The Panasonic AJ-PX380—the latest entry in Panasonic’s lineup of professional broadcast HD camcorders—fills a niche for a more affordable alternative and is designed to lower cost without sacrificing image quality. It utilizes a range of recording formats on less expensive microP2 cards, including the high-quality AVC-Intra and LongG codecs, and includes extra features such as wireless connectivity.
The Panasonic AJ-PX380 has a long list of impressive features that are unprecedented in a professional ENG style camcorder at this price.
The AJ-PX380 records in all of the video formats expected in its class: 1080 60p/50p, 1080 60i/50i, 1080 24psF, 720 60p/50p and 480 60i and 576/50i.
The camera is engineered for 21st century newsgathering and is equipped with multi-format wireless streaming capability. It retains a traditional design, with essential on-camera controls like white balance, gain, ND filters and audio levels, but is lighter and unusually well balanced. The camera body weighs only about six pounds, about 40 percent less than most higher-end shoulder-mount cameras. A broadcast zoom lens and viewfinder adds about another five pounds.
It also can accommodate two microP2 cards and one standard P2 card. Panasonic has moved more in the direction of microP2 cards, which are the size of SD cards but are engineered for a higher transfer rate. They are considerably less expensive than the P2 cards, further reducing the cost of owning the camera.
The AJ-PX380 is engineered with image quality as a priority. The 1/3-inch 3MOS sensors contain 2.2 megapixels and provide high light sensitivity and S/N ratio. The 1/3-inch 3MOS sensors achieve the same maximum 600 percent dynamic range level as other high-end shoulder-mount models. This preserves image data from very dark areas to bright highlights.
The camera employs Panasonic’s outstanding intra-frame compression method, known as AVC-Intra, which was developed to produce nearly lossless image compression with manageable file sizes. In addition, the AJ-PX380 offers a wide range of other codecs that achieve much smaller file sizes while preserving high image quality. AVC-Intra100 can be used when the highest quality is desired for applications, such as television program production, and is particularly well-suited for editing. AVC-Intra50 produces very high quality at half the data rate. For applications such as documentary or reality TV, the AJ-PX380 offers more compressed codecs that enable much longer recording time. These include AVC-LongG50, 25 and 12. These are Long GOP MPEG-4 formats based on H.264. Using two microP2 cards, one can simultaneously record a high-quality codec as well as proxy files that can be easily uploaded online for editing or off-site footage review.
The Panasonic microP2 cards have high capacity and offer long recording times. One 64 GB microP2 card can hold 64 minutes of video while recording in the highest quality codecs: AVC-Intra100 and DVCPRO HD. For AVC-Intra50, AVC-LongG 50, DVCPRO 50, you will get 128 minutes per 64 GB card. And if you really need extended recording time, you can record for 480 minutes on a 64 GB card using the AVC-LongG12 codec. And all of these times can be doubled by using two cards in the available slots.
A big selling point for the Panasonic AJ-PX380 is its capability for wireless connectivity, which has emerged as a practical way to transmit video for live streaming to the web, instant file sharing, and uploading proxy files for editing. With some additional accessories, the AJ-PX380 can be configured for data transfer and streaming over wireless LAN or 4G/LTE, and can perform FTP server uploading and streaming. Through wireless LAN, it is even possible to preview and edit recorded clips and metadata with a laptop, smartphone or tablet device, and the camera can be controlled remotely with an iPad. The AJ-PX380 is designed to integrate with the Panasonic P2Cast cloud-based news system, enabling a wide variety of shared, file-based workflows.
The AJ-PX380 is equipped with all of the desired inputs and outputs, including SDI, 3G-SDI out and HDMI out.
I tested the Panasonic AJ-PX380GF package, which included an AG-CVF15 Color Viewfinder and an XT17x4.5 BRM 17X Fujinon lens.
The first thing I noticed when I picked up the camera is how light it was. It is easy to lift and feels especially well balanced on the shoulder. Yet it has enough mass to allow for very stable shots.
Because of the low price point, my main mission was to verify that the AJ-PX380 has an image quality that stands up to its more expensive competitors, and makes it worthy for professional newsgathering and television production.
I recorded identical shots that incorporated camera motion, panning from indoor to outdoor light, and focusing on distant detailed elements.
The AJ-PX380 made it easy to change formats and does not require shutting down and repowering to make any changes; even for major system settings such as moving from 1080/23.98pN to 480/59.94i. I just selected the desired format and the camera updated the settings within a matter of seconds.
I proceeded to shoot through a roster of clips at different settings: AVC-Intra100 1080/60p, 1080 /60i and 1080/24pN; AVC-Intra50 1080/60i; AVC-LongG50 1080/60i; AVC-LongG25 1080/25pN; AVC-LongG12 1080/60i and 1080/24pN; and DVCPRO HD.
I then reviewed the results on two editing platforms: Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Pro X. I found that accessing the files on the microP2 card on Avid requires a downloadable plug-in. Overall the process using Avid was a bit bumpy, but worked fine once you figure out the process. Using the microP2 cards on Final Cut Pro X was a breeze. It instantly recognized and listed all of the file types and they were ready for viewing and importing.
I carefully examined each clip, full screen on a large Mac monitor. The AVC-Intra100 and DVCPRO codecs were outstanding and delivered a stunning image, rich in color data and very faithful to fine detail, even when the camera was being moved quickly. I found the best image to be when shooting AVC-Intra100 in 1080/60p.
Then, the remaining question was how the more compressed codecs would hold up. To this end, I found that AVC-LongG50 compared favorably to the highest bit rate codecs. I could see some minor loss in detail if I froze a frame and studied it, but throughout a normal motion shot, the difference was hard to notice. Then I examined the AVC-LongG12, which is a 4:2:0 codec at a low bit rate. I expected it to look clearly inferior, but was surprised at how well it held up. I had to look very carefully to see any substantial difference between AVC-LongG50 and AVC-LongG12.
My conclusion was that AJ-PX380 combines a very high-quality sensor set with the best compression codecs in the industry to produce video files of high enough quality for any application, from newsgathering to program production.
The Panasonic AJ-PX380 is an outstanding ENG style camera that offers outstanding image quality, a full menu of high-quality compression codecs, full wireless connectivity, is lightweight and durable at a groundbreaking price point. It is ideal for newsgathering and television production where budget constraints are a consideration. This camera will allow many less financially endowed organizations to get into the game and produce professional grade content.
Geoff Poister, Ph.D. is a member of the Film and Television faculty at Boston University and a regular contributor to TV Technology.