Canon XH-A1 vs. HVX200
By Barry Green

 

Panasonic first soared in popularity among aspiring indie filmmakers because of the breakthrough DVX100, the first camera to bring genuine 24p acquisition (and its accompanying filmlike look) to a price point that many aspiring filmmakers could afford.  A couple of years ago we took a look at some of the newer, competing products (the Sony FX1 HDV camera, and the Canon XL2) to see how they stacked up, and if it was time to trade in the trusty DVX, and the answer at that time was “naw.”

Now, with HD the main buzzword of the day, we find that the HVX200 has captured the attention of users large and small: Coppola, Clooney, Soderbergh, Peter Jackson, Kevin Smith and directors and producers large and small have adopted the small HD everything-cam, but its price point is a fair bit above the DVX.  And while there have been some HDV cameras launched at lower price points, none offered what the majority of DVXUser members want: 1080/24p at a sub-$4000 price point.

Until now.  Leave it to Canon, makers of the most expensive HDV camera on the market, to pull a rabbit out of their hat and launch the XHA1, a camcorder that promises XLH1-caliber video performance at an under-$4000 price tag.  That’s DVX price territory, for HDV 1080 performance.  Eyebrows went up.  People got interested.  So – the question on my mind, and seemingly everyone’s minds is: does it deliver?  And should someone still go to the HVX if this Canon does everything they’d need?  And, as one DVXUser member asked me directly – what would they be giving up if they went with the Canon, instead of saving for the HVX?

And, finally, is it time for the DVX to retire?  Has it done all that it can do, at this price point?

With that in mind, the good folks at Abel Cine Tech arranged for me to spend a few days with a shiny new XHA1.

THE CANON XHA1

When I first pulled it out of the box, I thought to myself “wow – very slick!”  The XHA1 is stylish indeed, with a nice rich black finish and nearly every surface is covered with buttons and switches.  It’s also a tad smaller than I expected; its form factor is about as long as, but noticeably thinner than, the HVX200.

A quick tour of the outside reveals switches and buttons for most of the necessary functions; at first impression it looks like there are more physical switches and buttons on the XHA1 than on the HVX, but in fact they’re about the same; the difference comes in the unique way that Canon mounts its LCD panel.  On the HVX and most other camcorders there’s a flip-out LCD, with usually a lot of additional buttons and switches hidden underneath.  On the XHA1 the LCD is handled quite differently; it’s on a slideable fold-out arm, resembling something more like Luke Skywalker’s targeting computer than a typical camcorder LCD, and there are only a few buttons/switches under it; the rest are always exposed.

Continuing with physical attributes, there are proper switches for gain, white balance, and color bars.  And gone is the silly clicky iris switch of the XL2/XLH1, replaced by an iris ring on the lens.  From an initial inspection of the outside, the Canon looks fantastic – I wouldn’t be surprised if new owners ended up stroking it and calling it “my precious.”

But I do have to ask – what’s with the battery compartment?  The XHA1 uses an internal battery compartment; I haven’t seen one of those since, oh, probably the original Sony VX1000.  And it was one of the least-loved features of the VX1000; we were sure glad to see the move to external batteries with the VX2000/PD150, so I don’t really get why Canon decided to take a step backwards with this.  It’s not that big of a deal with the Canon though; the Sony VX1000 battery only lasted about 40 minutes, whereas the Canon batteries can last for six hours or more, so changing batteries is not nearly as frequent on the Canon.  When using the AC adapter, you have to push the cord through a little cut-out door on the battery compartment door; it’s better than leaving the door open but it still seems hokey, and seems to be inviting dust inside.  Thumbs down to Canon for the battery compartment, overall it just seems like an unnecessary step backward.  The SD memory card slot also resides in the battery compartment.

