Canon XH-A1

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Canon XH-A1
  • Canon XH-A1
  • Canon XH-A1
  • Canon XH-A1

Pros

  • Exceptional high-definition image quality, huge level of customisability, professional components and design

Cons

  • Represents good value for money -- but only to those who can afford it, tiny low resolution LCD screen

Bottom Line

Falling somewhere between the professional and high-end consumer markets, the XH-A1 is an outstanding high-definition camera that should suit anyone who is career minded about video.

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Ever since the advent of digital video, Canon has been the uncontested king of prosumer level camcorders. From the all-conquering XL-1, to its elite HD successor, the manufacturer has consistently produced the best high-end models around.

With the XH-A1, Canon has successfully bridged the gap which separates its premium and entry-level offerings. The result is a highly versatile camera with most of the functionality of a professional unit, but at less than half the price. (Although at $6499, it will still be out of reach for most consumers.) Packed with a heady array of features and exhibiting unmatched video quality, it should prove the ideal companion for professional freelancers, indie filmmakers and experienced enthusiasts. In other words, only the super-serious need apply.

The XH-A1 is based on the HDV format, which allows storage of HD-quality images on conventional DV tape. It also comes equipped with a 20x optical zoom lens (featuring variable speeds), which isn't bad for a prosumer model. In terms of specifications, this is basically a stripped down version of Canon's high-end XL-H1 model. Both cameras come equipped with the same 3CCD imaging system and identical Digic DV II processors; although sadly, the interchangeable lens has been omitted from this unit to cut costs. While this is sure to be a sore point with many filmmakers, it cannot detract from what is otherwise an outstanding product. Simply put, this is one of the best HD models we have ever tested, delivering visuals that are on par with an astronomically priced behemoth. Anyone who is serious about video and wants to make a career out of it should therefore consider the XH-A1 to be a very wise investment.

With its trio of 1/3in 1.67-megapixel CCD sensors and native resolution of 1080i, the image quality of the XH-A1 was never in any doubt. In both HD and SD modes, video remained startlingly vibrant with a dynamic array of accurately rendered colours. In the unlikely event that your footage appears grainy, there is a host of noise-reduction tweaks available to ensure your output remains consistently smooth and sharp.

We could probably gush about the image quality of the XH-A1 all day, but frankly, when it comes to cameras in this price range, you're basically getting what you paid for. The real test lies in how well it handles, along with its overall level of functionality. Thankfully, from build quality to menu layout, we found there was very little to complain about. While novice users will find the legion of buttons, dials and switches highly intimidating, those who know their way around a high-end camera will feel right at home.

Following in the footsteps of previous XL units, the A1 sports a large rotating function dial on its side, which runs the gamut from manual to VCR/playback. As you would expect from a high-end prosumer model, the XH-A1 comes equipped with three adjustable rings along its lens barrel for focus, iris and zoom. (This is one more than the similarly priced Sony HDR-FX7, which only has rings for zoom and focus.)

In all, 23 presets for image quality are present on the unit, along with 21 custom function modes (including dedicated options for use in news gathering and studio settings). There is also a choice between 34fps (frames per second), 24fps and 50i recording modes. Still image functions, including simultaneous photo capture and the ability to take stills at a resolution of 1920x1080, are also naturally included. There is a total of seven gain levels on this camera -- 36dB, 18dB, 12dB, 6dB, 3dB, 0dB and 3dB.

This makes the XH-A1 ideal for freelance videographers who work at varied events -- whether you're shooting a business conference in America or a wedding video in Australia, the customisable nature of this camera will ensure your clients are always well catered to. Handily, two buttons are even set aside for programmable functions, and an included SD card slot can be used to store custom presets and photos.

We were slightly less impressed by the camera's diminutive LCD display, which Canon has tucked out of view on the top of the unit... almost as if they're ashamed of it. At 2.5in, the screen is smaller than most consumer-level offerings, and its pixel count leaves a lot to be desired. Subsequently, those who lack an external display setup will need to rely on the Instant AF button and eyepiece/viewfinder more than they might like. On the plus side, you can switch the LCD screen to B&W for extra clarity when focusing (Peaking and Magnify aids are also available). We were also let down by the absence of an SDI port, which eliminates the ability to output uncompressed HD video. However, this is perhaps not that surprising, as the interface is generally only available in professional equipment.

For audio, a shock-mounted stereo microphone has been built into the carrying handle, along with two XLR terminals, a 3.5mm plug-in socket and a sturdy attachment holder for external mics. The onboard microphone performed admirably well in our testing, thanks to a host of adjustable settings, including handy presets for voice recording and the like. While it lacks some of the fancy features found on the XL-H1, most users will be more than satisfied with their audio output, making this camera a well balanced all-rounder.

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