HPX170 - A Second Look
by Barry Green

The first functional HPX170 is now in the States, being prepped for its debut to the world at Chicago's HD Expo. I previously posted a "First Look" article that described all the physical/hardware changes that we could identify. Recently, I got a chance to spend a little time with the HPX170, next to the HVX200A. This is the first chance we've had to dig inside the menus and see what new goodies are offered or are in store.

DISCLAIMER: Just because it's talked about here, that doesn't mean it'll be in the production version! All camera manufacturers always say "features and specifications subject to change" and that applies here too. This is a preview of what we MAY get in the final version of the HPX170.

So, first, to revisit a few physical things: it's hard to describe just how ergonomically superior the HPX170 is, over the HVX200 (and embarrassingly superior for handheld work as compared to the reigning ergonomics nightmare, the EX1). The HPX170 really is about the size and weight of the DVX100; I even pulled out a DVX100 to compare. The HPX170 prototype is maybe half an inch longer, and half an inch taller, than the DVX100. And about the same weight. It's such a night-and-day experience, using an HPX170 handheld, vs. the HVX200 or EX1. There are subtle touches throughout, such as that you can open the LCD with one finger instead of as on the HVX200 where it takes pushing in a button and then manually pulling the LCD open. The power switch is a lot nicer, the buttons and switches have been a little re-organized to make things easier to find and more logically grouped, and the FOCUS-IRIS switch is probably the most pleasant surprise. (I'm on record as ragging on the silly FOCUS RING user-button feature of the HVX200, so I thought I'd think the FOCUS-IRIS switch on the HPX170 would be equally silly, but – I gotta tell you, you're gonna like it. More on that later.)

The HPX170 has the same absolute precision and repeatability to the focus ring as the HVX200 (thank you!) and the same manual zoom, it's got much better balance, it's thinner, it's way lighter, and its wide-angle field of view is significantly wider than the 200, and even somewhat wider than the 200A. And – oh, did I mention the LCD? Man, have they improved that! Now, it may be technically the same LCD panel, but it's so much improved that it's hard to describe. The image processing and EVF DTL are so enhanced that it's now very, very easy to know exactly when you're in focus. The HVX200A received some of this improvement but not as much as the HPX170. The HPX170 is so much better than the HVX200 in this regard that I say you really have to see it to believe it. Now, I didn't get a chance to take it outside to see how it performs in bright sunlight, but if it's a problem, that's what I've got a Hoodman for. Overall, I don't see the LCD as even being a problem anymore. It's seriously improved over the HVX200!

Other Physical Changes:

As mentioned in the First Look article, there's no s-video port, instead it has HD-SDI; the firewire port has been upgraded to a locking six-pin connector, and the SD card slot has moved to inside the P2 card compartment. In addition to HD-SDI there's a component video port, which uses a different connector; it uses a mini-D connector instead of the D-4. It's similar to, but not the same as, the connector used on the Sony EX1. It looks like the same basic design, but the Panasonic connector is bigger.



Another change is that there's a new Slot Select button; instead of accessing SLOT SEL through a user button, it now has its own dedicated button on the back. The joystick from the DVX series is back, replacing the button pad of the HVX line. The thumbnail button is now called just "thumbnail" instead of audio dub/thumbnail. Obviously this is a change warranted by the disappearance of the tape deck; the "audio dub" function was only used for dubbing additional audio tracks onto the tape. Since the HPX170 has no tape deck, it has no need for the "audio dub" function. The HPX170 also doesn't have the gray and red VCR REC buttons. Instead, it repurposes the ZEBRA and OIS buttons to serve the same purpose. If you want to record an incoming firewire stream, you press and hold the ZEBRA and OIS buttons together (there's a text word and graphic saying "REC" over them to remind you). Or, you can use the remote control to trigger recording.

The RCA jacks, component video port, and SDI port are all output-only, no analog video input is possible. If you need to dub from external analog video devices, you'd need the HVX200A; the HPX170 can't do that. It can only input through the firewire (or the lens, of course).