ZOOM AND FOCUS CONTROLS

Before looking at the (165-page!) manual, I of course just turned it on and started messing with it.  My biggest questions were about the lens controls; those who have read my posts in the past will know that I think Canon has always offered the worst lens controls of any of the major manufacturers.  The XLH1 focus and zoom controls feel (to quote Graeme Nattress) as if they’re “connected to the lens internals through a layer of wet cabbage.”  So, with the A1, have they made any improvements?  Yes and no.  To my great relief, yes the focus ring is much better.  The focus ring on the A1 is usable, especially because it allows you to adjust the sensitivity; setting it to the slowest sensitivity I found the focus ring quite acceptable for on-the-fly use.  The zoom ring, sadly, still suffers from the same rubbery/spongy vague feel that bothers me so much about prior Canon cameras.  It may not be quite “wet cabbage” anymore, perhaps it’s now “wet spinach” but performing manual zooms are much more tedious and require annoying amounts of fine-tuning, as compared to the true manual zoom possible on an HVX or HD100.  Even the Z1’s servo zoom has a manual ring that feels and acts better than this, although the XHA1’s ring is closer to the style of the Z1 than the true manual zoom of the HVX and HD100.  Snap zooms and precise repeatable zooms are simply impossible on the XHA1 and won’t be among an XHA1 shooter’s arsenal of tools; I would guess that XHA1 users are going to likely stick with motorized power zoom fairly exclusively.  Its zoom ring is nowhere near as useful or precise as the zoom possible on the HVX or HD100, or even Z1/FX1.  The Canon does offer a position-preset gimmick where you can set an “end point” for either zoom or focus (but not both) and it will automatically move from the current position to that pre-marked end position at the current fixed zoom speed.  I guess it’s an attempt to make up for the non-repeatable zoom control, but it’s a far cry from offering the type of precise control a professional shooter would need. 

Speaking of zoom, the zoom range is exquisite.  The lens is about as wide as the HVX, but 20x instead of 13x, so you can really zoom in close to the action.  The zoom range is a nice plus for the Canon, especially because they preserved the wide angle field of view on the wide end.  The 20x range gets you closer to the action; see the pictures of the flags for a comparison of both at full telephoto. It certainly makes a great argument against the JVC HD100 – the XHA1’s lens is both longer and wider than the HD100, so while you can’t interchange the XHA1’s lens – would you need to?

One drawback to having the servo zoom style of control on the Canon is that you can’t focus and zoom at the same time.  If you’re zooming, the focus becomes disabled and won’t update until you stop zooming (so shots like the “zoom/dolly”, AKA “zolly” or “The Jaws Shot” won’t be possible on an XHA1.)  The HVX has no such limitation; its manual zoom allows for full focus and zooming at the same time under all circumstances.  If you’ve only ever used a servo camcorder before, you probably won’t notice or miss this; if you’re used to a DVX or HVX or a broadcast camera’s manual lens, then this lack can be annoying.

NEW FEATURES EXCLUSIVE TO THE CANON

There are a few other nice touches sprinkled throughout.  In the display you can choose a center marker, or you can choose a “level” marker (for keeping your horizons level), or a “grid” – which divides the screen into nine quadrants, handy for framing using the “rule of thirds.”  And there are aspect ratio guidelines if you intend to crop your project to a certain aspect ratio; crop lines for 2.35:1, for example, can be overlaid on the screen.  But they’ll conflict with the “grid” or “level” lines, so it’d be nice if instead of just framing lines they had actually darkened the data behind the bars (translucent letterbox bars, for example).  But hey, the HVX doesn’t offer these type of framing guides at all (other than 90% safe zone or 4:3 center extraction) so the fact the Canon has them is a nice bonus.  Piling on the lines and grids can get the LCD extremely cluttered though.  In another example of design philosophy difference, the HVX uses a 4:3 LCD and puts most of the display information (like timecode, battery level etc) in the “letterbox” black bars outside the picture area; the Canon’s 16x9 LCD doesn’t have any extra “black bar” area so the information is always covering the picture.  However, there is a nice readily-accessible display button that can toggle that info on and off quickly.

THE LCD DISPLAY SCREEN

The LCD display itself is crisp and bright.  It’s much better than the display on the XL2 and XLH1; on those LCDs I find the individually-discernible pixels very distracting, but on the XHA1 it’s just a nice crisp smooth display.  The screen is much smaller than the HVXs but it looks sharper; it looks good and delivers a bright picture.  Be aware that the image is artificially bright; you definitely need to set exposure by the zebras or you’ll end up with underexposed footage.  Unfortunately, the LCD overscans (meaning, it doesn’t show the entire frame).  Consumer cameras always underscan, so if that’s what you’re used to, you may not notice or care that the XHA1 does it, but if you’re used to a DVX100B or HVX it’s bothersome.  The HVX delivers full underscan (showing the whole frame); the XHA1 doesn’t show quite the full height, and crops even more off the sides.  If you’re not using an external monitor with full-frame viewing (I highly recommend DV Rack 2.0 HD, which does support all the XHA1’s shooting modes) then you may find that unwanted elements have crept into the edges of your frame without you knowing it (the boom mic, for example).  These items wouldn’t typically show up on an HDTV, but they would show up on a projection or film transfer, so you’ll have to be careful to keep the edges of your frame clean with the XHA1.

