HomeSoftwareArchiveTop TipsGlossaryOther Stuff




Could this be the ultimate camcorder? The Canon XL1 is certainly the best looking and performing digital machine weíve ever seen



Stunning! Thatís the only word to describe the Canon XL1, itís quite simply the best digital camcorder to date. Canon have excelled themselves, giving this machine just about every feature you could wish for, plus quite a few more besides but it goes well beyond mere technical specifications and features. Just look at it, itís an audacious design that must have taken a lot of courage to put into production, but Canon have not only got away with it, theyíve set new benchmarks for style and ergonomics. It costs a bundle too, around £3500, but after seeing what it can you may well agree with us, that itís worth every penny.


Enough already, letís look at what it can do, starting with that monster lens. Like the one on its analogue predecessor, the EX2 Hi, itís interchangeable. Unfortunately for EX2 owners Canon have developed a new mounting bayonet system, so it canít be used with the old lenses. Nevertheless an adaptor module is available, so it can be used with Canonís EF range of SLR lenses. There are more than 50 of them, including one outrageously large and expensive 2000mm model that costs more than a semi-detached in BarnsleyÖ 


The supplied lens should keep most pro and serious movie-makers happy though, it has a 16x zoom, a built-in optical image stabiliser, switchable neutral density filter plus super smooth manual focus and zoom collars. Behind the lens thereís three 0.3-inch CCD image sensors, one for each primary colour. This improves colour accuracy, reduces picture noise and increases resolution, putting it within spitting distance of the formatís performance envelope of 500 lines. Canon has employed pixel-shift technology to increase sensitivity, this works by slightly offsetting the green CCD both horizontally and vertically, achieving a similar effect to increasing the number of pixels.


The cranked body houses a compact magnesium alloy chassis, which contributes to its light weight (2.8kg all up) and strength, so itís well able to withstand the kind of abuse it is likely to suffer from heavy day to day use. Despite the unconventional layout and appearance all of the controls are very accessible. A large rotary dial on the side switches the machine on and selects playback and recording modes; a small status display is set into the middle of the dial. The rest of the recording controls are all in roughly the same area, where they can be easily found whilst the machine is in the shooting position. The big focus and zoom barrels are a dream; theyíre light and responsive, and so much more sensitive than titchy knobs and rocker switches. (Itís got one of those too, mounted on the carry handle, for low-level shooting).


The shape and weight mean it has to be supported on the shoulder, it has a foldout bracket. This is the only weak spot in an otherwise flawless design. The bracket doesnít actually bear much weight, the shape of the handgrip forces the userís elbow into their chest and it can become tiring to hold for more than a few minutes. The viewfinder could also do with some lateral adjustment, though the actual screen Ė a 0.7-inch colour LCD Ė is excellent. Itís bright and clear with a 180k pixel display, and it can be switched to sportsfinder mode, so it can be viewed at a distance.

Back to the features, the XL1 has a full set of manual exposure controls, plus various AE modes. The iris and shutter are controlled from a thumbwheel and buttons on a small arm just behind the lens. Thereís also an AE shift control that overrides the auto exposure settings by up to two f-stops.  Alternatively you can take partial control using the aperture and shutter priority modes; a spotlight setting compensates for a brightly-lit subject against a predominantly dark background. In common with most other DVC camcorders it can record two high-quality 16-bit PCM stereo soundtracks, or four medium quality 12-bit tracks, the latter can be dubbed without affecting the video recording, though surprisingly this facility is not available on the XL1. Recording level is fully adjustable (all four stereo channels), thereís a level display in the shape of a LCD bargraph, mounted just below the large carry handle.


Now the bit youíve all been waiting for, the XL1 is the first DVC camcorder to have a DV recording facility as standard. Thatís right, the IEEE 1394 or Firewire interface is bi-directional, so itís possible to download edited recordings, without loss of quality, from PCs and DVC video recorders, or copy recordings from other DV camcorders. This feature has been available on DVC camcorders sold outside Europe, and it can be enabled retrospectively on some model but thanks to EU import regulations it has been denied to us. To date the only other machine capable of this feat has been the Sony DHR-1000 VCR. This facility alone sets the XL1 apart from all that has gone before; professionals, broadcasters and the growing band of desktop video enthusiasts have already shown considerable interest in this machine and we understand the first shipments are being snapped up at a rate of knotsÖ


The feature list just keeps on going. It has 3 shooting modes: normal movie, frame movie, and Digital Photo. Frame Movie captures 25 full frames per second (as opposed to the 50 interlaced fields recorded in normal mode), which gives perfect, jitter-free still frame reproduction. Digital Photo mode records still images lasting 5 seconds. The XL1 can be used in conjunction with a Canon Speedlite flash unit; a synchronisation socket is built into the side of the machine. Edit control is taken care of by a Control L/LANC interface. Pro users will be pleased to see a Ďzebra patterní display, which superimposes a crosshatch on areas of over-exposure on the viewfinder display. A pair of pop out buttons on the side of the deck unit handles manual gain and white balance adjustments.


The camera is supplied with a large remote handset with a handy jog/shuttle dial. Power comes from a 2.7Ah lithium ion pack clipped to the side. Canon reckons youíll get up to 90 minutes recording time between charges; the best we managed was 55 minutes, with normal stop-start recording. Recharge time is 3.5 hours so itís worth investing in a spare, if youíre planning a dayís shoot.