The P2 eject buttons now are styled like those found on the HPX500 and the other larger P2 cameras, meaning that the buttons now fold over instead of just sticking out. The inside of the compartment basically looks like the inside of a P2 Gear's P2 compartment.



Okay, now, about that FOCUS/IRIS switch: the HVX200 had a similar kind of function, which was "FOCUS RING" that you could assign to a user button. This would determine whether the focus ring on the lens controlled focus OR iris. You could use that big ring on the lens to control your iris, but the drawback (and, dare I say it, the fatal flaw) of that arrangement is that it required you to be in autofocus mode. So that was of extremely limited value. Well, they fixed that on the HPX170: if you put that switch in IRIS mode, the ring works regardless of whether you're in autofocus or manual focus mode. After playing with it for a minute, I realized just how useful that is: if you put the camera in manual focus mode, and you put the switch in IRIS position, then you've done two things: you've DISABLED the focus ring, and you've gained a huge iris ring. Very useful for 35mm adapter users! Now you can forcibly lock the focus at one set position, and instead get a big huge iris ring. I bet this one feature alone is going to prove quite popular with 35mm adapter users.



The lens has a new focal length range, 3.9 to 51mm. In practical terms, the HVX200A is wider than the HVX200, and the HPX170 is wider than both of them. As for telephoto, the opposite is true: the HVX200 has the most reach, the HVX200A a little less, and the HPX170 a little less than both. The difference in wide angle is a lot more noticeable than the difference in telephoto though.


Wide Angle Comparison


Tele Comparison


PERFORMANCE TESTING

My performance testing was limited because ... well, it's almost pointless, really. This is a development mule, not a finished product, so anything is subject to change between now and final production. It could be more sensitive or less sensitive, cleaner or noiser, more or less dynamic range, anything could happen. So I plinked around a tad and I'll report what I found, but understand that these findings are ONLY related to this pre-production model and may have no bearing on the final production models due in September.

Sensitivity: I tested it for general sensitivity as compared to the HVX200A. We already know that the HVX200A is about 500 ISO with very clean noise performance. The HPX170 uses the same chipset, so the assumption has been that it will have comparable performance, and my brief testing confirmed that yes, they are approximately the same. Which means that they're both a huge improvement over the HVX200 (when factoring in both more sensitivity and less noise).

Dynamic Range Testing: I used a top-of-the-line DSC DX1-72dB 13-step grayscale calibration chart. This chart is a backlit chart with 13 shades of gray, each designed to be precisely one stop brighter than the next. This type of chart is far more accurate than a front-lit chart and you can really tell whether you're seeing a difference in terms of each f-stop without any complications arising from reflections or improper lighting of the chart. It's not exactly a Stouffer 42-step chart (which shows you 14 stops in 1/3-stop increments) but it is a precisely calibrated 13-step backlit chart, definitely in the same class as the Stouffer.

I used Cinelike-D gamma, which affords the widest dynamic range. I also turned DRS (Dynamic Range Stretching) to OFF. DRS doesn't do much for a grayscale step chart, it's much more useful for real-world scenes. For chart purposes I stepped through the options and decided that turning DRS to OFF gave me the most realistic and useful readings for purposes of chart testing.

With this chart, the HPX170 could clearly distinguish 10, maybe 10 and a half stops of dynamic range. You can count the steps on a waveform monitor, and you can even more clearly see the stops being resolved on an actual HD monitor. What looks like potential crushed dark tones are actually easily distinguishable on the HD display. And while it's normal to see extra stops down in the dark zone that aren't really usable because they're noise-limited, on the 170 that really isn't much of a problem. The 170's noise is really low and quite clean, so you're not having to "rule out" stops because of too much noise.