FOCUSING AND EXPOSURE WITH THE LCD

Manual focusing is much improved for the XHA1 over the earlier XLH1; combining the better display with the peaking and the magnified focus assist and the improved response of the focus ring (and the distance readout) makes grabbing sharp focus in the field easy and completely practical.  The peaking looks to be more aggressive than the HVX, so even though the screen is smaller it’s just as easy to see the peaking kick in when you’ve achieved critical focus.  Overall I found it completely usable, but there are also a number of drawbacks: you can’t focus while zooming, you can’t use the magnified focus assist while recording, the focus ring isn’t repeatable like the HVX/DVX, and the peaking won’t display if you’re using zebras for exposure, and the zebras won’t display if you’re using peaking for focusing.  Those things are all inferior to how the HVX/DVX does it, and I find the lack of them limiting with the XHA1 (but with that said, the XHA1’s focus is completely serviceable.)  Neither camera’s LCD provides enough resolution to adequately judge focus; you’ll have to use the distance readouts, peaking, and magnified focus assist.  And neither LCD is adequate for judging exposure; you should get very well acquainted with the zebras!  The HVX provides more tools for exposure, and more useful tools for exposure; the Canon is kind of weak in that area.  But adequate.

MANUAL ZOOM AND POWER ZOOM

The zoom ring on the XHA1 is nigh unto useless, for someone used to a physical manual zoom I found the zoom ring easily the most irritating, frustrating aspect of using the Canon.  I use the HVX and DVX in manual zoom mode probably 85% of the time, and I found the XHA1 zoom ring to be nothing but annoying; it’s zoom action is so disconnected from the motion of the ring that I eventually retrained myself to just quit trying to use it.  I’m glad Canon improved the focus ring to where it’s completely usable, but the zoom ring still gets a big thumbs-down.  It’s ridiculous, actually – why can’t Canon, a company known for its lenses, produce a decent manual zoom?!  The Sony Z1 is a servo zoom too, but its “manual mode” is way, way better than the XHA1.  As far as the Canon’s power zoom, the servo motor zoom has 16 speeds, and you can control it by either variable-speed or fixed-speed.  In the variable speed it works like other camcorders, the harder you press the lever the faster the zoom moves.  In fixed-speed there’s a little wheel that establishes the zoom speed from 1 (slowest) to 16 (fastest); in that mode the zoom travels at a constant rate no matter how hard you press the lever.  The HVX has comparable functionality within its zoom speeds, but it only has three zoom speeds to choose from, vs. 16 for the XHA1.  For motorized zoom the XHA1 wins, but for manual zoom the HVX ghetto-slaps the XHA1.

AUDIO FEATURES

As for audio, the XHA1 is reasonably well rounded, featuring XLR inputs, individual audio level potentiometers, and individual phantom power switches.  Certainly much better than the comparably-priced Sony FX1 was.  But XLRs alone do not make for a comprehensive audio system, and the XHA1 has plenty of surprising limitations: first, you can’t select MIC level or LINE level independently for the XLRs, as it forces you to choose MIC for both or LINE for both.  Second, you can’t assign the internal mic to one channel and an external mic to the other; it’s either all-internal or all-external.  Third, if you’re used to routing one microphone to both channels (a common HVX/DVX technique), be aware on the Canon that you can’t set the volume level for those channels individually!  The same volume gets recorded to both, which defeats the popular technique of recording one channel lower than the other (to provide some protection against sudden loud spots in the audio being driven into overmodulation/clipping).  And, as with all HDV camcorders, the system records compressed audio in the MPEG-1 Layer II compression scheme at 384 kbps.  These are some significant limitations, and while we’re comparing let’s point out that the HVX has none of those limitations; it records four channels, always records from the internal and external sources, can individually set MIC or LINE level on the XLRs, and records uncompressed PCM audio at all times.  One offering that the XHA1 has that the HVX doesn’t is the ability to have the system automatically control the audio level; the HVX is manual-control only.  For professional applications you would rarely want to do that, but in a one-man-band news shoot it may come in handy.  Overall, for audio, the HVX is way ahead of the XHA1, but the XHA1 still gets decent marks for at least including XLRs, something Sony doesn’t do on its FX1 or FX7.

