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The XL1 Skinny

This is a fat page, but it's called "The Skinny" because it's a quick and dirty examination of what you should know about the XL1, whether you've just spent your money on one or you're still thinking about buying.

Full Service Lube-Oil-Filter
USA XL1 Service Centers
Price and Availability
XL1 Specifications
The Standard 16x Lens Skinny
The MA-100 Skinny
Exposure Affects Focus
Short History of Problems
The Bottom Line

If all this seems ambitious, please bear with me. It's an on-going experiment which may see a lot of changes. What follows is an attempt to shed light on some potentially confusing issues.

Basically, you should be armed with this information if you're about to tackle a sales 'droid with a high-pressure pitch, or if you've unpacked the box and are wondering what you got yourself into. What follows is a consolidation of essential must-know information about this camera which should help you decide if you want to buy and how to best use its features as well as its shortcomings.

The XL1 Lube-Oil-Filter Change

You know how you take your car in every 3,000 miles for an oil change? While you're in the garage, the mechanics will also air up the tires, wash the windshield and sweep the french fries off of the floorboard. Well, you can do the same thing with your XL1, and if you care about the investment you made in that camera, you'll send it to a Canon Service Center for the equivalent of a lube-oil-filter change. I'm kidding about the oil, of course... but not about the lube.

When your XL1 goes in for service, it gets cleaned, lubricated, and adjusted to factory specifications. Sounds just like your yearly medical fitness examination, and it is. Certain critical aspects of camcorder operation are inspected, and if need be, corrected. This includes the infamous "focus problem" that some people have complained about. Even if you don't think there's anything wrong with your XL1, you should send it in anyway, because the Canon service technicians will notice things that you may not.

For instance, Dave Newman of San Marcos, Texas, an XL1 owner I know personally, sent his XL1 in for a simple, routine checkup. The camcorder came back with the backfocus adjusted, as well as the autofocus, recording speed, audio recording and tape playback operations all recalibrated. The difference was quite noticeable. If you've ever been concerned whether your XL1 was operating at its optimum performance capacity, then by all means, part with it for a few days while it goes into the shop. You'll be surprised with what you get back.

Canon USA XL1 Service Centers

Canon Factory Service
Attn: XL1 Service
100 Jamesburg Road
Jamesburg, NJ 08831
tel: 732-521-7007
Canon USA
Attn: Video Service
15955 Alton Parkway
Irvine, CA 92618-3616
tel: 949-753-4200

Price and Availability

As of July 2001, the XL1 is no longer in production. Since it is out of manufacture (having been replaced by the XL1S), it is not available new-in-box from dealers.

XL1 Specifications

Here's a short list of a few things that the original spec sheet didn't tell you:

  • Canon indicates the standard is 99.99% good pixels in the EVF. Given it is 180,000, you should see no more than 17 bad pixels, and they should not be clumped together.

  • It is not possible to modify the XL1 to perform Non-Drop Frame SMPTE Time Code.

  • Two old L2 features, dissolve and intervalomater (time-lapse), are not available on the XL1.

  • When shooting in 16:9 mode, the image in the EVF is squished (elongated). This is not a defect.

  • The black level is 0 IRE.

  • The zebra setting is 95 IRE.

  • The metering for exposure and white balance is lower center weighted, and is based on 49 metering zones (7x7).

  • The auto white balance range is 2,800K to 8,000K. The presets are 5,600K and 3,200K.

  • Time code count is good for up to 5:59:59:29 (recall that consumer camcorders always start TC at zero).

  • The internal clock/calendar is good for dates through the year 2020. No Y2K crisis, but better plan to upgrade before 22 years have passed.

The Standard 16x Lens Skinny

The standard 16x lens included with the XL1 camera body has drawn sharp criticism from many professional videographers. This is primarily due to the nature of the servo-actuated focus and zoom functions of the lens, which basically means that even in full manual mode, one is not manually controlling the lens. Instead, the manual focus and zoom rings control an internal motor which in turn operates the focus and zoom mechanism. As a result, the operation of this lens is quite different from traditional manual lens controls, including the Canon L1 and L2. Turning the focus and zoom rings at different speeds does not result in an evenly proportional change in focus or zoom. As a consequence, rack focus techniques are extremely difficult (if not impossible) to achieve, and the lens barrel is not marked with distance settings. Although similar in operation to other prosumer DV camcorder lenses, the XL1's standard 16x lens has left a number of professional shooters rather disappointed. The lens may perhaps be best described as a fully automatic lens which is fine for most amateur users, but frustrating for some "old school" professionals to use in its "faux manual" mode.

Additionally, some users have complained of soft images at the widest setting of the lens, and a marked difficulty in achieving smooth zoom speeds with the manual zoom ring. Users are advising each other to instead change focal length only with the zoom rocker arm on the side grip handle.

The lens focus mode switch on some XL1's has been reported to not operate unless firmly slid all the way in place. On these cameras, it is possible for this switch to rest just slightly out of detent in manual focus mode. Always insure that this switch is fully closed when using it.

