Review: Canon XA20 (XA25 / HF G30)
It’s been a long time coming but has the wait been worth it? When Canon released the XA10 a couple of years ago it was hailed a marvellous miniature, a professionally-featured camcorder that was small enough to tote around in a handbag (or something like that anyway). But there were a few teensy things that weren’t quite as brilliant as they could have been: the badly unresponsive touchscreen; the mere 10x zoom (“we want more!” came the cry); the lack of mod cons such as WiFi and 50p recording.
Step forward then the next generation: Canon’s XA20 and XA25 take the tiny pro camcorder to another level, and the consumer-oriented HF G30 version follows suit. Here are Tubeshooter’s impressions of the XA20. Differing only in slight details, most of these comments apply also to the XA25 and HF-G30.
Vive le Difference!
So first, the differences in the models for clarification. The “entry level” – at £1,299 inc VAT – is the HF G30, pitched as Canon’s absolute top-end consumer camcorder. Apart from a lack of infra-red recording mode, the body has almost exactly the same features as the XA-branded versions but comes minus the carrying handle on top containing XLR Audio inputs (hence XA = XLR Audio). The XA20 – £1,699 inc – adds that handle and nothing more; the XA25 – £2,099 inc – goes one step further by putting an HD-SDI BNC connector on the side to enable the best quality and most robust connections to other TV equipment, from external recorders to video mixers, to web streaming and so on.
In essence, a handful of XA25s would give you the bones of a broadcast TV studio in miniature; the XA20 is the “out on the road, news-gathering” version; and the G30 is the one to use incognito or when minimal size and weight is absolutely critical and pro audio is not.
What’s new, pussycat?
After the damp squip of an upgrade that was the HF-G25 (G20), the G30/XA models add the features that people had been clamouring for all along:
- 20x zoom lens
- WiFi capabilities
- 50p recording (60p in those countries that use that standard eg US)
- Slow and fast motion recording
- Much upgraded touchscreen – OLED and designed to respond like a modern mobile phone
And they added some surprise elements too
- Broadcast-style zoom rocker instead of a fiddly little toggle
- 35 Mbps mp4 recording as well as the top whack AVCHD rate of 28 Mbps
- Simultaneous dual format recording (AVCHD and mp4 at the same time) to separate memory cards
- For the XA25 only, an HD-SDI output on a standard BNC connector; this is pro-league stuff!
The camcorder is also longer and wider than before due to the lens, zoom rocker and another new feature, the tiny joystick toggle next to the record button at the back. Similar in feel to the one on Canon’s XF100, this can be used to navigate the menus and select options if you don’t feel like sticking your mucky finger all over the touchscreen or for when you’re using the rear viewfinder with the screen folded in. Speaking of which, the viewfinder now tilts up by 45 degrees if required.
A few of the buttons have relocated or changed slightly from previous models; for example, whereas on the HF-G25 there was a button on the side that would toggle between record and playback modes. It was quite easy to accidentally press this when picking up the camcorder and accidentally switch mode. Now Canon has changed this to a single tiny slide switch on the top, which flicks between record, off and playback. The downside of this arrangement is that, just as with various other camcorders using this setup, it’s quite possible that users will accidentally push the switch to one side or the other instead of the central “off” position and later find their battery has worn out when they come to use the camcorder next.
Unfortunately, and rather tight-fistedly, Canon has seen fit not to include any memory within the camcorder unlike prior versions which had 32 – 64 GB of internal storage depending on model. This means you’ll need to budget for at least one and probably two SDHC / SDXC cards, preferably of Type 10 or faster if you want to use the top quality modes.
Furthermore, a BP820 battery is standard, which is bigger than the measly 808 supplied with prior models but the extra power draw of the OLED screen, WiFi and enhanced image processing may well gobble up any extra so the recording time may well remain the same, meaning at least one substantial spare battery will be an essential item in the videographer’s kit bag. Unfortunately, all the existing batteries (BP808 / 819 / 827) are NOT compatible with the new camcorder – it rejects them – so you’re going to have to buy shiny new BP809 / 820 / 828 versions at excessive cost no doubt. Thanks, Canon.
Anyone who was frustrated at the Canon-specific “mini advanced shoe” on the back of the old camcorders will be delighted to see that, alongside said shoe, there is now a standard cold-shoe just behind the inbuilt microphones. On the XA models this becomes part of the handle attachment but there is another cold shoe on the handle itself as well.
What’s not new, pussycat?
Some things have remained the same; much of the menu structure and operation is familiar to anyone who’s used prior Canon camcorders. The audio handle is apparently identical to the one on the XA10 but on our model there’s no ‘rattle’ as there was before which was so complained about on the Internet. As before, recording to SD card can be simultaneously to both (for a backup) or from one to the other (relay recording) so you never need stop recording – though the former doesn’t work if you’re in the top-quality recording modes, sadly. For more on that, see below.
The audio setup for the onboard microphones is much as before which means you’re going to want to switch into the custom audio mode and fiddle about in order to get any decent sound quality (see our video for the HFG25 here). And for anyone who had the XA10, infra-red recording mode has been retained though this is not available on the HF G30 version, only the XA pair.
