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The top-end of the camcorder market is dominated by Sony, but can Canon fight back with their latest flagship Hi8 palmcorder, the UC-X2 Hi ?



Youíve got to admire Canonís determination. When the UC-X1 was launched last year, with its revolutionary Ďeye-controlí system, the general consensus seemed to be that it was very clever -- being able to focus on something simply by looking at it on the viewfinder screen --  but in practice it was rather distracting, and at times, more trouble than it was worth. Canon clearly think that itís an idea worth pursuing, and it has reappeared on the UC-X2 Hi, the X1ís successor.


At just under £1600 the X2 is targeted at well-heeled enthusiasts and serious video movie-makers, who are willing to pay for the superior performance of a Hi8 recording system and stereo hi-fi sound. The main technical difference between this machine and its predecessor is a 20x optical zoom, similar to the one on the UC8 Hi. This is augmented by an electronic zoom, which takes it to 40x magnification. Other key features include an optical image stabiliser, colour LCD viewfinder, a range of sophisticated digital special effects, manual exposure, Control L edit terminal and it is powered by a lightweight, memory-free lithium ion battery.


The casing is a dull silver/gun metal finish, the smooth, rounded cosmetics have more than whiff of top-end Sony, and it would look a real stunner, were it not for one of the ugliest viewfinders weíve ever seen! Itís a hideous, a bulbous thing thatís completely out of proportion with the rest of the body, spoiling the line of the machine. It almost looks as though it has been put on upside down... But we must move on.


Eye control is undoubtedly the main feature, and it warrants a quick run-through. Itís a development of a system that first appeared on Canonís SLR cameras about three years ago. Inside the viewfinder eyepiece a beam of invisible infra-red light is bounced off the userís eye, on to a sensor, enabling a microcomputer inside the machine to work out what part of the viewfinder screen the user is looking at. This is shown by a square white outline cursor, that follows the eye as it moves around the screen. The camcorder uses this information to control the focus system, so  whatever the user is looking at remains in tight focus.


Itís very easy to set-up and use -- it can remember settings for up to three people --  and it works brilliantly, even if the user wears spectacles. The only trouble is it needs a certain amount of concentration to use it properly. The natural inclination is for the eye to wander around the screen -- taking the cursor with it --  looking at the various displays and other parts of the image, that you might not necessarily mean to focus on. Thereís also a sort of feedback effect; when the cursor wanders the eye picks up the movement and starts to track it, making it move even more, until itís brought back under control. It only takes a second or so but it can be very distracting. The eye control system can also be used to switch up to half a dozen other functions, though as this involves pressing buttons, and only one function can be switched at a time, itís not really that useful. Eye control can be fully or partially switched off (the cursor can be made invisible), and thereís the option of manual or auto focus.


Exposure is controlled in one of four ways. Thereís hands-off automatic or Ďeasy recordingí mode, semi-automatic, programmed AE, and manual. The semi-auto mode is basically auto-exposure, with the option to use the program AE or manual overrides. There are four program AE modes:


* Sports -- a fast shutter speed is selected, to improve still and slomo replay of fast movement, but only when the recording is transferred to VHS, or replayed on a Hi8 VCR with trick-frame facilities


* Portrait -- for creating a narrow depth of field, so the subject stands out against a soft-focus background


* Sand & Snow -- over-exposure compensation -- using higher shutter speeds -- for strongly backlit subjects


* Low-light -- effectively a slow-speed shutter giving increased low-light sensitivity, also an eye-catching special effect when used with zoom or fast pan


The manual exposure system is basically an auto-override, itís adjusted using a small thumbwheel on the side of the machine. Manual mode is engaged by pressing the thumbwheel. The instruction manual claims it gives complete control over the iris, from fully-open to fully-closed; the actual operating range is a lot narrower, probably no more than two or three f-stops either side of the last auto setting.


The UC-X2ís digital effects are grouped together into two banks, selected by a sliding switch on the top panel. The first six are shooting effects, they are:


* close-up --  instant 2x zoom that magnifies the central portion of the screen, or any part designated by the eye control cursor.