OTHER MANUAL CONTROLS

One place where the XHA1 does offer more manual control than the HVX is in the setting of white balance; both cameras offer the normal presets (3200K and 5600K) and the ability to fine tune the settings (in the HVX you’d use the COLOR TEMP scene file setting); the XHA1goes a step further by allowing you to directly control the Kelvin setting of the white balance in 100-degree increments between 2800 and 12,000 Kelvin.  Very nice, Canon.  On the other hand, for exposure control, the XHA1 only has one zebra pattern (the HVX offers two zebra patterns, and the excellent MARKER spotmeter function).  Also, the XHA1’s zebra only goes to 100, vs. the HVX’s max of 105.  For exposure control, the HVX gives more precise tools with more feedback; the XHA1 seems quite limited by comparison.  It’d be adequate if you could keep peaking and zebras on at the same time, but the fact that choosing one disables the other?  Lame.  The FX1 has the same limitation and I found it equally annoying.  Why not just allow both?  Shooting with an HD camcorder and using a small LCD screen, you really do need to be able to see peaking (for focus) and zebras (for exposure) at all times; making you choose seems like an unnecessary limitation.  And only having one zebra is limiting too; I frequently use both zebra levels in the HVX, quickly toggling between 70% (to check flesh tones) over to 105% (to watch for clipping highlights).  On the HVX it’s the press of a button to toggle; on the XHA1 (with its single zebra setting) it means going into the display menu, scrolling down to the zebra button, and using the menu adjustment wheel to cycle from 70 on up to 100 or back down again.  Tedious and unnecessary.  But, with that said, the Canon at least does offer peaking and one level of zebras; it’d be nice if they improved them to be competitive but I’m glad that the basic function is there.

Another rather neat new function on the Canon is in-camera color correction(!)  Yes, you can establish up to two different colors for it to correct in-camera, and you tell it how to affect the chroma phase, the color saturation, and the range of color, and it will adjust those colors to your desired changes (you can individually specify the red or blue gain, in plus or minus increments).  Seems like a very neat artistic tool for those who like to get the image “right” in-camera rather than creating their look in post.  And the skin detail function is much more involved on the XHA1, and it includes a “sky detail” function to suppress edge enhancement (which brings out noise) in swaths of blue that it considers sky.  This is a good thing, because like the HVX, the XHA1 is a noisy camcorder, so masking the noise in the blue channel does lead to cleaner landscape shots than it would otherwise deliver.  The HVX doesn’t offer any of the features listed in this paragraph, so these are all bonuses for the Canon.

While both camcorders feature extensive image control, the XHA1 has more controls to choose from.  Individual control over R,G, and B Gain and matrices, as well as finer levels of adjustment, give the XHA1 more settings to “paint” the picture.  With that said, I was never able to get the XHA1 to match the lush, rich picture that the HVX delivers.  The XHA1 always looked a bit more electronic to me, with flatter “blah” colors – look at the Battleship photos, for example. 

You can extract some life from the XHA1 by turning the color gain all the way up to 50 (its maximum), but then again you can crank up the color gain in the HVX to approach a Technicolor level of color saturation.  Side by side, the Panasonic color is just richer, deeper, and lusher, even with the extra control that Canon offers. For an example of max color from both, look at the Courthouse pictures.

EXCLUSIVE FEATURES OF EACH

There are several things that each does that the other doesn’t.  The XHA1 includes the ability to customize its display and its button functions to a deeper degree than the HVX does.  And the XHA1 offers extensive still-camera functionality; shooting still frames to a memory card, even providing a hot shoe and synchronization for a Canon Speedlite Flash.  The HVX, on the other hand, offers flexibility in its recording modes – while both camcorders offer DV and 1080 (in their own versions of 24p/30p/60i), the HVX also offers 720p in 36 different frame rates, film-style shutter emulation, 4:2:2 color sampling in both high-def and standard-def DVCPRO50, and features such as time lapse, stop-motion animation, pre-record and loop buffer recording, and tapeless recording and media management (including instant clip playback, deleting unwanted clips, marking good takes, etc).  If you want a video camera that will also simulate a still camera, the XHA1 offers that.  If you want a video camera that will also simulate a movie camera, the HVX is the hands-down choice.

