VIDEO CAMERA 1994

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REVIEW

 

HEAD

EYE-FULL POWER...

 

INTRO

Controlling a camcorder with a flick of the eye, it sounds like science fiction, but the Canon UC-X1 Hi is real enough, as we have been finding out

 

COPY

Interesting innovations in camcorder technology are a bit like busses, nothing for ages, then two come along at once. In this instance they’re neatly packaged together in one machine, the new Canon UC-X1 Hi, a novel high-end palmcorder for discerning video movie makers with  £1500 to spare.

 

We should put the price into context straight way; it’s fairly obvious this isn’t a point-and-shoot family machine, nor is it the type of camcorder that will necessarily be brought by serious or semi-pro users, Canon have far more suitable models in their range, like the entry-level UC100 or the super-sophisticated EX2 Hi. The X1 Hi on the other hand is aimed at the growing middle-ground, designed for those who feel comfortable with a SLR camera, seek the same kind of flexibility and performance from their video equipment, and are prepared to pay for it. This is a highly specified Hi8 machine, with stereo sound and a mouth-watering assortment of creative facilities, you’ll have to judge for yourself whether they’re worth £1500.

 

The two features that this machine will be remembered for are ‘eye control’ and a miniature optical image stabiliser. Neither technology is actually new, eye control first appeared on one of their SLR cameras last year, and the optical image stabiliser idea is at least three years old. Nevertheless, this is the first time they’ve been used together, and both systems incorporate the most recent developments in their respective technologies.

 

The optical image stabiliser is the smallest yet. Until stabilisers based around flexible prisms have imposed a significant size and weight penalty on the machine; the lens housing on the X1 Hi is only a little broader in the beam than the ones used on ordinary palmcorders, and you’ll need no reminding that unlike digital image stabilisers -- even the latest ones -- it has no effect image quality. Eye control is entirely new to camcorders, though, and it really is a different way of doing things, using voluntary eye movement to control focus, and secondary functions like fade, time and date display, title and record review. It sounds incredible, we’re straying into the realms of science-fiction and thought control, but it really works, and we’ll look at in more detail later on.

 

But what about the rest of the machine? It has a number of unusual features in addition to the two we’ve already mentioned. They include a Lithium Ion battery. They’re catching on fast, Sony developed the technology and were the first to use them, then Hitachi, now Canon. The reason isn’t difficult to see, they have a high power to weight ratio, packing the same energy as a comparable nicad into just over half the space and two thirds the weight. Lithium ion batteries don’t suffer from memory effects either, and their discharge characteristics are more predictable, in other words they don’t suddenly quit without warning. There’s more; it has a colour LCD viewfinder (166k pixels), 12x optical zoom, menu-controlled on-screen display sand a two-line title generator.  Oh, we almost forgot, it has a Control L (LANC) edit terminal as well, so it can be used as a source machine with an edit controller.

 

The X1 Hi has an advanced digital video processing system which is also responsible for a number of effects and smart-looking wipes. The effects are:

* Close-up -- instant 2x magnification and 24x digital zoom

* strobe -- jerky stop-motion

* freeze -- snapshot or still recording

* art -- solarisation or high colour contrast

* mosaic -- blocky ‘digital’ appearance

* 16:9 -- squashed or anamorphic image for viewing full-width on a widescreen TV

 

The digital mixes and transitions comprise:

* fade -- normal fade to or from black

* overlap -- dissolve from frozen still of last shot

* scroll -- sideways wipe from frozen image of last scene

* wipe -- picture expands horizontally from the centre of the screen

* window -- image expands from a small dot to fill the whole screen

 

The X1 Hi has three exposure systems giving full auto, four-mode program AE with settings for Sports (higher shutter speeds automatically selected); portrait (selects narrow depth of field, to make subject stand out against soft-focus background); sand and snow (automatic backlight compensation for over-bright backgrounds) and low-light (gain up, for shooting in poor light). There’s also a manual exposure control, though it’s not a full range iris and only gives a couple of F-stops adjustment either side of the machine’s chosen setting. It also has a manual 7-speed shutter -- a comparative rarity these days -- and a useful white balance lock.

