Panasonic stirred up the waters at last year's NAB by releasing the AG-HVX200, a revolutionary, handheld HD camcorder that records on P2 memory cards. It is important to look at this camera now because it's bound to create a ripple effect of innovative offerings at NAB2006.
All of the other HD camera contenders in this price bracket employ the HDV format, which relies on MPEG-2 compression. The Panasonic HVX200 is notable for two reasons--it records full HD in all existing formats, and it records onto solid-state media.
The HVX200 delivers full HD in the DVCPRO HD format: 1/6.7 compression with a data rate of 100 Mbps and 4:2:2 sampling.
The Panasonic HVX200 captures digital video on three 1/3-inch CCDs in all existing formats. In high-definition mode, you can choose to shoot 1080 (60i, 24p or 30p) or 720 (60p, 24p or 30p). In the 720p mode you can also shoot in variable frame rates for true fast or slow motion, emulating film frame rates from 12 fps to 60 fps. And it is also a fully equipped SD camera capable of shooting 480/60i, 24p or 30p in 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratios onto miniDV tape.
The camera is equipped with a respectable, although not interchangeable, lens--a Leica Dicomar F1.6, with a 13x zoom and sharpness and speed suitable for high definition. There is a manual zoom and focus ring as well as an auto focus setting and a focus assist that enlarges part of the image to improve accuracy.
The camera has physical switches for gain, white balance and neutral density filters. The iris can be controlled with a manual dial or it can be set on automatic.
Six pre-set "scene files" handle common challenges like fluorescent lighting, or creating a film-like color curve and contrast. You can also custom make your own scene files by saving settings in the menu that control elements such as gamma, chroma level, detail level and coloring.
The main selling point of the HVX200 is that it delivers DVCPRO HD on memory cards. There are two card slots on the back of the camera. P2 cards are currently available in 4 and 8 GB sizes, allowing 8 or 16 GB total capacity. The price of P2 cards is expected to decrease steadily. A 4 GB card selling for $1,400 last year now sells for $650.
The P2 system is ideal for jobs that require speed, as clips stored on the cards can be transferred directly to an NLE. You can edit directly from the P2 cards by connecting a memory card reader to any system running Avid Express Pro HD, Final Cut Pro HD, or Canopus EDIUS Broadcast.
True HD shooting and recording
Records multiple HD resolutions/frame rates and can record on memory cards or external storage devices
Panasonic Broadcast and Television Systems Co.
The P2 system works well in the field. Clips are displayed on the LCD screen as thumbnails, allowing instant access to any shots for quick review or deletion. In VTR mode, clips can be played back and viewed through the LCD screen or an external monitor. The camera is also equipped with component and IEEE 1394 outputs, and HD footage on the cards can be downconverted and dubbed to DV tape in the camera.
In addition, because the camera has no moving parts (except for the DV tape used for SD recording), it is exceptionally shock resistant and needs little maintenance. P2 cards can be rewritten 100,000 times.
P2 cards do have limitations. An 8 GB card will hold 16 minutes of DVCPRO50, 20 minutes of 720/24p, and eight minutes of 1080 DVCPRO HD video. Having enough cards for a rigorous shooting schedule has kept many videographers from dashing out to buy the camera.
But Panasonic has developed solutions to make the camera attractive until we reach the era of cheap, high-capacity card media. The P2 store allows you to quickly transfer card contents to a portable hard drive. And through the camera's IEEE 1394 port, you can capture live video on a laptop running Avid, Final Cut Pro, or Canopus EDIUS, or send it to the new FireStore, camera-mountable 100 GB hard drive. These are all viable solutions, but they add costs to using the camera and deny the P2 advantages for which the camera was made.
For audio, the HVX200 is equipped with a built-in stereo microphone suitable for capturing ambient sound. There are two XLR inputs for connecting professional microphones. Track designation and volume control is handled by physical switches and dials, making audio setup and control much faster than menu-driven cameras.