BUT HOW DOES THE FOOTAGE LOOK?

I’ve spent a lot of time testing the small HD camcorders, and organizing tests such as the original DV.COM six-way comparison test.  And while we can demonstrate resolution charts and things like that, the simple fact that people don’t want to hear is: they all look about the same.  There is no knockout winner among any of the 1/3” HD camcorders, and with the XHA1 the trend continues.  They’re comparably sharp, and comparably noisy, with comparable dynamic range; the biggest difference between them was their rendering of color & gamma.

LOW LIGHT

The first test was the oft-requested low-light test.  I set up both cameras in a low light situation, each feeding its live post-compression signal into DV Rack’s monitor and waveform monitor.  Judging both on the waveform side-by-side, they’re fairly comparable – comparable sensitivity, and both noisy.  Neither approaches the see-in-the-dark capability of a Sony PD170 or a DVX.  They’re both about 2 stops slower than the PD170.

In NORMAL gamma, the XHA1 has a bit more sensitivity, maybe ¼ stop, but it's also noisy and grainy (and so's the HVX). Looking at waveform monitor it's hard to spot much of a difference in brightness, maybe a few IRE here or there. Switched into CINE-D or CINE2 gamma, both cameras get darker, but between them the XHA1 shows a brighter response overall (which is to be expected since its CINE2 doesn't quite use the same shape curve as the HVX's CINE-D; in the HVX, CINE-D delivers a flat tonal response more suitable to a film transfer, but the overall curve is darker; there was about a 10 IRE difference between the HVX in CINE-D and the XHA1 in CINE2.) Under gain, they both get brighter and noisier; 6dB may be acceptable to some but 12dB is just too grainy and noisy, on both of them, but especially the HVX. While both get noisy; the HVX's noise texture is more "smeary" and with bigger splotches of color (which become exaggerated at +12dB), the XHA1's noise texture is finer, but more "gritty" and electronic.) You can reduce the splotchiness in the HVX's image by just turning down the CHROMA LEVEL setting; it reduces color but also reduces the chroma noise, and since the HVX's signal has so much more color in it anyway, turning it down would only bring the image more on par with the XHA1. When pushed deep into gain, the XHA1 holds up longer than the HVX does, but I doubt you'd want to use the footage from either of these cameras at +6dB, much less +12 or +18! Overall I'd say the A1 has maybe 1/4 stop more brightness and, depending on how much color you leave in the HVX's signal, a finer grain pattern, but they're fairly comparable for low light performance. The Canon does have the ability to use a couple of noise reduction features, and employing the NR1 function on LOW cleans up the noise significantly, which lets you go brighter with gain while keeping the noise below the "objectionable" level. However, there is no "free lunch", and NR1 is only useful for a still shot; if you move the camcorder (or if your subject is moving rapidly) you risk ghosting and double-imaging (and triple-and-quadruple imaging!) There's a reason NR1 isn't enabled by default; remember that every setting has a tradeoff and ghosting is the noise reduction's tradeoff. As such, I don't trust the noise reduction function. With it you could claim that you can get a brighter picture with less noise, but it's simply not reliable - you can do noise reduction in post, but you can't do "ghosting reduction". And, for that matter, you could put the HVX through noise reduction in post too, which is where you should be doing it - doing it in-camera risks ghosting.  See the ghosting pic for an example.

 

I would call the overall low-light performance basically comparable, but the Canon is better in that its noise doesn't get as splotchy as the HVX's does if you don't turn down the HVX's chroma. But no camera actually looks good in low light, and neither did these: I mean, if I were judging a swimming suit contest between a 350-pound fat guy in a speedo, and a 400-pound fat guy in a speedo, the 350-pound fat guy might win but I really wouldn't want to look at either of 'em, if you know what I mean. Both camcorders really benefit from having adequate light!

