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Panasonic’s AG-HPX600 AVC-Ultra Camcorder

BOSTON -- The Panasonic AG-HPX600 offers a step up from the popular AG-HPX500 broadcast camera. It features significant image improvements through its newly designed 2/3-inch CMOS sensor and an expanded menu of recording codecs. However, its most distinctive attribute is that it is “future proofed.” The AG-HPX600 is designed to incorporate new codecs and memory card advancements as they are developed, so that it will not become obsolete. The AG-HPX600 is not solely limited to the use of P2 cards or DVCPRO codecs.

The AG-HPX600 is an ENG style, shoulder-mounted camcorder that accepts interchangeable bayonet mount lenses and can operate in all of the full HD recording formats currently in use. It’s also among the lightest camcorders in its class with a body weight of only 6.2 pounds. The unit’s power consumption is also quite low.

While it has a classic camcorder design, the insides are all cutting edge hi-tech. The newly designed image capture device provides full raster operation with enhanced light sensitivity, resolution and color fidelity.

However, the eye-catching feature is the list of available and future codecs, which gives the AG-HPX600 unprecedented flexibility in terms of compression. This range of codecs allows the creation of small, portable files, or large, nearly uncompressed ones for high-end cinema quality production. The new family of codecs, consisting of ones that are currently available and others that are in development, is called AVC-ULTRA. For now, the AG-HPX600 employs AVC-Intra codecs operating at 50 and 100 Mbps. These are very high-quality codecs that use 10-bit, 4:2:2 sampling and intra-frame compression, which has certain advantages over long-GOP codecs. The AG-HPX600 can also record using the traditional Panasonic DVCPRO HD, DVCPRO50, DVCPRO and DV codecs, but, as any working videographer knows, new codecs and smaller, faster memory cards are continually being developed. The speed of these developments threatens to make a camera quickly obsolete unless it is made to adapt to new codecs and media.

Exclusive dependence on P2 cards might be viewed as a limitation, and wisely, Panasonic has responded to this, with the AG-HPX600 allowing the future use of Micro P2 cards (these are essentially specially designed SD cards), which have become a popular medium due to their very low cost and expanding capacity. The AG-HPX600 is still primarily designed for P2 card use, but by offering the SD card option the camera maintain flexibility as these smaller cards continue to improve in performance.

Panasonic is also developing new, groundbreaking codecs, which are not yet available. These include AVC-Intra class 4:4:4, capable of 4k and 2k resolution with 12-bit color, AVC-Intra class 200, which will offer an image quality that looks uncompressed. And on the small file size side, there will be AVC-LongG, using long-GOP compression to attain high image quality at very low data rates. Most, but not all, of these will be made available for the AG-HPX600.

The camcorder includes two P2 slots, which can supply a combined capacity of 128 GB of storage. This provides more than two hours of recording time at the highest quality codec (AVC-Intra 100 or DVCPRO HD) settings, and as much as eight-and-a-half hours at the DV level. The AG-HPX600 shoots in all of the commonly used HD formats: 1080i, 1080p and 720p in 59.94, 29.97, 23.98 fps in both NTSC and PAL. The camera captures at broadcast frame rates, as well as the 24 fps rate for those who prefer a more “filmic” look. The camera also shoots in a “Pn” mode, where full frames are recorded instead of combined fields, which expands recording time on the cards.

The AG-HPX600 also offers variable frame rate recording. In the 1080 mode, you can shoot from 1 to 30 fps in 17 steps, and in the 720 mode, 1 to 60 fps in 25 steps. The camera also has a variable shutter speed from spanning 1/12 to 1/2000 of a second, and also a Synchro Scan function. The AG-HPX600 is a fully professional camera; its audio features include 48kHz/16-bit four-channel digital audio with two phantom-powered XLR inputs on the back, and one on the front for the on-camera shotgun mic.