For a start, the improved zoom range is a boon not least because it starts at a wider angle than before as well as zooming further. In fact, the wide angle is now 26.8mm (35mm equivalent) although this is reduced by 2mm to 28.8 when you activate the Dynamic Steadyshot; presumably the camera’s use of a few pixels to manipulate the image costs it in wide-angle range. At the distant end, whilst the 10x zoom of its predecessor was OK and certainly enough if you were going hand-held (generally anything greater would probably have been too wobbly even with optical stabilisation), the 20x capability (576mm) is very welcome when using a tripod.
The iris ramps slightly during zoom from its widest setting of f1.8 to f2.8 but that’s not bad for a camera of this size and price. As before there are a range of settings for the zoom speed; pick from 3 overall speeds and then 16 increments within that band; the rocker, handle and remote zoom speeds can be set independently (though the latter two are always constant, not variable according to pressure) plus there is a new option for the focus ring at the front of the camcorder to become a zoom control instead via a tiny physical toggle on the back of the camcorder. And you can use the wireless remote to zoom as well. Frankly, zooming has never been so much fun.
Speaking of which, there is now a feature beloved of ENG (news) cameramen, a “crash zoom” when in rec-pause. Essentially, by activating this feature the zoom will always go at full speed when you’re in rec pause then return to whatever default you’ve set it to when you’re actually recording. It means you can get in close in order to focus, then zoom out to frame the shot, all really quickly. In the world of realtime event coverage, speed is of the essence and this is a nice extra feature to have.
The stabilisation has been improved from prior models by adding electronic optimisation to the optical tricks it used before. By using a sensor with more pixels than actually required for the HD image, the camcorder can choose which block of 1920×1080 to use in a frame that’s wobbling, and thereby pick the most “level” set of pixels. It’s quite clever though it does reduce the widest angle of the lens from 26.8 to 28.8mm which seems to imply that the widest angle image is actually downsized by the camcorder from the full sensor scan (hence why you lose it when you invoke the electronic stabilisation, which requires those extra pixels for itself)
As before, the stabiliser has four modes: off (for tripod use), standard, dynamic (this is the electronically-enhanced mode) and powered. An Intelligent IS mode for automatic use tries to work out the best mode on its own. Like Panasonic and Sony camcorders, the optimal stabilisation now corrects for the full five axis of wobbling.
The WiFi features are interesting but in some cases frustratingly limited. Being able to monitor and control the camera over WiFi from a smartphone or tablet is fantastic. At last you can sensibly do interviews when sitting right of camera (out of sight of the screen) without worrying about the subject veering out of shot and so on. You can stick the camera on a jib and still see what it’s up to – likewise setting up a remote control camera such as at the back of a venue for a wedding. Record start/stop, exposure, focus, white balance, and zoom are all controllable albeit on a slight delay which is only to be expected – the signals do have to be encoded, fed to the camcorder, enacted and then the results fed back, of course.
Playback of clips on WiFi means you get to watch them remotely from the camcorder and, if using a tablet or computer, on a bigger screen so this is cool too. See below for our list of disappointments with the WiFi offering though.
The OLED screen at last brings modern mobile phone usability to a camcorder. Previous generations of this camcorder range had a screen that was OK to view but that you had to practically poke your finger through in order for it to register the touch. Now it’s an easy glide / swipe of the digit in order to flick through the options and select your choices. Thank you, Canon. At 1.23Mpix for the screen and 1.56Mpix for the viewfinder (which can also now be angled up at 45 degrees), viewing and use is much improved. And pro users will be pleased to see you can adjust the red and blue components of the OLED screen’s colour balance which helps calibration
The small control thumbwheel on the back of the camera has now moved to become a tiny dial at the front, next to the lens. This is similar to Canon’s XF100 and means you don’t have to move your left hand so far when moving from lens to control. Any fears about the new dial being too fiddly adjust can be put to rest; Canon have left enough space around it for easy adjustment either by two fingers or by a thumb. The functions it controls have become slightly more limited though, essentially turning it into an exposure control (eg f-stop, gain, exposure compensation) whereas before it could also adjust the audio levels – that’s now been moved to a combination of assignable button and touchscreen control.
The dual format recording is a much anticipated feature but already seems misunderstood. Note this: it is severely limited. If you want to film in the best quality on either AVCHD or mp4, then dual format recording is not permitted at all. You can only enable dual-format if your main recording is not being done at the best bitrate.
Furthermore, all dual format files are mp4. You can’t film your main version in mp4 and have a lesser AVCHD version, it has to be the other way round or both as mp4.
Also, the dual format copy is at a maximum of 4 (yes, 4) Mbps and no more. You can forget any ideas of a 35Mbps mp4 with 28Mbps AVCHD backup.
Clearly the feature is designed as a proxy format for web upload, perhaps with newsgathering in mind. In other words, the idea seems to be that by creating a low bitrate version of the footage, reporters can transfer it quickly back to the newsroom for immediate broadcast (though by activiting this function, they are locking themselves out of filming their item at best quality, as noted above!). It gets worse though, because the FTP options for sending the proxy file back, are so limited as to render the idea utterly impractical. This is a bit of a mess by Canon really.