OUTDOORS

I then took them both outside into the light, and the footage was much, much more rewarding, from both.  I took them to the beach, to the marina, downtown, to the lake, to the forest, all sorts of places shooting all sorts of scenes.  In all cases I set exposure by using the zebras in the cameras, usually setting to 100% and barely letting anything trigger the zebras, but sometimes I’d set the zebras to 70% and judge exposure from there.  The Canon was kept in 1080/24F, CINE-2 gamma and CINE-2 matrix, the HVX was kept in 1080/24P with CINELIKE-D gamma and CINE-LIKE matrix.  Both had neutral color and neutral detail settings.

The most telling thing, regarding image quality, was when I played about 20 minutes’ worth of footage back on my Sony XBR960 CRT HDTV.  The Canon and the Panasonic both use the same component video cable, so I was able to cue both up to the same shot, and swap the cable back and forth.  And frankly, folks, I think most people would be hard-pressed to tell the difference!  They both put out an excellent high-def image.  As viewed on my HDTV, from a viewing distance of about two feet, I found them extremely comparable.  I asked for a backup set of eyes, which meant dragging my wife into the discussion, and she couldn’t really see a difference either.  It got to the point where sometimes I’d forget which camera I was on – I’d go to fast-forward on the XHA1, and nothing would change on the screen, and I’d realize “oops – I’m plugged into the HVX instead.”  Not that the images looked exactly the same, mind you – if you split-screen them and examine them side by side there are definitely differences; primarily in color with the HVX being more saturated, and more noticeable grain on the XHA1 in daylight shots, but as far as overall resolution they were basically dead even.  And you can only really tell one from the other by looking at still images on a computer and magnifying ‘em and obsessing over individual pixels and whatnot.  But if you get past that pixel-obsessed measurement mindset and just look at the footage on a high-def television, without split-screening it, you’re likely to be very pleased by both cameras, and you certainly wouldn’t say “wow, this one is higher def than that one.”  The images they deliver are sharp, crisp, clear, undoubtedly high-def, and very comparable.  You can pixel-obsess on the accompanying still frame extractions, but once you see it in motion, on an HDTV, there’s basically no appreciable difference.

However, one thing that I found aggravating about the Canon was the weak neutral-density filters.  Both cameras have two stages of ND, but the HVX’s neutral-density filters are stronger.  So in broad daylight (such as shooting the boats in the marina) the HVX was able to deliver an f/4.0 f-stop, but the Canon was pegged at f/9.5 and still overexposing.  For a filmlike look you want to keep the iris open to narrow your depth of field; the Canon doesn’t have enough ND to let you do that.  The Canon really needs an external 3-stop ND filter to get the iris and exposure under control; its built-in ND is too weak (similar to the other HDV camcorders in that respect).  But you have to keep that in mind when viewing the pictures, as a difference of two and a half f-stops can make a noticeable difference in the depth of field, rendering some distant objects as less sharp than they would otherwise be.  I wish I could have set both cameras on the same f-stop but the limited ND power of the Canon prevented that, and I didn’t want to put additional glass into the test.

As for the lens, I found them both to perform very well, with both exhibiting some occasional purple fringing.  On the sides the Canon would also occasionally exhibit a serious red/green color separation.  It’s not flattering, but it also wasn’t all that common, and you could see the effect in the viewfinder if you looked for it, so just be aware that you’re working with a $4,000 high-def camcorder and there are going to be some tradeoffs at that price point.  Look at the building to the far right in the “max color” Courthouse pictures to see what I’m talking about.

24F VS 24P

This subject has caused much to been written about, discussed, argued about, holy wars instituted over, etc.  Here we have a case of “a difference that doesn’t make much difference.”  24F is Canon’s simulated progressive scan system.  24P is Panasonic’s true progressive scan system.  24F results in a resolution drop of something like 15% on the Canon; 24P delivers the full resolution of the Panasonic chipset.  But in practical terms, when you get right down to it – it doesn’t make much difference.  Both deliver film-style motion with proper 24fps motion cadence.  Both deliver equivalent sharpness.  Here I’ve provided a frame-by-frame extraction of some shots made side-by-side so you can examine and compare how one handles motion vs. the other.  I leave it up to you to decide if 24F lives up to its claim of delivering 24P-like results; from my perspective it does just fine, and certainly good enough that I think people should quit worrying about it.  It’s leagues better than the Sony Z1’s fake CineFrame 24.

