While the Sony TRV900 DV camcorder is like a professional camcorder hidden in the body of a consumer, home-video cam, the Canon GL-1 is like a consumer-level camcorder hidden in a professional body. Actually, the two camcorders are quite similar, and you'll have to decide which features are most important to you if choosing between the two.
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Drawbacks of the GL-1
The biggest flaw in the GL-1's design is its lack of manual audio recording level controls (the TRV900 has these). Why Canon left this feature out, which most professionals demand, on an over-$2,000 camcorder, is anybody's guess.
As for aesthetics, some might find the GL-1's body, which is constructed of plastic, to be less attractive than the magnesium-constructed body of the Sony TRV900. While it's debatable as to which camcorder is the best looking, there's no question that the Sony's metal body will stand up to more of the hard knocks of video life than that of the Canon will take. This choice of body materials shows that Sony intended to fit a pro camcorder into a consumer-camcorder body.
Plus Points of the GL-1
One of the biggest advantages of the GL-1 is its design, which is quite similar to Sony's workhorse VX-1000 DV camcorder. If you want a camcorder that will attract attention, you'll probably tilt toward the GL-1, especially if you're comparing it to the conservative, plain-vanilla design of the TRV900.
Weighing in at a bit under three pounds (2 pounds, 12 ounces, though with one of the optional higher-capacity batteries it could easily go over three pounds), the GL-1 will be easier to hold steady than the two-pound TRV900. On the other hand, that extra pound will get you tired out faster and be more to drag around on a trip. Neither of these camcorders will be as steady as one which you can rest on your shoulder, as with a professional camcorder. You can buy an inexpensive, add-on shoulder-mount which will let most of the weight rest there, but these are a bit unwieldy. There's really no substitute for a shoulder-mount camera such as the JVC GY-DV500, the Sony DSR-250, or the new Panasonic AG-DVC10.
Another advantage of the GL-1 over the TRV900 is that the Canon camcorder has a top-mounted grip. This grip will allow you to shoot while holding the camera down at waist level. The 2.5-inch LCD monitor and the extra set of zoom and record start/stop buttons on the grip will come in handy for this kind of shooting.
Improving audio quality, the GL-1 has a stereo microphone built-in to the front of the top-mounted grip. In this position, with the mic further from and more insulated from the motor noises of the camcorder, you'll get cleaner recording. Unfortunately, you can't manually set the audio recording levels, as you can on the TRV900. The audio levels, as on any inexpensive consumer-level camcorder, are set by an automatic gain control (AGC) circuit. Generally, as with most things that work automatically, this won't cause a problem. However, you might encounter a specific situation in which the audio AGC's doesn't work well. In that case, you're out of luck.
The GL-1's Camera Section
Digital is a great way to record video, having all the advantages of accurate storage of the video image. Further, with the Firewire jack on the GL-1, you can take advantage of computer-based non-linear video editing (see my review of the Sony DCR VX-2000 for more on non-linear editing and the Firewire/iLink/IEEE-1394 jack).
However, no matter how well that video image is recorded, it can't get any better than what's provided by the camcorder's camera section, which is basically comprised of the lens and the charge-coupled device (CCD). The CCD takes the visual image from the lens and converts it to an analog video signal. In a DV camcorder like the GL-1, an analog-to-digital converter brings the signal into the digital realm where it's then recorded onto the MiniDV tape (a tape that's just a little bigger than an audio micro-cassette tape).
Canon makes a big deal in their promotional literature about the GL-1's lens, which they say is made out of "fluorite" (sounds like something that keeps your teeth from rotting). The whole "fluorite" thing is just hype. The lens of the GL-1 is good, but no better than that of the Sony TRV900.