* strobe  -- jerky stop motion

* freeze -- the image is frozen, audio recording continues as normal

* art -- solarisation, with increased colour contrast

* mosaic -- the picture is made up of coloured blocks

* 16:9 -- anamorphic or squashed recording mode, for full-width replay on a widescreen TV with stretch display


The next batch of digital effects come under the heading Ďmixerí and are used for scene transitions. They are:


* overlap -- the recorded image dissolves in from a frozen image of the last scene

* scroll -- horizontal wipe from a frozen frame of the last shot

* wipe  - the image expands (or disappears) from (or to) the centre of the screen

* window -- the image expands (or shrinks) to or from a dot in the middle if the screen

* fade trigger -- a normal black fade


The remaining features include a simple 1-page, 2-line title generator, white balance lock, automatic wind noise filter and variable-speed zoom. The control layout is pretty good -- most of them are now on the top panel, they were onthe side on the X1 --  though itís sometimes difficult to distinguish between the focus and exposure thumbwheels, which are the same size, and next to each other. The main on/mode selector switch was rather stiff on our sample and the central locking button could be a real swine to use, especially if youíre wearing gloves. The flap covering the transport control and menu buttons is quite tricky to open too.


The machine is small, and light, a very snug fit in the palm of the hand and the main controls fall readily to hand. The viewfinder, apart from looking so horrible, has a narrow field of view; when itís in the horizontal position you almost have to look up into it, if you look straight ahead half the screen is obscured by a rubber moulding.



Very smooth! Resolution was just a whisker short of the magic 400-lines, but the low levels of picture noise made the image look really clean. Colours are crisp too, again the low noise helps. Our test machine worked best with ME tapes, MP Hi8 tapes gave fairly indifferent results. The digital effects are excellent, especially close-up and window. The transitions are very good as well, though care should be taken not to over-use them, as they can quickly become tiresome.


The optical stabiliser definitely earns its keep, and thereís no loss of image quality; it works well, ironing out the kind of small movements you get whilst walking, or shooting from a moving car, though the image has a sort of Ďwallowyí feel to it, not unpleasant, just different. The colour viewfinder is not too bad, as these things go, the image is still quite coarse though, which doesnít help manual focusing in poor light.


Audio performance is largely unchanged from the X1, with a clean, flat response. Forward sensitivity is good and the microphone appears reasonably well insulated, which is just as well as the zoom was quite noisy on our sample, but it only appeared on the soundtrack when there was no background noise, and the audio systemís automatic gain control was wound right up.   



Despite the major cosmetic surgery and uprated lens the UC-X2 Hi isnít a great improvement on the X1. Itís still a fine little machine though (apart from the upside-down viewfinder...), with an interesting assortment of features, that can be used to give a video movie a really professional-looking finish. However,  in the end we suspect  youíre probably paying a couple of hundred pounds for the eye-control feature. Itís a wonderful piece of technology, but we have to say that like last time, after the novelty has worn off, itís rarely used.



The UC-X2 is head-to-head with the excellent Sony TR3000, but itís not much of a contest. The TR3000 would have to be top of our shortlist in the £1600 price bracket, with its outstanding range of features, including RC time-code and proper manual exposure controls. The only other machine worth considering is the JVC GR-SZ1, good in its day but looking a little dated now.



Make/model                               Canon UC-X2 Hi

Recording format               Hi8/8mm

Guide price                                £1600



Lens                             f/1.6, 4-80mm

Zoom                            x20 optical, x40 electronic

Filter diameter            46mm  

Pick-up device            0.25in CCD (440k pixels)

Min illum                       3 lux    



Long play (LP)                        yes (playback only)                

Max rec time                        120 mins

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 balance yes      

Auto white balance             yes                                          

Manual zoom                             no        

Power zoom                              yes                                                                              

Insert edit                                  no        

Audio dub                                  no

Character generator                       yes                  

Digital superimposer                 no        

Image stabiliser                         yes                                          

Video light                                 no        

Battery refresh               no                                        

Accessory shoe             no        




Eye control, world time/date recording, high-speed shutter (8-speed up to 1/10,000th sec), record review, tally lamp, digital effects (close-up, strobe, freeze, art, mosaic, 16:9), digital mix, overlap, scroll, wipe, window)



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, zoom position, exposure level, title, eye control cursor, digital effect



Stereo                                       yes      

Wind noise filter                         yes                  

Mic socket                                yes                  

Headphone socket              yes      

Mic                                           single point stereo



Sockets                                    AV out (phono) S-Video out (mini DIN) headphone, mic

and Control L minijack

Dimensions                               102 x 103 x 176mm                      

Weight                          0.95kg (inc tape and battery)



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

AV lead             yes

video light                      no                    

remote control            yes      

cassette adaptor n/a                   

RF Converter             no        

Scart adaptor                 yes                  



Resolution                                 400-lines

Colour fidelity                 very good   

Picture stability              good   

Colour bleed                              none   

White balance               good   

Exposure                                  good    

Auto focus                                 very good   

Audio performance                  average              

Insert edit                                  manual insert clean      

Playback thru adaptor              n/a



Value for money            7

Ease of use                 7

Performance                  9

Features                       9



R Maybury 1995 2610





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