January 12, 2011

Tiny new Canon XA10 pro camcorder

Canon has developed its smallest-ever pro camcorder, the XA10, based on its new XF100/XF105 models, but without the 50Mbps recording.

The XA10 weighs just 820g, and the combined handle, XLR audio block, and built-in infra-red LED light, can be removed to make it even smaller and as unobtrusive as any consumer handycam if it is needed for undercover filming.

It uses the same lens, sensor, digital processor and focusing system as the XF100, in a smaller unit (the XF100 is already pretty small but almost twice the size of the XA10). It has a built-in 64GB solid-state drive (recording almost six hours at its highest 24Mbps bit rate) and has three seconds of cache recording. There are also two SD card slots, which can be used in relay or back-up modes where the XF100 uses larger CF cards and has no built-in drive.

The XA10 was launched at last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and should cost less than $2,000. It is attracting interest from professional users, such as UK rental house, Hireacamera.com, which sees it as the perfect replacement for the venerable Sony HVR-A1. "Our Sony A1s have been incredibly popular but we have for a while been waiting for something with which to replace them and here it is," it posted on its website. "We will definitely be stocking it from launch."

It uses a 1/3-inch CMOS sensor, records 1080p HD video in AVCHD or H.264 at 24 or 25p, 50i (or 30p/60i), and boasts good low light performance, down to 1.5 lux, as well as shooting infrared (like the XF100), helped by a diffuse LED IR emitter in the handle and a flip-up IR filter in front of the sensor. The 10x f1.8 30.4mm zoom lens has an 8-blade iris for an attractive bokeh (background blurring) effect. It can be used with Canon's new WD-H58W wide-angle adaptor, or other 58mm adaptors.

There is a 3.5-inch, 920K dot resolution, touch screen LCD, which can be used to select a subject for focus tracking and subject-specific auto exposure (which should mean that a white car crossing the background won't cause the exposure to change).

Advantages of XA10 compared to XF100/XF105:

  • Price - Under $2,000 (probably about £1,600) whereas the XF100 costs about $3,300 (or about £2,500) while the XF105 costs about $4,000 (or £3,200).
  • Size - The XF100 is hardly large, but the XA10 is barely bigger than a consumer camcorder, especially when the handle/audio block is taken off.
  • Internal memory - 64GB flash memory gives almost 6 hours of recording.
  • SDHC card slots (2) - adds flexibility of second media type, widely available at reasonable prices.
  • AVCHD - 24Mbps can give excellent pictures, especially if you aren't shooting fast-moving highly-detailed images, and takes up less than half the space of the XF's 50Mbps codec.
  • Easy to use - Those consumer camera features, such as touch auto focus and exposure, can be very useful. It is a pity that more professional cameras don't use a touch-screen interface.

Disadvantages of XA10 compared to XF100/XF105

  • Size - If you want to look professional and be taken seriously, the XF100 is about the minimum you should aim at. Also, a slightly heavier camera can be easier to keep steady - we've been using an XF105 for a few weeks and it sits very nicely in the hand if you need to go handheld.
  • SDHC - SD cards are tiny, and therefore even easier to lose than a Compact Flash card (which the XF range can take two of).
  • AVCHD - If you are shooting for broadcast, 24Mbps H.264 is just too compressed to hold up after being subjected to further compression for transmission - so you are more likely to see artefacts in detailed and/or fast-moving shots. The XF's 50Mbps codec has been accepted as HD quality by the BBC (although we don't know yet if the new single-sensor  XF100/XF105 will be too...). ALSO, AVCHD doesn't always play nicely with broadcast non-linear editing systems, such as Final Cut Pro, so will need to be transcoded.
  • 4:2:0 - The XA10 codec holds less colour detail than the 4:2:2 available to the XFs, which makes it a lot less suitable if you ever want to do green screen chromakey work.
  • Audio - The Dolby Digital two-channel (AC-3 2ch), 48kHz sampling used by the XA10 will probably be pretty good in reality, but the uncompressed PCM audio in the XF cameras will be even better.
  • Pro features - Although the XA10 is easier to use, the XF range has additional features that will prove very useful for many users, such as the variable frame rates (between 12 - 50 frames per second), or more assignable buttons (10 compared to 2).
  • 3D - The XF105 has a couple of 3D assist functions that make it very well suited for use in a 3D rig.
  • HD-SDI + Genlock - The XF105 also has these connections, allowing it to record at higher bitrates to an external recorder and to work well in a multi-camera shoot.

HF G10 costs even less...

Also new is Canon's high-end consumer camcorder, the $1,500 HF G10, which uses the same newly designed HD CMOS Pro image sensor as the XA10 to improve resolution, enhance low-light performance and expand dynamic range, thanks to using larger, more sensitive pixels – it is a native 1/3-inch 1920x1080 sensor rather than trying to cram more pixels into the sensor for higher-resolution stills images, as many camcorders now do. The sensor is also used in the three-chip XF300/XF305 models and is claimed to improve dynamic range by 280% compared to similar, more densely packed sensors.

The sensor is also used in the three models in Canon's compact new Vixia HF M-series camcorders (costing $650-$800 - the Canon HF M41 is pictured right). These will be able to be used with a $600 case waterproof to about 40m, for a reasonably priced underwater rig.

The HF G10 has 32GB internal storage plus two SD slots, 3.5-inch touchscreen, a built-in microphone that can zoom to match the lens (as on the XA10), and the same lens as the XA10. Useful pro features include: manual colour temperature adjustment (2,000K-15,000K in 100K increments), colour bars with test tone, manual shutter speed and aperture control, waveform monitor, a built-in Remote Control Terminal (which supports LANC protocol), and native 24p recording.

The XA10 and the other models mentioned should be available in March. The XF100/XF105 should start shipping before the end of January in Europe and in February for the US.

Also new from Canon is the Bluetooth-based WM-V1 Wireless Microphone usable at up to about 50m. The small microphone and receiver will be available in May for about $250.

By David Fox

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