When using the HVX200, the first step is to decide which recording format to use. There is a switch on the back of the camera where you choose P2 or tape. If you choose P2, you can shoot in DVCPRO50 or any of the HD formats. If you select tape, you can shoot in any of the SD formats onto miniDV tape.
I wanted to shoot HD, and it was a simple matter of entering the menu to access a long list of options. The camera has a familiar layout and I was able to operate it without reading the instruction manual.
I took the camera outside on a sunny spring day and started with 720/24pn, the native form of 24p, meaning that it records exactly 24 frames per second with no pulldowns or technical tampering. In 720p mode, you also have the ability to under or overcrank the camera to get true, film-style fast or slow motion. To test this, I shot 720p at 12 fps for fast-motion playback and 48 and 60 fps for slow motion.
I then shot footage in 1080i/24p and 30p. And just for fun I also shot 480/24p onto miniDV tape for comparison.
It is a simple matter to check the footage in the field by turning on the thumbnail screen, going into VTR mode and using playback buttons on top of the camera. The first thing that struck me was how smooth the 24p footage looks in comparison to the HDV cameras, which show much more motion stutter. Slow-motion playback was also very pristine.
But for a true test, I had to get the video into an NLE and watch it on a full-resolution monitor. For this, I employed the AJ-PCD10 P2 card reader. This device accepts up to five cards and connects to the computer through a USB 2.0 port.
First, I tested it on a Windows XP system running Avid Xpress Pro HD. On Windows, you have to install P2 drivers, while Macs automatically recognize the drive. The software installed effortlessly, allowing me to see each card as a separate drive. Avid scans the drives on startup and I transferred the clips into project bins using the Media Tool. I found that I could edit directly off of the cards or transfer material to another drive.
I also ran the card reader on a Mac with Final Cut Pro HD. The P2 system works well on both platforms.
I created projects on the Avid, based on resolution and frame rate, then loaded the timeline and compared the footage. The 720/24pn footage played perfectly, and again I was struck by the quality of the image and the smooth film-like motion. The slow-motion footage (48 or 60 fps) is truly stunning. Standard video produces slow motion by duplicating frames, resulting in uneven motion. The HVX200 produces true slow motion by shooting more frames per second than the standard 24 fps playback speed. The resulting image is crystal clear and dreamlike with a smoothness not commonly associated with video.
On close examination, the 1080i/24p and 30p footage looked noticeably clearer than the 720p footage. There is more detail in the distance and greater sharpness overall. The 720p footage was slightly softer, which to some eyes may be desirable and others not. The good thing about the HVX200 is the format flexibility.
Even if this camera did not shoot HD, it is a topnotch standard miniDV camera that shoots 30i or great looking 24p footage. Add to that the fact that it also shoots DVCPRO50, and you start feeling like you own three cameras instead of one.
Forcing data through the 25 Mbps DV pipeline is very restricting, and Panasonic has challenged the logic of HDV by showing what you can do with 100 Mbps and P2 memory cards. Why do a lot of compression if you don't have to?
The best thing about the HVX200 is its versatility. You can choose any format that might be required for delivery: resolutions of 1080, 720, or 480, interlaced or progressive, 30 or 24 frames, variable speed and DVCPRO50. It is truly like buying multiple cameras, and it is hard to believe that Panasonic could achieve so much at this modest price.
When I saw what this camera could do, I reacted like many other videographers. I wanted to buy it, but I was apprehensive about P2 cards.
In a sense, the HVX200 is a camera ahead of its time. It's like buying a transistor radio right after the invention of batteries.
I believe that memory card recording is the way of the future. And when P2 cards are cheap and of high capacity, there will be no argument against this camera. That time may be coming very soon.
The good news is that the HVX200 will record perfectly well on other media while you wait to go on a P2 card shopping spree. Focus Enhancement's FireStore FS-100 lets you record direct to disk, or you can capture directly to a laptop NLE using the IEEE-1394 connection.
Then, in a couple of years, you may be able to buy a box of P2 cards for a fraction of today's cost, and run the camera the way it was designed--with unprecedented freedom and agility.