Canon XL H1 Camcorder Review

$286.00 at Amazon


Video Performance* (12.0)*

The Canon XL H1 features three 1/3" CCDs. Each CCD has a gross pixel count of 1.67MP. The effective pixel count during HDV recording is 1.56MP. In standard definition (DV) recording in 16:9 the effective pixel count in the same, 1.56MP per CCD. In DV in 4:3, the effective pixel count is 1.17MP. HDV is recorded at 1080i (60 interlaced frames per second). The XL H1 does not offer a 720p (30 progressive frames per second) or 1080p mode, the other scan rates in the HDV standard. The camcorder does have frame rates of 30F and 24F, both of which are interlaced (see Scan Rates/24p towards the end of this review).

*The 1080/60i image in full auto mode at 3000 lux (above). Below, the same shot after a manual white balance.*
Click here to view complete color charts in full resolution (new window).


We tested nearly all of the camcorder’s various shooting modes and features in an effort to corral this bad boy. Let’s begin with full auto. This is the setting that most run-and-gun shooters will use at least once in a while. At 3000 lux, the Canon XL H1’s HDV video looked incredible on our Panasonic HD pro monitor (courtesy of Boston Camera Rental Company). The colors were exceptionally well balanced, and had none of the oversaturation that you’ll find on non-professional camcorders. On areas of the chart where RGB channel levels should all be the same – black, white, and grey – the blue channel was always slightly boosted (2-4% higher).

Noise levels are low. Contrast also looks good. The resolution was outstanding. Even in the very fine detailed areas of the resolution trumpets, there was almost no moiré – none at all, in fact, in the vertical. The testing that Adam Wilt’s reported on for confirmed our positive analysis. In those resolution tests, the XL H1 nearly matched the Sony HDW-F900/3 CineAlta, which shoots at 1920 x 1080p and costs several times the price. It also beat out the Sony HVR-Z1, the JVC GY-HD100, and the Panasonic AG-HVX200 in their tests.

After a manual white balance, we were surprised to see that the color levels were statistically identical. Granted, this is under favorable conditions – even coverage of 3000 lux light from a tungsten bulb – but it points to a very good automatic white balance. All the same compliments apply here. For more information on performance in alternate frame rates, jump down a few paragraphs.

Standard Definition DV Mode

Of course, the Canon XL H1 doesn’t just shoot HDV. DV modes are available in both 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios. As the CCDs are native 16:9, we’ll start there. At 3000 lux in 16:9, 60i, the camcorder produced yet another great image. Even though the resolution is not as sharp as the HD footage, the colors benefit nearly as much from the three chips. We say nearly because the colors look slightly less strong in the DV footage. It’s a curious occurrence. The DV video is brighter (about 9% brighter than HD under the same conditions), but that brightness boost seems to adversely affect color strength. It still compares quite favorably to camcorders with similar DV capabilities.

In 4:3 DV, the Canon XL H1 looks pretty much indistinguishable, except for the reduced width, of course.

The Canon XL2, the DV predecessor, was enormously popular with indie filmmakers, students, and (for whatever reason) skate boarders. The XL2’s video was slightly more saturated. The brightness levels were about the same as the XL H1. The XL2 leaned a little heavier on the greens and reds; the blues did not register a little higher, as they did on the XL H1. Noise levels were similar.

The Panasonic PV-GS400, a popular and highly regarded consumer camcorder, produced a more saturated image. In-camera sharpening levels appeared higher, as well. This is something you’ll typically find in consumer-oriented camcorders. Pro-level creates an even-sharpening, so that you have the option to sharpen in post-production, if you so choose.

The alternate frame rates of 30F and 24F did not seem to make any noticeable difference in image color, sharpness, or noise. There was a sharp distinction in how it handles motion, which we describe below.

*3000 lux in 1080/30F (above) 3000 lux in 1080/24F (below)*
Click here to view complete color charts in full resolution (new window).