But how much of an improvement is this, and how does a chart test translate to real-world performance? The 200A has this same sensitivity and same dynamic range, and represents an increase from the HVX200 mainly in terms of cleaner distinction between stops in the darker tones. But is this a real-world 10+ stops? That seems optimistic. As far as real-world: consider that while the RED ONE has been tested at 11 1/3 stops on a Stouffer, many real-world tests place its actual latitude at maybe 9 to 10 stops. Using that same model, while the HPX170 tests at 10+ stops, it probably delivers a real-world 8.5. I'll have to wait for a production unit and a chance to test it in real-world circumstances with my spotmeter to know what can be discerned outside of chart testing. As it is, I'm seeing maybe a half-stop to one-stop increase in usable dynamic range, mainly due to the lower noise allowing us to see into the shadows better. That's without DRS though – wait until you read about that little surprise...

SOFTWARE CHANGES

Most of the physical changes were reported previously in the First Look article, so the rest of this article is about the changes "under the hood", the new software changes. And frankly, as far as this article is concerned, that's where the party's at.

First, check out this little nicety: the thumbnail data display can be set to show clips by user clip name! How cool is that?



Of course, that's not all that cool unless you have user clip names assigned to your clips, right? On the HVX200/200A, that meant having to set the names in P2 Viewer and loading in through the SD card. Well, not anymore: on the HPX170, you have a software keyboard for entering metadata.



You can enter in-camera metadata, or you can enter per-clip metadata. That means you can set the metadata that will be automatically attached to all clips, or you can go into each clip and set the metadata for that particular clip. You can now basically change all the metadata, right in camera. (Of course, you can still load in metadata via the SD card too.)

All the buttons inside the LCD on an HVX200 are there on the HVX200A, but there are three new buttons: EVF DTL, WFM, and LCD. The EVF DTL button may have moved from the back of the HVX200, but that's not the big change: the big change is that it's now much stronger. The peaking is just wonderful. It's now incredibly easy to tell when something pops into sharp focus. On the HVX200/200A, the EVF DTL was tuned to be very mild, and it was one of those functions that you'd turn on and never disengage. But on the HPX170 the difference between on/off is huge. The improvement in EVF DTL alone should go a long way towards silencing critics who complain about the quality of the LCD panel. The LCD may be unchanged, but with the improvements in the focus assists and the EVF DTL, it's now much, much more usable. The HVX200A looks to have improved EVF DTL as well, but somehow it doesn't appear to be quite as strong as the HPX170's. Whatever they did, it works the HPX170's LCD looks noticeably sharper than the HVX200A's and significantly better than the HVX200's. I would buy one just for the improvements in focus alone.

The WFM monitor button has already been talked about, as has the Vectorscope; we talked about those in the First Look article. The Waveform Monitor and Vectorscope only show up on the flip-out LCD, not on the viewfinder, which is very nice indeed: you can monitor the full frame on the VF, and monitor exposure/waveform on the flip-out LCD. That's exactly how we'd hoped it'd be done.

The LCD button is a programmable button, with three options: LCD REV, OVERSCAN, and LCD BL (backlight).

1) In LCD BL configuration, pressing the LCD button results in it cycling through three levels of brightness, so as you press it the LCD goes brightest-medium-darkest and then back to brightest.

2) In LCD REV mode, pressing the LCD button toggles between normal, and 180-degree rotated (for 35mm adapters). When in flipped mode all menu items are hidden, as are the waveform and vectorscope and, sadly, the focus assists too (at least, in this pre-release preproduction version). Only the LCD flips, the EVF does not, which is great: the menus are all displayed on the EVF regardless of the flip status. You do get the focus bar and the EVF DTL in the viewfinder, but nothing on the LCD.

3) OVERSCAN toggles between showing you the full frame, and showing you an overscanned image (such as is likely to be shown by most HDTV sets). On the HVX200 we had the option of displaying a 90% safe zone, with the idea being that anything outside that safe zone would probably be cut off on an HDTV. With the HPX170 you still have that option of using a 90% safe zone, but you also have the much more useful ability to actually toggle between underscan and overscan. The camera shows a slightly zoomed-in display, with a white frame outlining it, to show you exactly what's going to appear within the overscan area.