There are a number of optional features that can be added for additional cost, such as wireless and wired connection ability with Wi-Fi, USB and Ethernet. The camera also supports “video uplinking” via a proprietary AG-SFU603G firmware upgrade key for integrating LiveU’s LU40i live video uplink technology. The upgrade key provides additional communication between the camera and LiveU device by activating a USB interface, allowing the LU40i’s “start-and-stop” functionality to be controlled from the HPX600, and the device status to be displayed on the HPX600 viewfinder, so that one person can easily operate both camera and transmitter to relay live video securely. The upgrade key is available at an MSRP of $300.

Another convenient feature is the AGHPX600’s bayonet interchangeable lens mount which accommodates a wide range of lenses, and is supported by chromatic aberration compensation technology that corrects for certain types of optical flaws.

The camera features an onboard waveform monitor and vectorscope, dynamic range stretch for managing wide contrast images, focus assist, and a digital zoom option. Scene files can be acquired or created to provide a menu of pre-set image preferences.

I shot footage using two 16 GB P2 cards, trying the most commonly used codecs and frame rates. These included AVC-Intra 100 HD 1080i/59.94 and 23.976, AVC-Intra 100 HD 720p/59.94, AVC-Intra 50 HD 1080i/59.94 and 23.976, DVCPRO HD 1080i/59.94, and DVCPRO HD 720p/59.94.

Importing the clips into an Avid editing setup was very easy. Avid Media Composer 6.5 has a dedicated P2 import feature that allowed me to import all of the P2 files into a bin with no transcoding. The process made the clips immediately available for viewing and editing.

The footage I shot was an interior scene in low light and I opened the lens up all the way. Some of the darker shots required that I turn up the gain one notch. At this level of gain, I could not see any noticeable addition of noise.

The highest quality codecs currently available on the HPX600 are AVC-Intra 100 and DVCPRO HD. AVC-Intra 50 offers comparable quality at half the data rate and file size.

I compared the image quality on a calibrated HD monitor and really had to struggle to see any difference between any of the DVCPRO HD resolutions and either of the AVC-Intra 100 or 50 codecs. The main difference was between the file size of the AVC-Intra 100 or 50. It’s hard to distinguish any visual difference between AVC-Intra 100 and 50. The advantage of the higher data rate may become evident in later stages of postproduction that involve more image manipulation and color correction.

Despite its age, DVCPRO HD is still an excellent codec. It appears identical in image quality to AVC-Intra 100, and for some reason plays back more smoothly on the Avid timeline in real time, although this has no impact on the final file output.

The upshot of my comparison was that AVC-Intra 100 and DVCPRO HD are essentially equivalent in visual quality in terms of resolution and contrast. I did, however, find the color rendition of AVC-Intra 100 to be slightly more pleasing to my eye.

I actually could not detect any noticeable degradation of image quality in the AVC-Intra 50 clips. It there is a difference, it seems that it would take a highly qualified engineer to detect it. Overall, the image quality was outstanding. The HPX600 is not as great in low light as some cameras, but there was very low noise, even at high gain.

This is a modestly priced camera, so one has to realize that it cannot have all of the features found in the more expensive ones. However, my wish list is relatively small.

It would be nice if the LCD monitor could be made to swivel out so that you can look at it without using the eyepiece. In the present model, it’s fixed so that it can only be viewed from the side. If you swivel away the eyepiece, you have to use a mirror switch to reverse the image to read the P2 menu and review clips on the field.

Transferring P2 contents to a computer or hard drive could also be simplified. Now you need to go into the menu and put the camera in PC mode. Two USB connections, one square and one flat, are used separately for computer or hard disk transfer. It would be easier if it had just one such port.

Once again, Panasonic has produced a camera that is tremendously capable at a very affordable price point. The image quality is excellent due to the high-quality CMOS sensor and state of the art compression technology. The “future proof” concept is a wonderful feature. The camera will accept the upcoming MicroP2 cards, expanding the options for economy of media. Making a camera that can continually upgrade to new codecs and use SD-style MicroP2 cards is an intelligent step forward for Panasonic. This is a camera that can keep pace with the rapidly advancing technology of image compression and memory card media.

Geoff Poister, Ph.D., is a member of the Film and Television faculty at Boston University and a regular contributor to TV Technology.