Is the Canon XL-H1 the Holy Grail?

So, in my post talking about what I hope to see at NAB, I mentioned that I’m hoping to see second generation HDV devices. That raises the question of what a second gen HDV device will actually be – are we there already?

We’re certainly a lot closer. A year ago, we had the Sony FX1 and Z1U and that was pretty much it. We’ve now got the Sony A1U and HC1, the JVC GY-HD100, the Canon XL-H1 and the Panasonic HVX-200. Additional choice is never a bad thing. I want to use this post to go through a basic summary of my thoughts on the various cameras out there. This is not intended as an indepth review – those will come later. Just wanted to give a brief overview of the landscape as it exists today.

First, I think that the Sony A1U is a great camera for the market segment that it addresses. The CLA-TV Studios currently send out Sony PDX-10s are our primary prosumer camera. When we move to HD, the A1U seems like a clear successor. Similar form factor, XLR audio and a pretty decent image. I think that it gets largely ignored by camera-snobs for having a single chip. While it’d certainly be nice if it was a 3ccd camera, you can’t complain about the price. If you had about $2500 to spend on a camera right now, it’s almost a no-brainer.

The JVC GY-HD100 disappoints me. It had such great potential when it was announced last April – A nice form factor, interchangeable lenses, proper progressive chips – the whole package! Unfortunately, it’s a very flawed camera. The quality of the images in general doesn’t impress me, and I have difficulty accepting the reasoning behind the ProHD format. Why start splintering a format so early in the game? I’m especially upset that, despite breaking their compatibility with every other piece of gear, JVC still isn’t using the full bandwidth available on the HDV tape when doing 24p. If the whole reasoning behind ProHD is to avoid having to do a pulldown to 60i/30p, why waste 20% of your available bandwidth? Give us a less severe compression, or a more redundant recording structure – something! Additionally, I wonder about the reasons behind the slow adoption of HD100 support by Apple in Final Cut Pro (and Avid too?). Is it a purely technical situation, or are they hoping the format will be stillborn?

The Panasonic HVX-200 is in a bit of a different class from these HDV cameras. If I were an indie-filmmaker with some decent cash looking to shoot a feature, this is probably the camera I’d go with. The benefits of DVCProHD are enormous, both in terms of quality and flexibility, and the drawbacks of P2 can be avoided if you’ve got control over the whole shooting process. Many people were scared off by the idea of expensive memory cards and the limited recording length. I firmly believe that with a little bit of planning, these problems can be minimized. When the Firestore FS-100 ships (my Focus Enhancements rant will get its own post), things will be even better. While I’ll reserve final judgement until I see some more footage, the flexibility offered by this camera is unmatched. The footage that Kaku posted really blew me away. I’m a big fan of the DVX-100 though, so I may be a bit biased.

Finally then, we’ve got the Canon XL-H1, and we can revisit the question posed in the title of this post. First off, I have to admit that I’ve never been a big fan of the XL series. I don’t like the form factor, I don’t particularly like the image tonality, the audio preamps sound terrible, and the XL1 and XL1S especially just never seemed like great value for money. Because of this, I was even more surprised to have the XL-H1 be so impressive. We get 1080i, 1080″p”, 720″p”, plus standard def. It is important to note the quotes there, because these are not progressive scan CCDs. However, unlike the Sony camera’s, all indications are that Canon generates their 24p (24f in their lingo) timing with a proper cadence. This means that when you go to post, you can cut a 24fps timeline without the crazy motion problems of Sony’s Cineframe. While they are doing some onboard deinterlacing, it appears that they’re getting around 80% of the vertical resolution of a true 1080p image, which is still pretty good – better than the HD100’s 720p chips.

What really sold me on the XL-H1 though was the HD-SDI output. To me, this says a number of things about Canon’s mentality regarding the camera. First off, it shows you what a manufacturer can do when they don’t have a high-priced “pro” business to maintain – Sony wouldn’t dare put a similar output on such an inexpensive camera. If someone can come up with a mildly priced HD-SDI DTE box (no, the suitecase sized boxes don’t count), this camera will be the absolute king. Maybe they’ll throw Triax on some future “XL-H1S” and give us a proper CCU – then we can really watch Sony squirm.

So to answer the question – The Canon’s as good as we get right now. They do so much right that I can’t imagine anyone beating it soon. I hope that the HVX-200 lives up to expectations as well. Between the two of them I think most people’s needs will be covered.

Of course, both of these cameras will run you nearly $10,000 (once you buy P2 media for the Panasonic). If you’re an indie filmmaker with only $5000 to spend, you’re in a pretty tough spot right now. Do you shoot with the JVC in order to have 24p? Do you shoot with the Sony Z1U and convert to 24p in post? Do you buy a DVX-100B and shoot standard def? Anyone have suggestions?

0 thoughts on “Is the Canon XL-H1 the Holy Grail?

  1. Well Colin great tech break down but all that techno speak aside how does the each camera treat light each? Before you give your answer consider that this a qualitative question? I say this because while you talk a lot about electronics ect. you miss some of the subtle features of what makes a camera great. My suggestion is look at how your eye perceives light and compare that not too resolution but to each camera reproduces the gradient of light. That is a better measurement of camera performance than data stream or format. These elements are great of have at the highest level but without first class optical package they are wasted. Clearly, current HDV cameras have a ways to go but great optics has to be the starting point.

  2. hi, does JVC GY-HD100 or Panasonic HVX-200
    has a manual picture-adjust fuction like canon
    (color gain, sharpness, etc?)
    thank you

  3. hi, does JVC GY-HD100 or Panasonic HVX-200
    has a manual picture-adjust fuction like canon
    (color gain, sharpness, etc?)
    thank you

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