 

There’s three focus options; a more or less conventional autofocus, with the machine locking onto whatever is in the middle of the frame; manual focus, controlled from a small thumbwheel on the side of the machine, and eye-control -- and this is the really clever one --  where the machine focuses on whatever the user is looking at, on the colour viewfinder screen. This seems like as good a time as any to tackle eye control, so here goes.

 

EYE CONTROL

Inside the viewfinder eyepiece there’s a small light emitting diode that projects a thin beam of invisible light onto the pupil  or coloured part of the users eye. The beam is reflected back into the eyepiece where it bounces off a dichroic (half-silvered) mirror in front of the LCD screen, through a polarising lens and onto a CCD sensor. This measures any movement, caused by the changing position of the pupil, as it looks around the viewfinder screen. This information is used to generate a white frame, which appears on the screen, and the focusing system locks on to whatever the frame is targeting.

 

It sounds reasonably simple on paper but this very clever widget involves some heavy duty technology and has taken a considerable time to perfect. It’s very sensitive and has to be calibrated to each user’s eye, and compensate for spectacles etc. The calibration process takes just a few moments and requires the user to look directly at a small flashing dot on the LCD screen, whilst pressing the record button. The process is repeated with the dot appearing on the other side of the screen. The machine can store settings for two users, and a third ‘guest’ user, this one isn’t permanently stored.

 

Eye control can also be used to switch up to four other functions, simply by looking at a flashing indicator on the viewfinder screen. They are the fader, time and date display, the title display and record review. However, it can only control one function at a time, and the operation has to be manually selected, by pressing a button, so in practice it’s not really any easier than doing it by more conventional means -- i.e. pressing a button. Eye control has one last trick, it works in collaboration with the digital close-up feature to magnify whatever is inside the focusing frame.

 

HANDLING AND CONTROLS

Canon have stuck to a tried and tested formula with the layout and controls. The power zoom is controlled by a sideways lever, it is rather touchy and difficult to select the slower speeds; the AE mode selector is tricky to use on the hoof, due to the central locking button and the transport buttons are a bit fiddly. Putting the calibration control on the main on/mode selector switch seems a bit odd and can cause problems. Finally, the picture controls for the LCD screen are tiny and need a special tool to adjust, that’s if you can find them as they’re hidden under a sticky label.

 

The balance is good and the most important controls are well positioned, though all said and done it’s happiest when the controls are set to automatic, you have to be fairly determined to want to use the manual exposure and focus controls.

 

PERFORMANCE

Before we take a detailed look at eye control we’ll run through the regular test results. Resolution was a little under 400 lines, and it didn’t make any difference whether the stabiliser was on or off. Picture noise levels in good light were below average, producing a crisp, well defined picture. Colour accuracy is good and can be safely let in the capable hands of the auto white balance system most of the time, when it falters it’s a simple enough matter to lock it using a piece of white card. The exposure systems work well too, though the manual control has a very limited range. The stabiliser is excellent, cutting down or eliminating altogether light camera shake, the kind you get when walking, or shooting from a car.

 

We don’t much care for LCD viewfinders, this one isn’t too bad, as they go, but the picture can be difficult to see in bright light, especially for spectacle wearers as light gets into the viewfinder and can wash out the picture.

 

The stereo soundtrack is crisp with modest amounts of background hiss. Forward sensitivity is good and the microphone appears well insulated against handling noises and motor whine.

 

We don’t normally comment on battery running times but we’ll make an exception in this case as the 20 or so minutes per charge we managed to achieve - under normal stop/start/standby conditions -- seemed poor, especially in view of the fancy Lithium Ion battery. We suspect the extra power required by the stabiliser has something to do with that.

 

And so we come to eye control. The fact that it works at all is impressive but we have to say it’s an acquired taste, one that we have yet to acquire. After extensive field testing we have several observations. Firstly it’s quite slow, you have to wait for the system to lock on, and that can take several seconds, during which time you either become impatient and press the go button and get a fuzzy picture, or wait and possibly miss the action. Second you have to concentrate on the subject, and that doesn’t come naturally, at least not to our testers. It’s necessary to force yourself to stare at the subject, but the eye naturally wanders around, taking the focusing frame with it. It’s not easy, even if there’s nothing else going on in the picture the other viewfinder displays can be very distracting; for example, you may glance at the time elapsed or battery level indicators. Thirdly for some odd reason the combination of eye control and the colour LCD screen meant there was a tendency for the  subject tended to end up in the top left corner of the screen, rather than the centre. We can’t explain it but several users commented on it, and it was apparent from the playback that this was happening. Lastly results were variable when the user wore spectacles, downright unreliable if they’re heavily tinted, or in the case of one of our users, photochromic, it seems to prefer direct eye-contact, which is a nuisance for those with poor eyesight, as they will have to keep taking their glasses off . None of this detracts from the fact that it works, and for those prepared to persevere and learn to use it , we suspect it could prove quite effective.