The GL-1 actually has three CCD's, one for each of the primary colors. This allows for higher color accuracy than with most consumer-level camcorders which use a single CCD. Unfortunately, the GL-1's three CCD's each have only 270,000 pixels, as opposed to 380,000 in the TRV900. Now, Canon claims to use something called pixel-shift technology which gives the CCD's the equivalent sharpness of 410,000-pixel CCD's. The only way to really out if these claims are true is to do lab tests to ascertain how many horizontal lines the camcorder can resolve and, in these, the GL-1 loses out to the TRV900.
Note that the Canon XL-1 uses similar, 270,000-pixel CCD's. If you're going to shoot with an XL-1 and a second camcorder and want one that will give a close match in the look of its footage, the GL-1 would probably be a good choice.
The GL-1, unfortunately, doesn't give you much wide-angle coverage at the widest setting of the lens, with an equivalent in a 35mm camera of 39.5 mm. Sad to say, this is a common shortcoming of consumer-level camcorders and you'll find a similar wide-angle limit with the TRV900 and many other cams. On the zoom side, the GL-1's lens hits an optical setting of 790mm, or 20x. This might come in handy for tripod-mounted wildlife shooting, where you wanted, say, to get a shot of bird eggs hatching in a nest a couple of football fields away.
A digital zoom will bring the magnification up to 100x, which is a rather useless feature, as this extreme setting will increase camera shake to the point where you can't shoot handheld and individual pixels will show up as large squares on the screen.
Optical Image Stabilization
Speaking of camera shake, the GL-1 includes an optical, electro-mechanical mechanism designed to reduce camera shake. This does not, however, have an very significant effect. You might notice a bit less shake, when shooting handheld without too much zoom, but the only way to really get a steady shot is to practice your steady hand-held shooting techniques or by using a tripod.
The GL-1 has a standard video mode, which works like most DV camcorders. In addition, again similar to most DV camcorders, it can record up to 700 stills on a MiniDV tape, with 6 seconds of audio narration for each still. Finally, there's what Canon calls "Frame Movie Mode." This last mode is somewhat confusing. Since it records 30 progressive frames per second (i.e., all the horizontal lines are painted onto the tape at once; as opposed to the standard video mode in which each of the 1/30th of a second frames actually consists of two interlaced 1/60th of a second frames, each comprising half of the horizontal lines of the image, also known as a "field"), it's excellent for shooting where you intend to later extract stills from your motion footage. With stills taken from interlaced-shot footage, you might have blur with moving subjects which change position in the 1/60th of a second between the two interlaced fields. However, it's not clear what, if any, advantages you'll have using the Frame Movie Mode for motion footage. Canon doesn't really have anything informative to say about this in their Web site. The Canon Web site says: "The non-interlaced method ... has even been acknowledged by users for its cinematic-like appearance." People imagine that they'll get a film-like effect, probably because this shooting mode is called "Movie" mode. Canon allows people to make that rosy assumption without really making the situation clear, which isn't surprising considering Canon's tendency to emphasize hype over accurate descriptions of their products.
The GL-1 features a fold-out 2.5-inch LCD screen which you can use to both monitor live shooting and to play back recently-shot footage in the field (a built-in speaker will let you monitor the audio). When it's bright out, which will wash out the LCD image, or you want to get more battery life, you can tuck in the LCD screen and view your action through a 0.55-inch color viewfinder. Since the GL-1 has a second zoom and record start/stop controls built into the handle, the LCD screen will allow you to shoot, and frame your shots, while holding the camera from above with its top-mounted handle.
People who are really into video (and I'd hope that most people dropping over $2,000 on a camcorder have at least a passing interest in the subject) usually prize lots of manual control. This will also be true of folks who are coming from a still-photography background where they got into the habit of taking advantage of the expressive possibilities brought about through extensive use of manual control. On this score, the GL-1 won't disappoint, as it includes manual focus (through a ring around the lens), exposure, white balance, and shutter speed.