Onto other features now and whilst the continued inclusion of Focus Assist is always welcome, it still only works before pressing “record” and not during filming. That means if you want to check focus while recording you’d have to zoom in, check and re-frame; not always practical in live event coverage. You can alternatively rely on focus peaking but this is not always preferred. And the peaking WFM which was included in older generations of the camcorder has, like the exposure WFM, been removed.
Finally, if you’ve an Android phone you’re out of luck at present for uploading the files to YouTube, Facebook et al over WiFi; the app which performs this task is iOS (Apple)-specific; on the HF G30 you can alternatively go direct from the camcorder via Canon’s own Image Gateway but inexplicably this function appears not present in the XA models, Canon presumably imagining that pro-users would never wish to sully their hands with video sharing websites. Wrong again, Canon.
Now we get to the nasty stuff. Take a breath and prepare to gasp in horror at these:
Far from improving the critically useful waveform monitor so that it can be on-screen at all times, or at least whilst you’re amending the exposure, Canon has seen fit to remove this function entirely leaving you only with Zebras at either 70 or 100% as any onscreen exposure guide. Thus, if you had plans to use the 70% setting for exposing skin tones as is customary, there will be no exposure aid to warn you of clipping highlights unless you forever keep toggling the zebra setting between 70 and 100.
Oh Canon. We have to ask, “why?”! And we’ll bang our heads against the wall in frustration as we do so. The XA models at least are supposed to be oriented at professionals so why take away pro features? This is frustrating and infuriating and will hopefully be rectified in a future software release. Tubeshooter had been looking forward to an IMPROVED waveform monitor, not its removal.
Then there are a catalogue of limitations if you choose to record in either of the top-spec formats. As soon as you select 28Mbps AVCHD or 35Mbps mp4, all kinds of options, including dual recording and format conversion, are removed. At a stroke, this cancels out one of the key attractions of the camcorder.
The FTP option is next to useless. You can either transfer EVERY SINGLE FILE on the memory card, or EVERY FILE THAT HASN’T ALREADY BEEN UPLOADED. In practical terms, both those options will be precisely the same in many cases. Given how long it takes to transfer video files over WiFi, uploading every file will surely be impractical and quite clearly you really need to be able to select which files you want to upload, just as you’re able to select them when you want to delete them for example.
Aha – you may be thinking – but perhaps you could use the “convert file” function to copy just the files you want to upload, onto the second memory card, in low-bitrate format, and then select Send All from that card? It’s a good theory but the aforementioned limitations on top-spec recording mean that if you filmed at best quality, you cannot convert the files (WHY?!). Therefore you are forced to record in lesser quality just so that you can either a) generate the dual-format proxy versions as you go, delete the ones you don’t want, then Upload All, or b) wait while the camcorder creates proxy versions of the clips you want after filming and then Upload All of those.
Both a) and b) are tedious work-arounds for something that ought to have been a great feature. Please, Canon, sort it out. Just let us choose which files to upload, manually. You’ll still have to film in less than best quality in order to get the web versions but at least being able to select them for upload individually would make the entire point of this function worthwhile.
There’s no live streaming, which is odd. Granted not everybody wants or needs this but if Panasonic’s consumer camcorders can do this, why on earth wouldn’t Canon? The camcorder clearly has the horsepower to generate web-streamable files and a WiFi connection. It’s a peculiar omission, especially in the HF G30 consumer version of the camcorder.
And the Downright Useless
Going back to the zoom features for a moment, a 2x digital extender is offered as an option for when 20x optical isn’t sufficient. As before you can even switch in an “up to 400x” digital zoom. Since both of these rely on the camcorder interpolating pixels where none actually exist, all you are doing in reality is trying to expand an image that doesn’t have enough information to do so. Our advice is to leave these “enhancements” well alone.
The cinematic filters that can be applied during filming may be appropriate for a cheap and cheerful consumer camorder but these models are aimed at the video enthusiast and professional who almost certainly would prefer to add effects in the edit afterwards (wouldn’t they?). A waste of time, we think.
And one final function which could have been useful but has been rendered impotent by its implementation, is Last Scene Review. Just press one button and the last scene you filmed gets played back, no need to switch the camcorder into playback mode. Sounds great but a) it only plays back the last four seconds and b) it doesn’t play back the sound!!! Utterly useless.
There’s a lot to like about the XA20 / XA25 / HF G30. They’ve certainly got a lot of improvements over the previous models. Unfortunately, some of the implementation is odd, bizarre or unhelpful and that’s going to disappoint some people who were hoping for a more complete package.
If you’d like to buy an XA20 then please click through to Amazon UK via our affiliate link: http://amzn.to/1lH1l75 as we get a small commission from this. For the little brother of the XA20, the HF-G30, click here: http://amzn.to/1piL7Fr
Here’s our full review; below that are sample clips in 35Mbps mp4, and 28Mbps AVCHD, both at 50p
28Mbps AVCHD 50p:
35Mbps MP4 50p: