Many were disappointed when Canon released its flagship XL2 DV camcorder without any high-definition capabilities. About a year on, Canon has at last entered the HD fray with its XL H1 HDV camcorder. This 16:9-native camera incorporates the 1080i HDV specification, using MPEG-2 compression to fit an hour's worth of HD video onto a DV tape. The Canon XL H1 can trace its lineage back nearly a decade to the groundbreaking XL1, retaining that camera's unique love-it-or-hate-it design.
However, while the XL1 was a breakthrough camera, the Canon XL H1 is playing catch-up, matching the state of the art already established by JVC, Panasonic and Sony. And at nearly £6,000, the XL H1 is by far the most expensive HD option in its class. To those familiar with or invested in Canon's XL system, the XL H1 may prove the obvious choice. To others, its quirky design, lack of progressive-video capabilities and high price may be the three strikes that knock it out of competition.
The XL H1 is very obviously the most recent iteration of Canon's XL-series camera. In fact, if it weren't for its stealthy black colour and a prominent HDV logo, the Canon XL H1 could easily be mistaken for the earlier XL2, retaining almost exactly its odd hybrid shape -- something between that of a typical Handycam and a shoulder-mounted pro camera.
Many people have found this to be an ergonomically awkward design: too large to comfortably support in the hands and, thanks to its enormous zoom, too front-heavy to easily balance on the shoulder. However, others have found the XL easier to keep steady than its Handycam-style competition. At 2.4kg, the Canon XL H1 is about 250g heavier than the XL2 -- hardly discreet but an asset for those needing that 'pro' look.
Most likely, Canon is sticking with this tried-and-tested form in order to retain compatibility with the XL-mount lenses, viewfinders and accessories originally designed for the XL1, the XL1S and the XL2. This is a real boon for those who already have a significant investment in the XL system and for those with special needs that only those optional components can serve.
The stock XL H1 comes with a new HD-optimised version of Canon's 20x, servo-controlled, optically stabilised 72mm-diameter zoom. This is a beast of a lens -- nearly as large as the camera body itself -- and provides the 35mm-camera equivalent of a 39mm-to-780mm focal-length range. As 39mm isn't very wide, you might want to use Canon's excellent 3x wide-angle zoom for shooting in cramped interior spaces. Both these lenses are clearly optimised for use in autofocus, as the endlessly rotating pseudo-manual focus ring is frustratingly oversensitive and imprecise.