Best entry-level pro camcorder

*** Please note: this article has now been superseded by a later edition in October 2014 . Click here to see that newer article or read on for historical interest ***

This category is surprisingly hard to judge. It’s not the level of competition – there are only two real competitors – but that they are each so capable and yet so different.

Those competitors are: the Canon XF100 and the Panasonic AG-AC90. If you’re wondering why cameras such as the JVC GY-HM70 or Sony’s HVR-HD1000 and HXR-MC2000 aren’t included, that’s because they’re not really pro cameras at all despite appearances.

They’re mutton dressed as lamb, consumer-level camcorders wedged into a shoulder-mount body to look more impressive but it’s all gloss and no substance. With mainly touch-screen operated controls and limited “real” manual operation, these are discounted as toys for people who don’t know better.

Whilst Sony’s HXR-NX70 is a possible contender, its diminutive size and water / dustproof body make it more of a specialist choice where those attributes are specifically needed rather than one for the category currently under consideration.

So – the AC90. Whisper it quietly but this is very like their top-of-the-line consumer model, the x920, put into a professional body but unlike the camcorders discarded so ruthlessly a moment ago, this one has a redeeming feature: proper manual controls. There are three full manual control rings (focus, iris, zoom) and a plethora of easy access buttons on the side for white balance, zebras and user-defined functions.

Panasonic AG-AC90 - front
Panasonic AG-AC90 – front

It is rather lightweight at 1.8kg, possibly too much as the combination of this and its rather flimsy-looking plastic body certainly give it a rather fragile appearance that’s anything but professional. Yet It also comes with an astonishingly low price – reputable sellers are knocking these out at just £1499 inc VAT – and some very good reviews (this is not surprising – the x920 is more like a pro camcorder in a consumer body than the other way around, with decent picture and a shedload of functions)

Two channel XLR audio is provided on the handle, a flip-out touchscreen screen is available for monitoring and configuration, the lens has a 12x optical zoom and the entire unit is compact to say the least. Recording is to cheap SDHC memory cards and includes a dual-recording mode for instant backups.

Panasonic AG-AC90 side
Panasonic AG-AC90 side

Spec-junkies may be disappointed to note the sensors (three, backside illuminated) are mere 1/4 inch jobbies which one would normally expect to be hopeless in dim light but even here the Panasonic has won praise.

Let us turn then to its competitor, the Canon XF100. Another highly compact unit, its claim to fame is the MPEG-2 50Mbps 4:2:2 codec rather than AVCHD. Now to some, MPEG-2 might sound old hat but this spec is actually the European Broadcasting Union (and BBC)’s preferred standard for HD broadcast whereas the Panasonic’s AVCHD certainly isn’t.

For sure, if you grab that vital shot which no-one else has, the broadcasters won’t care what format you used but in “pro” terms, the Canon gets the nod. MPEG-2 is also much, much easier to edit, in computer terms, than AVCHD which demands the most powerful CPU you can buy.

Canon XF100 LCD open
Canon XF100 LCD open

The only thing that holds the XF100 off fully HD broadcast-compliant spec is the use of a single, 1/3-inch CMOS sensor instead of three half inchers. This has implications for low light performance but for a small camera, it’s not too bad.

The lens is sadly, a mere 10x and is controlled for focus or exposure via a single ring; there is a small dial next to it that can alternately be configured for exposure. Recording is to the more expensive but arguably more robust Compact Flash cards which, being larger, are also harder to lose…

Build quality is very solid and the camcorder feels and looks like a professional bit of kit unlike the AG90. XLR audio is provided and many, many buttons on the side permit instant access to useful functions such as peaking, white balance and so on.

Canon XF100 LCD open
Canon XF100 LCD open

The XF100 is a beautiful videocamera, especially sat next to the AG90 which looks too plasticky by comparison. Yet the XF100 falls down, for the purposes of this comparison, on one important point, namely that it doesn’t have the full set of control rings, which makes a real difference when you’re on the shooting in a hurry.

Our second criticism, that of price, has recently (as of April 2014) been addressed due to the appearance of a new XF model, the XF200 which has prompted significant falls in the XF100’s price. You can now pick one of these little beauties up for around £1550 – so roughly the same as the Panasonic.

In the light of this price drop then, we have to revist our prior conclusion on this article. We’d previously said the Panasonic took top honours for both ergonomics and price. Now it can only boast better ergonomics and the real decision between these two comes down to both your personal preference and your requirement for the recording format.

Thus – perhaps unhelpfully – we declare this contest a draw with both camcorders being valiant winners and seeing off all other similarly-priced or even more expensive competition. It’s up to you to decide which of the pair most suits your needs.

(Update 2014: since this article was written, Canon has released the XA20 – a compact semi-pro camcorder with AVCHD and mp4 recording, a degree of manual controls and XLR audio, for £1500. You can read our review of that at www.tubeshooter.co.uk/2013/06/22/preview-canon-xa20-xa25-hf-g30/)

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