It looks and feels tough; the attention to detail is incredible. There are little doors, flaps and sliding hatches -- protecting clusters of buttons -- all over the place. Hopefully most of them wonít get snapped off, though the ones covering the audio level knobs and transport buttons look a wee bit fragile



If youíre expecting more superlatives, you wonít be disappointed. Resolution on our sample was within a whisker of 500 lines, and very clean, sharp and steady lines they are too. Picture noise levels in good light are so low as to be inconsequential. Colour rendition is impeccable. Skin tones are absolutely natural in daylight and the overall colour balance -- as determined by the auto WB system -- hardly misses a beat. The only time it might need a hand is when shooting under tube light, when there is a very slight greeny-yellow caste. Otherwise it can be trusted to get it right just about all of the time. It is possible to spot basic colour errors using the LCD viewfinder, though subtle aberrations do not always show up.


The auto exposure systems are competent enough and make the right decisions most of the time but with such superb manual controls to hand, the temptation is to take over, with guidance from exposure aids like the zebra pattern. Those familiar with manual still cameras will appreciate all of the exposure information thatís clearly presented in the viewfinder display.


Image stabilisation, using Canonís no-loss optical system, is as efficient as ever. Itís not quite as sensitive as the best electronic systems, but combined with the machineís weight, it manages to smooth out all but the most rapid shakes and judders. There is a facility to switch it off, but quite honestly we canít see it getting much use.


Motor whine and handling noises simply arenít a problem. The big mike, stuck out of harmís way on a short boom is very well insulated from the body of the machine. The stereo image is quite narrow Ė effective up to around five metres in front of the machine Ė but forward sensitivity is good, and the foam muff does a fine job of reducing wind roar. Itís possible that had we really concentrated, we might have spotted some differences between the 12 and 16 soundtracks, theyíre both crisp and detailed, with a very flat response, and as close to audio CD as makes no difference.



By now youíve probably got the impression that weíre rather smitten by this machine, and you would be right. However, it behoves us to make one or two small observations, before you rush out and place your order. Firstly the blindingly obvious, that this is not a go-anywhere family pocket cam! This is the sort of machine that will appeal first and foremost to pro users. Take it from us, it wonít fit in your weekend luggage, and itís not a lot of fun lugging it around if you like to travel lightÖ Secondly thereís the price, £3500 is a lot of money, and it probably wonít stop there. Unless youíve already got a set of EF lenses youíll get a nagging urge to buy more lenses.


However, if youíre at all serious about digital video and you want the best there is, the XL1 is the one to beat not that anything else comes even remotely close at the moment!



The only other DVC machine in the same ballpark is the Sony DCR-VX9000, and thatís £500 dearer at list prices. Even then you would still have to spend a couple of hundred pounds more to have the DV input enabled to bring it up to spec, and that would void your warranty.  Moreover it doesnít have an interchangeable lens or one tenth of the glitz of the XL1. In short there are no rivals, at least yet, but donít hold your breathÖ



Make/model                               Canon XL1

Recording format               mini DVC

Guide price                                £3,500 inc. lens, (x1.6 tele-converter £300)



Lens                             f/1.6-2.6, 5.5-88mm (interchangeable XL lens)

Zoom                            16x optical, 32x digital

Filter diameter            72mm  

Pick-up device            3 x 0.3in CCD

Min illum                       2 lux    



Long play (LP)                        yes                  

Max rec. time                        90 mins (LP mode)

IR remote control                        yes

Edit terminal                        yes (Control L/LANC)


MAIN FACILITIES               

Auto focus                                yes                                          

Manual focus                 yes      

Auto exposure               yes                              

Programmed AE                          yes

Fader                                        yes                  

Manual white balance yes      

Auto white balance             yes                                          

Manual zoom                             yes      

Power zoom                              yes                                                                              

Insert edit                                  no        

Audio dub                                  no

Character generator                       no                    

Digital superimposer                 no        

Image stabiliser                         yes                                          

Video light                                 no        

Battery refresh               n/a                                        

Accessory shoe             yes      




Digital DV (Firewire/IEEE 1394) input and output, manual exposure, AE shift, zebra pattern generator, time/date recording, still picture recording, neutral density filter, frame mode replay, record search, slow-shutter recording, aperture and shutter priority, audio monitor, widescreen recording, self-timer, manual gain, data code recording, high-speed shutter (9-speeds up to 1/1600th sec), tally lamp, interchangeable lens, (adaptor available for Canon EF lenses)



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, zebra pattern



Stereo                                       yes (4 x 12 bit or 2 x 16-bit stereo)         

Wind noise filter                         yes

Mic socket                                yes                  

Headphone socket              yes      

Mic                                           stereo unidirectional electret



Sockets                                    AV out (phono), S-Video out (mini DIN), DV in/out (DV

jack), headphones, microphone (minijack), flash adaptor (prop 6-pin)

Dimensions                               223 x 214 x 415mm                      

Weight                          2.86kg (inc. lens, tape and battery)



Batteries (lithium-ion, lithium and alkaline), shoulder brace, straps, AC charger/power supply, lens hood

AV lead             yes

video light                      no                    

remote control            yes      

cassette adaptor n/a                   

RF Converter             no        

SCART adaptor              yes                  



Resolution                                 480-lines

Colour fidelity                           excellent

Picture stability                         excellent

Colour bleed                              none

White balance                            excellent

Exposure                                   excellent

Auto focus                                  average

Audio performance                   excellent

Insert edit                                  manual edits clean

Playback thru adaptor              n/a



Value for money            10

Ease of use                   8

Performance                  10 

Features                       10



R Maybury 1998 1704                                              





[Home][Software][Archive][Top Tips][Glossary][Other Stuff]

Copyright (c) 2005 Rick Maybury Ltd.