 

VERDICT

In the end you’re paying for eye control and, to a lesser extent, the optical stabiliser. We’re still not convinced stabilisers are that important for the majority of video movie-makers but if you’ve got to have one, this is the one to have. As for eye control, we have to admit that we gave up with it after a few days and returned to boring old autofocus, with occasional help from the manual thumbwheel, eye control was simply too distracting.

 

The rest of the machine was fine, though, and the digital effects and transitions add a real touch of class to recordings -- especially the window effect and the wipes --  provided you can remember to use them, and take the trouble to set up for each required shot. On balance a most impressive machine, but we would still look carefully at what else you can get for £1500, before we got around to this one.

 

THE RIVALS

The camcorder world is your oyster with £1500 to spend, and at the top of our current wish list there’s Panasonic £1100 NV-S85. However, if you can wait we’d suggest you take a look at its replacement, the S90 which we’ll be reviewing at next month. If you’re a bit of an outdoor type, and not too worried about the frills then the £1200 Hitachi VM-H70 Weathercam is well worth considering. Should you need a machine with more advanced editing facilities the Sony CCD-TR2000 deserves consideration, and it has optical image stabiliser as well. 

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model                               Canon UC-X1 Hi

Recording format                          Hi8/8mm

Guide price                              £1500

 

OPTICS

Lens                             f/1.8, 5.2-62.4mm

Zoom                           x12 (x24 digital)

Filter diameter            49mm 

Pick-up device            0.3in CCD

Min. illum.                   3 lux   

 

VIDEO DECK

Long Play (LP)               yes                  

Max. rec. time                 240 mins (LP mode)

IR remote control                   yes

Edit terminal                            yes (Control L)

 

MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto Focus                               yes                  

Manual focus               yes      

Auto exposure             yes                              

Programmed AE                    yes (4-modes)

Fader                                       yes                  

Manual white lock                  yes      

Auto white balance                       yes                                          

Manual zoom                           no       

Power zoom                            yes                                                                              

Insert edit                                no       

Character generator                     yes                  

Digital Superimposer            no       

Image stabiliser                      yes                  

Video light                               no       

Battery refresh                         no                                       

Accessory shoe                 no       

 

 

ADDITIONAL FEATURES

time/date recording, high-speed shutter (7-speed up to 1/10,000th sec), record review, tally lamp, eye-control, digital effects (strobe, freeze, art, mosaic, 16:9), digital mix/wipe (overlap, scroll, wipe, window, fade), wind filter, world time clock

 

VIEWFINDER

Viewfinder                       0.7in colour LCD

Viewfinder info.               deck mode and status, low battery, tape count, shutter speed, fader, focus mode, tape end, time/date, title, eye control

 

AUDIO

Stereo                            yes      

Audio dub                        no                           

Wind noise filter         yes              

Mic socket                        yes              

Headphone socket         no

Microphone                   unidirectional electret

 

GENERAL

Sockets                           AV out (phono), ext mic, LANC (minijack) S-Video out                                    (mini DIN)

Size (mm)                       100 x 101 x 188

Weight                            1.1kg inc. tape and battery)

 

STANDARD ACCESSORIES

Batteries, (lithium ion and lithium), straps, AC charger/power supply,

AV lead                        yes      

video light?                 no                   

remote control?            yes      

cassette adapter?            N/A                  

RF Converter?             no       

SCART adapter?            no                   

 

PERFORMANCE

Resolution                     400-lines

Colour fidelity               good

Picture stability             good

Colour bleed                  none

White balance                good

Exposure                       good

Autofocus                      see text

Audio performance       good

Insert edit                      manual inserts clean

Playback thru adaptor  n/a

 

VC RATINGS

Value for money         8

Ease of use                  8

Performance               8

Features                      9

 

---end---

R Maybury 1994 2908

 

 

 


 

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