You can exit out of most of the thumbnail menus by pressing the "menu" button, you don't always have to go down to "exit". You can also go into or out of the clip properties window by pressing the DISP/MODE CHK button, which I found to be very, very useful. You can now get into a clip's properties with one button press, instead of having to go through the menu system to PROPERTY->CLIP PROPERTY.

For Focus Assist, there are four total ways to get assistance with focusing: there's the magnified window (which now stays on as long as you want; it doesn't time out anymore); there's the "peaking" (aka EVF DTL); there's the Histogram/Frequency Distribution graph that first debuted on the HPX500/HPX2000 cameras, and there's a new Focus Bar.



The Focus Bar is probably the simplest focus assist to use: as the shot becomes more in focus, the bar gets longer; the more out-of-focus you are, the bar grows shorter. Pretty simple, and works surprisingly well. You can individually control which focus assists show up in any combination.

Oh, and three of the four Focus Assists now work in Standard Def! You don't get the magnified window, but the histogram, the EVF DTL, and the focus bar all work even in standard def.

The Color Bars feature now also optionally outputs a -12dB audio test tone, for calibrating with an external mixer or audio recorder.

The HPX170 also has the ability to burn the time and/or date of the recording right into the footage. This opens up a whole new market, legal videography.



Oh, another nice little update is the CLIP COUNTER mode. On the HVX you can choose to see the timecode or a counter (which counts the # of seconds you've been shooting). On the HVX it counts the total # of seconds since the last time you re-set the counter. But on the HPX170, it can do that as well as automatically resetting to zero every time you start a new recording (your choice, you can have it either way).

There's also a one-stop MENU INIT button that resets all menu items and scene files back to factory default.

And, the LCD has a few selectable "safe zones" for 4:3, 13:9, 14:9, and 15:9. If you have to shoot for European television and protect for 14:9, well, now there's a cage generator. No 1.85:1 though, at least not on this preproduction unit.

Perhaps my favorite software/hardware change is when you're in P2 thumbnail mode, and you want to play back a clip, but the icon's number is in red (meaning, it was shot in a different format than the camera's currently set to). On the HVX200, that meant having to jump back to camera mode, going into the RECORDING SETUP mode, changing the recording format, then going back to the thumbnail mode. A little bit of a hassle. Well, I quickly found that on the HPX170 you don't have to do that, you can just turn the thumbnails off, bring up the menu, and change the recording mode there. What used to be a six or eight second process is now down to maybe two seconds, right? So I thought that was pretty cool until it was pointed out to me that you don't have to do that at all: you can change the playback mode right from the thumbnail screen. Just put the cursor over the clip you want to play, and hold the joystick down for a second, and it'll automatically swap to the right mode. This, my friends, is heavenly. You've got to see it to realize just how user-friendly it is. They've been listening! We thought this function was added at NAB but couldn't figure out how to make it work, but it's definitely functional now, and using it is just so addictive.

For image controls, all the same scene file settings are there, but there's a little bit more control in three areas:

1) MASTER PEDESTAL. On the HVX200/200A, you get a range of -15 to +15. On the HPX170 you get a range of -100 to +100. This means that not only do you get a tremendous amount more precision in your adjustability, but it also extends the range (i.e., -100 on the HPX170 is noticeably more crushed than -15 on an HVX, and +100 on the HPX170 is more raised than +15 on the HVX).

2) A.IRIS LEVEL: on the HVX you get a range of -4 to +4, on the HPX170 it ranges from -10 to +10. My quick evaluation shows that the HVX gave you control over about 1/3-stop increments, the HPX170 gives you control in about 1/6-stop increments.

3) COLOR TEMP is now split for Ach and Bch. That means you can set a different COLOR TEMP setting for each of your manual white balance channels; very cool.

Oh, and more frame rates! Did I forget to mention frame rates? There are now 20 frame rates instead of 11 as found on the HVX series. It still starts at 12, and ends at 60, but there are a lot more steps in-between. I don't know if the final list is set in stone so I'm not printing them here. I do know the question that many of you are asking though, and the answer is: I tested it, and yes, it worked. Heh.

