Canon XH A1S Review
The XH A1S is very similar to the Canon XL H1A, its larger sister model. The differences land in the in realms of price, size, and design.
In the burgeoning market of hand-held pro camcorders, the tape-based Canon XH A1S isn’t anything close to ground-breaking. Still, with a $4000 price tag, it is a reasonably-priced model that’s loaded with features and barely missed a beat in our performance tests.
Under the hood, the XH A1S is very similar to the Canon XL H1A, its larger sister model. They both have three 1/3-inch CCD sensors, and they both record HD video to tape using the HDV codec. The big difference between the two is size and design—the XH A1S is a hand-held model that doesn’t have a removable lens system, while the XL H1A is shoulder-mounted camcorder with an XL interchangeable lens mount.
Design & Usability
Very customizable, yet the LCD and viewfinder have limited resolutions, and some buttons are hard to reach or find
With its Easy Recording mode and a separate Auto mode, Canon does a pretty good job at making the XH A1S accessible to newbies. If you're already an accomplished videographer, the XH A1S can be a bit annoying due to its cluttered button design, but it shouldn't be hard to figure everything out. Another big plus is the quality of Canon's instruction manual, which covers everything you'd ever want to know about the camcorder.
The XH A1S has many of the same problems we found on the Sony HDR-FX1000. Since it has a relatively small body there isn't enough surface area to house the endless amount of buttons, knobs, switches, and dials. The left side of the camcorder feels especially cluttered, with controls packed in tight like sardines. While shooting with the XH A1S, we yearned for the spacious body and easy-to-reach dials featured on the XL H1A. And the LCD on the A1S was also disappointing, thanks to its small size (just under 3-inches) and very low resolution (207,000 pixels). We've seen better LCDs on consumer camcorders.
As for handling, the XH A1S is a hand-held camcorder, which sets it apart from the shoulder-mounted XL H1A. Determining what camcorder is a better handler is mostly a matter of personal preference. If you're used to lugging around large camcorders on your shoulder, the XL H1A will probably feel better. If you shoot mostly with consumer camcorders, however, the hand-held design of the XH A1S will probably better match your shooting needs. Still, if we had to choose one over the other, we'd say the shoulder-mounted XL H1A offers a more comfortable shooting experience.
The tape-based XH A1S records to MiniDV tape with the HDV codec.
The XH A1S is clearly part of a dying breed. In a few years, it's likely that few camcorders that record to tape will continue to exist, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of people who love them. The HDV codec, which allows HD video to be stored on MiniDV tape, is a very easy codec for computers to handle—even though you must endure the long process of capturing video from the tape and onto a computer. The files produced by HDV clips are smaller and have less information than other video codecs (like AVCHD), so you don't necessarily need a brand-new computer to handle them.
Aside from the fact that it records to tape, the XH A1S has plenty of other noteworthy features. There are multiple frame rate options (24p and 30p), and the camcorder can shoot standard definition video if needed. There is a full suite of focus and exposure controls, including control over aperture, shutter speed, and gain—using lens rings, no less. And Canon equipped the XH A1S with its complete set of Custom Preset options; this includes more professional controls like gamma curve adjustment, knee point control, black level, setup level, master pedestal, sharpness, detail frequency, coring, noise reduction, and color correction. We could go on and on here, but the fact of the matter is that the XH A1S is loaded with features. It's got practically every control you'd want on a professional camcorder.
Video performance was very good, but the cheaper Sony HDR-FX1000 put up better numbers in our tests.
The Canon XH A1S excelled in certain tests—like battery life and motion—but in some aspects it failed to deliver the performance that we look for from a professional model. This camcorder struggled in low light compared to other professional models, and it also had some difficulties with color accuracy. The XH A1S produced video that looked fairly sharp, but we saw sharper content from the Sony HDR-FX1000. Not to mention the fact that some of the consumer models we've tested, especially ones that use AVCHD compression instead of HDV, have put up better numbers than the XH A1S in our sharpness test as well.
Even with these disappointing results, the Canon XH A1S never downright flunked any of our tests. Its results were always adequate, and the camcorder always recorded a decent image (even in very low light). Battery life was simply crazy-good, with the camcorder managing to record for over five hours on a continuous charge. That awesome performance is a rather important one for many pros who could be lugging the XH A1S around for a full day of shooting.
Not as good as its big sister, the Canon XL H1A, and not as strong as the competition from Sony either.
We like the Canon XH A1S, but its tape-based recording system is a bit outdated in our increasingly non-linear world. Many pro camcorders are beginning to include the ability to record video to memory cards, just like the bulk of the consumer camcorder market, thus making it much easier to get footage onto a computer for editing. Of course, the tape-based media on the XH A1S does have its charm, and it definitely helps keep the costs of production down, too.
The XH A1S's $3999 price tag isn't bad, but if you don't need XLR inputs, we think the Sony HDR-FX1000 is a better value. It's roughly $800 cheaper and it did just as well—or better—in most of our performance tests. If you like what the XH A1S has to offer, but are concerned about its design, the larger XL H1A has a much smoother interface and handles better too, due to its more spacious body. Of course, it's also a lot more expensive, thanks to its interchangeable lens system.
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