If the XL1 is in "Green Box" (full auto, or easy recording) mode, one cannot use manual focus or disable the Optical Image Stabilization. Also, the auto-focus sensor requires about 50 lux of light and needs to look at vertical edges to work well.

Fortunately, the XL1 lens system is interchangeable, and users have a growing variety of alternative lens solutions to choose from. For those who cannot afford to explore other lens options, see the excellent piece by Scott Barber, Understanding Canon's New Way to Focus in the Articles section.

The MA-100 Skinny

The MA-100 Microphone Adapter is designed to accept balanced microphones. The terminal itself is balanced, however the camcorder converts the signal to unbalanced, before it is recorded onto tape. An amplification circuit inside the MA-100 will boost the signal by +6dB.

When the XL1 is in the 12 bit Stereo 1,2 Mode, it is capable of recording four audio tracks simultaneously. There are several ways this can be achieved:

One stereo mic connected to miniplug 2 ch.
Two mics plugged into MA-100 2 ch.
Total 4 ch.
-- or --
Two mics plugged into MA-100 2 ch.
Two mics or line level device into RCA inputs 2 ch.
Total 4 ch.

Exposure Affects Focus

It may be helpful to know which camera settings may affect the ability of the lens to maintain sharp focus. If the XL1 is set to the auto exposure position ("A") or TV, changing the shutter speed or gain can effect the f/stop. If the f/stop exceeds f/16 (f/22, f/27, f/32), an optical phenomenon known as diffraction may occur, resulting in a reduction of sharpness. To maintain sharpness whether the lens is set to wide or telephoto, try these suggestions:

  1. Engage the neutral density filter
  2. Increase the shutter speed
  3. Reduce the gain to -3 or 0 dB

All of these steps will force the camera to select larger apertures. The second and third steps are not available while shooting in "Green Box" mode. For a more detailed explanation with sample frame grabs, see Soft Focus Problem and Workaround in the Articles section.

Short History of Problems
abridged by R. Geoff Baker

January 1998: The earliest XL1s (below serial no. 500) had a faulty part that resulted in visible vertical lines in the image. Canon acknowledged the defect, replaced the early units & repaired later ones.

March 1998: Some users have noticed "banding" in images that should have shown subtle gradients. Examples posted included blue sky shots that developed concentric rings. Canon acknowledges this is possible in certain situations, but feel it is a price point issue and not a defect. They could have eliminated the problem by raising the camera's price. The consensus seems to be that the camera's digital signal processing circuitry uses 9-bit accuracy (as per Canon's statement) and therefore can only deliver images that hold 6-bit results (instead of the camera head's 8-bit DSP). A work around is to introduce noise to the image at the camera head by upping gain substantially.

Many users were surprized to find that the much anticipated Canon lens did not use mechanically coupled focus & zoom rings; both systems are servo-actuated devices controlled by electronic controls shaped/disguised as mechanical controls. This is a particular dissappointment to those awaiting the possibility of snap zooms. Regardless of how fast you turn the "manual" zoom ring, the lens will only zoom at the motorized "top speed." Additionally, some users complain that the lens will continue to change focus after the manual focus ring has been stopped. This may be user unfamiliarity with the linkage in the focus system, or perhaps a unit by unit flaw. Other users have complained of "soft focus"' on some units, apparently regardless of how accurately the focus is set.

The XL1's oversized viewfinder can be a problem for those shooting in situations where the sun can shine directly into the viewfinder; the magnifying effect focuses hot sunlight on the LCD screen and burns out pixels... permanently. Canon is currently replacing burnt EVF's with an improved version.

Some users have complained the camera's balance & ergonomics are less than they expected. This is clearly a personal preference issue.

The Bottom Line
abridged by Ross Jones

Some complaints were early production Quality Control, a problem common to many fine products. As the production line works out its kinks and learning curve, they go away. A six month wait should be sufficient, and that time interval has been reached. Many other complaints were from folks expecting the XL1 to perform like and replace a $10,000+ professional system. While it can do many things similar to professional equipment, it still is a "prosumer" device and has some of the corresponding limitations.

The front-heavy weight distribution, color LCD EVF (not a high-res B&W CRT), and servo coupled focus/zoom system are perhaps the most common complaints. However, if moving from an Panasonic AG-456 or Canon L2 class of camcorder, it is a vast improvement. Generally speaking, one may have to spend twice the money for better overall performance, although for some specific applications, the somewhat lower priced Sony VX-1000 may be a better solution.

On testing a new unit, your best bet is to compile a list of the complaints you have read, and immediately check your unit against those items. If you can't see it or hear it, it is not an issue. Use it a lot during the 10-day DOA exchange policy period to give it a burn-in and trap any latent early failure problems. Use it a lot in the type of work you plan to do to be sure it meets your reasonable expectations. If you are satisfied with it, that is what counts!

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