Quicktime Movie:

FINAL WORD ON FOOTAGE

So we have a case of one high-def camcorder delivering a comparably-bright, comparably-sharp, comparably-noise-level image as another high-def camcorder.  Not really a surprise, since Adam Wilt’s two mega-camera shootouts came to the same basic conclusion for all the 1/3” HD cameras under $10,000 (their images are all in the same ballpark as each other).  If there’s any noticeable difference, it’s color.  I quote Mike Curtis of hdforindies.com, who at the Texas Shootout said about the HVX: “when I saw footage I LOVED it - colors look vivid and real in CineLink-D. Now, liking the color reproduction of a camera CAN be a subjetive thing. But nobody chimed in saying they liked the HD100U, Z1U, or XL H1 color reproduction better. I likes it.”  You can judge for yourself by the stills that accompany this article.  If you’re a post aficionado you may be able to grade the Canon footage to come closer to the Panasonic look.  As I look at the stills, I find myself repeatedly looking towards the HVX footage – to me it just plain looks better.  But as Mike said, it’s subjective.

DECIDING BETWEEN THE TWO

If the footage is competitive and the price is lower, does that make the XHA1 the “winner”?  Er, no.  Not at all – they’re different tools in different classes, at different price points.  Obviously each buyer will be making that decision for themselves, but I found that the XHA1’s lower price is basically necessary in order to make up for all the features it doesn’t have.  Or, put another way, the HVX has a lot of capability that the XHA1 just doesn’t have; if they were priced the same, I think it would be an obvious choice to go with the HVX.  If the lower price of the Canon is worth giving up the other features, to you, then the Canon makes a fine choice, easily the best of the HDV camcorders.  I’ve spent extensive time testing the other HDV camcorders and I feel confident in saying that the Canon XHA1 is the best of the camcorders that shoots the HDV format.  But it’s not really in the same class as the HVX; the two are in different price brackets for a reason.

It seems clear to me that these two products are aimed at different customers.  The XHA1 seems like a consumer product that has stepped up to the prosumer level, whereas the HVX is a professional product that has stepped down to prosumer pricing.  If price is the one and sole guiding factor, I think the XHA1 will definitely appeal to those who want to record their HD footage on a $5 tape, and who simply cannot afford the price difference between the two cameras.  For those who are more concerned about features and flexibility and simply having the more professional equipment, the HVX offers a tremendous amount of additional capability for the (roughly) 30% increase in price.  So does that make the HVX the “winner”?  Er, again, not necessarily – only if those capabilities are important to you, and you can afford the difference in price.  I will say that I think the HVX is the better product (just as I would say that a VariCam is a better product than the HVX).  The question you have to decide is: can you afford the difference in price?  And it really is all about price – if the Canon cost the same as the HVX, I doubt too many people would be excited about it.  But the fact that it’s the same price as the DVX – well, that’s where Canon has been brilliant.  At that price point, the Canon makes a compelling argument.  But against the HVX?  Different caliber of tools, at a different price point.

In operation, the Panasonic is the more professional tool, and easily the more powerful tool.  While they both shoot 1080 in 24p/F, 30p/F, and 60i, the Panasonic also adds 720/24p, 720/30p, and 720/60p.  And, the Panasonic adds variable frame rate capability, with a dozen pre-programmed selectable frame rates and a full palette of 36 different frame rates from 2 to 60 fps!  Completely unparalleled; they’re not even in the same class.  And while they both shoot 1080 mode, the Canon records in HDV, whereas the Panasonic uses DVCPRO-HD.  DVCPRO-HD is the frame-discrete compression system from the VariCam, that will never suffer from motion artifacting, and provides higher color resolution (4:2:2) that comes in very handy for chroma keying.  DVCPRO-HD is also an immediately-editable format, whereas HDV often needs to be transcoded into a different codec for editing.

And while they both shoot standard-def 480 at 24p, 30p, and 60i, the Canon only does so in DV mode.  The Panasonic does DV to tape, of course, but it can also shoot DVCPRO25 and DVCPRO50 – and DVCPRO50 is a recording format that is directly comparable with Digital Betacam.  DVCPRO50 is extremely mild compression, with twice the color sampling (4:2:2 vs. 4:1:1) for much, much better chroma keying and more accurate colors.

And while they both record 16-bit audio at 48kHz, the Canon only records two channels, and (in HDV mode) compresses them using MPEG-1 Layer II compression at 384kbits/sec.  The Panasonic records four channels of uncompressed audio with the best pre-amps and best audio circuitry of any camcorder in this price class.