While the GL-1 lacks manual audio recording level controls, it does have some pro-oriented features, including zebra stripes, color bars, and 16:9 mode. The zebra stripe mode places dark horizontal stripes across any area of the picture which is overexposed, allowing you to accurately make manual adjustments for specific lighting anomalies in individual areas of your shot. The color bar features projects a set of NTSC-standard color bars onto your tape, allowing you to create a leader at the start of each segment so you have a reference for adjusting any post-production gear and/or software which you use with your footage. The 16:9 mode puts your shot into a letterboxed mode, giving it the wide-screen, cinematic look.
A so-called "Full Auto Green Zone" will come in handy for beginners, as it lets the camcorder pick all the shooting parameters, leaving you to just control the zoom and record start/stop controls. The Auto Mode is actually something of a misnomer, since it lets you choose to control any function you desire, such as focus, exposure, and/or white balance (though the camcorder continues to automatically set anything you haven't specified). The manual mode gives you control of shutter speed (from 1/60th to 1/15,000th of a second) and aperture (23 half-stops from f1.6 to f11). Here again, the GL-1 compares unfavorably to the Sony TRV900, which can go down as slow a shutter speed as 1/4-second, allowing much greater expressive possibilities. The Spot Light mode is for brightly-lit subjects with dark surroundings, while the Sand and Snow mode is for the reverse -- subjects surrounded by large areas of bright light. The TV and AV modes, respectively, allow you to manually set aperture while the camcorder automatically sets exposure or to manually set exposure while the camcorder automatically sets aperture.
With its composite and S-VHS analog inputs, you can run an analog signal, such as from your old Hi8 or S-VHS camcorder tapes, into the GL-1, and then have them run out in digital form via the camcorder's Firewire/iLink/IEEE-1394 jack. If you have a computer with non-linear editing capability, this will allow you to load your analog video onto the computer's hard drive and then perform non-linear editing upon it. The GL-1 also features insert editing, which lets you add another audio track (as long as the original footage is recorded in the 12-bit, 4-track mode, as opposed to the 16-bit, 2-channel mode) to your original footage.
A hot shoe on top of the GL-1 allows you to use Canon Speedlight flashes for shooting digital stills. For monitoring your audio in the field (and looking really official), there's a headphone jack. For attaching external microphones, there's a stereo mini-jack input (though you'll probably want to get an adaptor to use XLR-connector mics, which means any mic that costs over about fifty bucks). The standard BP-915 battery (7.2 volts, 1,500 milliamp-hours) is a little slim for a camcorder of this size and you'll be lucky to get much more than a half hour running time from it unless you're very judicious about use of zoom and the LCD monitor. Extra batteries, with capacities running from 1,500 to 5,000 milliamp-hours, run from $50 to $150. Besides a glare filter to protect your lens (something you'll automatically want to buy with any new camcorder), you'll probably want to buy a backup battery right away.
Other accessories included with the GL-1 are an A/C power charger, a D/C power coupler, a remote control (very handy for shooting yourself with the camcorder on a tripod), an S-Video cable, an A/V cable (combines composite video with L/R analog audio lines), a lens cap, and a shoulder strap.
Canon covers the GL-1 with a one-year parts and labor warranty which compares very favorably to many other manufacturers, some of whom only back their camcorders up with 90 days (or sometimes even less) of parts and labor coverage.
The GL-1 is a great camcorder for people who have seen other people using GL-1's and think they look really cool and just have to have the latest gadget. I'm talking about the same kind of people who buy iMac's not for their functionality, but because they think the color schemes are really, really neat.
While the Canon GL-1 and the Sony TRV900 DV camcorders are almost identical in features and quality, there's a definite aesthetic divide between them. If you want a flashy camcorder with enough weight to be easy to hold steady (or as easy as possible for a camcorder you can't shoulder-mount), and you're willing to give up manual audio level controls, the GL-1 might be for you. Then again, if you want a full-featured, metal-body camcorder that's light enough to pack on a long trip and good enough to bring home broadcast-quality video of your travels, without, say, ever drawing a crowd of stone-throwing Palestinians, take a look at the Sony TRV900.
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