or auto-focus.

Ergonomics

All camcorders weigh the same on a tripod, which is how I tested the camcorders in all tests. If you like to shoot handheld, candid shots from all angles, be wary of the JVC or Canon units unless you have Popeye-sized forearms. Of the two, the JVC is more manageable, with both a viewfinder and LCD, and better side-to-side balance, though again, it lacks image stabilization. In contrast, the Canon tilts noticeably to the left, making it almost impossible to drive with one hand, even when firmly planted on your shoulder.


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Figure Four. Though you probably won't switch recording formats that often, it's nice to find them on the Canon camera body (as on previous XL models), rather than in a menu, even if just to verify that you've got the desired settings.

The XL H1 was also behind the 8-ball for previewing, since it offers only one viewfinder with an eyepiece that flips up to reveal the relatively small 2.4" LCD screen. As on the XL2, the screen doesn't turn fully around so your talent can't use it as a monitor. In the Kilby flatpicking training video, Steve used the LCDs on the FX1 and HD100 to check hand positioning with the pick and on the frets, which were zoomed in for maximum clarity. This wasn't possible with the XL H1, which we had to connect to a television set for preview.

At 2.4", the Canon's LCD is roughly 2/3 the size of the Sony and JVC units (both 3.5" LCDs), which really becomes obvious when driving the camcorders side by side. In the sun, however, the JVC's LCD becomes nearly unreadable, especially compared to Sony's ultra-bright preview screen. Even under normal lighting conditions, it appeared slightly dingy compared to the other two, which hindered exposure-based camera adjustments.

Framing and Focus Assists

Both the JVC and XL H1 offer multiple features to promote good framing and focus, including the ability to display 4:3 and 16:9 safe zones in the viewfinder. The Canon unit can also display a line across the center to help with image leveling, and the distance to the object being shot, for precise focus adjustments. Sony's sole framing aid is a center marker, which has limited utility.

As mentioned above, the JVC doesn't offer auto-focus, and unlike the other units, can't zoom into the picture to assist while focusing. However, JVC's peaking control, which displays the outlines of objects in focus, was the best of the three, and proved essential during our tests. Like the XL H1, you can view the peaking display while recording; neither the Canon or Sony unit allows you to view the magnified display while actually recording.


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Figure Five. We especially like adjusting the aperture control directly on the lens; arrow keys on the LCD provide direction.

Though Sony offers a peaking function, you have to disable the zebra pattern to enable it, making auto-focus a vastly preferable alternative. Sorely missing from all products is a rule-of-thirds framing guide, last seen on the VX2000.

Technically, the JVC has the only truly mechanical lens, where your zoom and focus adjustments apply directly, without a digital intermediary. In contrast, the Sony and Canon adjustments are electronic—when you turn the focus or zoom rings, a motor actually adjusts the lens, creating a small but noticeable delay.

Controls at Your Fingertips

We've always liked how Canon lays out controls on its XL form-factor camcorders, and the H1 is no exception. Though you probably won't switch recording formats that often, it's nice to have them on the camera body, rather than in a menu, even if just to verify that you've got the desired settings.

As with previous XL iterations, Canon offers several programmed settings including automatic, manual, aperture, and shutter-priority and spotlight modes. Iris and shutter adjustments are easily accessible, along with a seven-position gain control (including -3), a four-position white balance setting, and Exposure Lock, which locks exposure settings in Automatic mode at their current values.


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Figure Six. With automatic gain control, the Canon blew both the JVC and Sony units away, both in quality and volume. Note also that the JVC signal from the onboard microphone was mono, compared to stereo from the Canon and Sony.

With the HD100, you're either in fully automatic or fully manual mode, with format selection relegated to the menu, though most other controls are easily accessible. We especially like adjusting the aperture control directly on the lens, with arrow keys on the LCD providing direction.

The FX1 also runs in either fully automatic or fully manual modes, though back light and spot light adjustment buttons are available on the camera body. Manual controls can be confusing at first. For example, you have to press two different buttons to white balance, and the switches that enable and disable gain, iris, and shutter speed adjustments are not as close as they might be to the controls used to adjust them. Given that we're dealing with a compact camera, you'll find them eventually, though the layout could be improved.