Okay, and now for the biggie: the other image control they've added is DRS (Dynamic Range Stretching). This is basically an in-camera way to get High Dynamic Range images. It's a feature imported from the AJ-series HPX2000/HPX3000. This one feature greatly expands the appearance of dynamic range across the scene. I could attempt to describe what it does, but it's complex. Let me sum it up by saying that your shadows will be less harsh and your highlights won't blow out as easily, and then let me show you a few pictures:


DRS OFF DRS ON

DRS is very, very neat. It really appears to extend the dynamic range, compressing more tonal information into the scene. Unfortunately, it appears to be limited to 1080/60i mode only; I sure wish it was available in the 24P modes but something about the processing makes it limited to 1080/60i.

New user buttons:

1) D.ZOOM: Yes, this is a digital zoom feature. Don't know why we wanted that, but we got it. It magnifies the center of the image and ranges in steps from 2x to 5x to 10x. This feature is only available in 1080/60i mode, and also was inherited from the HPX2000. A digital zoom may not be all that useful for filmmaking purposes, but perhaps for newsgathering it would be handy (especially since it doesn't impact sensitivity, the way an optical doubler would; but it does degrade resolution).

2)LVL METER: This toggles the audio meter display between showing Channels 1 & 2, and showing Channels 3 & 4, so you can actually monitor the audio levels on 3 & 4 now!

3) LAST CLIP: This is the last-clip-delete function, and I figure I'll permanently glue this function onto one of my HPX170's user buttons. If you've just shot a clip you know you'll never use, pressing this button lets you delete it instantly.

4) PRE REC: This turns on (or turns off) pre-record mode. You can still do that in the menus, or you can now assign it to a user button.

5) F. RATE +, F. RATE -: these buttons let you change the frame rate you're shooting at. Can't change 'em during a take, but you can now change them inbetween takes without having to go into the SCENE FILE menus.

We lost the SLOT SEL user button, but that's no big loss since we now have a dedicated SLOT SEL button on the back of the camera.



The display has one more function to talk about: DOWNCON MODE. This function changes the way the downconverted SDTV display gets rendered. On the HVX200, when shooting high-def 16:9, the only way to see the downconverted video output was as a 16:9 squeezed image. On the HPX170 you now have the choice of sending out a 16:9 squeezed image, or an unsqueezed letterboxed 4:3 image, or as a center-extraction side cropped 4:3 image.



Oh, I also found a few new menu options in the thumbnail display:

1) EXCH. THUMBNAIL allows you to set a new thumbnail for a clip, right in-camera.

2) PLAYBACK RESUME (on/off): this is a choice as to how you want your clips to play back once you've stopped playback. In other words, if you're playing a clip and you stop playback, then when go to play that clip again it'll start over from the beginning. On the HPX170 you have the option of having it pick up where you left off and play back from there.

3) P2 CARD REMAIN lets you choose to show the available recording time as either ONE-CARD or TOTAL (both cards added together).

SUMMARY

I went back to Luis Caffesse's wishlist thread, where he was tracking all the requests that users had made for changes to be incorporated into the HVX's eventual successor. Most all of the changes that Panasonic implemented look to be direct responses to user requests. The HPX170 is now smaller, lighter, sleeker, wider-angle, cleaner noise, with more dynamic range, it's more sensitive, way better in low light, has more professional connectors (including SDI and a locking firewire port), more options (you can turn the built-in microphone off, and you can monitor the audio on channels 3 & 4, you have almost twice as many frame rates), more usable (much better ergonomics and greatly improved focusing off the LCD, software keyboard for metadata, shortcuts for deleting last clip and changing frame rate and pre-record mode, getting into and out of clip properties, and so many other nice little improvements.) In short, there are dozens of improvements across the board, in four main categories: ergonomics, connectivity, video performance, and ease of use. I look forward to testing the final version in September to see what else might have changed, but as it stands now, I will definitely be upgrading my HVX200 to an HPX170.

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