30F and 24F Frame Rates

As we’ve mentioned above, the alternate frame rates on the Canon XL H1, 30F and 24F, do not affect color, sharpness, or noise levels to any great degree. They do, however, have a huge effect on motion – either the movements of your subjects or the movement of the camcorder. When recording in either 30F or 24F, motion during playback on video monitors will appear slightly staggered without additional post work. During production, the staggering motion is exaggerated on the LCD screen which can be distracting, though the effect is not nearly as great when the footage is played back. Auto focus adjustments are hampered during 30F and 24F recording, and in low-contrast situations at full telephoto, this auto control is practically useless.

Video Resolution* (37.2)*

The Canon XL H1 was tested for its resolution in our standard methods. We shoot an ISO 12233 resolution chart under bright, even lighting, and then run stills of that footage through Imatest imaging software. In HDV, the camcorder produced 601.0 lines of horizontal resolution and 618.5 lines of vertical resolution, yielding an approximate resolution of 371718.5.

Shooting at standard definition in 4:3 aspect ratio, the Canon XL H1 produced 586.6 lines of horizontal resolution and 396.6 lines vertical resolution, making for an approximate resolution of 232645.56. In 16:9 DV, the camcorder produced 576.2 lines of horizontal resolution and 358.2 lines of vertical resolution, yielding an approximate resolution of 206394.84. The reduced resolution from 4:3 to 16:9 is puzzling, given that the effective pixel count is higher in 16:9. We’re not the first XL H1 testers to make this discovery, but we’ve yet to receive a satisfactory answer.

**Low Light Performance ***(10.0)*

High Definition

In order to evaluate low light performance, we test our camcorders at two light levels, 60 lux and 15 lux. When a camcorder has some tricks up it sleeve that can improve performance, we evaluate those, too. As you might expect, the Canon XL H1 has a lot of tricks. Some of them, like the Night Program AE mode, are features that pros would almost never use. Anything that slows the shutter speed down below 1/30th in 60i will cause trailing to occur, so slow shutter speeds are out. Sure, it’s nice that they exist, but they’re not useful for most people. Gain, however, is a very useful tool, if you can keep noise in check. So that’s what we want to look at.

60 lux in auto 1080/60i 
 *60 lux in auto 1080/30F*
 *60 lux in auto 1080/24F*
Click here to view complete color charts in full resolution (new window).

At 60 lux in 1080/60i, the picture is great. The 1/3" imagers are clearly working to the camcorder’s advantage, and the noise is quite low. The picture looked nearly as good as it did at 3000 lux, which is a remarkable feat. Noise was barely present, which was the most remarkable thing about the low light performance overall. It’s really amazing. The noise could not have been much higher than it is at 3000 lux. Colors appeared a touch more saturated, indicating that the processor may have begun to tinker with auto saturation levels. The fine detail remained excellent though, and resolution levels seemed to drop off only a little.

At the 30F frame rate under the same conditions the colors brightened slightly. Switching to 24F, the brightness increased even more, due to the slower shutter speed (1/48 versus 1/60). In both modes, those fantastically low noise levels remained.

*60 Lux Gain Boosts

*At 1080/60i (shutter speed 1/60th), with a manual setting of 0dB or +3dB gain, the picture was dark, and not something you’d really want to use, considering the low noise levels the camcorder produces at 60 lux in auto mode. +6dB is about where the camcorder sets the gain in auto mode. A bump up to +12dB suddenly makes the noise noticeable, which is a promising sign that the auto mode knows where to mark the cut-off point. Yes, colors are more vivid here, but the +6dB setting looks good enough. Why push it? +18dB is just unnecessarily noisy.

Shooting 24F (shutter speed 1/48th), the frame rate is slightly slower, so you can hold back on the gain and still get a nice, bright picture. Here, a +6dB boost is a little brighter than auto mode. Noise levels are a little noticeable, which follows a pattern that you’ll see in 15 lux testing. There, the 24F image was always noisier than the 60i image. For full resolution images of the color charts showing the gain range under multiple shutter speeds, click here.