And while they both have onboard stereo microphones and XLR jacks, the Canon is comparatively limited in what it can do audio-wise, whereas the HVX is much more configurable.  The Canon cannot record one channel from the onboard mic and one from the XLRs; the HVX can (in fact it can record two channels from the onboard and two from the XLRs).  They both can be set to MIC or LINE level, but the Canon forces both its XLRs to be set to the same mode; you can’t have one set to MIC and the other set to LINE; the HVX can.

Then there’s tape vs. P2.  For some people the ability to record on a cheap $5 tape will be seen as a bonus for the Canon; for others the tapeless P2 workflow is a feature they’ll never give up.  Tape vs. P2 has been debated ad nauseum, suffice it to say that those who have never tried a tapeless workflow have a hard time understanding what’s wrong with tape; and those who have tried P2 usually say “I never want to see a tape again.”  After working with P2 for a year now, I find tape very primitive and limiting; finding a shot and rewinding and capturing is all so tedious as compared to the instant-review, instant-playback, instant-edit P2 workflow.

And I guess that kind of sums it up.  If you don’t know what you’re missing, maybe you’ll be fine with missing it. If you don’t mind sacrificing 720p mode, variable frame rates, tapeless P2 workflow, uncompressed audio, 4 channels of audio, physical manual zoom, repeatable focus, the ability to zoom and focus at the same time, the ability to use the onboard mic at the same time as using an XLR mic, the ability to see peaking and zebras at the same time, 4:2:2, DVCPRO50, frame-discrete compression, Panasonic's color and CineGamma and all that, then the XHA1 would be a fine product for you.  Especially if you need the extra zoom reach its 20x lens provides, or you need to record long-form events to a $5 tape.

But I can’t give all those features up.  Fine as it is (and the XHA1 is the best of the HDV-format camcorders at the time of this writing), I spent a week with it before sending it back – and it’s not like I miss it; it doesn’t have any capabilities I need, more than what the HVX does.  Two years ago the XHA1 would have been an absolute breakthrough camcorder, but it isn’t two years ago anymore.  After working with the HVX, going back to something like the XHA1 would be like abandoning my word processor to go back to working on a typewriter.  A nice typewriter, a snazzy typewriter, but a typewriter all the same.  The 24P footage is comparable, but for flexibility and features the XHA1 just isn’t in the same class or league as the HVX, and I doubt HVX customers would be tempted by the XHA1, nor would XHA1 buyers likely be tempted to step up to the HVX.  Toe to toe, the HVX soundly defeats the XHA1 on features, flexibility, and operational issues, matches it for sharpness, and delivers better color and filmlike footage.  If you can afford it, definitely go HVX.

Against the other HDV camcorders, the XHA1 is currently unparalleled.  It’s less than half the cost of the XLH1, it’s $2,550 cheaper than the JVC HD110, it blows the doors off the Sony FX1, it’s got a good-enough 24p to render the Z1 as an afterthought.  But it’s all about the price – at $8,000 I doubt anyone would really give the XHA1 a second thought.  At under $4,000 it starts to attract a lot of attention.  It’s priced right.  It remains to be seen how it fares against Sony’s new comparably-priced HDV V1U, but against the crop of HDV tape camcorders available through November 2006 the XHA1 is my pick of the HDV bunch.  No question.

Now, against the DVX – that’s a different story.  The XHA1 has a lot to offer against the DVX, and they’re at similar price points (both carry an MSRP of about $3999, although the rebates and other incentives bring the DVX down substantially).  The DVX is going to need to undercut the XHA1’s price by a good margin if it wants to stay popular among the entry-level filmmaker’s first choices.  Panasonic has just increased the rebate on the DVX to $500; that’s a good step.  The DVX needs to be lower priced than the XHA1 in order to be attractive in the marketplace.  The XHA1 does standard-def DV just as the DVX does, but it also does high-def.  And that’s how I feel about the HVX vs. XHA1 – the HVX does 1080/24p like the XHA1, but it also does 720 and VFR.  And maybe that’s how it should shape up.  The XHA1 slots between the HVX and the DVX, and is priced about in-between them too (once rebates are factored in).  You won’t get Panasonic color out of it, but if you can tailor the footage in post and it does what you want, the XHA1 fits nicely on the ladder of DVX – XHA1 – HVX.

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