All three camcorders provide programmable buttons you can set up to enable and disable commonly used functions like black-and-white viewfinder or zebra pattern. Each provides extensive picture-customization adjustments that you can save as presets, though Canon and especially JVC offer more settings than Sony.


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Figure Seven. Here's the shoot: FX1 shooting Steve's left hand on the frets, the JVC to the far right shotting the flatpicking, and the Canon out of the picture shooting the front view. (Note: They might look askance at your yellow Lowe's shot lights if you're shooting at the Waldorf, but they get the job done in Galax.)

All three cameras offer two-level ND filter adjustments. Emblematic of the relative overall usability of these cameras (which I'll get into in a moment), both the Canon and Sony camcorders flash messages in the viewfinder that tell you when to turn the ND filter on and off. In contrast, the JVC merely displays a small "ND" in the bottom left corner when the filter is engaged, which may have contributed to an overly dark visage in our Ringers shoot. User error? Perhaps, but it never would have happened with the other two camcorders.

Audio Functionality

On the audio front, my FX1 offers only stereo audio input, though the Z1U offers dual XLRs, as does the HD100. Canon offers four XLR inputs so you can record to both tracks in DV mode. Interestingly, audio connectivity in my three shoots was split 50/50 for XLR and stereo audio.

Specifically, at the Potluck Trio concert we had our choice of either, while Steve Kilby's studio offered only stereo audio, and the Ringer's concert, only XLR. If you're purchasing a camera with XLR connectors, better make sure you have connectors that can get you from RCA or stereo pins to XLR.

Sony's onboard microphone was stereo, as was Canon's boom microphone, which connected via a dedicated microphone port on the camera body. In contrast, the JVC microphone was mono, and took up one of the XLR connectors.

With automatic gain control enabled, the Canon blew both the JVC and Sony units away, both in quality and volume. Even with manual controls maxed, we had problems getting good volume in the JVC unit. This shouldn't be a problem for most shooters who connect to a sound system or use external microphones and a mixer, but be wary of relying on the JVC's microphone for mission-critical audio.

Usability

Our various test shoots revealed several caveats about all the cameras. If you shoot frequently in tight spaces, as we did in the Kilby flatpicking video, the relatively narrow focal lengths of the JVC and Canon units may prove to be a problem; fortunately, you can buy wide-angle lenses for both camcorders.

This situation reversed in the Ringers concert, where the Sony's 12X zoom proved too anemic to use from the back, and the JVC and Canon's higher-octane lenses shone. Sitting high up on a tripod, however, with only the LCD to set focus, we really missed auto-focus on the JVC unit (there, I said it—I use auto-focus in some shoots). That plus the dingy appearance I wasn't able to debug onsite resulted in overall disappointing quality from the JVC.

Also at the Ringers concert, when it was time to crawl to the front to shoot some compelling side footage, the JVC and Canon were DQ'd as way too heavy and bulky. So I used the VX2000, though the FX1 would have served just as well.

Beyond these experiences, usability is a shifty concept that depends upon your starting point. If you're a novice to intermediate shooter, you probably want a camcorder that makes it easy to produce very good video, and hard to produce bad video. This is especially true in one- or two-person shops where you serve multiple roles at every shoot. It's also worth considering when you're hiring a subcontractor to help you shoot and can't always count on having someone who's mastered your camera's quirks. If you're an experienced shooter, you want a camera that lets you produce outstanding quality, and a custom—perhaps signature—look.

Price aside, the Canon is the only camcorder suitable for both groups, with great, out-of-the-box ease of use and extensive customizability. The Sony is great for novice to intermediate users, but lacks lens configurability and trails somewhat in picture customizability.

In contrast, I'd be wary of recommending the HD100 to novice and intermediate users, especially if you don't have several days to learn how to use the camera before a critical shoot. The manual is short, poorly written, incomplete, and lacks an index, which makes finding things a pain. Defaults are counter-intuitive, like the decision to hide audio-volume meters until enabled by a buried menu control. Not to mention that most novices (and many intermediate users) will probably feel more comfortable with a camcorder with auto-focus and image stabilization.

It's not that the JVC doesn't produce great video; as we'll see next month, it absolutely can. It's just that, unlike the Canon and Sony camcorders, it may take three or four shoots to get there.


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Figure Eight. In the Ringers concert, the Canon's high-octane zoom lens shone (see close up on right).



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