15 lux in auto 1080/60i
15 lux in auto 1080/30F
15 lux in auto 1080/24F
Click here to view complete color charts in full resolution (new window).

At 15 lux, the XL H1’s auto mode at 1080/60i produced a pretty grainy image. The auto gain had clearly kicked up to about +16 or +17dB. The colors still look remarkable, though, and suffered no bleed or loss of differentiation. The noise did choke off some of the fine detail, as you can see in the trumpets.

At 1080/30F, the picture looked effectively the same. The 1080/24F image, however, was much noisier. Here, there was an almost palpable texture to the video that was manageably avoided in 60i and 30F.

15 Lux Gain Boosts

At 1080/60i, with the shutter speed fixed at 1/60th, the -3dB, the picture was exceptionally dark. 0, and +3, and +6dB were the same. It’s not until +12 that the image becomes usable. Here, the noise is as bad as it was in auto mode at 15 lux, 24F mode. Colors are certainly darkened, but you can differentiate without struggling. At +18dB, the image had picked up a good deal of noise. Comparatively, the full auto mode in this same light level was able to produce a brighter picture with less noise. How? Likely, the exposure levels were automatically boosted a little, something which we did not perform manually when testing that gain levels.

When shooting 24F, we fixed the shutter speed at 1/48th. The slower frame rate compared to 60i caused it to pick up light better. Here, a gain boost of +6dB wasn’t quite as bright as 60i +12dB, but it was close. And the 24F +18dB was noticeably brighter than the 60i +18dB. Considering the inevitable noise increase that accompanies gain boosting, the 24F image was preferable here. However, if the camcorder was left in auto, the 24F’s higher noise levels make it less preferable, despite the brighter picture.

Although you might not be inclined to use it, we also looked at the 24F mode at a shutter speed of 1/24. There would be noticeable trailing here, but if the camcorder was fixed on a tripod and there was little movement in the frame, it might be an option. With the shutter this slow, a gain boost as low as +3dB made for good looking color. Noise levels were low, too, which is the reward for being able to keep the gain down. Full res color charts of gain settings can be seen here.  *

Standard Definition DV Mode*

The standard definition is, of course, not as enviable a picture as the HD image, but the camcorder still has a large 1/3" chip and an excellent imaging processor. Also, we won’t break down the difference between 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios, as low light performance was indistinguishable.

At 60 lux, the colors do not quite match the vivacity of the HD image. Noise levels are about the same. The resolution is, of course, nowhere near that of the HD footage. However, comparing the 60 lux to the 3000 lux shows almost no difference in color levels or sharpness, which is truly amazing.

At 15 lux, 60i, the DV image was a little less bright than the HD image under the same conditions. Colors were also less saturated, particularly the reds. Noise levels were about the same – that is to say, there was a lot of noise. But that is the cost for such good all around color performance. If you don’t like it, you can dial in the gain yourself and try to reduce the noise. As in HD mode, the camcorder was able to produce a brighter picture with less noise in auto mode than it was when we fixed the shutter at 1/60th and dialed the gain up to 18dB.

30F was essentially the same as 60i in this light. So did 24F.

In conclusion, this camcorder is a low light powerhouse. Exceptionally low noise in moderately low light, with excellent color reproduction is what makes this a winner.

Wide Angle* (10.4)

*We tested the wide angle of the Canon XL H1 in order to see if it matched up with the printed specs. According to the manual, the camcorder should have a 51.36 wide angle degree in 16:9 and 39.51 degrees in 4:3. Our tests showed a wide angle of 52 degrees in 16:9 and 40 degrees in 4:3, both coinciding with the specs Canon gives. This is a pretty standard wide angle for a 16:9 camcorder.

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  1. Performance
  2. Format
  3. Tour
  4. Auto/Manual Controls
  5. Still Features
  6. Handling and Use
  7. Audio/Playback/Connectivity
  8. Other Features
  9. Comparisons/Conclusion
  10. Specs/Ratings